Finding the Aztecs: Primary sources from the Sutro Library

Aztec calendar with birds of the day, lords of the night and day signs – Códice Tudela facsimile.

This month, we focus our attention on the rich primary resources we have on the Aztecs. Sutro Library has several works reflecting their advanced culture and achievements : the Tudela Codex which will be discussed later on,  a Nahuatl land tenure manuscript on amate (paper made of tree bark), and original copies of the codex Vatican by artist Agostino Aglio, commissioned in the early nineteenth century by a wealthy British Lord who believed the Aztecs to be one of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.

Brief History

Mexican codex in Vatican: facsimile, [1826?].
[Aztec manuscript] Codex Sutro, 17th century.

The legacy of the Aztec empire is woven into the very cultural fabric of Mexico. In 1325 C.E., the Aztecs settled on a site which is now modern-day Mexico City where they built their capital, Tenochtitlan, on an island in what was Lake Texcoco (artificially drained in 1967). Today Mexico City is the capital of Mexico, and the sixth largest metropolis in the world.

Views of ancient monuments in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan, 1844

While humans have existed in Mesoamerica as far back as 20,000 years, with rich, advanced cultures like the Toltecs, the Mayans, and the Olmec, when we imagine Mexico’s culture prior to the Spanish, we mostly envision the Aztecs. This despite the fact that they were only around for two centuries prior to Spain’s arrival in 1519. 

Previously hunter gatherers, the Aztec were “latecomers to Mexico…[and]… became overlords of a land rich in abandoned cities and ruins…. they differed from earlier cultures in having a greater historical awareness, and in consciously incorporating archaistic elements in their arts.”[1] To this end, major dieties like Quetzalcoatl (creator diety) and Tlaloc (god of water and fertility) entered into Aztec cosmology.

The Aztecs migrated from northern Mexico and from as far up as the Southwest of the United States in search of their future capital, promised to them by Huitzilopochtli (their god of the Sun). The Aztecs were told that they would find their future seat of power when they found an eagle perched on a prickly pear cactus, devouring a snake. Today the Mexican flag bears this image as its coat of arms.

[1] History of Mexico: from preconquest to present, 8.

History of Conquest of Mexico.
Códice Tudela facsimile [plate 51].

The Aztecs commanded a vast, but rich and highly structured domain, with marketplaces full of every item imaginable. The capital, Tenochtitlan, had a population that reached a staggering 250,000; additionally, they controlled 38 provinces, covering 140,000 square with people who spoke hundreds of different languages. The Aztecs collected tributes, they built floating gardens, they created canals which efficiently transported goods over great distances, they created mediators of the market to ensure prices were fair.

The largest market was located in Tlatletloco and for “Hernando Cortés, Bernal Díaz del Castillo, and other Spanish…[they]…were astounded by the great size of the market plaza, the tens of thousands of people, the many hundreds of types of goods for sale, and the orderliness and organization of the market.”[1] Cortés described what he saw,

There is nothing to be found in all the land which is not sold in these markets, for over and above what I have mentioned there are so many and such various other things that on account of their very number and the fact that I do no know their names, I cannot now detail them. Each kind of merchandise is sold in its own particular street and no other kind may be sold there: this rule is very well enforced.

[1] Michael Ernest Smith. The Aztecs. 3rd ed. Malden, Mass: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012. Print, 109.

Códice Tudela facsimile

The Tudela Codex gives us some insight. It is a “cultural encyclopedia” containing information on Aztec religion, festivals, ceremonies, and their calendar.  It is part of a group of codices produced in Mexico within 30 years after the fall of the Aztecs. It is a copy of a pre-Hispanic codex which was lost in succeeding generations. And because it was created within a generation of the Spanish wresting control of Mexico, it provides us as close a look as possible into the Aztec psyche – as it was created by elder informants as well as younger Aztecs who were able to remember the old traditions, and reconstruct their ethnographic history. Initially, this project was begun in the colleges established by the Spanish, of which several of these projects were begun at the Colegio de Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco in Mexico City.[1]

[1] Angélica J. Afanador-Pujol. “Descendants of Aztec Pictography: The Cultural Encyclopedias of Sixteenth-Century Mexico, by Elizabeth Hill Boone: Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Endowment in Latin American and Latino Art and Culture. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2020.

Firebrands provide us the provenance of books from the Colegio de Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco -Sutro Library collection.

The haste to destroy native texts came at the expense of having insight into the best way in which to convert Aztecs to Christianity. The Franciscans came to realize that they would have to frame certain ideas within an Aztec world view. This mission necessitated an “understanding of indigenous religious practices” and so the work to reconstruct Aztec history, culture, and society was started.

Shows baptism of King of Tetzcoco in the presence of Hernan Cortez.
Antonio de Solis, 1610-1686. Historia della conquista del Messico : della popolazione, e de’ progressi nell’ America Settentrionale conosciuta sotto nome di Nuova Spagna, 1715.

Description of several plates of Códice Tudela facsimile

Códice Tudela facsimile.

The figure at the top of this page is the god Xipe Totec (Nahuatl “Our Lord the Flayed One”) who was a god of regeneration, of agriculture, and metal workers. Xipe Totec flayed himself to feed humanity. The Aztecs considered him also to be the inventor of war.  In the lower right is a warrior carrying a shield and weapon. A highly militaristic people, to be a Jaguar Warrior in Aztec society was a privilege, and its members were in an elite class. The annotations were added to assist European audiences in understand the pictographs.

The ritual Temāzcalli (Nahuatl for “house of heat”) was performed as a cleansing ritual before and after battles and sports.[1] In an igloo-shaped structure with hot rocks in the middle wherein water is poured over to create steam. For Aztecs, this was a ritualized performance of rebirth as well.


Códice Tudela facsimile [plate 45].

This Tzitzimitl is part of a group of supernatural beings that appear in Aztec codices. They were depicted by the Aztecs as skull-faced females, and in pre-Hispanic times these goddesses were linked to the “Aztec cosmos and the birth of its first inhabitants.”[1]  They were also associated with childbirth and healing.  

[1] Devil and the skirt, 4.

An Aztec priest raising the heart of a sacrificed prisoner towards the Sun, engraving from Ancient History of Mexico, Volume II, by Francisco Javier Clavijero (1731-1787), Cesena, 1780.
Códice Tudela facsimile [plate 53].

The Aztecs lived in a world where myth and reality coexisted on the same plane. During sacrificial ceremonies priests would essentially become the living embodiment of the god in the real world. The Aztecs believed that stability in the world relied on human sacrifice, as it represented the sacrifice that a particular god had made for them. And while it may feel like Mexico is far from removed from this history, Day of the Dead (Día de Muertos), is a legacy of the Aztecs worship of the “Queen of the dead” and Nahuatl is still used throughout Mexico to this day. Indigenous traditions remain strong.

Critical Family History at Sutro Library

As 2021 comes to a close so too does our fifth year of family and local history talks. Over the course of six talks, we explored how power relationships—be they social, cultural and/or political—can shape one’s family’s success and destinies. This way of looking at genealogy is called critical family history, a term coined by Dr. Christine Sleeter, Professor Emerita at CSU Monterey Bay. With this theme of critical family history more prevalent than in years past, there was no doubt that Dr. Sleeter had to be our first speaker for 2021.

Screenshot from first virtual talk of 2021 with Dr. Christine Sleeter.

In her presentation, she defines critical family history as locating one’s family within historical contexts shaped by membership in socio-cultural groups, and conflict over power and resources; and it is informed by theoretical traditions of:

  • Critical Theory – looks at how oppressive social class relations are produced and reproduced;
  • Critical Race Theory – looks at how race and racism work and how it intersects with the law;
  • Critical Feminist Theory – looks at the position of women within the family, community, economy, and strategies women used to navigate that position.

All researchers, whether their family is indigenous or immigrated to another country, can conduct a critical analysis of their family history by re-examining narratives about the larger society as well as those within their own family. Dr. Sleeter quotes from an article by A.A. Parham that “genealogists who are white are less likely to [acknowledge historical contexts] than those of color.” [1]  Researchers can put this into practice by conducting context research alongside traditional genealogical research. They can do this by using the hidden four “P” Factors:

  1. PUSH – what drove people to leave their original city, state, country of origin or land;
  2. PULL – what desirable or favorable conditions drew people to immigrate to that new location;
  3. PUNISHING – what negative experiences punish or marginalize both the people who immigrated and those who were already here;
  4. PRIVILEGING – which people benefited from positive incentives or resources and what were those advantages bestowed upon them.

Using an example from Dr. Sleeter’s presentation, here is how she used the hidden four “P” factors with her own family history when her ancestors moved from Tennessee to Colorado:

  1. PUSH – After the Civil War, the economy of the South wasn’t great and led to people finding opportunities elsewhere;
  2. PULL – Desire to find gold in Colorado;
  3. PUNISHING – For her ancestors: They didn’t end up finding gold and had to settle for other ways of getting rich, which ended up being land. For others: The year her ancestor began homesteading in Colorado was the same year the indigenous tribe, the Utes, were driven out of Colorado into Utah;
  4. PRIVILEGING – Ancestor found and homesteaded land dispossessed from the Utes.
One way to practice critical family history is by presenting information alongside family data. Researchers can create an excel sheet that covers local and national events in their family’s life decade by decade. Screenshot is from Professor Sleeter’s virtual presentation in February 2021

At Sutro Library we have led by example incorporating these four “Ps” and reexamining narratives through our programming this past year:

“Critical Family History: Placing Family History within Larger Contexts” – Dr. Christine Sleeter, provided a foundation for which all subsequent events would build upon. She shared her own personal experience as well as other examples of how one can think critically about their own family history.

“Connections Concealed: Family & Slavery in Fluvanna County, VA” – Marty Jessup shared the story of a great aunt buried at a Black church and how it led her to researching persons enslaved by her ancestors ultimately expanding insights on race.

