10 Best Sierra History Books

Here are some of our very favorite books about Sierra history. Okay, we confess — we could easily add a few dozen more (perhaps that’s our next list!)

Nonetheless, we challenged ourselves to come up with just ten of our favorites. We hope this list will spur you to check out a few great Sierra history books that might be new to you!

    • William Brewer, seated.

      Up and Down California in 1860 – 1864: The Journal of William H. Brewer. First published in 1930, this classic has gone through multiple publishers and editions. Brewer was part of the Whitney geological expedition sent “up and down California” to report on the state’s soils, minerals, and “botanical and zoological productions.” In vivid prose, Brewer’s journals describe his four years of adventuring, including visiting the Big Trees, stopping at Mono Lake and Aurora, traversing Carson Pass, and paying a visit to Lake Tahoe. His description of the early mining excitement when he arrived August 4, 1863 at Silver Mountain City makes you feel like you are there: “This log shanty has a sign up, ‘Variety Store’; the next, a board shanty the size of a hogpen, is ‘Wholesale & Retail Grocery’; that shanty without a window, with a canvas door, has a large sign of ‘Law Office’; and so on to the end. The best hotel has not yet got up its sign…”  Whatever part of the Sierra captures your fancy, this is a book to read and re-read!

  • The Story of Early Mono County by Ella M. Cain. This is a book about the settlers, Indians, ghost towns and gold rushes of Early Mono County, told by a daughter of one of the earliest settler families. Ella’s mother came to Bodie in 1879, during its earliest gold rush excitement. Here she met and married M.J. Cody, a land office “receiver”, and Ella was born in Bodie in 1882. Her father went on to become Mono County Sheriff, and the family moved to Bridgeport. After her marriage to David Cain in 1904, she moved again back to Bodie. The copy on our shelf was published in 1961. As Ella notes in the Foreward, the book includes scenes that she herself observed over her very long and full life. And the stories are told with her own delightful wit and humor. Here, as Ella herself says, are the tales of “these intrepid souls, the pioneers, who settled here, and who suffered and braved the hardships of the frontier to lay the foundation of the Mono County we have today.”
  • Cemeteries of Carson City and Carson Valley by Cindy Southerland. A beautifully-done visual tour highlighting some fascinating graves through Carson Valley. Included are graves from (of course) big cemeteries like Genoa, and Lone Mountain; but also smaller cemeteries like Fredericksburg, CA; the cemetery at the Nevada State Prison; and relatively unknown burial sites like the Capt. George Indian Cemetery. Included are vintage portraits and photos of funerals, plus a wonderful explanation of cemetery symbolism. Our favorite, of course, are the stories of the people — many of them pioneers who shaped the history of Carson Valley.
  • Carson Valley: Historical Sketches of Nevada’s First Settlement by Grace Dangberg is a go-to classic. Originally published in 1972, it’s now in its fifth printing. This lavishly illustrated book gives a great overview of the history of Carson Valley, including the early wagon route; the town of Genoa; prominent landmarks like Walley’s Hot Springs and the Ferris House; the development of ranching and the railroad; plus tales of early weddings, murders and more. We bought our copy at the Carson Valley Historical Society Museum’s gift shop — such a beautiful book. Pick it up and you won’t want to put it down. 
  • Territorial Lawmen of Nevada (Vol. 1), by Robert W. Ellison. Fascinating and comprehensive profiles of early lawmen in the period 1851-1861 (Utah Territorial days). In addition to sheriffs, constables, justices and U.S. Marshals, there are also fascination  chapters on “Vigilantes” and “More Vigilantes” — in recognition of the fact that “These men were trying to keep law and order by  holding the criminal element among them responsible for the crimes that they committed. . . . a difficult task for a community with no government officials to speak of, no courthouse, and no jail.” In addition to a helpful index, there is an appendix listing Sheriffs, Constables, Justices of the Peace, Watchmen, and other lawmen by period and jurisdiction. Well-documented and copiously footnoted, it’s a deep dive into history — and a fabulous resource for anyone researching a particular lawman or seeking a different perspective on the period. 
