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Book Reviews -- Historical Nonfiction

Hiram Morgan Hill

Hard-won Cowboy Wisdom, by Peter Coe Verbica


An entertaining collection of cowboy maxims, blended with poetry and photos from the author’s personal archive. Peter Coe Verbica grew up on a Northern California cattle ranch, attended Santa Clara University and MIT and built a career in finance, but his 

family’s ranching heritage remains with him and finds its expression in the pages of Hard-won Cowboy Wisdom.

Verbica shares the pragmatism and humor of the early American West gleaned from long-time ranchers and farmers in aphorisms like this: “Old cowboys know more than they let on, but often won’t tell you how to do something in belief that you’ll remember something better if you learn from your own mistakes.”

Peter Coe Verbica is part of the Henry Coe family. His ancestors settled in Santa Clara Valley where they purchased, ranched and later donated land to what became known as the Henry W. Coe State Park, the second largest state park in California.

Verbica’s own poetic style comes through in “I Grew Up,” providing readers with a taste of what’s in store in his published poetry books: A Key to the Grove and Left at the Gate. Order Verbica’s books on Amazon or through BookSmart of Morgan Hill, or check at Morgan Hill Library.

Hiram Morgan Hill, by Beth Wyman, self-published in 1983, 50 pages. 

Beth Wyman (whose own history in Morgan Hill is worthy of a book!) has followed the lives of Hiram Morgan Hill, his wife, Diana, and their daughter, Diane.   Morgan Hill’s infamous sister, Sarah, figures significantly in the Hill’s story and Beth has devoted a part of this book to her scandalous life.  She also includes the life and antics of the character Mammy Pleasant who played a big part in the lives of both the Morgan Hills and Sarah.  Included are many photographs of this famous family, as well as Marriage and Death Certificates.  This is a well researched account of the high and low points in the lives of Morgan Hill’s rich and famous.

The Madrone Soda Springs, by Sanders & Brookman

Madrone Soda Springs
Martin Murphy Family Saga
Memories of a Small Town Girl

The Martin Murphy Family Saga by Marjorie Pierce, published by the California History Center & Foundation, De Anza College, 2000.

Looking for a really special book for someone with a strong interest in California and Morgan Hill history?  This is it!!  Martin Murphy was Diana Murphy Hill’s grandfather, she the lovely wife of our Hiram Morgan Hill.  This book “chronicles the migration and settling of the Murphy family from its roots in Ireland to its heyday in Sunnyvale…”  The lives of Mr. Murphy’s sons, daughters, grandchildren and their children are intricately interwoven with the history of California from the 1840s on.

In 1820, feeling the limiting influence of the British Protestants in politics and religious freedoms, Martin Murphy and his wife decided to leave their farm in Ireland and move to Canada where his children would have better educational opportunities and religious freedom.  However, the religious freedom part was not a reality in Quebec where they settled.

So, off they traveled by boat along America’s rivers, stopping along the way and checking out the farming situation.  In the course of their travels, they started hearing about the wonders of California and the opportunities for emigrants there.  A decision was made to keep traveling west by wagon train.

Travel was difficult by river, but it didn’t compare to the hazards of wagon train travel!  There were insects, weather, lack of water, topography, and native Americans to contend with.  The Murphys joined two other groups, one traveling to Oregon, the other also traveling to California.  The assortment of personalities was amazing and many are described.  In spite of many hardships, these travelers were exceptionally determined to continue their journey to a better life.  In October 1844, they reached the Sierra Nevada mountains and became the first wagon train bringing wagons and American cattle to reach the Sierra divide (later to become U.S. Hwy 80).

Because the snow was getting too deep to move the wagons over the summit,  several of the men left to get help after building a shelter for the women and children.  The men reached Sutter’s Fort and learned that a Revolution had started and foreigners were not welcome by the Californios.  The Murphy boys fought with Mexico against the Californios in various armies.  Eventually, the men returned for the women and children – a baby was born during that time! – and they continued their journey to several California towns, buying up land grants and establishing ranchos.

The Murphys proved themselves energetic, innovative business men.  Dan, who was to become Diana Murphy Hill’s father, struck it rich during the Gold Rush, and used his fortune to buy land and cattle.  In this book, each Murphy son has his own chapter, detailing his life.  All were interested in education – established schools - and some were involved in California politics.

Martin Murphy’s dreams of religious and political freedoms were certainly realized through generations of Murphys!