Adolph Sutro’s Urban Forests: Influences and Lasting Benefits” – Family history often has an environmental impact and one that can be felt for generations to come. This can be said for Adolph Sutro when he planted non-native trees atop San Francisco’s highest hills. Jacqueline Proctor shared his motivation for changing the natural environment and how those forests still impact San Franciscans today.

“Harris v. Sutro: An Early Civil Rights Battle at Sutro Baths” – While our founder, Adolph Sutro, is known more for his accomplishments, he is not exempt from critical analysis. Elaine Elinson presented on a Sutro Baths policy that perpetuated white supremacy and the little known, but historically significant, case Harris v. Sutro where John Harris boldly challenged racial segregation in San Francisco.

“The Mystery Aussie: Jan See Chin” – Pamela Wong shared the story of her family history journey, how she uncovered the mystery of a great uncle, and how his story reflects today’s Asian immigrant experiences. Jan See Chin’s story underscores how the undercurrents of politics, white supremacy, and colonialism can impact one’s family history. Pam’s publication of the same name can be found in the Sutro Library.

“I’ve Been Here All the While: Black Freedom on Native Land” – Through chapters that chart cycles of dispossession, land seizure, and settlement in Indian Territory, Dr. Alaina E. Roberts drew on archival research and family history to upend the traditional story of enslavement and Reconstruction. This talk was not recorded; however, her book can be found in the Sutro Library.

Recordings for this year’s talks as well as previous virtual talks can be found on the California State Library YouTube channel Events at Sutro Library playlist.

While we intend to continue offering events of this nature, we also have materials in the collection that are examples of critical analysis and can be used to help researchers re-examine narratives. Below are critical family history highlights from the Genealogy Collection:

One Drop: History of an American Family from the Mayflower to the Millennium

“One Drop provides a fascinating take on American history from the Mayflower to the year 2000. More than just a populist history, the book traces the history of our country through the eyes of one family, a family composed of some people who think they are black and others who are sure they are white. Reading this book will change your view of race and racial division in the United States forever.” – Publisher description

They were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South

“Bridging women’s history, the history of the South, and African American history, this book makes a bold argument about the role of white women in American slavery […] White women actively participated in the slave market, profited from it, and used it for economic and social empowerment.

By examining the economically entangled lives of enslaved people and slave-owning women, Jones-Rogers presents a narrative that forces us to rethink the economics and social conventions of slaveholding America.” – Publisher description

Black Tudors: The Untold Story

“From long forgotten records, Kaufmann has unearthed the stories of Africans who lived free in Tudor England. They were present at some of the defining moments of the Tudor age. They were christened, married and buried by the Church. And their stories have remained untold. Kaufmann challenges preconceptions of sixteenth century attitudes toward race and slavery, and transforms how we see this period of history.” – Publisher description

Forgotten Patriots: African American and American Indian Patriots in the Revolutionary War: A Guide to Service, Sources and Studies

“[This] volume identifies over 6,600 names of African Americans and American Indians who contributed to American Independence. [It] provides context to the service of these often overlooked Patriots and the challenges faced in documenting their service.” – Publisher description

This Land is their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving

“400 years after that famous meal, historian David J. Silverman sheds profound new light on the events that led to the creation, and bloody dissolution, of this alliance. Focusing on the Wampanoag Indians, Silverman deepens the narrative to consider tensions that developed well before 1620 and lasted long after the devastating war-tracing the Wampanoags’ ongoing struggle for self-determination up to this very day […] 

This Land is Their Land shows that it is time to rethink how we, as a pluralistic nation, tell the history of Thanksgiving.” – Publisher description

*Dr. Silverman spoke on this book virtually in our last event of 2020. The recording can be found on the California State Library YouTube channel.

Wanted! U.S. Criminal Records: Sources & Research Methodology

When conducting critical family history, it’s important to not just focus on the accomplishments but to also shed light on the dark spots in our family history. In some cases, this may include researching criminal records. “This book is a reference for information sources about criminals from America’s past and includes examples of documents researchers can find in repositories and a primer on how to conduct genealogical research on criminals.” – Publisher description

Coming to America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life

Full of statistics in the forms of charts, tables, and graphs, this book provides an examination of immigration to America from the first settlers to late twentieth century.

The last three highlights are special collections and can be found in our closed stacks:

明治新刺名誉姫鏡 Meiji shingaku meiyohime kagami

[New Meiji biographies of famous women]

From our Tiny Town section, this pocketbook includes short biographies of 34 Japanese women. It offers a wide range of Japanese society from aristocrats and writers to peasants and warriors. Each biography includes a distinct portrait.

Chinatown map from 1885 San Francisco Municipal Report of the Board of Supervisors

Created in conjunction with the San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors Report after they sent a special committee to investigate conditions in Chinatown, this map identifies distribution of ethnicity and vice (drugs, prostitutions, etc.) in this part of San Francisco. This report was used to sway opinion against the Chinese population and push Chinese immigrants out of the city. View enlarged version of map.

Ji Ceong’s ledger book

[Emeline Morland Anderson North-Whitcomb scrapbooks of San Francisco history]

Once a ledger book for a San Francisco Chinatown-based business’s transactions between 1890-92, later the scrapbook of Emeline Morland North-Whitcomb; this book bulges with relevance to California’s long, complex history of assimilation and adaptation, cultural appropriation, and erasure.  

Whether it’s in our reading room or at our events, we hope we’ve inspired you to look at your family history through a critical lens!

Special thank you to all of our 2021 speakers and the California State Library Foundation.

This post was written by Genealogy Librarian Dvorah Lewis.

[1] Parham, A. A. 2008. Race, memory, and family history. Social identities, pp. 13-32.

For Further Reading

To learn more about critical family history and genealogy:

For more information on the 1885 Chinatown map, check out these two articles:


In 1887, Polish ophthalmologist L.L. Zamenhof published Dr. Esperanto’s International Language.1 The book described a language that the author claimed could be quickly learned and used by anyone,2 no matter their homeland or mother tongue, as a shared second (or third, fourth, or n-th) language; this, in turn, would encourage communication around the world and foster a more harmonious, peaceful human existence. Dr. Esperanto’s “international language” soon became known as Esperanto, which is how you say “one who hopes” in Esperanto. 

In 1905, Zamenhof published an authoritative guide to Esperanto and the first World Esperanto Congress met in a resort town on France’s northern coast. This year is also considered by some to be the dawn of the Golden Age of Postcards. In the United States, printing technologies, commercial interests, and laws combined to create postcards more or less as we know them today: a stiff card with an image printed on one side and another side with the recipient’s address and space for a brief message.3 Between 1908 and 1913, around 1 billion postcards a year were sent through the US Postal Service with destinations all around the country and world. 

The confluence of the postcard and Esperanto is glimpsed in the Alice Howard collection of postcards.4 Howard (1860-1940) probably learned the language from her mother, Abigail Russell, one of the first adopters of Esperanto in Nebraska and head of the First Nebraska Esperanto Club.5 Howard was secretary of the club and held Esperanto classes at the local library and at women’s clubs. 

Clubs like the one Russell and Howard participated in were just one of the ways the language grew. Postcards offered a cheap way to communicate across a vast distance and so fit nicely within Esperanto’s purpose of reducing barriers to international communication. Howard kept up a postcard correspondence with Esperantists from all over the world. European, South American, and Asian correspondents are all present among her 300+ postcards. Ann Reni of Verona, Italy, wrote to Howard in February 1911 illustrating the mutual reinforcement between Esperanto and postcard collecting: 

“In reply to your card, I inform you that I will gladly correspond with you if you accept the  exchange of P. Marks [i.e. postcards], as I collect them and by correspondence especially  increase my collection. Waiting for your est[eemed] reply please receive a warm greeting” 

Esperantists could support the language by using postcards to correspond with each other. In many cases, the postcards themselves were used to promote the language.  

One postcard has a portrait of Zamenhof, 

Zamenhof is on a postage stamp, 

A postcard advertising an Esperantist journal in Bilbao, Spain, was sent to Howard in 1910, only one year after its first issue (it was in journals like these, many put out by regional clubs, that Esperantists could find and write to each other), 

Clubs also created their own postcards that show off their activities, such as the Krefeld Esperanto Society’s image of their booth at a local industrial exposition in 1911, 

Edmond Privat of Geneva,6 who delivered lectures on Esperanto at Harvard and the White House, poses with an Esperanto flag (a green star against a white background) and Cherie Stoner (aka Winifred Sackville Stoner, Jr., a famous child prodigy and poet),

Some postcards used the green star, a symbol of the language, or had their messages written in green ink,

Estimates vary, but about 100,000 people are believed to be active Esperanto speakers today. This linguistic realm is referred to as “Esperantujo,” which means Esperanto-land. There is no nation that claims Esperanto as an official language. And yet, postcards like those Alice Howard collected make up a kind of territory, or at least lend material heft to Esperanto-land. 

Patrons wishing to consult the Alice Howard collection can request an appointment in the Sutro Library reading room. We are currently accepting appointments on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10 am – 12 pm and from 1:30 – 3:30 pm.

Jose Guerrero is Sutro Library’s cataloging librarian.



2 It cannot be overlooked that the language is based on conventions found among Western Europe’s dominant languages. The strong influence of Germanic, Romance, and Latin languages has led to criticisms of Eurocentrism.





Hold the Phone Fiche: New Telephone Directory Database at Sutro Library

Since 2019, Sutro staff and volunteers have been working on making the Sutro Library’s telephone directories on microfiche (aka phone fiche) more accessible remotely and have created a new database fulfilling that goal! But before I give you a tour of this new database and how you might search it, I wanted to go over a brief history of telephone directories and how they may be useful for your genealogical research.

Similar to city directories, phone directories can be used to identify where an ancestor was at a certain time, which is especially useful when tracking movement in between the census years (i.e. every 10 years). Earlier phone books didn’t always look like how they do now. The first one was published in 1878 on a piece of cardboard and listed 50 people in New Haven, Connecticut.[i] Today, telephone directories still endure and many of us receive the yellow pages on our doorsteps every year.

