From the Desk of Jonathan Greenspan: California’s Early History

Jonathan Greenspan is the son of Sophie Greenspan (1906-1990), who was the first English-language broadcaster for the underground Voice of Israel and author of Westward with Fremont and Masada Will Not Fall Again, both now available in paperback editions.

Solomon Carvalho and California’s Early History

While LA Dodger fans might not realize it, if one is sitting in the upper decks of Dodger Stadium looking out towards the parking lot behind left field, one is looking out at part of Los Angeles’ early history and part of the Fremont’s last expedition to California.

Steve Inskeep has written a book that includes California’s early history, and Inskeep mentions the role of Solomon Carvalho in his explorations. Inskeep’s book is an entertaining read, but if you’d like a little more detail about Carvalho, you might enjoy my mother’s book.

My mother, Sophie Greenspan, wrote Westward with Fremont: The Story of Solomon Carvalho, a historical novel that focuses on one particular aspect of the Fremont story: the involvement of Carvalho, whom Fremont enlisted to join his Fifth and final expedition. The book was recently reprinted by the Jewish Publication Society in cooperation with the University of Nebraska Press, and the book is also available on Kindle. It was written for pre-teen readers, but it provides enough information that adult readers will find it an easy read to enhance their knowledge of early California.

Fremont recruited Carvalho to participate in his 1853 expedition. Carvalho had experience taking pictures using the daguerrotype process—mainly portraits taken in his studio of  Baltimore’s residents in their finest attire—but he had little or no experience as an outdoorsman and wasn’t even an experienced horseback rider. Carvalho was a urban family man and an orthodox Jew who kept kosher. Little of his resume qualified him for the daunting task of riding across the American continent and taking pictures with delicate equipment of largely uncharted and untamed wilderness.

Fremont’s purpose in undertaking his fifth expedition to California was to identify possible routes for a transcontinental railroad from St. Louis to San Francisco, and Carvalho’s role was to take pictures and document possible routes for the construction of the railroad.

Fremont’s previous (4th) expedition had sought to find a route along the 38th parallel from St. Louis to San Francisco, but despite advice to the contrary, Fremont proceeded into the snowy mountains of Colorado. Ten of his men died and the rest of the party almost died except for heroic efforts to save them.

Fremont sought to redeem himself some four years later with a fifth expedition. It was purposely scheduled travel through the Rocky and Sierra Nevada Mountain during the winter snows and to determine the feasibility of an all-weather route linking St. Louis to California.

Fremont and Carvalho started the trek, and Carvalho was initially successful in taking pictures of Native Americans, their villages, the terrain, and the snow (of which there was plenty). Fremont’s plan came unhinged in the Rocky Mountains of Utah, and Carvalho was forced to abandon the several hundred pictures that he had taken to that point. They struggled to make their way to a Mormon settlement in Southwestern Utah (Parowan), and, due to the kindness of the Mormon farmers, survived.

Fremont journeyed on San Francisco, but Carvalho, who had almost died in the cold, stayed for several weeks with the Mormons who nursed him back to health. Eventually, Carvalho traveled on to Los Angeles.

When Carvalho reached Los Angeles in 1854, it had a population of about 2,500 people including about six Jewish men. On his arrival, Carvalho took on the role of mentor to the Jewish men of Los Angeles and urged them as to participate in building a Jewish Community. Whether or not at his urgings, they established a Jewish Free Loan association and established other community institutions.

From the heights of Dodger Stadium, one can see the land where the first Jewish Cemetery in Los Angeles was located. The cemetery was moved at a later date to a grander location, but next to the Los Angeles Police Academy, there remains a plaque that memorializes the old cemetery.

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