Backcountry Ghosts


Backcountry Ghosts

California Homesteaders and the Making of a Dubious Dream

Josh Sides

248 pages
17 photographs, 2 illustrations, 7 maps, 1 table, 1 graph, 1 appendix, index


April 2021


$29.95 Add to Cart
eBook (PDF)

(Requires Adobe Digital Editions)

April 2021


$29.95 Add to Cart
eBook (EPUB)

(Requires Adobe Digital Editions)

April 2021


$29.95 Add to Cart

About the Book

California is an infamously tough place to be poor: home to about half of the entire nation’s homeless population, burdened by staggering home prices and unsustainable rental rates, California is a state in crisis. But it wasn’t always that way, as prize-winning historian Josh Sides reveals in Backcountry Ghosts.

In 1862 President Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act, the most ambitious and sweeping social policy in the history of the United States. In the Golden State more than a hundred thousand people filed homesteading claims between 1863 and the late 1930s. More than sixty thousand Californians succeeded, claiming about ten million acres.

In Backcountry Ghosts Josh Sides tells the histories of these Californian homesteaders, their toil and enormous patience, successes and failures, doggedness in the face of natural elements and disasters, and resolve to defend hard-earned land for themselves and their children. While some of these homesteaders were fulfilling the American Dream—that all Americans should have the opportunity to own land regardless of their background or station—others used the Homestead Act to add to already vast landholdings or control water or mineral rights.

Sides recovers the fascinating stories of individual homesteaders in California, both those who succeeded and those who did not, and the ways they shaped the future of California and the American West. Backcountry Ghosts reveals the dangers of American dreaming in a state still reeling from the ambitions that led to the Great Recession.


Author Bio

Josh Sides is Whitsett Professor of California History, California State University at Northridge. He is the author of L.A. City Limits: African American Los Angeles from the Great Depression to the Present and Erotic City: Sexual Revolutions and the Making of Modern San Francisco, winner of the Bullough Prize and the Lewis Mumford Prize.


“This gem of a book arises from a simple premise. Genocide and gold were the brutal conceivers of California, but it took another epic force to civilize the land. For Josh Sides it is Lincoln’s great land giveaway known as the Homestead Act that invents the state. Sides brings the act to vivid life on the backcountry roads where homesteaders go about their remaking of nature. Besotted with the dream, they know not their own bounds. They are ghosts, yes. But they are us.”—Mark Arax, author of The Dreamt Land: Chasing Water and Dust across California

“A surprising, engaging, and original book about homesteading in a state where homesteaders got pushed to the edges. Josh Sides tells gripping personal stories to reveal a much broader California history.”—Richard White, author of California Exposures: Envisioning Myth and History

“In this revelatory, beautifully honed, and finely researched work, Josh Sides reclaims a very significant yet little-known part of California and U.S. history by bringing forth the story of the thousands of homesteaders in the Golden State between 1863 and the late 1930s. Backcountry Ghosts moreover courageously engages, expands, and updates the Jeffersonian mythos of land ownership serving as liberty’s prerequisite.”—Anthea M. Hartig, Elizabeth MacMillan Director of the National Museum of American History

“Homesteading is at the very center of mythical American assumptions tying together nation and promise, land and purpose. This magnificent book jolts the idea and the practice off their perch of complacent caricatures of meaning and geography. Josh Sides lays one durable myth against another—California and homesteading—and what he discovers ought to reorient much of what we think about both.”—William Deverell, director of Huntington-University of Southern California Institute on California and the West

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
1. Not Much Else Beside
2. A Country of Plantations and Estates
3. Instant Relics
4. Hard-Bitten Country
5. Violent Paradise
6. Swindles and Salvation in the Antelope Valley
7. Mexican Lands in Mexican Hands
8. Floods and Utopias
9. Taming the Colorado Desert
10. Imperial Valley Dreams
11. Crashing the Orange Gates
12. Exacting Lives in the Breadbasket
13. The Rarified Bay Area
14. Among the Trees of the North Coast
15. Under the Shadow of Mount Lassen
Conclusion: Remembering Homesteading
Appendix: Number of Homesteads per County and Year

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