First telephone directory published in 1878, courtesy of University of Connecticut Archives & Special Collections

Early telephone directories like the one above were meant to share telephone subscribers’ names not phone numbers, and they included instructions on how to use a phone, e.g. which end of the phone to talk into. Since then, listings evolved into book form and usually include the number, address, and head of household’s name. 

While we do have some phone books scattered throughout the open and closed stacks including ones that were repurposed into scrapbooks, the bulk of our directories are on microfiche, and they cover more recent years from 1970s – 2000s. This phone fiche collection was only available on-site and not searchable via our catalog so researchers could only find out what we had by physically browsing the microfiche drawers…until now!

For the past two years, Sutro staff and volunteers have been working on making this accessible remotely by inputting the phone fiche titles into a database. The first batch of states have been finished and ready for users to search. Geographic regions include: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, and Florida. Other states may be listed in the database when they share borders with these first 10, but their holdings are not yet complete. We hope to have the next batch of 10 states available soon so make sure to check back often if you don’t yet see your area of interest. For the states we do have completely recorded, the database includes information on the title of the directory (often the city or county is represented here), year of publication, type (yellow or white pages), and some entries include a notes field detailing communities that are included in that directory. The database can be found in multiple places on the website: 1) directly via this link:; 2) via the Sutro Library’s genealogy webpage under the Online Resources tile; or 3) in the listing of all of the California State Library’s online resources under the “T” section.

To search this database, you can do so in a few ways: by keyword in the search box on the right (we recommend searching the city of interest); or by the filters on the left-hand side which include state, type (white or yellow pages), and date. Or you can search by the filters first and then do a keyword search to narrow those results. Unfortunately, you cannot do vice versa, that is, a keyword search and then apply filters to those results. What happens when you do is that keyword search will be cleared so you will only see results related to your filtered search. Please note that this database is for searching which directories are in the Sutro Library’s holdings and is NOT a database for searching for specific names found in those directories. 

Screenshot of the database with the filters and keyword search functions in red boxes. To search by state, select state of interest from drop down. To search by yellow or white pages, select from drop down under the Type filter. You can also type in a date or stick to keyword search (upper-right box).

Once you identify the directory you need, write down the title and year and schedule an on-site visit in our reading room. If you are unable to visit, and need a quick look-up, feel free to contact us through our Ask A Librarian messaging system and provide the directory title, year, type (white or yellow pages), and the name of the person of interest.

Now that you’ve been given a brief history and tour of this new database, it’s time to “let your fingers do the walking!”[ii]

Special thank you to all of those who dialed in on this project: our volunteers, Ryan and Kristine; Sutro staff member, Kim; and staff members of the California State Library IT Department, Jay and Jacky.

For further reading on using telephone directories for genealogical research, check out:

Today’s post was written by Genealogy & Local History Librarian, Dvorah Lewis.

Sutro Library Telephone Directories highlighted in photos above:

Pioneer Obituaries from the San Francisco Chronicle, 1911-1928; The Loss of the Steamer “Central America”…; Copy of the First Telephone Directory Issued in San Francisco, 1878. San Francisco: N.p., 1952. Print. Location: Sutro Library Reading Room F869.S3 D25

List of Subscribers. San Francisco: Pacific Bell Telephone Co., 1818. Print. Location: Sutro Library Vault MISC 000614*

San Francisco Temporary Telephone Directory. San Francisco, California: Pacific States Telephone and Telegraph Co., 1906. Print. Location: Sutro Library Vault MISC 000976*

*These materials require at least a 72-hour advance notice prior to your visit.


[ii] Some readers may recall this slogan used in a campaign by the Yellow Pages in the 1970s!

Gardens: A history.

WARNING: This blog post has a lot of cool images!

Rösel von Rosenhof, August Johann et al. Historia naturalis ranarum nostratium: in qua omnes earum proprietates, praesertim quae ad generationem ipsarum pertinent, fusius ennarrantur. Nürnberg: gedrucht bey Johann Joseph Fleischmann, 1758. Print. – Frontispiece.

 “Humans have long turned to gardens—both real and imaginary—for sanctuary from the frenzy and tumult that surrounds them. Those gardens may be as far away from everyday reality as Gilgamesh’s garden of the gods or as near as our own backyard, but in their very conception and the marks they bear of human care and cultivation, gardens stand as restorative, nourishing, necessary havens.”

  • Robert Pogue Harrison Gardens: An essay on the human condition.
The Florist and Pomologist: A pictorial monthly magazine. London: Journal of Horticulture Office, 1872. p.15,16.
Austen, Ralph. A Treatise of Fruit-Trees… Together with The Spiritual Use of an Orchard… Oxford: Printed for Tho: Robinson, 1653. Print.

What is it about gardens that so attracts us? They have been the subject of poetry, literature, and religion. From the beginning of civilization, gardens have been in every city, every culture, and every era of history. Gardens are all around us, they provide shelter, food, amusement, and medicine. They are places for prayer, for celebration, for love, for learning, for pleasure, for communion with nature, and for contemplation. And throughout literature, in every culture, they serve as symbols for the circle of life and death, reflecting ideas of nature and nurture.

Falda, Giovanni Battista. Li giardini di Roma, disegnate da Giovanni Battisto Falda. Nuovamente dati alle stampe con direttione di Giov. Giacome de Sandrart… Norimberga: Giov. Giacomo de Sandrart, 1686. Print.

Taking a deep dive into the Sutro collection, gardens of every type reveal themselves – from book bindings to title page vignettes to photographs to the myriad works on gardens, horticulture, and industrial agriculture, its universality is unmistakable. Humans are intrinsically tied to gardens. In The Gardener’s Year, Czech author and social critic Karel Čapek holds, that to the gardner, gardening is not a subset of life, but rather life is a subset of gardening.[1] His book is not only a literary Czech masterpiece and practical guide to gardening, but a passionate discourse on his tending to his garden over the course of a year. Where the seasons and nature constantly change everything in the garden, and the author indulges in the drama wrought.

[1] Robert Pogue Harrison. Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition. Chicago: U of Chicago, 2008. Web.

Giovanni Battista. Li giardini di Roma, disegnate da Giovanni Battisto Falda. Nuovamente dati alle stampe con direttione di Giov. Giacome de Sandrart… Norimberga: Giov. Giacomo de Sandrart, 1686. Print Li giardini di Roma, disegnate da Giovanni Battisto Falda.

Looking through the Sutro stacks, many species of gardens start to emerge: pleasure gardens, working gardens, public gardens, artists’ gardens, kitchen gardens, home gardens, imaginary and literary, as well as medicinal. They have been the backdrop of the most profound human drama, from the biblical Garden of Eden to some of the most memorable scenes in literature. The famous scene in Romeo and Juliet takes place in an walled garden orchard where even the words used to profess their love for each other reflect nature: “This bud of love, by summer’s ripening breath, May prove a beauteous flower when next we meet.”

Shakespeare, William, and Charles Knight. The Works of William Shakspere [sic] : Containing His Plays and Poems, from the Text of the Editions by Charles Knight; with Glossarial Notes; and Facts Connected with His Life and Writings, Abridged from “William Shakspere [sic], a Biography”. London: H.G. Bohn, 1862. Print.

Gardens of Literature

Schedel, Hartmann, and Georg. Alt. Das buch der Croniken vnnd geschichten mit figuren vnd pildnussen von Anbeginn der welt bis auff dise vnsere Zeÿt. Augsburg: Johann Schönsperger, 1496. Print.

Cultivation of natural resources is essential to our existence. The Earth provides the basic things we need to survive, but without human cultivation civilization would not exist as it does, with numerous food staples having gone extinct. And while we physically rely on some form of gardening and agriculture, its symbolic nature is equally as powerful. Perhaps no garden has more notoriety than the Christian Garden of Eden. In Christianity, not only is the earthly garden the place where humanity falls from God’s grace, but Paradise is itself described as pleasure garden, where the righteous go in the afterlife.

Part of frontispiece of Salmon, William. Botanologia, the English Herbal : or, History of Plants. London: H. Rhodes, 1710. Print.
Baldelli-Boni, Giovanni Battista. Vita di Giovanni Boccacci. Firenze: C. Ciardetti e comp., 1806. Print.
Darwin, Erasmus et al. The Botanic Garden : a Poem, in Two Parts : Part I. Containing The Economy of Vegetation : Part II. The Loves of the Plants : with Philosophical Notes. London: Printed for J. Johnson, St. Paul’s Church-Yard, 1791. Print.

The word Paradise actually derives from the Persian word for walled around garden or park, pairideiza and in Greek, παράδεισος – pronounced parádeisos, which was an enclosed park for animals. Similar forms of the word appear throughout various cultures to describe some kind of enclosed space or garden.

Salmon, William. Botanologia, the English Herbal : or, History of Plants. London: H. Rhodes, 1710. Print.

In ancient Greece, philosophers and schools were also creating gardens. Epicurus taught that the ultimate goal for humans is to attain “spiritual tranquility,” and similarly to tending to a garden, nurturing the soul allows it to grow and thrive. To that end, Epicurus had his students tend to a garden. 

Ancient Greek philosopher Plato, had Academic gardens near a grove dedicated to the hero Academas. His “decision to plant his school in a park on the margins of Athens – removed enough to listen to the voice of reason, close enough to stay within earshot of the citizens set a pattern for the future history of academia in the West.”[1]

[1] Robert Pogue Harrison. Gardens: an essay on the human condition. University of Chicago Press, 2008, 39.

Ebers, Georg, Clara Bell, and Samuel Birch. Egypt, Descriptive, Historical, and Picturesque . London ;: Cassell, Petter, Galpin and Co., 1881. Print.

In the world of ancient Egypt there were three types of gardens: sacred, produce, and domestic/pleasure gardens. For the the Royal Garden of Thotmes III, attached to the Temple of Karnak, Queen Hatshepsit sent people to collect insense, myrrh and trees for her fathers temple. And within the many sacred gardens, ritual regeneration and fertility were on display. In addition to this, ancient Egyptians had herbal gardens. A 2700 BCE work by Imhotep contained 300 herbal remedies – with plants for medicines, cooking, cosmetics, and perfume.[1]

[1] Linda Farrar. Gardens and Gardeners of the Ancient World: History, Myth and Archaeology. Oxford: Oxbow, 2015. Web.

