My latest foray into the California history genre is Albert Hurtado's Intimate Frontiers: Sex, Gender, and Culture in Old California. For a scholarly work, it was very accessible. Hurtado focuses on a time-period spanning late Spanish colonialism, Mexican rule, and the early American era.
Hurtado's elaborated on two main themes. First, men greatly outnumbered women on the California frontier, and this was a very powerful social determinant. Second, most California settlers were obsessed with recreating the sexual and cultural norms of their previous home, as opposed to making a new start.
Some random highlights from the book:
* The ratio of men to women was never less than 2-1 throughout the frontier period, and in the early
gold rush the number swelled to something like 40-1. Despite an
advantageous marriage market for women, it was still a man's man's
man's world. And a white man's world at that.
* The mission priests were obsessed with regulating Indian sexual behavior and abolishing settled Indian tribe sexual norms in favor of Catholic orthodoxy. Big surprise there. Oh, and "the missionary position" was preferred for its perfect expression of male dominance. After all: the man is the boss of the woman as christ is the boss of the man…
* Twice as many males as females perished in the Donner party disaster. Hurtado theorizes the males became distressed and despondent at their perceived responsibility for leading their families into ruin on the trek through the frontier.
* Chinese women were kidnapped and brought to San Francisco as prostitute slaves throughout the gold rush. Most lived in misery and were forced to work for pathetic wages. At one point in the 1850s, there were something like 450 Chinese women in San Francisco. 90 percent were working as prostitutes.
* First trimester abortion was quasi-legal in California through the 1860s. The latter day equivalent of RU486 was looked upon as a commonplace.
That's just a small smattering of the history I learned in the book. I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to anyone interested in the subject matter.