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  • Writer's pictureCheryl Anne Stapp

The Works of H. H. Bancroft

Hubert Howe Bancroft is one of the most famous names in western America, as the man who became one of the first important and respected historians to gather and publish material about California and elsewhere, although he never went to college. After a year at Doane Academy in Granville, Ohio—then a private preparatory school for young men wanting to pursue a higher education—Bancroft left the institution to clerk at his brother-in-law’s bookstore in Buffalo, New York.

In 1852 his brother-in-law sent him to booming Gold Rush San Francisco to open a West Coast outlet for the shop. Five years later, Hubert Bancroft was the largest bookseller in the West and owned a publishing house, issuing law books and legal stationery, texts and maps for schools, printed music, and colored labels for cans.

Bancroft used the profits from his business to acquire books, maps, old newspapers, manuscripts, brochures, and other materials encompassing California and the Pacific Coast, British Columbia and Alaska, Mexico and Central America, in a collection that eventually grew into to tens of thousands of volumes. He and his staff also created original materials by interviewing pioneers, in the process collecting hundreds of oral histories. In 1868, he resigned from his business to devote himself entirely to writing and publishing history. He did write much of the “more important” material himself, but despite employing a staff of writers, some of them quite accomplished, Bancroft credited only himself as the author of his works. Today he would be more accurately considered as an editor and compiler.

In 1875 Bancroft was awarded an honorary Master of Arts degree from Yale University, in recognition of his massive historical work on Native Races of the Pacific States; and that year he was also elected a member of the American Antiquarian Society.

His series of western North American histories ultimately numbered 39 volumes, including a seven-volume History of California released in 1886-1890. The University of California acquired his works and collections in 1905, forming the nucleus of the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley. Today 38 of his 39 works are available in libraries and on academic websites the world over. His The Book of Wealth, published in 1898 as a 400-copy print run that sold for $2,500 for the first edition, is a rare book prized by collectors.

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