Stieler, Karl et al. Italy from the Alps to Mount Etna . New York: Scribner, Welford, & Armstrong, 1877. Print.

Along with Persia, Egypt introduced gardens to Rome around 60 BCE. The above image shows a peristyle garden, a style that provided privacy in overcrowded Roman cities as well as green space, light, and space for entertaining.

Stieler, Karl et al. Italy from the Alps to Mount Etna . New York: Scribner, Welford, & Armstrong, 1877. Print.

During the Middle Ages the biblical Garden of Eden influenced the creation of two designs: a pleasure garden and an enclosed one.[1] Professors at the time would teach Anatomy, Surgery, and Botany. And during this period, gardens were planted for “observing and admiring nature.”[2]

[1] Amy L. Tigner. Literature and the Renaissance Garden from Elizabeth I to Charles II. Taylor and Francis, 2016. Web, 4.

[2] Arthur W. Hill. “The History and Functions of Botanic Gardens.” Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden 2.1/2 (1915): 185-240. Web.

Falda, Giovanni Battista. Li giardini di Roma, disegnate da Giovanni Battisto Falda. Nuovamente dati alle stampe con direttione di Giov. Giacome de Sandrart… Norimberga: Giov. Giacomo de Sandrart, 1686. Print.

Monastic gardens credited to Charlemagne, are cited as laying the foundations of modern botanic gardens. Physic gardens and simple gardens were enclosed for planting medicinal herbs.[1]

[1] Ibid.

William Salmon. Botanogia, the English herbal: or, History of plants. London: H. Rhodes, 1710.

One of the first types of gardens to be printed were ones about herbal gardens. An example in Sutro’s collection is this 1710 copy of the English Herbal by William Salmon, a successful physician in Restoration-era London. His specialty was mixing exotic ingredients to make drugs to treat patients. At the time doctors would cultivate “medicinal plants in order to safeguard the Practioner against the Herbalist and to enable him to have a correct knowledge of the plants which were the source of the drugs he himself would have to compound.”[1]

[1] Ibid.

Miller, Philip. The Gardener’s Dictionary : Containing the Methods of Cultivating and Improving the Kitchen, Fruit and Flower Garden, as Also the Physick Garden, Wilderness, Conservatory and Vineyard. London: Printed for the author, and sold by C. Rivington, 1731. Print.
Withering, William. A Botanical Arrangement of All the Vegetables Naturally Growing in Great Britain : with Descriptions of the Genera and Species, According to the System of the Celebrated Linnaeus … . Birmingham: T. Cadell, 1776. Print.

Moving through the Renaissance into the Enlightenment, the motivation to try to create classification systems to document plants, flowers, trees, etc., increased. “From the late sixteenth century and throughout the seventeenth century, we see the beginning of intense horticultural study, the development of the botanical garden, and the use of these scientific gardens as a means of both understanding the expanding world and expressing colonial aspirations.” With collection and cultivation of plants come also the interest in their description and illustration.”[1]

[1] Victoria Emma Pagán, Judith W Page, and Brigitte Weltman-Aron. Disciples of Flora. Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2015. Web, 6.

Edwards, Sydenham, and Robert Sweet. The Ornamental Flower Garden and Shrubbery : Containing Coloured Figures and Descriptions of the Most Beautiful and Curious Flowering Plants and Shrubs Cultivated in Great Britain . London: G. Willis …., 1852. Print.

From an early age Carl Linnaeus love the natural world. Considered the father of taxonomy, he introduced the framework and naming system of genera and species. His first publication in 1735, Systema Naturae (“The System of Nature”), gave birth to the universal use of the Linnaean system. Classification, was shown in this work to be based on whether something was animal, vegetable, or mineral. Linnaeus is a giant in world of biology, influencing generations of scientists. Prior to Linnaeus, naming practices were not uniform. ” The need for a workable naming system was made even greater by the huge number of plants and animals that were being brought back to Europe from Asia, Africa, and the Americas. After experimenting with various alternatives, Linnaeus simplified naming immensely by designating one Latin name to indicate the genus, and one as a “shorthand” name for the species.”[1]

[1] Retrieved 07/09/2021

Herbarium of Lord Petre collected by John Bartram before 1742.

Sutro’s collection also includes the herbarium of Lord Petre which was collected by John Bartram in America before 1742. John Bartram is one of the first American botanists and in 1728 founded the botanical garden in Philadelphia. He began collecting specimens and soon had a business selling specimens to individuals abroad.

Versailles and Trianon. Paris?: [publisher not identified], 1870. Print.

Gardens in France during the eighteenth century were everywhere. Apart from the famous gardens of the palace of Versailles, Marie Antoinette had her own garden for just her and her friends – away from the scrutiny of the court called Petit Trianon. Her reputation was damaged by rumors of trysts and nighttime walks in the garden causing a public scandal.

Versailles and Trianon. Paris?: [publisher not identified], 1870. Print.


A quick look at Japan. Sutro library has a large collection of resources on Japan. Japanese gardens developed over a 2000 year period. They are naturalistic, while also being steeped in symbolism. The four main themes are “awareness of the power of nature, Buddhist teaching, literature, and the tea ceremony.”[1]  Sand represents rivers, while rocks represent river gods.

[1] Seiko Goto, and Takahiro Naka. Japanese Gardens. London: Routledge, 2015. Web, 1.

Unprocessed collected of Japanese woodblock prints.

An aspect central to Japanese gardens is designing a garden as a “miniature” of a real world landscape. “In addition to miniaturization, the elements of a Japanese garden often have a double meaning (mitate) to suggest a story or philosophy with the given scenery.”[1]

The tea ceremony which developed in 1392-1573 BCE is another unique aspect of Japanese gardens. “The Japanese tea ceremony is not merely an occasion for drinking a cup of tea, but a refined artistic moment in which to experience aesthetic beauty.” It was part of every individuals’ life, no matter what social strata one occupied.[2]

[1] Ibid.,3.

[2] Ibid.,9.

Unprocessed collected of Japanese woodblock prints.

Above is an image from Sutro’s copy of the Tale of Genji in an accordion fold. Written in the 11th century by a Japanese noblewoman, it reveals insights into aristocratic customs and values of the time. “The scenes of the novel were painted on picture scrolls and recreated in gardens.” Seventeenth century Japanese Prince Toshihito “designed the garden not only to recreate a pictorial image from Tale of Genji, but to create a world with a view of the island and the sound of pine trees where he could play the role of Genji.”[1]

Unprocessed collected of Japanese woodblock prints.

The Japanese tea ceremony, called chanoyu or sadō is secular and sacred, and depending on how it is practiced is seen as “an inner, or spiritual, experience of human communication similar to Zen meditation, which involves finding oneself by experiencing nature.” The ceremony is represented by wabi and sabi (synonymous with purity and serenity) – central concepts to the design of tea houses and their adjoining gardens.[2]

[1] Ibid.,26.

[2] Ibid.,27.

Industrial revolution to the Present

Vizetelly, Henry. A History of Champagne : with Notes on the Other Sparkling Wines of France . London: Southeran, 1882. Print.

With urbanization and the swelling cities of concrete, civic leaders and governments realized that designated green spaces were necessary for health and sanity. And in both Germany and Britain efforts were made “to solve social problems and build new communities through urban agriculture.”[1] Urban gardens, parks, and other green spaces are now an essential element in just about every modern city. Even public transportation beautifies its concrete and mechanical by planting trees and other natural elements.

[1] McNeur, Catherine. “Food and the City: Histories of Culture and Cultivation Ed. by Dorothée Imbert (review).” Buildings & Landscapes 24 (2017): 120-22. Web.

Rockridge Bart Station Oakland, CA 94618 – taken by Sutro Librarian Diana Kohnke

And in a 1998 report by University of California, Berkeley, “together with what it costs to groom other planted areas in the state, such as parks and schools, all told a whopping $9.7 billion is spent annually in California on “environmental horticulture”: potted plants from Home Depot, fertilizer, tools, water and everything else that goes into making yards, schools and parks beautiful.”[1]  Sutro’s collection shows the breadth of what gardens mean to our humanity and to our survival. If you take the time to look, you’ll notice that gardens exist all around us – symbolically and physically.

[1], retrieved 6/28/2021

A Stich in Time

Last year the Sutro Library acquired a collection of 19th century trade cards advertising sewing machines. It is not uncommon to find vintage trading cards, also known as advertising cards, in archival collections and it is a treat when you do. Some cards only have text but ones produced after the 1870s are brightly colored and highly visual due to the general adoption of four-color lithography. It is also possible to find die-cut trade cards in unique shapes or possessing folding or moveable paper pieces.

An example of a brightly colored and highly visual die-cut trade card in a unique shape.

Like our modern day business cards, these highly stylized trade cards served not only as a form of advertising and promotion, but also as a form of decoration or expression. By making the cards attractive and appealing to sentiment, many women would retain the cards—along with their product information—for use in scrapbooks or home décor. Below are fine examples of how the cards used imagery and subjects that had nothing to do with sewing:

This meant that the company’s product was always present and visible to prospective customers. The presence of trading cards in women and girls’ scrapbooks from this era shows how the artwork featured during this time transcended mere commercial purpose and became an extension of personal expression [Lindquist].

Make it Sew

While Elias Howe Jr. is often credited for giving the world the sewing machine, it took several other inventors to create the machine we’re so familiar with today. Howe’s 1846 patent came after the first patent for a machine that sewed, was filed in February 1842 [NY Times]. It is hard to fathom now that before the sewing machine was invented, all clothes had to be fashioned and mended entirely by hand. Until the mid-1850s, people both in America and abroad would seek out professional dressmakers and tailors if they needed something made for a special occasion [Baron]. Wealthy individuals had all their clothes custom made but for the average person, this was a luxury few could afford. Most often, the average person had their clothes made by their mothers, grandmothers, sisters, or other female relatives if not by themselves (if they were female). This is not to say that men did not sew, but the task fell disproportionately to women.