Memories of a Small Town Girl

Growing Up in Morgan Hill, Californiaby Jean Pinard

Jean Pinard’s memoir transports readers to the early 1900s and life in a Northern California farming community. The book’s opening chapters provide context of Pinard’s ancestry and immigration stories, and how their fates led them to settle in “the Prune Capital of the World,” Morgan Hill. She taps into childhood memories of a small town where most people knew each other and everyone knew her family because her father was Constable; her mother ran a popular hamburger stand; and relatives operated the local hotel.


Pinard recalls the World War II years when Japanese American neighbors were sent to internment camps, and townspeople observed blackouts and rationing. She and her sisters spent summers picking prunes in local orchards and saved their money for school clothes and phonograph records.


Pinard graduated college when women were expected to focus on marriage and homemaking. She devoted much  of her adult life to education as a school principal. Pinard is a talented storyteller whose humor shines through remembrances of hard times in early 20th century America. A great read for anyone living in Santa Clara Valley.


Order Jean Pinard’s book online or through BookSmart of Morgan Hill. See more of Pinard’s story captured on film in Stories from the Past (2016).


MINE: El Despojo de Maria Zacarias Bernal de Berreyesa

by Jenny Clendenen, 2020

MINE: El Despojo de Maria Zacarias Bernal de Berreyesa is a lyrical, masterfully-written work of creative nonfiction by Jenny Clendenen published in 2020. Clendenen was inspired by the 19th Century history of the Californios and what was once known as Rancho San Vicente, the home of Maria Zacarias Bernal de Berreyesa. More than 200 years later, Clendenen was drawn to the former rancho lands. She raised her children in the area and wanted to learn about its history, so she began researching Maria Zacarias and her family. Her book takes us beyond traditional textbook history in a meaningful way.

Book excerpt:

   "I have found no photographs of Zacarias, and few glimpses into her mind. She left no diaries or letters; even her signature on decades of documents is simply a quill-penned cross, for despite her husband's teaching skills, she could not even write her name. So I seek her on dawn walks and midnight drives across landscapes we both have shared, keeping my senses open for signs of her heart, feeling her with me the most in crepuscular light. 

   "Of this I am sure: she is not a flat textbook fact. She is not a digit imprisoned in a column, her personhood buried beside a percentage sign. She and her family are not just Gold Rush statistics.

   "I found longer answers to "who was she?" at tables and desks, enough history to know her story deserved to be told. But I found the real Zacarias in natural places, not pictures or print. I felt bound to her by "our" land.


   "So I have told her tale of losses through connections of the heart, weaving our experiences together in situ, under the influence of places and seasons we have shared across time. In doing so I intend MINE to resonate across cultural and political lines, to create empathy for Maria Zacarias Bernal de Berreyesa as a mother and a woman, and to deepen awareness of our state's Spanish-Mexican roots."

Images: Morgan Hill

Images of America, Morgan Hill, by U.R. Sharma, published in 2005 by Arcadia, 128 pages.


Through vintage photographs and picture postcards from the Morgan Hill Historical Society’s collection, Ms. Sharma tells Morgan Hill’s history from the arrival of Martin Murphy Sr. in 1846 through the town’s evolution up to the late 1970s.

Have you noticed the street sign on Tennant Ave, Juan Hernandez, and wondered who Juan was?  How about other street names in Morgan Hill, like Dunn, Tennant, Diana, Edes?  Was Morgan Hill named after a mountain peak?  These answers and more are revealed in the book.

The Ohlone Way, by Malcolm Margolin

Margolin’s book pays homage to the rich history and culture of Northern California’s indigenous people. His writing reflects a sensitive observer, dedicated researcher and respectful friend. As professor and author Damon Akins aptly put it, Margolin “avoided the hubris of describing the imagined life of Native people to non-Natives, an enterprise that has often gone tragically wrong. Instead of viewing Native people as subjects of study, Margolin engaged with them, became friends, listened, and respected the stories they told him.” He avoids romanticizing and interpreting and instead encourages listening, scholarship and lifting up the stories of the First Peoples, who were oppressed and nearly erased from the pages of history

Operation Utah: The Die is Cast, by Hubert Yoshida

“Someone once said that the death of one man is a tragedy, but the death of a thousand men is a statistic.” Hubert Yoshida

The history of the Vietnam War continues to unfold nearly a half century after its dismal conclusion in the 1970s. Operation Utah: The Die is Cast is a unique and important addition to this history, providing firsthand accounts of US Marines and Navy Corpsmen of a significant and tragic battle that occurred March 4-7, 1966. Author Hubert Yoshida was a 1st Lieutenant in charge of a Marine Rifle Platoon during Operation Utah. As a child he was sent with his family to an internment camp for Japanese American citizens. After World War II his family was able to return to Watsonville, California where they had to rebuild their lives from nothing.


