A central question in California’s agricultural history is why the state didn’t grow like the midwestern states, where diversified owner-occupied farms predominated. Many midwestern family farms were born from the Homestead Act signed by Abraham Lincoln in 1862. The Act was intended to promote Jefferson’s dream of widespread ownership of private property, by, in Lincoln’s words, “cutting up the wild lands into parcels, so that every poor man may have a home.” We know that this form of land acquisition was less common and less central in California history than elsewhere. But why did the state’s farming develop so differently? Related questions ask whether the forces leading California to follow a different path slowed its growth over the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. And how did (or does) this distinctive history shape the state’s political, social, and economic structure today? How has it affected, perhaps adversely, the welfare of the state’s general populace? In Backcountry Ghosts, historian Josh Sides does not address such questions frontally. Rather, in the manner of Charles Royster’s The Fabulous History of the Dismal Swamp Company, Sides paints a series of small-frame pictures, vignettes that collectively allow one to see into, or at least catch glimpses of, the sweeping dynamics shaping California’s history. The book shows far more than it directly tells.

Backcountry Ghosts is a lively work, filled with remarkable detail about individual California homesteaders. Homesteading has received far less attention in the historiography of California than land monopolization or water grabs, even though roughly 100,000 Californians staked claims under the Homestead Act between 1862 and the late 1930s. Some 60,000 succeeded, acquiring 10 million acres, or about one-tenth of the state’s landmass. Sides redresses this historiographic imbalance.

Backcountry Ghosts is organized geographically. It focuses principally on Southern California during the region’s great land boom in a thirty-year period around the turn of the twentieth century. More than half of the chapters cover the state’s six southern counties, which made up about one-fifth of the homestead entries (see appendix table). The Central Valley, the state’s agricultural “breadbasket,” accounted for a larger share of entries and, according to the book’s very attractive maps, a still larger share of the land claimed. The Central Valley is treated in a single chapter. The text is centered on the Fresno raisin boom and the famous Mussel Slough showdown. The lands drained by the Sacramento River are not really mentioned. The choice to focus on the Southland allows Sides to delve deeply into the local.

The book conveys vivid stories in intensively researched and well-written passages, introducing many fascinating characters from diverse backgrounds. Sides colorfully recounts their struggles to make a home and living in a strange environment, in places beautiful and varied, ranging from hostile to Edenic. This is essentially a volume of short stories about seventy-plus fairly ordinary people, most of whom you have never heard of and will never hear of again. One shoots a California grizzly; one survives Mount Lassen’s eruption; one raises poultry; another strikes it rich with oil—and they all homestead. Some of these tales could be made into movies in their own right, yet the total becomes more than its parts. Sides selects a very diverse group, including women, men, formerly enslaved African Americans, Californios and their children, white migrants from other states, and immigrants from Europe (Asian immigrants are missing, due to the prevailing discriminatory legislation). As a social scientist, I wonder whether Sides’s sample is statistically representative of California homesteaders as a whole; I also wonder how these homesteaders’ experiences compare to those of homesteaders elsewhere. That said, I marvel at Sides’s historical skill in bringing this very diverse collection of “backcountry ghosts” alive.

The conflicts over land titles, water rights, farm labor, and credit come to the fore in these stories. The wealthy and powerful often prevail, through means both legal and illegal, over the struggling homesteaders. One does not have a sense of historical California as a land where the impartial rule of law held much sway. In Sides’s account, the homesteaders are on the margins, seeking a small plot of land on the fringes, a weedy patch down a dusty road, perhaps in a hidden valley. On their own piece of paradise, they will build a ramshackle home and endure. But this may be a truer picture in the hinterlands of Los Angeles County than in the orchard belts of the Central Valley. Unlike their midwestern counterparts, Sides’s homesteaders settle away from the centers of economic activity, away even from the centers of agricultural production. They are swept up in, but do not drive, the political and institutional changes transforming the Golden State. Sides masterfully surveys the numerous land and water laws, court decisions, and wider social changes. But he uses the individual and the local to advance his story of the homesteaders haunting California’s hinterlands, pursuing dubious dreams of a place of their own.

Paul W. Rhode