Sewing was considered “respectable” work and many women made a living or supplemented their income by becoming a seamstress and taking on piecework executed at home. Manufacturers would give a seamstress a bundle of precut garments for construction by hand or the seamstress would receive work from private individuals looking for repairs, updates, or embellishments to be made. This type of work did not pay well and the overhead of rent, candles, thread, needles, etc. came out of the seamstresses’ pocket [Baron]. Competing against the seamstresses for jobs were, “… prison labor, poorhouse labor, farmers’ wives and daughters who sewed to contribute to the household income, and—especially by the 1850s—with church women’s sewing circles, which used the money earned for charity [Baron].”

Commercially, the adoption of the sewing machine brought many changes: the development of the garment industry, the displacement of hand labor, and a greater attainment of speed, uniformity, and precision creating finished products. One source states that the introduction of the sewing machine was estimated to perform the work of six hand sewers in the late 1850s [Baron].

Picture of a woman using a knitting machine in Pennsylvania’s Berkshire Knitting Mills, 1925 (Sutro Library).

Sew Much to Do

As a means of domestic economy, sewing could be a chore or a choice, a survival skill or an agent of personal expression, depending on the circumstances [Gordon]. Home sewing was gendered labor regardless of whether it was for hire or not. A wife or mother was responsible for all the clothes in the family, all the time. This never-ending task occupied a great deal of time and labor: “No one invention has brought with it so great a relief for our mothers and daughters as these iron needle-women. Indeed, it is the only invention that can be claimed chiefly for woman’s benefit.” [NYTimes]

Trade card expounding upon the drudgery of hand sewing.

Naturally, women sewing at home and home-based seamstresses were a potential market for sewing machines, but very few could afford them in the 1850s and 1860s [Baron]. In fact, in 1920, over 50 years after the sewing machine was introduced to the home market, home sewing and clothing production continued. A survey at that time found that the average worker’s wife, “… would need to sew a significant proportion of clothing for herself and her hypothetical three children, including one apron, ten cotton dresses, one wool dress, and three cotton blouses a year [Gordon].” For women of all income levels, sewing was a form of economy since homemade clothing was cheaper than ready-made.

While the work of sewing was demanding to be sure, it also provided women a venue for self-expression and creativity that traveled outside of the home. The home sewer crafted a visible narrative of her family. The clothes she made either helped in the family’s upward mobility socially or preserved their class status [Gordon].

Dressing well and adapting current fashions to one’s personal taste was a source of power for women: “From the 1890s through the 1920s, sewing fulfilled white, middle-class ideals of domesticity and provided wage-earning women a way to dress ‘respectably.’ Sewing upheld class, race, and gender hierarchies while simultaneously serving as a means to fight discrimination, gain economic power, and challenge notions of correct appearances.” [Gordon] Many women took pride in their handiwork and creativity and found a sense of satisfaction from the praise they received.

Sew Much More

The trading cards found in the Sutro Library’s new collection show advertisements that feature more than just a company’s newest sewing machine. An implied message found in the cards is that a “modern woman” sews on a machine and only “ladies of yore” continue to hand sew thus trying to entice younger women to adopt the new technology.

Trade card juxtaposing an elderly woman still knitting by hand and the new, “modern” woman using a sewing machine.

Adopting this machine, however, was welcoming the Industrial Revolution into the most intimate space one had: your home.

The idea that Mama would have her own machine would have been a novel idea before the Industrial Revolution.

In a way, it was bringing the factory with all its noise, grease, gears, and switches into an environment that seemed so counter to what the Revolution represented.

Sewing machines, like most industrial equipment, could be noisy.

Were the copious amounts of kittens, children, flowers, and scenery used in the ads all a ploy to make the machines less intimidating? These cards depict how hard the manufacturers tried to normalize the presence of this heavy machinery in the home.

Additionally, the cards push a dishonest depiction of a mostly white, American middle class ideal that erroneously assumed the majority of its buyers wished to obtain:

Looking at the trade cards en mass, the ads imply that buying one of these machines will allow the purchaser to sew clothes that will demonstrate how “respectable” they were and help them obtain this fanciful American life. None of the women in the cards look like they work in a factory. Most of them are well dressed, with stylized hair and immaculate children living in decorated homes with blooming gardens.

This trade card suggests that having a sewing machine will afford one more leisure time.

In fact, some manufacturers created custom wooden cabinetry for their machines and advertised them specifically to be part of one’s décor.

“Decorate your home with a “White” sewing machine.”

The fantasy of what you could create with a sewing machine did not end with the consumer. The companies themselves believed their products created a better life for people around the globe. For example, Singer, one of the major manufacturing companies, created a series of trade cards in the 1890s featuring men and women from different countries dressed in traditional clothing and posing with a Singer sewing machine. Called “Costumes of All Nations,” Singer created the cards as a souvenir package for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago [Massachusetts Collections]:

The accompanying text offers scholars searing insight into how American society at that time viewed race, ethnicity, consumerism, and industrialization:

Singer states that its products—and by extension, themselves—improved emerging world markets after people adopted their sewing machines. This hubris hints at the continued human rights issues surrounding the emancipation or exploitation of laborers today working for the global fashion industry in countries like Bangladesh, China, and Cambodia [Mehta].

Sew What?

There are so many ways scholars can use these trade cards as a primary resource. As an example of commercial printing, the cards demonstrate the artwork and craft of dozens of woodcuts, lithographers, and paper producers.

The Sutro Library’s collection in particular documents how sewing machines, like firearms, the telegraph, and the cotton gin, played a major role in developing American’s industrialized society. The cards stand as a physical testament to the size and development of the machines themselves and the corresponding growth of companies such as Singer, New Home, and Remington. These companies’ advertisements propagated an idealized view of womanhood that still reverberates today and provides direct evidence of how early advertising promoted ideas of race, gender, and the role of women in the American home. Additionally, labor and economic history trends can be seen, as well as the growing interest in material culture in the later part of the 19th Century.

Studying sewing machines advertisements offers scholars a highly illustrated example of how the growth and development of American technology changed over time [Cooper].

We would like to thank the California State Library Foundation for making this acquisition possible.

This post is by Mattie Taormina, Director, Sutro Library.


Baron, Ava and Susan E. Klepp, “If I didn’t have my sewing machine…” Women and Sewing Machine Technology” found in Jensen, J. M., & Davidson, S. (1984). A Needle, a bobbin, a strike: Women needleworkers in America. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Cooper, G. R., & Cooper, G. R. (1976). The sewing machine: Its invention and development. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.

“Costumes of all nations, India, etc. The Singer Manufacturing Co., New York, New York, 1892,” Massachusetts Collections Online found at:

Gordon, Sarah A. “BOUNDLESS POSSIBILITIES”: Home Sewing and the Meanings of Women’s Domestic Work in the United States, 1890-1930.  Journal of Women’s History; Baltimore Vol. 16, Iss. 2,  (2004): 68-91,209. DOI:10.1353/jowh.2004.0045

Lindquist, Benjamin. Slow Time and Sticky Media: Frank Beard’s Political Cartoons, Chalk Talks, and Hieroglyphic Bibles, 1860–1905, Winterthur Portfolio 53, no.11 (Jun 2019): 41–84.

Mehta, Shiyani. “Garmet Worker Exploitation: An International Human Rights Problem.” Found in Human Rights Pulse, August 25,2020.

“The story of the sewing-machine: Its Invention Improvements Social, Industrial and Commercial Importance,” New York Times, January 7, 1860, Page 2.

Found Letters: Creating My Family’s First Jiapu

Every semester the Sutro Library’s Genealogy Librarian, Dvorah Lewis, teaches a one-time class for an SFSU undergraduate course focused on genealogy where students take what they learn to research and write a paper about their ancestor’s immigrant experience. Our guest writer, Sarah Fong, was a student in this past semester’s class and shares her paper with us in the following blog post.

My class project was created in order to understand my mom’s immigration to the US through her perspective. In order to do so, I conducted an interview with her and reflected on how she communicated with my dad when she first met him through a letter. The following are various letters in my mom’s voice which I created using information from my interview with her and my dad’s box of letters. Also included are my thoughts on how immigration affects perception and information I’ve learned while researching records in China. By “recreating” her letters, I try to show how I understood my mom’s thoughts during this transitionary period. While the words are my own, my mom has seen this project and made sure the details are accurate to her history.

Letters from Mom to Dad that he kept in a safe

My parents were pen pals before my mom was brought to the US; they sent letters across seas for 3 years from China to the US before they got married. These letters provide a physical and personal timeline of their relationship and her immigration to the US. At the same time, her story is impersonal in the sense that it resembles many immigrants who came from China. The arranged marriage, her reason for travel, her starting point, and so on, mirror millions who fell in love with the dream of the US. My dad was a US citizen and my mom needed an expedited way to get in the US. She found her way through marrying someone she never saw.

May 1991

Dear Great Uncle,*

Hello, my name is Jin Xian Liu, although you’re probably already aware of this. I’ve heard a lot about you from my family at Shu Chong (樹涌) and never imagined we had relatives outside of the village. You’re from Ho Chong (濠涌) correct? We were in the same area but didn’t have the fortune of meeting.

Did you also study at the high school in Zhong Shan? The one at the end of the cracked road and broken street lights. My bike tires have popped more times riding into the city than the paths around my hut. I’ve heard it was similar to when you were here, but I imagine there’s a few more lines running across the concrete now. Do you ever miss them I wonder? I can’t imagine I would. With streets like the ones over there, remembering these ones must seem odd. Is it true the ground glitters over there? To earn a name like Gold Mountain, it must be very pretty.

Sorry, it’ll be a while before I can fly over, but I’m very excited to see everyone! My brothers are moving there in a month, my sisters will join you in a bit. I’m concerned about everyone leaving before me and it’ll take a while before I can gather money for my flight, but don’t worry, I’m a very hard worker and have a job moving dishes. My studies have been going well too.

