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Posts Tagged ‘California’

On May 24, 1976, the “Judgment of Paris” helped catapult California wine to international fame. In a blind tasting that compared a selection of California wines to French wines, a group of mostly French experts gave the California Chateau Montelena chardonnay and the Stag’s Leap cabernet sauvignon the highest scores. While many of the judges expressed surprise and outrage over the results, and some have questioned the contest’s scoring methods, this single event was hugely important for the California vintners who had struggled to market their wine.

While this event marked a turning point in the recognition of California wine, the state’s industry has actually existed since the 19th century. Opening History offers many collections documenting this long history, including the Anaheim Public Library Photograph Collection  and the California Historical Society Digital Archive.

A view of Stag's Leap Manor, the vineyard that produced one of the first-place winners of the Judgment of Paris.

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On February 19, 1847, a group of rescuers, traveling from Sacramento Valley, reached the Donner Party’s camp at Truckee Lake in the Sierra Nevada.  The Donner Party was a wagon train consisting of several families emigrating west to California in 1846.  Though the California Trail was well established at that time, the Donner Party had received word of a short-cut that promised to save 350 miles’ travel by traversing the Wasatch Mountains and the Great Salt Lake Desert.  The new route was called Hastings’ Cutoff, and it was described in Lansford Hastings’ The Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon and California from 1845.

A lithograph depiction of the camp at Donner Lake in November 1846, created by C.W. Burton circa 1879. Image courtesy of the UC Berkeley Bancroft Library, made available via Calisphere.

Timing was crucial because the pioneers needed to cross the Sierra Nevada before the winter brought heavy snow to the mountains.  Though Hastings’s Cutoff offered a shorter route, few had followed the trail, and the Donner Party was responsible for the arduous work of clearing the path for their wagon train.  Several other incidents delayed their travel, including illness, stolen oxen, and dwindling supplies.  In late October, the Party had reached Truckee Lake and stopped to rest.  The snows were not expected for another month, but when the snow came early, the families set up camp for the winter.  From November to February, 24 members of 87-member Party had died, primarily of starvation or hypothermia.  In order to survive, the living had no choice but to eat the flesh of those who had perished.

James Frazier Reed, shown here with wife Margaret Keyes Reed, was a member of one of the two surviving families. Image courtesy of Utah State History.

In the first rescue effort, 21 members of the party, aged 2-32, were guided over the mountains into Bear Valley, though three more died along the way.  A second and third relief group arrived on March 1 and 14, but several others had died in the intervening weeks.  By April, the 48 surviving members of the party had reached California.  In 1911, Eliza Houghton, the youngest daughter of George Donner, published a first-hand account entitled The Expedition of the Donner Party and Its Tragic Fate. She was three years old and an orphan when she was rescued by the final relief effort on March 14, 1847.

Monument in Truckee dedicated to the Donner Party, depicting a pioneer family. Image courtesy of the University of Southern California.

The texts and images above are drawn from various collections that may be accessed through Opening History.  Collections containing items related to the Donner Party include California As I Saw It: First-person Narratives of California’s Early Years, 1849-1900 from the Library of Congress; Trails of Hope: Overland Diaries and Letters, 1846-1869 from Brigham Young University; and the University of Utah Photo Archives among others.

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International Day of Families is celebrated annually on May 15th. This year’s topic is “The impact of migration on families around the world”.

A small digital collection (66 items) in Opening History aggregation — Orange County Californio families photographs (part of Online Archive of California) focuses on families and family history. The 1890 photograph of an unknown family in San Pedro, California (below) is courtesy of this digital collection.

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