Western Americana Collection

Please see Latin Americana for a description of materials relating to Mexico and Central America.

About the Western Americana Collection

In 1905, the University of California purchased the book and manuscript collections of Hubert Howe Bancroft, a successful entrepreneur, bookseller, publisher, and historian. The Western Americana collection now constitutes the largest and most diverse group of research materials within The Bancroft Library. 

The Western Americana collection documents the history of human activity in North America primarily west of the Rocky Mountains from the earliest days to the present time, with greatest emphasis on California. Thus the Western Americana collection provides an unparalleled opportunity to explore both primary and secondary sources pertaining to the social, political, economic, environmental, and cultural development of the western half of the United States.

Overview of the collections

Native American Studies/anthropology/archeology/linguistics

Documentation of the Native American experience in the Western Americana collection began with Hubert Howe Bancroft’s collection of sources gathered for use in writing the first five volumes of his Works, dedicated to the Native Races. Documents include descriptions from the colonial period to the end of the 19th century of the various Native American tribes and their encounters with missionaries, settlers, traders, and artists.

The Native American materials in the Bancroft Collection include materials gathered by important 20th-century anthropologists, such as Alfred Kroeber (1876-1960) and his students. In addition, the collection holds materials produced by Native peoples, including the personal papers of individuals as well as the records organizations they have run.

Bancroft also holds manuscript collections and printed documents on the peoples of the Plains, the Far West, Alaska, Mexico, Central America, and the Pacific Islands.

For further information, please visit Indigenous Peoples of California: web resources at The Bancroft Library.

Spanish encounter and colonial settlement

Settlement in the American West before United States annexation is well documented, with an emphasis on materials related to California. Many points of view inform this experience, exposing the dynamic and often conflicting relationships of indigenous peoples with European explorers and settlers.

Diaries dating from 1725-1821 inform these perspectives, as do archival materials from the California missions (1776 through the mid-19th century). 

The collection includes correspondence, reports, accounts, letters, censuses, and the official records of the Spanish and Mexican government in Alta California.

Land was an important issue for Mexican Californians before and after the annexation of California, and The Bancroft Library has the Land Case Records and associated maps (diseños) on deposit from the United States District Court.  

Notably, H. H. Bancroft and his team sought out important figures within the California community and interviewed them. These "Bancroft Dictations" (also known as “Testimonios” or “Recuerdos”) provide an important counter-narrative to traditional histories. Approximately 125 dictations were conducted, including twelve with women, one of whom was a Native American.

Exploration of the Pacific coast and the American West

Narratives of discovery and exploration, including early Pacific voyages, are among the high points of the collection.

A comprehensive collection of many published works, manuscripts, and maps record the explorations of the Spanish, British, French, Russians, Americans, and others. These provide glimpses of the fur trade, relations with indigenous peoples, and settlement along the West Coast.

Documentation of Spanish colonial exploration includes material by Gaspar de Portolá, Captain Pedro Fages, Fray Junípero Serra, Pedro Font, Juan Bautista de Anza, and Alessandro Malaspina.

Publications of the exploration of other European and American explorers of the West include the works of Sir Francis Drake (1628), Jean-François de Galaup, comte de La Perouse (1797), George Vancouver (1798), Meriwether Lewis and William Clark (1814), Louis Choris (1822), and Charles Wilkes (1831).

Maps and atlases

Bancroft’s cartographic holdings complement the narrative sources.  More than three-quarters of them relate to the western half of North America, particularly California and Mexico.

In addition to maps from the Spanish and Mexican land grant cases, described under “Spanish Encounter and Settlement,” there are a number of significant map collections, including outstanding cartographic treasures from Carl I. Wheat, George Davidson, and Charles M. Weber.

The Mexican-American War (1846-1848)

Bancroft possesses vast holdings on the United States-Mexican War. These include both Mexican and American perspectives.  One of Bancroft’s outstanding journals is William Meyers’s narrative shipboard diary (with watercolors) concerning

Thomas ap Catesby Jones’s anticipated (and illegal) taking of Monterey, California in 1842.

The Californios’ response to the war can be found in their dictations as well as in the wealth of political and personal papers they gave to H. H. Bancroft. The collection also includes many published memoirs, diaries, journals, and regimental histories, which add depth to the testimony of these unique manuscripts. The Mexican side of the war is similarly documented in the Latin Americana Collection.

Westward migration

Between 1840 and 1860, migration westward grew exponentially.  This migration and settlement is documented in an incomparable series of diaries, letters, graphic representations, and related printed books and ephemera.

Unique narratives from the pre-United States period include those by John Bidwell, who led the first overland group of pioneers to California (1841), and Patrick Breen, a member of the ill-fated Donner Party (1846). Diaries and letters collected by, and dictations taken down for, H. H. Bancroft provide a similar history for the rest of the American West, especially Washington, Oregon, Utah, and Alaska.

The Gold Rush

On January 24, 1848, gold was discovered by James Marshall at John Sutter’s mill on the South Fork of the American River.