Having so many siblings, I’ve learned a lot about taking care of others. I’m confident I’ll be able to repay you for this opportunity you’ve given me.

 Also, I’ve heard you currently have a wife? I hope to sit down together so I can learn from her on how to best take care of you. Do you have a favorite food?


Jin Xian Liu

*In China, people are addressed by their titles instead of names.

One of the letters Mom sent. She mostly talked about her studies and her day.

I find myself at an almost moral stalemate as I look at my mom’s immigration through the values I’ve learned in the US. There are four distinct factors within my mom’s journey that, by American standards, are rather uncomfortable: 1) the arranged marriage; 2) my dad being my mom’s great uncle; 3) the age gap between them (42 years); and 4) my dad courting mom before divorcing his first wife (he only filed for a divorce a year before marrying my mom). These factors are a remnant of old traditions where “‘marrying first, then falling in love’ […] remained relevant for decades to come for those who married for practicality, rather than for pure love” (Zhou and Xiao). It’s a loveless marriage out of the usefulness of being married with the hope they would connect after tying the knot. Women are allowed to divorce after a law passed in China 50 years ago, but in arranged marriages they only have the power to leave instead of choose whom they could marry. Despite this, my mom’s optimism and upbringing outshined anything, making her the exception. Love was more a matter of “when” instead of “if” for her.

On the other hand, my parents didn’t grow up in the US; matchmaking in China is common, traditions are the foundation of Chinese culture, and marriage is the best way to get citizenship. Not only was the marriage born out of necessity for moving, but it was normal in their culture. My dad wasn’t happy in his first marriage. He had a feeling of disconnection with his wife mixed with fear of no one to take care of him that influenced his decision to find someone else. Unlike in the US, families in China often live together and take care of their elderly. Shipping them off to a retirement home is a negligence of responsibility because care in the household is reciprocal–the elderly took care of the children so the children should take care of them when needed (known as filial piety). My mom never minded marrying to take care of dad so I didn’t question it either; however, whenever I talk about my mom’s immigration, it always feels like I should defend why I don’t find it as uncomfortable as expected.  

Mom visiting Grandma in Zhong Shan

December 1993

Dear Great Uncle,

It’s finally time to go. Despite our monthly correspondence, I’m getting the same feeling as writing that first letter. This nervous jitterbug has settled on my skin and won’t go away. By the way, thank you so much for the coat you sent with the last letter! It’s much comfier than anything I’ve bought and I’m happy your first sight of me won’t be in something I’ve patched up. Are all clothes like this over there? You’ll have to take me shopping some time.

I’m going to miss my hut. I’m going to miss waking up to the rice rustling as the mice move about, collecting the produce to sell at the market, and gathering pine-cones to throw in the furnace. I’m going to miss watching the stars reflected in the well when I bike back from school and drinking their reflection as if I’m sipping up those bright lights. I’m thankful for the working street lights that’ll line the roads in America, but I hope to continue seeing the same stars that are overhead as I write this. I’ll miss these things, but I know I’ll find things to miss over there too.

Was that too wordy? If I’m going to college there, I felt practicing was necessary. There’s a lot I have to learn after all! Even though I’m coming to take care of you, it seems you’ll be my teacher for many things too. I hope to learn all I can about stocks, English, driving, and all of the practices they have in America.

Also, I appreciate the offer of paying for my flight, but my classmates gave me a lot of red envelopes as a farewell. I’ve also saved up quite a bit so 950 dollars is no problem. My classmates helped sew the extra money into my shirt (I couldn’t let them cut the jacket you bought) so I won’t lose it before we arrive home.

See you soon,

Jin Xian Liu

Mom in America for the first time, Dad gifted her a car.

February 1994

Dear Husband,

Is it too soon to call you that? I wanted to write this last letter since we’re in China for our marriage. Although our visit will be short, I look forward to seeing the Great Wall, your home village, and taking you to Shu Chong. I wonder how different it is in the few months I’ve been away. Most of the people have already moved to the city. I suppose they didn’t want to share a single telephone in the middle of the courtyard anymore. The lines for it tended to run long.

Although this letter will be the last (and it’s so odd writing it with a clear face in mind), I felt it necessary to mark a goodbye to my life before. I never dreamed I’d live in the city–much less travel over the ocean. You probably experienced this before you moved to the US for the Korean War. Being from a small village, you dream about the big city but never imagine yourself in it; too many tomatoes to pick, too many relatives who need someone to support them, and too much to do on a daily. This life was all I knew and I wasn’t unhappy being there. Then my relatives all started leaving to America and I was left alone.

I never thought I’d follow, but I did hope beyond anything to reunite with them. You gave me that chance and a new life ahead of me. You don’t have to worry about me leaving you. I promise to take care of you.


Amy Fong

Mom and Dad’s Marriage

Chinese records are documented in paper books called Jiapu (also known as Zupu), written on temple walls, or marked on gravestones. The physical presence of the records are important to the family and they’re “mostly original manuscripts that remain in private family collections” (Morton). There are no copies because it was traditional to have only one manuscript of records. That manuscript can be edited, but it was not often reproduced. It’s a paper trail that’s closely guarded but easily lost because hardly anything is digitized. According to Sunny Morton, a lecturer in the global genealogy community, “many Jiapu were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s” (Morton). This mostly affected Northern China, however, it caused a great loss in family history. This has led to many families bringing their Jiapu with them when they immigrate (my parents didn’t do this). While this means the Jiapu are more protected, they’re also more widespread causing it to be more difficult to track down. 

A service called My China Roots has acquired 2500 Jiapu in order to help the process in making these resources online, but it’s a very slow, cumbersome road (Wang). Because many of the records are held within family ancestral homes, the only way to access them is to visit the places they’re held. This means knowing the name of the original village the Jiapu is held, having someone go there to take pictures of the records or get the manuscript, and hope they know the dialect within the village to talk to the locals when there are hundreds of Chinese dialects in existence. My dad spoke Longdu while my mom spoke in the Zhong Shan dialect. The dialects are similar to Cantonese or Mandarin, but distinctly different enough that holding a conversation would be difficult. For the Jiapu that were taken out of China, they’re “scattered throughout libraries in Asia and the United States” (Morton). Traditions, while important to China, have made finding specific records almost impossible.

An example of a typical Jiapu/Zupu.  Courtesy of

This is why it’s so important my mom kept the letters to my dad. They have names, descriptions of places, and are the Jiapu for how my mom created her new life here. Her keeping them was partly for sentimental reasons and partly for tradition, but now they’re an integral part of my family history due to the uncertainty of the location of other records. I know the names of the villages they both came from, however, the chances of the records being in the place likely swallowed by the city are slim. Mom was one of the last people within her village to leave for the US so it’s fair to assume the village is now deserted. Immigration created new opportunities for my mom, my dad, and anybody who found themselves in my parents’ position, but for a country like China, the records of history are erased when left behind. The chippings on the gravestones fade, the Jiapu scatter, and wood boards wear out over time. There’s a special feeling to holding the physical evidence, the Jiapu of your history, and Mom’s letters are the closest things I’ll likely get to that time before I was born.

(From left to right) Li Yu Chan (Dad’s brother’s wife), Fong Jin Yun (Dad’s big sister), Fong Xiu Yun (Dad’s younger sister), Me, Asa Fong (Dad’s younger brother), Dad, Mom

February 7, 2019

Dear Husband,

You’ve left to a place I can’t yet follow. I’m writing to say thank you for the life you’ve given me. As small as this one is, I hope this letter reaches you.

With Love,

Amy Fong

Warren Yut Fong (1931-2019, a great dad)


Morton, Sunny. “How to Find My Chinese Ancestors.” FamilySearch Blog, 29 Mar. 2019,

Wang, Emily. “Talk Story Review: My China Roots.” 1882 Foundation, 6 Mar. 2019,,


Zhou, Christina, and Bang Xiao. “’Marry First, Then Fall in Love’: The Evolution of Love and Marriage in China.” ABC News, ABC News, 21 Apr. 2018,

“Zupu 族谱.” Chinese Ancestors, 30 May 2016,

A Souvenir Passenger List: Taking a Genealogy Gamble

Cover of photo album titled "Souvenir of European Travel 1875."

Every semester I teach a one-time class for an SFSU undergraduate course focused on genealogy where I provide a general overview on research tools and a hands-on classroom activity. This activity includes a worksheet that guides students through the primary and secondary sources on their tables and ultimately simulates the genealogical research experience.

While researching items for one of these worksheets, I made a wonderful discovery and thought it would be useful to share my discovery process with our readers as well as tips for conducting your own genealogical research.

It all began with this ginormous 1875 photo album of David B. Gamble’s trip to Europe. The photos offer no information other than the sites Gamble visited.

  • Cover of photo album titled "Souvenir of European Travel 1875."
  • Photos historic sites in Ireland inside album from 1875
  • Souvenir passenger list for "Amerique" and a photo of the ship to the right of it.

Tucked on the inside cover of the album is a souvenir passenger list. Lists like this one were usually distributed prior to sailing or during the voyage and provided a way for cabin passengers to make acquaintances with one another.[i] On the cover of this passenger list we learn the name of the ship, which port it departed from, where it was heading, and the date of departure. Inside, the passengers are listed alphabetically along with what I have guessed to be their place of residence. We can see that David isn’t the only Gamble listed. There’s also an Edwin P. Gamble. I became curious to find out how these two were related!

Using only the information provided in the passenger list, I set out to search for David P. Gamble through (a free genealogical database). Since I know he was in New York in 1875, I selected “Any” for Life Event and input New York plus the year but with a five-year cushion.

Tip: This 5-year range will help with pulling up records where the year may have been written or indexed incorrectly (for example, a 5 may have been mistakenly recorded in the index or abstract as a 6).