  • Emigrant Trails: The Long Road to California by Marshall Fey. One of my favorite books about the Emigrant Trail, this beautifully illustrated book makes good use of its visual appeal using coated paper to accentuate the illustrations, and also boasts a fabulously approachable format. As the introductory pages put it, “the modern reader may drop back a century and a half and experience the great westward migration to California, and travel in the shadow of the emigrants.” This beautiful book is a visual treat, in addition to a well-researched history of the Trail. GPS coordinates and trail marker identifiers help you find the exact locations being described if you choose. And in one of my favorite touches, it includes “Emigrant Voices”: quotes from actual diaries as emigrants traipsed the Trail in the 1840s and ‘50s. (A new edition of this book is due out soon!)
  • The Hanging of Lucky Bill by Michael J. Makley — The wonderfully-researched (and wonderfully told) true story of Lucky Bill Thorington, whose not-so-lucky demise came at the end of a hangman’s noose. Lucky Bill’s hanging was in 1858 one of the early scandals of Carson Valley. Gambler, toll-road-keeper, hotel-operator, and good guy/bad guy, Thorington’s legendary tale has been told and retold, but never quite as well as in this fun volume. The facts are all here — you can make up your own mind about whether justice was served or not. Included are portraits of many early pioneers, plus reproductions of three fabulous early maps. A helpful chapter at the end also details the “Fates of the Principals” who took part in the hanging, to wrap up the tale. 
  • A Lovely & Comfortable Heritage Lost: The Unique History of Early El Dorado County by Ellen Osborn. Written by a great-great granddaughter of John Calhoun Johnson — the pioneer who established the Johnson Cutoff — this fascinating book provides a fresh look at Gold Rush history including unique insights into the El Dorado Indian Wars. The result of thirty years of research, it is not only a biography of this important historic figure but also a chronicle of early El Dorado County in its formative years. Great period illustrations help bring the stories to life. One shows Johnson himself as a young man, operating a long tom as he mined for gold; another (from the 1880s) shows Placerville’s 3-story Cary House Hotel, with a caption indicating Johnson fell from one of its windows. A rare look at a historic figure most folks have never read about. 
  • Aurora Nevada’s Silent City on the Hill by Sue Silver. A fabulously-researched compilation of the stories of those buried at the Aurora Cemetery. To say she’s “done her homework” wouldn’t do this book justice. If you’re fascinated by the ghost town of Aurora, this book is a must. Included are not only the currently-marked graves but also documented and possible suspected burials. Many of those profiled are truly forgotten pioneers — you won’t read about them anywhere else. Period photos, maps and advertisements bring the stories to life. And who could resist a chapter titled, “Died For Their Wicked Ways”?! 
  • A Few of our Friends In the Amador County Cemeteries by Catherine A. Cissna and Madeline Church. As the subtitle indicates, the stories are of early Amador County pioneers “who have been our friends and focus of interest, through insights into their lives.” The authors began doing genealogical research on their own families, then branched out to help others with their histories. Through fifteen dedicated years of research they located a total of fifty cemeteries, including some little-known and private family cemeteries. This gem of a book reprints newspaper reports and tales of pioneers buried in over 40 of these cemeteries. Included are such amazing places as Yeomet, Drytown, Daffodil Hill, Aqueduct City, Butte City, and the Jackson Chinese Cemetery. This treasure of a book was self-published in 1994 at Sutter Creek. Although it is now officially out of print, copies still turn up occasionally on the internet. If you spot one, buy it!

Have a favorite Sierra history book of your own? Let us know! We’d love to do a Readers’ Round-Up of more great books someday!

Here are a few places where you can look for these and other great history books:

www.amazon.com Both new and used copies

www.alibris.com A great source for out-of-print or hard-to-find books

www.abebooks.com  Another great source for rare and hard-to-find books

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