Tag Archives: California


It’s been a summer of traveling for me: Virginia, Florida, and California, all within the span of a few weeks.  Just a few days ago, I visited the La Brea Tar Pits with a couple of friends of mine.  I think the tar pits are sort of obligatory for paleophiles who visit L.A.  

It’s got to be the most famous fossil site in California, if not on the West Coast as a whole.  It’s also a very recent site, as far as fossil deposits go.  Most of the specimens from La Brea date from about 10,000 to 40,000 years ago, give or take a few millennia.  In geologic time, that’s practically yesterday, and much, much more recent than the terrible lizards that really interest me.  Dinosaurs first appeared around 230 million years ago, and flourished until the K-T extinction event killed off the non-avian dinos 65 million years before the present.  (I say non-avian because scientists now consider birds to be advanced theropod dinosaurs, the same group that includes the big carnivores.  T. rex is actually more closely related to a parakeet than to Triceratops.)  While checking out the exhibits at La Brea, I couldn’t escape the notion that all this stuff was really new.

Now, here’s the weird thing.  A few weeks ago, as you may recall, I was in Jamestown.  I’m fascinated by seventeenth-century colonial history, but my foremost historical interest is the American Revolution.  As an aspiring early Americanist who spends most of his time studying the end of England’s American empire, the founding of Jamestown seems almost like the Big Bang to me.

But when you consider that anatomically modern humans have been around for about 200,000 years, 1607 isn’t that long ago.  Indeed, it’s not even particularly early in the history of European adventurism in the New World.  The Spanish had been making their mark in the Americas for more than a century when the English started building their fort on the banks of the James River.  And four hundred years is hardly worth noticing compared to the gulf of time that separates us from the animals that roamed Rancho La Brea in the Pleistocene.

When I was standing within the reconstructed palisade of Jamestown’s fort a few weeks ago, I was thinking like an aspiring American historian, and it was like being present at the creation.  At La Brea, on the other hand, I was wearing my dino aficionado hat, and those 40,000-year-old mastodons, sloths, and saber-toothed cats seemed like they’d been around just a few moments ago.

History classes tend to reinforce these skewed perspectives of time.  The world history survey is ostensibly in the business of teaching students what humans have been up to during our tenure on this planet, but most of human existence gets covered in the first lecture or two.  The rest of the course is about human history since the end of the Neolithic.  In other words, we devote only one class meeting to something like 98% of humanity’s past.

The American history survey distorts time, too.  The first half zips through thousands of years’ worth of pre-Columbian history in about an hour of lecture, and then spends months on the few hundred years between Columbus and the end of Reconstruction.  The second half devotes the whole semester to less than a century and a half.  There isn’t really any sense to the way survey courses split American history in two.

The way we define fields of specialization makes no chronological sense, either.  There was twice as much time from Roanoke to the Rev War as there was from the Rev War to the Civil War, but both Roanoke and the Rev War are the business of early Americanists.  The Civil War?  That’s for those nineteenth-century historians.

The passage of time defines what historians do, but I don’t think we’re any more astute than a random person on the street when it comes to conceptualizing time accurately.

1 Comment

Filed under History and Memory, Teaching History

History and prehistory in the City of Angels

If you find yourself visiting southern California and you’d like a good crash course in the area’s history, let me recommend a visit to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. Most of us associate natural history museums with fossils and taxidermy, but the NHMLAC also has an exhibit called “Becoming Los Angeles,” which covers L.A.’s story from the arrival of the Spanish up to the present. It opened last year.

I’m not that familiar with the history of California, so this exhibit was an education for me. The section on the Spanish mission system is especially interesting; it explains the impact of European colonization on both the land and the people. The arrival of domestic cattle, for example, dramatically impacted southern California’s vegetation. Cows ate up the grasses that were native to the area while depositing foreign seeds in their dung. Hence the slogan emblazoned on souvenirs in the museum’s gift shop: Cow poop changed L.A.!

Becoming Los Angeles features some pretty neat artifacts. Here’s the table on which the Treaty of Cahuenga was signed in 1847, ending hostilities in the Mexican-American War in California. Of course, the war didn’t officially end until the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo the following year.


The exhibit also covers more recent history, including the city’s role in WWII and the birth of the local aviation and entertainment industries. Here’s another historically significant piece of furniture: Walt Disney’s animation stand, used to make the first Mickey Mouse cartoons.


Other objects on display include Spanish crucifixes from the colonial era, Indian tools, and one of Charlie Chaplin’s costumes.

But hey…I didn’t go to L.A. to see history exhibits. I was off the clock. You guys know where this is headed, right?

If you like tyrannosaurs, you’re in luck. There are more T. rex mounts at the NHMLAC than you can shake a severed goat leg at. One of them is facing off against a Triceratops in the foyer.


More tyrannosaur skeletons are in the main dinosaur exhibit. This is a really cool mount, because it’s the only place in the world where you can see three T. rexes of different ages posed together in a growth series. At two years old, this is the youngest known T. rex specimen.


The second tyrannosaur is a twenty-foot adolescent. T. rex grew remarkably fast in its early teens, packing on up to 1.5 tons per year.


And here’s the third animal, close to full size.


Mamenchisaurus, a long-necked sauropod from China, dominates the first dinosaur gallery.