The second result seems the most promising as it has many of the fields matching what I searched: name and year. The record set is called “United States Passport Applications” so it could be related to this trip. Since the original has been digitized and is freely available through (noted by the camera icon on the right of the result), I don’t want to rely on the abstract (the information we see in the results list) and instead want to investigate the original myself. And after doing so, I deduce this record happens to be David’s passport application for his trip abroad in 1875. In this application we see that the name, year of application, and city of residence match what was cited in the souvenir passenger list so we can confirm this David is our person. We also learn quite a bit more about him like his birth date and birth place.

Passport application of David B. Gamble in 1875, courtesy of

Tip: When you have access to the original, always check a few records before and after the one you first find. Sometimes there will be more information on the person in question. Looking at the image after David’s application, we find that of Edwin P. Gamble with much of the same info confirming they were traveling together and not just two people with the same last name who both happened to be on the same ship.

Now that we know when David was born (1847 according to the passport application), we can switch the Life Event in the search menu for Birth and input in a location and a year range.

Tip: More results will appear if you broaden the location so in this case I searched by state. On other genealogical websites and databases, the opposite may be true where the narrower your location, the more relevant the results.

My goal with this new search was to find as many census records as I could for David since census records are full of information and a great place to start. I specifically wanted to find out how Edwin and David are related and the earliest census with both Edwin and David is 1860 since Edwin was born in 1852. What I immediately notice after finding the 1860 census is that David is in the same household as someone named “Edwin P.” and it’s the same age difference we determined from the passport applications. From this, we learn David and Edwin are quite possibly brothers!

Tip: Good to make note of any variant spellings of names which you can add to your search. In the 1860 census, we see the recorder spelled their surname as Gambell instead of Gamble.

Screenshot of Gambell family in 1860 U.S. Census, courtesy of

Next I moved on to the 1870 census but had a hard time finding it with David B. Gamble as my search terms so I switched to searching for Edwin P. Gamble and had success. I noticed a few more people listed in the Gamble household in 1870. At first glance, it appeared there was no David but instead a Daniel. And the abstract for the census record reflects that. (See screenshot below) At closer inspection of the original, we can see how “Daniel” was mistaken for David: the circle of the second “d” is not closed completely which makes it look like two separate letters, “e” and “l”. This explains why I couldn’t find the 1870 census when searching for David!

Tip: If no results first appear for an ancestor, try searching for someone else in their family and finding the record that way.

I also notice someone with an incorrectly indexed name: Preston Alexander. In line 30 of the original, it reads as Proctor and is meant to be read as a surname not as a first name (which is how it’s implied in the abstract above). And then the wheels begin to turn in my mind when I take note of the occupation of the head of house, Edwin’s father James Gamble: Soap and Candle Manufacturer. Curious and curious-er.

One of the suggested records is that of Find A Grave, which is a database separate from with cemetery and tombstone information. The inscriptions provide vital information and sometimes information on the deceased’s ancestors and descendants as well as a biographical description, especially if they were a prominent figure in society.

Since I am interested in learning more about their father, James, and his soap business, I click on his Find A Grave record. and we find a biographical description full of information on this family. In the first line we learn that James Gamble is indeed the co-founder of Procter and Gamble! For as long as this item has been catalogued, there has been no mention that the previous owner, David B. Gamble, was related to that Gamble family who co-founded a company of which many brands are still used today.

This souvenir passenger list example goes to show that all you really need to get started on your genealogical research is a name, and where and when an event happened. This tiny ephemeral piece gave us all three clues leading to a curious connection to our modern world.

Feel free to share in the comments about your own curious connections!

Today’s post was written by the Sutro Library’s Genealogy Librarian, Dvorah Lewis.

[i] Gjenvick-Gjønvik Archives provides documents and information on immigrants from primarily European countries to North America including souvenir passenger lists. –


There are so many powerful symbols in American history and these symbols of national pride hold a wealth of information about how people in the past viewed our country’s struggles, aspirations, and trajectory. Nothing exemplifies this more than Columbia. Many of us may not be familiar with the personification of our country, Columbia, but we are well versed in the things that bear her name: Columbia University, the District of Columbia, British Columbia, Columbia Records, and Columbia Pictures.  While these references have meaning today, the historic underpinnings of the name may not. 

In the early history of our country, America’s allegorical image was conceived in the European mind as an indigenous woman, falling in line with the custom to bestow female figures to countries, continents, and to other concepts like Lady Liberty and Justice.

Examples of individual countries in female forms would be France’s Marianne or Britain’s Britannia:

Left: Statue of Marianne in Paris, Picture by Author; Right: Statue of Britannia, courtesy Wikipedia

Britannia is usually shown wearing a white gown and helmet and carrying a shield and trident. Her dress and accoutrements look more Roman than Gaelic owing to the fact that she first came into being during the Roman rule of England sometime after 43 AD. Britannia, who represents the British Empire, saw a resurgence in popularity during the reigns of Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) and Queen Victoria (1837-1901).

The Four Continents from Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia (1603), pages 333-338.

The above images show how continents were often imagined.  Europe was commonly depicted wearing a crown with an imperial purple robe surrounded by classical architecture, objects of the arts and sciences, Christianity, and often times a bull. Asia was almost always clothed in the richest of fabrics and seen with a burning urn of incense. Africa’s female form, frequently clad in something revealing, was surrounded by a menagerie of exotic animals and would be either a Black female from central or southern Africa or a Moorish woman from northern Africa.

These European artistic depictions of continents and individual countries had a strong agenda: to show the greatness of Europe by contrasting European civility and education against the so-called “underdeveloped” and/or “barbarous,” unchristian lands. Thus, the female form used to personify the continent of America or the New World was always shown as the most “primitive” of the continents since the Europeans had recently learned of its existence and erroneously deemed it to be in an uncorrupted and idyllic state. An example of this is seen in this engraving found in Arnoldus Montanus’ book, Nieuwe en onbekende weereld, of, Beschryving van America en ‘t zuid-land (1671):[i]

“America” Engraved image found in Arnoldus Montanus’ book entitled, Nieuwe en onbekende weereld.

Here America is a young Native woman wearing an elaborate feather crown and skirt. Rather than being surrounded by the European symbols of the arts, she is surrounded by signs of agricultural and mineral wealth. The presence of spears hint at conflict, but she appears as an Amazonian princess, held aloft on a cornucopia reminiscent of Botticelli’s famed painting, The Birth of Venus. This is a Venus for the New World, manufactured to excite the European mind into pondering all possible things assumed freely available to them in North, Central, and South America.[i]

As the years passed the New World became the newest prize for global powers to fight over and the London political cartoons began using the Native American woman to represent British America rather than the entire New World[ii]. Later, as tensions grew between the 13 colonies and Britain, British Americans began to desire different iconography from what the Europeans had created for them originally. Perhaps it was the closer proximity to, and conflict between, the colonists and the various Native American groups that made the Colonists begin to search for a different allegorical image[iii]. Or perhaps the Colonists rejected the idea of seeing themselves depicted as a Native personage which, in the 17th and 18th century, implied subjection to the Mother Country’s superiority and cultural dominance[iv]. The new republic needed a symbol that put the United States on an equal footing with the more established global powers.


Once independent from European powers, the United States began to craft its own non-indigenous secular iconography dominated by two allegorical females: Liberty (representing our national principle) and then later, Columbia (representing our physical place on the globe)[v]. In 1792, Congress officially decided that Lady Liberty was to be the embodiment of the national consciousness and decreed that almost all currency carry her visage, not that of the elected president[vi]. The practice of coins showing an idealized image of Liberty continued throughout the 19th century.

But liberty is a principle and the allegorical image of Liberty was not America’s alone. What was needed was a symbol that represented the country that was uniquely ours: Columbia. The corporeal reality of place, the American goddess Columbia derived her name from a Latinized version of Christopher Columbus meaning “Land of Columbus.”[vii] Who came up with the moniker is up for debate: was it Chief Justice Samuel Sewell of the Massachusetts Bay Colony who wrote a poem in 1697 calling the collective colonies Columbina?[i] Was it Dr. Samuel Johnson in 1738 describing the Colonies in the British publication Gentleman’s Magazine?[ii]

Regardless of her origin, Columbia becomes a stand-in for the American Colonies both at home and overseas. She is mentioned in the 1775 poem “To His Excellency General Washington” by Phillis Wheatley (c. 1753-1784), the first published African-American poet in U.S. history.[i] In fact, the song, “Hail, Columbia!”, composed for George Washington’s inauguration, was the unofficial anthem for the new country until the “Star-Spangled Banner” replaced it officially in 1931[ii]. It is still used today as the vice president’s official entrance music[iii].

Now that they had a name they needed a personification as well. The elaborate feathers and exotic animals previously seen when America was visualized as a Native America woman gave way to a figure that was distinctly European and reminiscent of Classical Greece. Columbia is shown frequently as a young White woman wearing classically draped garments decorated with the stars and stripes, often carrying an American flag and wearing a soft Phrygian[i] cap:

Columbia, courtesy of the Missouri Historical Society

Columbia carrying a flag, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Modern audiences will recognize a version of Columbia as the torch-carrying, robed lady featured in the opening credits for Columbia Pictures’ movies or the floating robed woman facing West carrying a book and telegraph lines in John Gast’s 1872 famous painting, American Progress:

Images of Columbia were featured extensively in political cartoons during the American Civil War both at home and abroad. Famed cartoonist and illustrator, Thomas Nast, supportive of the Union effort, frequently depicted Columbia in his political drawings about the conflict between the states:

Left: Nast’s Columbia weeps after the 1864 Democratic National Convention; Right: Nast’s Columbia looks victorious at the end of the Civil War.

During the latter part of the 19th century, John Tenniel, the famous English illustrator who would later create the original illustrations for Alice in Wonderland, drew his own version of Columbia:

“Mrs. Britannia. “Ah, my dear Columbia, it’s all very well; But I’m afraid you’ll find it difficult to join that neatly.”

Here, a matronly Britannia, looking maddeningly smug, gives the girlish Columbia instruction as the later gloomily holds a torn map representing the divided States of America[i]. There is a strong Mother-Daughter feeling in the drawing hinting at the past Mother Country-Colony relationship the two countries once had.