Bancroft holds a vast collection of Gold Rush diaries, letters, lettersheets, photographs and other pictorial material as well as books, pamphlets, and other printed material. The collection focuses on both accommodations and tensions as individuals and families from nations throughout the world and of various backgrounds came into contact with one another.

The Bancroft Dictations (often called precursors to oral histories) also provide valuable historical material related to this momentous period in California’s history. Among the prominent pioneers and settlers that H. H. Bancroft interviewed are George Nidever (1802-1883), John Bidwell (1819-1900), and Captain John Sutter (1803-1880).

Mining in the West, and its demographic consequences

The rush for mineral wealth in the West continued—in Alaska in 1849, in Colorado and Nevada in 1859, in Montana in 1864, and in the Yukon in 1896. The Western Americana collection provides a wide variety of materials documenting mineral development, with information about the establishment of mining towns, the disruption of native peoples’ lives, and the beginnings of the conflict between conservation and the exploitation of natural resources.

Land surveys and scientific expeditions

Interest in the environment and the conservation of the West’s natural resources began in the 19th century, as the United States government and its citizens attempted to document their vast new territories. Bancroft holds comprehensive government-sponsored surveys and scientific expeditions, many of which included noted naturalists. John Bartlett (1805-1856) recorded his experiences during the boundary survey after the U. S.-Mexican War. The great published surveys of the American West—conducted by Ferdinand V. Hayden (1829-1867), John Wesley Powell (1834-1902), George Wheeler (1842-1905), and Clarence King (1842-1901)—provide information on Native American cultures and reflect federal, state, and local government efforts not only to record baseline information about the West’s physical characteristics but also to establish parks and forests and to monitor and implement environmental laws.

Economic development: transport, lumber, agriculture, commerce

California grew dramatically after the discovery of gold. Bancroft holds documents of shipping enterprises and personal accounts by passengers making the arduous journey.

As travel became easier and people had more leisure time, tourism developed as an industry.  Promotional materials documenting these efforts abound at Bancroft.

The lumber industry is documented in the records of several companies, including the Pacific Lumber Company, Sonoma Lumber Company, and the extensive records of the Union Lumber Company.

The collection covers agricultural development in California from specialized crops, such as wine grapes to large-scale agricultural and ranching operations including Miller & Lux, one of the one hundred largest corporations in America in 1900.

With urban and rural development also came a need to manipulate and control water, still the limiting factor in California’s growth. The water-focused part of the collection extends from the records of early water companies to late 20th-century state documents.


Labor in California has had a complex history, often quite volatile. Political and frequently exclusionary, the early labor movement was characterized by the strong opinions of strong leaders.  Archival records related to labor contain publications, reports, studies, press releases, and other materials on union activity as well as opposition to union efforts.

Resources on California labor include extensive documentation of various unions during the 20th century.  Especially strong is documentation of the predominantly African-American Sleeping Car Porters’ Union and the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union under firebrand Harry Bridges (1901-1990), leader of the 1934 longshoremen’s strike.

The Thomas J. Mooney Papers concern the labor leader’s trial and conviction for murder in connection with the bombing at the Preparedness Day parade, San Francisco, July 22, 1916, and efforts to secure his release.

Religious and utopian communities

Bancroft materials documenting religious life in the West are both extensive and varied.

Its documentation of the Mormon experience includes the dictations that H. H. Bancroft, along with his wife Matilda and daughter Kate, conducted with principal men and women of various Mormon communities, diaries that reflect the Mormon experience in the West, and accounts from outsiders who observed Mormon activity.

The Western Americana Collection has significant material illustrating the contributions of Jews to the settlement of the West, especially in urban areas such as San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle. (See also: Judah L. Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life.)

The Bancroft Collection includes documentation of mainstream Protestant and Catholic missionary and church-building projects in the West.

In the late 19th century utopian and socialist communities existed throughout California, and the collection includes documentation of many of those groups, such as the Kaweah colony, the Icaria-Speranza commune, and the Fountain Grove community.

Urban Communities: emergence and growth

Urban centers such as San Francisco were fundamental to Western development. Begun as a presidio and mission, San Francisco was transformed from a small pueblo before the Gold Rush into a wealthy and busy port city and eventually into the center of the Western economy.

Architecture, urban planning, and expanding infrastructure in San Francisco and the San Francisco Bay Area are abundantly documented in The Bancroft Library, from the engineering papers of Michael Maurice O’Shaughnessy to the architectural papers of Julia Morgan and Timothy Pflueger.

The cataclysmic earthquake and fire of 1906 destroyed San Francisco and surrounding cities. The disaster was extremely well documented—from all aspects of the earthquake and the ensuing fire, to the relief effort, and the political and social maneuvering related to the city’s recovery. First-hand accounts provide vivid documentation of these events.

After the earthquake, San Francisco rose phoenix-like from the ashes, its recovery culminating in San Francisco’s sponsorship of the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition (PPIE). The Bancroft Library houses the records of the PPIE, as well as many other pictorial and manuscript collections related to the 1915 World’s Fair.

