In 1849, Allexey W. von Schmidt left his New York City home and travelled with thousands others to San Francisco, allured by the promise of gold. But instead of becoming a miner, von Schmidt became a surveyer, and a key player in the creation of California’s borders and its place on the US map.
PUTTING CALIFORNIA ON THE MAP is a meticulously researched account of a man that very few people know anything about. Carle studied journal entries, surveying notes, land grants, letters, newspapers, and other historical documents to piece together the history of von Schmidt and, in a way, the history of modern-day California. The documents are blended well so that a coherent timeline is formed—which is a huge accomplishment, considering how scattered these documents are in terms of place and purpose, and how many times von Schmidt’s name is just one hidden among many.
The main issue with this book isn’t in the research or the effort—there are some typos that are frustrating exactly because of the amount of work that clearly went into this book—but the main issue with this book is that it is as dry as the documents it draws its narrative from. This may not be the fault of the author: sparse survey notes that only offer necessary information about terrain and soil quality, business documents describing a water pump company, and small mentions in newspapers are not themselves the stuff of a compelling narrative. Diary entries and letters add some color to the story, but they are not utilized to their fullest potential. Carle, a park ranger himself, writes this book as if he is reporting events rather than weaving a narrative. For someone who is already interested in land surveying or the life of AW von Schmidt, this is perfectly fine. However, someone who is just beginning to explore the topic or is intrigued by the enticing title might find themselves a bit lost and disappointed.
Overall, the idea of combining the history of modern-day California with the history of its principle surveyor is interesting. Aside from the infuriating typos, Carle’s prose is solid and the thoroughness of his research is beyond admirable. But the spirit of adventure embodied by von Schmidt and California itself is not present in this book.
PUTTING CALIFORNIA ON THE MAP is expertly researched, but too dry for anyone not already interested in the topic.
~Jess Costello for IndieReader