One of the most striking images from the Civil War era is Christopher Kimmel’s lithograph featuring the allegorical figures of Columbia, Liberty, and Justice coming together to celebrate the end of the Civil War[i]:

Columbia, Liberty, and Justice celebrate the end of the American Civil War.

“The artist depicts in symbolic terms the downfall of the Confederacy. Columbia, crowned with stars, and Liberty, wearing a Phrygian cap and holding an American flag, stand on a pedestal in the center. On the pedestal are carved the likenesses of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. In front of the pedestal Justice, armed with sword and scales, leads a charge of Union troops toward the right[ii]

A word from Uncle Sam

Today, most of us consider “Uncle Sam” as the personification of our country but he figuratively represents the federal government and has since the War of 1812[iii]. Again, the famous illustrator Thomas Nast in the 1870s would create the visual image we are most familiar with: a White male with whiskers wearing a top hat and red and white striped pants.

“The Lightning Speed of Honesty.” Cartoon by Thomas Nast, published in the 24 November 1877 issue of Harper’s Weekly

One has to consider the role of gender in how and when Columbia and Uncle Sam are used. World War I recruiting posters used the personification of the male government to get men to enlist to do the traditionally male activities of engaging in war and defending one’s country. Columbia, Lady Liberty, and the Goddess of Justice are all female, implying vulnerability and fragility, and in need of protection.  Uncle Sam is stern, reminding men of their duty to protect the constant, pure, and nurturing Columbia.

Columbia today

So why isn’t Columbia as widely known today? Perhaps men and women stopped viewing women as “helpless” after they won the right to vote in 1920[i]. Or perhaps, she was supplanted by the rise of Lady Liberty once more after the United States received “The Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World” as a gift from France in 1886[ii].

However popular Lady Liberty is to us today, a new, modern version of Columbia was seen during the 2017 Women’s March: 

Shepard Fairey’s poster found in the Sutro Library’s 2017 Women’s March collection, M000014, box 11, item 275.

Los Angeles based artist Shepard Fairey created a poster for the March inspired by a decade old photograph by Ridwan Adhami of Munira Ahmed, a Bangladeshi American.[i]  Just like in Adhami’s photograph, Fairey’s poster featured a woman wearing a hijab patterned with America’s stars and stripes, reminiscent of the stars and stripes on Columbia’s clothes.[ii]

Even England’s Britannia is getting an updated look. Recently, The Royal Mint, the British maker tasked with producing all of the UK’s coinage, released a coin depicting Britannia as a woman of color for the first time in her 1,900 year history[iii].

The changes to both Columbia and Britannia show society’s growing awareness of the need for these national icons to speak more directly to all members of their respective societies. These updated symbols underscore the idea that the mythical face of the nation can be as culturally diverse as the society it represents. Clare Maclennan, The Royal Mint’s director of commemorative coins, said “Britannia is an enduring symbol of the people, and as the nation evolves it is right that her image should evolve too.”[i]

Future artistic renderings of Columbia and other American symbols will continue to expand and build upon our shared understanding of America’s identity and values.

This post is by Mattie Taormina, Director, Sutro Library.

[i] Ibid.





[ii] P. 39, American spirit, vol. 146, no. 4, July/August 2012, Sutro Library


[ii] Ibid.


[i] Punch, or the London Charivari, October 1, 1864, Sutro Library.



[ii] P. 39, American spirit, vol. 146, no. 4, July/August 2012, Sutro Library





[i] Page 81, Hart, J. L. (2003). Columbus, Shakespeare, and the interpretation of the New World. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

[ii] Page 52, Higham, J. (1990). Indian princess and Roman goddess: The first female symbols of America. Worcester [Mass.: American Antiquarian Society.

[iii] P. 55, Ibid.

[iv] P. 57, Ibid.

[v] P. 63, Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] P. 39, Daughters of the American Revolution. (2001). American spirit. Washington, DC: National Society Daughters of the American Revolution. Vol. 146, no. 4, July/August 2012, Sutro Library

 [LD1]Add an image or two in this section to break up the text

[i] MISC00091, Sutro Library

Finding Meaning in Colonial Maps

Most maps are designed and created with a purpose. This is evident when you open an atlas which shows a wide variety of maps on data like population density and physical terrain, as well as something as simple as using your phone to find directions. The map shown here was also designed with a purpose, shown in what kind of information is present and the way it is given:

Map depicting the proposed future colony of Georgia, 1733.

It was originally published in a pamphlet written in 1733 by Benjamin Martyn entitled “Reasons for Establishing the Colony of Georgia,” which argued that establishing a colony would bring large economic and social benefits to Great Britain:

Title page from Benjamin Martyn’s 1733 pamphlet “Reasons for Establishing the Colony of Georgia.”

The pamphlet and the map it contains are very interesting on their own, but in order to fully understand them we must look at the historical context in which they were created and the motivations of the people who would use it. The map and pamphlet were published by the British, for a British audience, and when looking at something like this bias is almost inevitable. Many of the ideas presented here about this map are inspired by Daniel Richter’s book, “Facing East from Indian Country” which emphasizes the importance of considering different perspectives. A map commissioned by the Spanish or French might have different information present, and Native Americans especially would prioritize wildly different things when it comes to not only something like a map but many parts of culture and how the world is visualized. The interactions between colonists and the native inhabitants of America was one of the biggest and most important aspects of the early efforts in colonization.

These interactions are sometimes remembered as peaceful and mutually beneficial in mythologized tales, such as the story of the pilgrims who settled in Plymouth, but more often than not the relationship between Native Americans and European colonists was complicated, fluid, and even hostile. Early American colonists did not place much importance on race and did participate in friendly interaction with Native Americans, but this doesn’t mean that Europeans saw Native Americans as equals. As early as 1637 colonists in Connecticut set fire to a Pequot village and killed hundreds in the mystic massacre, showing that many saw the natives as uncivilized and inferior. By the middle of the 18th century the attitude among Europeans had become that the native population of America was an obstacle to expansion further west. A good marker for the solidification of this relationship with natives came in 1711 with the Tuscarora war in Colonial North Carolina. This violent war between colonists, the Tuscarora tribe, and their allies had a lasting effect on relations and the ways Europeans viewed the Native Americans.

This brings us to the map presented here, which was published only a few decades after this defining conflict between colonists and native groups. The content of the map is focused on the southeast corner of what would become the United States, with it being centered on the modern-day state of Georgia. You should be able to pick out this name, along with other familiar places like South Carolina and Florida, but while the names have remained the borders and claims of these states have shifted over time. At the very left is the Mississippi River which is labelled as “the line of the present French possession,” marking the Louisiana territory which was at the time claimed by France:

Detail of the 1733 map showing the Mississippi River which marked the line of French possession.

It also places a particular emphasis on many rivers and their tributaries, even labelling many small inlets. Notably absent from the map are many labels for colonial population centers, a few coastal ones such as Charlestown are included, but in contrast the names and inhabited land of various native groups in this region are present. The population of men within each group is also labeled, for instance the Cherokee are marked as having 8000 men. Several descriptive labels are present in places like along the gulf coast which claims there are “no inhabitants from hence to the point Florida,” and a spot along a tributary of the Mississippi described as “a fitt place to settle an English factory.”

The historical background given on native relations at this time and content chosen by the mapmaker on the map all point to the explanation that its purpose was to encourage and facilitate the settlement of this region by the British. The map serves as a sort of tool in determining the ideal locations and what sort of obstacles potential colonists may face. Because of this purpose the creator of the map did not have to include other things like details on already existing settlements. The various native tribes in this region were perceived as an obstacle and the chance of conflict was present, meaning the mapmaker felt it was necessary to explain the military strength of each group through the number of men present. The fact that the male population and name is the only information given shows the disconnect between the settlers and native inhabitants, with expansion bringing conflict between these two groups.

More obvious indicators of priority include the statements on ideal locations for settlement, but information like the extent of claims was also important for this region. British settlement of the interior not only brought conflict with natives, but also with other colonial powers like France and Spain. Florida, with areas marked as having no inhabitants, was a Spanish colonial territory at the time. A slave uprising in South Carolina known as the Stono Rebellion took place in 1739, only a few years after this map was published, with the goal of fleeing to Spanish Florida which offered freedom to escaped British slaves. The settlement of Georgia was partly encouraged because of this colonial competition, to create a buffer between South Carolina and Florida. While the competition with Spain in the south was happening, to the east territorial claims brought even greater strife with the French.

The rising tension between France and Great Britain would culminate in the Seven Years’ War which lasted from 1754 to 1763, also called the French and Indian War for the part of the conflict fought in America. Participants in the war included then Lieutenant-Colonel George Washington who served in the British army at the time. Much of the fighting took place in the area west of the Appalachian Mountains and east of the Mississippi, an area populated by many different indigenous tribes. With the war ending in a British victory, the French lost most of their American colonies and the region was claimed by Great Britain. This brought even greater settlement from the east, with valuable land even being claimed by prominent American figures like Thomas Jefferson and Washington.

The increased settlement brought even more conflict, which the British government recognized and tried to remedy by restricting settlement to the east of the Proclamation Line of 1763, roughly following the Appalachian Mountains. The land west of the line was reserved for native groups, especially those which aided the British in the war, but as the existence of this map shows many believed this place was a potential area to settle and were angered by this decision. This attitude towards settlement restrictions would be a contributing factor to the American Revolution, and the relationship between colonists and natives would continue to be defined by settlement and conflict. By looking at things like this map, used as a tool for colonization, we can try to understand the motivations of those using it and the perspectives they might have had towards others.

[This blog post was written by Nick Archer, SFSU undergraduate in history, who will be graduating in 2022. Nick wrote this essay as part of a class project.]

If you are interested in reading the original pamphlet written in 1733 by Benjamin Martyn entitled “Reasons for Establishing the Colony of Georgia,” please page Vault F289 .M42 1733 once the Sutro Library is open again to the public.