Another Triceratops.


Carnotaurus, the bulldog-faced meat-eater from Argentina. On a related note, on my last night in town my friends took me to an Argentine restaurant. Best thing about L.A. is the variety of dining options.


A hadrosaur skull. The horny part of the “duckbill” is really visible on this specimen.


Allosaurus vs Stegosaurus. I do love a good Allosaurus skeleton. The Denver Museum of Natural History has a very similar mount.


An ornithomimid. I think it’s Struthiomimus, but I don’t remember exactly.


Unfortunately, we didn’t have time for the La Brea Tar Pits, but the NHMLAC does have quite a few specimens from the site, like this saber-toothed cat.


And while we’re on the subject of all things prehistoric, the grand finale of my L.A. trip was a pilgrimage to the original Jurassic Park ride at Universal Studious Hollywood.


I was wearing a t-shirt from the Jurassic Park River Adventure at Universal Orlando, and some of the ride operators at the Hollywood version asked me which one was better. As a connoisseur of all things JP, I feel eminently qualified to address this question, so here goes.

In terms of the rides themselves, it’s pretty much a toss-up. The Hollywood version has a couple of neat outdoor effects that are absent in Orlando, an additional (albeit brief) encounter with the T. rex, and better-looking sauropods in the opening scene. On the other hand, I think the Florida ride seems a bit less rushed, which means much better pacing, a more coherent story, and a more effective build-up of suspense. For these reasons, I have a slight personal preference for Orlando’s version, but you can’t go wrong with either one.

Looking beyond the boat ride to the overall Jurassic Park experience, Orlando has one big advantage in that Universal had room to build an entire Isla Nublar there, complete with a replica of the visitor center, more dino-themed dining and shopping establishments, and some other attractions besides the main boat ride. But Hollywood still has plenty to offer. On the studio tram tour, you’ll see vehicles used in The Lost World and the water tank used to film the final Spinosaurus attack in JPIII. The die-hard fan should visit both parks—Hollywood because it’s steeped in the history of the franchise, Orlando because you can immerse yourself in the movie’s fictional universe. (Assuming, of course, you can ignore that darned Harry Potter castle looming above the treeline. Zoning laws, people. Zoning laws.)

And that’s a wrap. Back to business as usual.

Leave a comment

Filed under Gratuitous Dinosaur Posts, Museums and Historic Sites

How big is your mental map of colonial America?

A good friend of mine is moving to Los Angeles this weekend.  Last night we had a going-away party for him at a local pizza joint.  I’ve never been to California myself.  The West Coast is about the only major region of the country I have yet to visit.

I’ve never really felt much compulsion to go there, especially when it comes to seeing historic sites.  As a paleophile, I’d love to see the La Brea Tar Pits and do the original Jurassic Park ride at Universal. (One of my more unrealistic bucket list items is to experience all four Jurassic Park water rides before I die; so far I’ve only hit the one in Florida, which leaves Hollywood, Japan, and Singapore, and I doubt I’ll be going to Singapore in the foreseeable future.)  But as a guy who’s into early American history, I think I’ve always had this assumption that there isn’t really anything in California that’s right up my alley, so I haven’t felt the urgency to make it to the West Coast in the same way that I badly wanted to go to New England for many years.

Of course, this attitude of mine is based on misconceptions about colonial America.  Both California in particular and the West in general have an early American history.  It just doesn’t fall within the boundaries of early Anglo-American history.

Mission San Juan Capistrano. By Lordkinbote at en.wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

A lot of us get our sense of the basic contours of history from the introductory classes we take in high school and college.  And in American history surveys, there tends to be a sort of “progression” toward the English colonial experience.  You get your early Iberian explorers, then Columbus, then the conquistadors, then maybe a brief detour up to New Mexico for the Pueblo revolt, then the French, and finally Roanoke and Jamestown, and English-speaking Protestants take center stage from there on out.

This “progression” scheme partly has its roots in chronology.  The English were relative latecomers in establishing New World colonies, so it makes sense to examine their efforts last.  The problem is that we tend to drop the Spanish and French experience altogether once the Englishmen show up.  Yet after the English colonies were well established, there were still French fur traders in the Mississippi River Valley, mestizo ranchers in the southwestern deserts, and friars in California.

Indeed, in the period between Jamestown and the annexation of California, entire populations rose up in the American West under the rule of Catholic monarchs or the government of Mexico.  In 1776, while Washington reeled from Howe’s campaign in New York, Spanish Franciscans were celebrating Mass at San Juan Capistrano.  And by that time there had been Spanish missions in the Sonoran desert of Arizona for nearly a century.

But how many people think of southern Arizona and California as places associated with eighteenth-century American history?  I’ll confess that I generally don’t.  Instead, we think of the “history” of the Far West as something that started in the 1800s, when settlers of mostly British extraction started pushing back the frontier and displacing the Indians.  But the Indians weren’t the only people in the way.  The descendants of the original colonists were still there, too, so the contest wasn’t simply two-sided.

The Euro-American frontier didn’t just move westward from the English-controlled seaboard, but also southward from French Canada and northward from New Spain.  All this was very much a part of early American history, and I’m still trying to get my head around it.


Filed under Colonial America, History and Memory