As a young man attending UC Berkeley, Yoshida shared the concern of many Americans about the spread of Communism, so he enlisted in the US Marine Corps. After the war he built a successful career and raised a family. In 2016 he visited the site of Operation Utah. Looking back, Yoshida became inspired to write this book as a way to recognize and memorialize the contributions of soldiers who fought and sacrificed their lives in Operation Utah but were largely forgotten. In the book’s final chapter, Yoshida includes military service information, personal anecdotes and photos of all of the young men who died in Operation Utah, largely drawn from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund online forum. In the process of writing his book, Yoshida contacted many families of fallen soldiers, connected with other survivors of Operation Utah, and contributed to collective efforts to capture this moment in history.

Order your copy of Operation Utah: The Die is Cast on, or from BookSmart of Morgan Hill, or check the Morgan Hill Library.

The Ohlone Way
Operation Utah
The Other Slavery
San Martin, Then & Now
Images: South Santa Clara County

The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America, by Andrés Reséndez

This book provides a compelling and comprehensive look at “the other slavery” that occupies the darkest chapters in the long sweep of American history. The book’s author, Andrés Reséndez, writes that it took root long before the enslavement of African peoples and long before the United States of America was formed. It began with the enslavement of indigenous peoples during waves of conquest and colonialism. Records from Columbus’s first venture to the New World included sending Natives back to Europe for sale and enslavement in the late 1400s. Over centuries, those in power either failed to put laws in place to protect indigenous tribes, or they ignored the laws without fear of reprisals. Abolitionist groups and movements surfaced, but the prejudice and greed that drove slavery persisted. Treaties were made and broken. The tragic impact went beyond mass displacement and forced labor to include sex trafficking, child labor, racial and religious persecution, and impacts now classified as genocide and human rights violations. Reséndez is a professor and historian at the University of California Davis. The Other Slavery was awarded the National Book Award Finalist and Winner of the Bancroft Prize: well-deserved recognition given the depth and breadth of the author’s treatment of this complex subject. Works such as this are an important contribution to informed, evidence-based history education.

You can purchase a copy of The Other Slavery on, or order through BookSmart of Morgan Hill, or check at Morgan Hill Library.

San Martin, Then & Now, by Donna Brodsky, The San Martin Neighborhood Alliance, Inc, publisher, 2010, 133 pages.

If the following burning questions intrigue you, you need to read this book!  How was Mr. Morgan Hill’s father-in-law involved in San Martin?  Why was a railroad station named for a church?  Too far from San Jose or Monterey for the people on ranches to get needed services such as blacksmithing, schools, churches, and dry goods, a small settlement named Martinsville was formed.  Learn how Martinsville then became San Martin.  The development of the wine industry and subdivision by a San Luis Obispo developer attracted people and the village grew.  The history of the San Martin Elementary School and its students is well told in text and wonderful photos.  There are even report cards and diplomas of graduates.  I enjoyed seeing the faces of the old families like Mammini, Rocca, Bonfante, Gwinn, and Akino.

Views of Morgan Hill

Views of Morgan Hill, by Ian L. Sanders, published in 2010 by BookSmart, 139 pages.

This is another book that tells Morgan Hill’s history through vintage photos and postcards.  The Murphys and the Hills are featured.  Also included are the histories of Madrone and Coyote, along with Gilroy Hot Springs, Coyote Hot Springs, Redwood Retreat, Madrone Hot Springs, and Mount Madonna Park.  Once this was the hub of Mineral and Hot Spring resorts; the curative properties of their waters and their wooded, rural surroundings were famous.  Many of the photographs and postcards are in color.

More Views of Morgan Hill, by Sanders & Brookman

Images of America:  Wineries of Santa Clara County, by Bev Stenehjem


Santa Clara Valley was California’s earliest wine producing region, dating back to the late 1700s when Mission Santa Clara and the Spanish padres planted vines and harvested grapes to make wine for use in religious ceremonies. No doubt with help from Spanish settlers and indigenous people who labored in their fields. Immigrants from Europe sought out California and the Valley of Heart’s Delight for the promise of ideal climate and soil that would support their agricultural and winemaking traditions. Stenehjem did extensive research and her wealth of knowledge about winemaking history in this region is generously shared in the pages of this well-written book.

More Views
Images: Winerie of Santa Clara County
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