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Jan Batiste Adkins

Book Reviews -- Historical Nonfiction

Images of America - Three books by Jan Batiste Adkins

Adkins began to search for historic records of African Americans living in early California while working on her master’s thesis at San Jose State University. Her research led her to write three books for the Images of America series published by Arcadia Publishing. Her first book, African Americans of San Francisco, was inspired by what she found in San Francisco’s Black-owned newspapers from the late 1800s. She explored museums, university libraries, church archives and family albums to create a fascinating account of African American community life in early San Francisco. Her second book, African Americans of Monterey County, harks back to the 1770s when African Spaniard Alexo Nino, a ship’s caulker, traveled with a Franciscan monk to Monterey where the Spanish had established a mission and presidio. Adkins’ third book, African Americans of San Jose and Santa Clara County, chronicles the arrival of African Americans during the Great Migration and their struggles and triumphs to build communities within the context of the Civil Rights movement and the birth of Silicon Valley.

Jan Batiste Adkins is a member of the adjunct faculty at San Jose City College. She has given lectures on African American history at the Stanford History Conference, AARP, and the Santa Clara County Library District. You can purchase her books online at or order through BookSmart of Morgan Hill, or check Morgan Hill Library.

The Anza Trail and the Settling of California - by Vladimir Guerrero

Guerrero’s book was published in 2006 and dedicated to living descendants of the 1776 California settlers, some of whom shared their knowledge of Anza expeditions with him. To research and write this well-written account, Guerrero traveled the expedition routes, researched archives at the Smithsonian and various university collections and connected with a former representative of the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail. The book portrays the 1774 and 1775-6 expeditions for Spanish settlement of Alta California and the founding of San Francisco. He brings the expeditions to life through journal and diary accounts of participants, providing differing and often candid perspectives on events, conflicts and outcomes of these historic efforts. Readers should find it easy to engage with the stories and to imagine the experiences of the Anza travelers at a personal level.


Author Vladimir Guerrero has distinguished himself as an educator having served as Professor with University of California at Davis, University of Pennsylvania, Michigan State University, and University of Oslo in Norway. He holds a PhD in Spanish Literature from UC Davis. The Anza Trail and the Settling of California is his first book.


You can purchase Guerrero’s book online at, order through BookSmart of Morgan Hill, or check at Morgan Hill Library.

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.

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.

A Cross of Thorns, by Elias Castillo

A thoroughly researched and powerfully written exploration of Mission-era California and the impact of Spanish missions on the indigenous peoples of California beginning in the 1700s and continuing well beyond California’s achievement of Statehood in 1850. Castillo points to the cruelty and genocide imposed by the Missions on California natives and supports his assertions with historical records kept by leaders of both the Missions and the Spanish government.

"A Cross of Thorns pulls back the veil of lies, deceit, and cover-ups that has been perpetuated for nearly two hundred years.” —Valentin Lopez, chair of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band of the Costanoan/Ohlone Indians

“Mr. Castillo tells a story of which far too many people are simply not aware, the enslavement of California Indians under the mission system. While many Americans know of the Trail of Tears and other Indian atrocities, most do not know of the atrocities perpetrated on Indian people in California. A Cross of Thorns sheds light on this period in history. —Ben Nighthorse-Campbell, U.S. Senator, retired

“Adds immeasurably to our understanding of a complicated and contested chapter of California's history ... fascinating in its detailed accessibility.” —Jim Van Buskirk, San Francisco Examiner

Elias Castillo was a three-time Pulitzer Prize nominee and the winner of thirteen journalism awards. Born in Mexicali, Baja California, Castillo earned degrees from San Jose State University and worked as an investigative reporter for the San Jose Mercury News and the Associated Press. A Cross of Thorns has been incorporated into the curriculum of UC Berkeley and other leading universities thanks to Castillo’s tireless advocacy for truth in history. Sadly, he passed away in 2020.

We were fortunate to have interviewed Elias Castillo during the filming of our Stories from the Past (2019) documentary. Watch it now.

Find A Cross of Thorns online at, support indie bookstores by ordering your copy at BookSmart of Morgan Hill, or check at Morgan Hill Library.

Anza Trail
Badass Lawman
California Apricots
Cross of Thorns

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.) 

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