Hubert Howe Bancroft

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Hubert Howe Bancroft

The historian Hubert Howe Bancroft (1832-1918) was the first major collector of American documentary materials and the first historian of the Far West.

Hubert Howe Bancroft was born in Granville, Ohio, on May 5, 1832. He attended a local academy, was tutored by his mother, and planned to go to college. When he realized that the costs were too high for his parents, he left home at the age of 16 to work in his brother-in-law's bookstore in Buffalo, N.Y.

In 1852 Bancroft accompanied a consignment of his brother-in-law's books to California, where his father and brother had already gone. While there, Bancroft learned of his brother-in-law's death. After disposing of the books, he worked at odd jobs and then established a bookstore in Crescent City, Calif.

At the request of his sister, Bancroft returned to New York State. Unhappy there, he soon returned to California with another stock of books. He set up as a printer, publisher, and bookseller in San Francisco in 1858 and became an immediate business success.

In 1859 Bancroft married Emily Ketchum and began collecting books, originally to publish a Hand-Book Almanac for 1860 on the Pacific Coast. The collecting fever had infected him. Spending the summer of 1862 and the year of 1866 in Europe, Bancroft looked for books about the Pacific Coast as well as for representatives to send books to him. By 1867 Bancroft was rich enough to consider retiring. Instead, he cast about for a use for his books and in 1869, the year of his wife's death, decided to write a history of the entire western half of the North American continent.

Bancroft began the writing of the history in 1871, utilizing a staff of assistants ranging in number from 6 to 50 to do research, condensing, and writing for him. The History of the Pacific States began with the 5-volume Native Races of the Pacific States (1874-1876). These anthropological accounts were criticized by professional scholars, so Bancroft traveled to the East Coast to solicit support but was not very successful.

Undaunted, Bancroft pushed ahead with his project, which was to include political and cultural, as well as natural, history. He put together another 28 volumes, including a 6-volume History of Mexico and a 7-volume History of California. A comprehensive edition, The Works of Hubert Howe Bancroft (1882-1890), which included books on the Indians, was sold throughout the West by skillful promotion—some 6,000 sets worth over a million dollars.

Bancroft failed to achieve the literary fame he desired. Critics attacked him for his use of assistants, emphasis on local history, and pro-British and pro-vigilante positions. His reputation became better later, largely because of a change of emphasis in historical research in the United States and because of his historical collection. Bancroft tried for 20 years to sell his library to the University of California; not until 1905 were his efforts successful. The library was named after him, as was a professorship of history.

Bancroft continued to write on the history of the West as well as on other topics of the day. His election as president of the Pacific Coast branch of the American Historical Association in 1911 signaled increased respect for his work. He died in California, his adopted state, on March 2, 1918.

Further Reading

Bancroft's Retrospection, Political and Personal (1912; 3d ed. 1915) contains his view of his life, while his Literary Industries (1890) describes his "factory" methods. John Walton Caughey, Hubert Howe Bancroft: Historian of the West (1946), portrays Bancroft as an entrepreneur-historian and discusses his weaknesses. Michael Kraus, The Writing of American History (1953), and David D. Van Tassel, Recording America's Past: An Interpretation of the Development of Historical Studies in America, 1607-1884 (1960), give short evaluations of Bancroft that are kinder to him than his contemporaries were. □