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Book Reviews -- Historical Nonfiction

Back to the Land in Silicon Valley by Marlene Bumgarner

In the 1970s, the “back-to-the-land” movement was reborn on the outskirts of Silicon Valley. The historic Valley of Heart’s Delight felt the burgeoning high tech boom nipping at its heels.


Four people took on a 10-acre parcel of undeveloped land in Morgan Hill, eager to trade urban living for a simpler, more sustainable life closer to nature. One of them was Marlene Bumgarner, wife and mother, journalist/author, Gavilan College instructor, and founder of the Morgan Hill Trading Post. Bumgarner and her husband lived “off the grid” above Chesbro Reservoir where they raised their two children, along with some rabbits, chickens, goats and vegetables.


Bumgarner chronicled her experiences in her memoir, “Back to the Land in Silicon Valley” (2020). 


Badass Lawman by Bill Briggs

From an Amazon review:

The true story of Sheriff John H. Adams who faced down the gangs and guns of early California and ended the career of America’s most wanted bandit. Set against the sweep of America’s Manifest Destiny, Badass Lawman takes the reader from the dust of the Santa Fe Trail and the dangers of crossing the prairie, across the mountains and deserts of our country to the lawless camps of the Gold Rush and the fertile valleys of the new state of California, where Californios were trying to hang on to their heritage and outlaws found justice was often served from a six gun or rope. From an Amazon review.

William Briggs is a former San Jose State University mass communications professor and Dean Emeritus at California State University Fullerton.

Badass Lawman

California Apricots:  The Lost Orchards of Silicon Valley, by Robin Chapman, published by American Palate, 2013, 141 pages.

This book describes the history of the cultivation of apricots in California, from the earliest beginnings with the Franciscans to the present.  The first apricot crop in Santa Clara was harvested in 1792!  Apricots played a part in bringing settlers to the state.  The lives of the growers and their families are told in text and photos.  Also included are lovely color photos of vintage post cards picturing orchards, canneries, people and apricots.  Index included.

California Apricots

A Children’s Discovery Book about Morgan Hill, California, by Cynthia Miller, 2010, 64 pages.


This delightful book, for children 5-12 and their parents, includes activities based on natural scenic areas and activity centers in and around Morgan Hill.  Informative and fun, find out about Anderson Lake, Coyote Bike Trail, El Toro, Downtown Farmers’ Market, The Grange Hall, the Community and Cultural Center, and the Aquatics Center.  You will never again be at a loss for somewhere interesting to take your children, or maybe just yourself!  Also included is a list of streets and schools and the people they are named after.

Children's Discovery Book

A Cross of Thorns, by Elias Castillo

Enchantress, Sorceress, MadwomanThe True Story of Sarah Althea Hill

by Robin C. Johnson, published in 2014 by California Venture Books, 230 pages. 

This book recounts the life, loves, and trials of Sara Althea Hill, sister of our own Hiram Morgan Hill.  After the death of their parents, these siblings, in their 20s, moved to San Francisco from Missouri in 1871.  They participated in the active San Francisco social life, with the goal of becoming rich.  Diana Murphy was Hiram’s ticket to that goal; Sara had to work a little harder!   After several romances with wealthy men, Sara at last attracted the attentions of Senator William Sharon.  After a fairly short courtship, the Senator and Sara signed a marriage contract, not to be made public for two years – the Senator’s request.  Then things get really interesting!  After the two years had passed, the Senator, having meanwhile moved on to other romantic interests, denied having signed that contract.  Sara sued him for breach of promise, among other things.  What followed were eight years of Court battles in State, Federal, and the Supreme Court.  The accounts of witnesses’ and Sara’s testimony are based on Court records and salacious newspaper accounts of the time.   Never one to tell the truth if it didn’t suit her, Sara had an amazing ability to coerce friends and associates into lying for her case.  A few of those “witnesses” had later perjury trials of their own.  I won’t spoil the ending for you.  I will just say, “Be careful what you wish for!”  (This would make a spectacular movie script.) 

Enchantress, Sorceress, Madwoman

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.

Hiram 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.

Images: Morgan Hill
Images: South Santa Clara County
Images: Winerie of Santa Clara County

The Madrone Soda Springs, by Sanders & Brookman

Madrone Soda Springs

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!

Martin Murphy Family Saga


Memories of a Small Town Girl

Growing Up in Morgan Hill, Californiaby Jean Pinard


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."


The Ohlone Way, by Malcolm Margolin

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.

San Martin, Then & Now

Views of Morgan Hill, 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.

Views of Morgan Hill

More Views of Morgan Hill by Sanders & Brookman

Book Reviews -- Historical Fiction

In This Land of Plenty by Mary Smathers

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