The Western Americana Collection also documents the industrial buildup of California throughout the 20th century. The Henry J. Kaiser papers, for example, document the physical and social/demographic transformation of the Bay Area into a major industrial region during and immediately after World War II.

Ethnic communities

Bancroft is proud of its rich resources for the study of the region’s diverse ethnic communities. Holdings address both rural and urban environments from the 19th century to the present, including the contributions of Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, and Mexican agricultural workers to building California.

Especially notable are the papers of Paul S. Taylor, an economist at University of California, Berkeley, who was an advocate for the rural poor. His collection provides rich documentation related to Mexican Americans and other agricultural laborers.

Bancroft is one of three official repositories of the U.S. government’s Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement records from World War II; these records are supplemented by the personal papers of Japanese Americans in the camps.

The African American experience, especially after World War II, is documented through the records of major social and political organizations such as the Western Region of the NAACP, church-affiliated groups, and the papers of private individuals.

Bancroft has rich resources related to the Chinese in California, from the 19th century to the present. One project includes a collaboration with the Pana Institute of the Pacific School of Religion to document the 150th anniversary and architectural renovation of the Presbyterian Church in San Francisco’s Chinatown. In addition, we are interested in the growing new immigrant communities, as reflected in the South Asians in North America collection.

The environmental movement in the 20th century

The environmental collections, especially the records of the Sierra Club, are The Bancroft Library’s most heavily used collections. Resources documenting the Sierra Club’s international influence include correspondence with founder John Muir (1838-1914); the club’s official records from its founding in 1892; and the personal papers of its executive directors from David Ross Brower to Carl Pope. The Bancroft also possesses photographic collections, including a large body of work by Ansel Adams (1902-1984), oral histories with and papers of leading members and staff of the club, and a comprehensive collection of publications and ephemera.

The papers of Joseph LeConte, professor of geology at UC Berkeley, and of his family members document their sustained interest in preservation of the natural environment in California.

The papers of Robert Marshall, one of the principal founders of the Wilderness Society, reveal his commitment to wilderness preservation throughout the West.

Also included among the many archival collections held by The Bancroft Library are the Records of Save-the-Redwoods League, Save the Bay, and Earth Island Institute.

Personal and family papers

H. H. Bancroft’s pioneering efforts in collecting personal and family papers like those of John and Annie Bidwell, Mariano Vallejo, and Charles M. Weber have continued to this day.

Later collections, such as those of the Hearst and De Young families, include a wide range of social, cultural, artistic, educational, and business materials.

Of particular interest are the papers of women, which reflect not only their familial and private lives but also their public and professional experiences.

Political collections

Bancroft’s extensive political collections document prominent California politicians from the Mexican period onward. They include the papers of mayors, governors, and U.S. and state senators and representatives from both major parties and many minor ones.

Francis J. Heney’s (1859-1937) and Hiram Johnson’s (1866-1945) papers document progressive era politics and the San Francisco graft trials, while those of John W. Stetson (1871-1919) highlight his tenure as president of the Roosevelt Progressive Republican Party. From the mid-20th century Bancroft holds the papers of Republican Governor Goodwin Knight (1896-1970); Democratic Governor Edmund “Pat” Brown (1905-1996); U.S. Senators William Knowland (1908-1974), Thomas Kuchel (1910-1994), and Alan Cranston (1914-2000); and U.S. Congressman Robert T. Matsui.

Women’s rights and social movements

At Bancroft one may explore the history of the women’s suffrage movement in California through oral histories conducted with women activists such as Alice Paul (1885-1977) and Sara Bard Field (1883-1974), as well as through manuscript collections, ephemera, pictorial collections, and a wide variety of printed resources including government publications.

There are also extensive holdings from women’s social clubs and personal or family papers that document suffragists’ social, cultural, professional and domestic lives. Especially strong are the collections documenting women’s political activism in favor of the peace movement, consumer advocacy, environmental quality, social equality, and justice.

Guides to the collection
Dale L. Morgan and George P. Hammond. A Guide to the Manuscript Collections of the Bancroft Library. Vol. 1: Pacific and Western Manuscripts, except California. 2 vols. Berkeley: Published for The Bancroft Library by the University of California Press, 1963-1972. Z6621.B2.B2, various holdings. Online Archive of California, 2010.

Charles Faulhaber and Stephen Vincent, eds. Exploring The Bancroft Library. Salt Lake City: The Bancroft Library in association with Signature Books, 2006. Z733.B198 E97, various holdings.

Special bibliographic files

Bancroft information file

The Information File is an index (by name or subject) to some of Bancroft's older printed resources. It includes citations to biographies in some county histories, obituaries, magazine articles, and some manuscripts. This card file is located in the reading room.

California information file, 1846-1985

The California Information File contains citations to information relating to California found in the resource collections of the California State Library. 550 microfiches, call no. Microfiche 645 (Reading Room). See also the twenty-page Users' Guide by Richard Terry, call no. Reference Counter Microfiche 645 Guide (Reading Room), and California Information File II, a web-based continuation. 

Special topics

Sanborn Insurance Maps