Joseph Chiles, forgotten trailblazer


The inspiration for a new book about one of California’s early pioneers was born at the bar at Vladimir’s Czech Restaurant. Fredric Chiles, a Londoner who spends time at his family’s Inverness home, was having a beer with his nephew when the young man brought up one of their ancestors: Joseph B. Chiles, a man who helped establish American migration trails to California. 

“He said he wished someone would write it all down, so he could have it all between two covers and understand what had happened,” Mr. Chiles said. A decade later, his book “Forgotten Trailblazer” details the life of Joseph B. Chiles as well as California’s early history and absorption into the United States.  

Prior to 1841, when Chiles set off on his first expedition to the West Coast, few settlers had crossed the country by land. He helped to open up the West, showing Americans itching for more land and greater opportunities that it was possible to travel overland to California and establish a life in the territory.

Chiles made the round-trip journey to California four times in his life. The first trip seems to have been made largely for his own interest; a trapper he’d met had told him of California’s beauty and how no one in the area ever fell ill. Later, Chiles went back east to transport machinery for a mill he intended to set up in California. 

He returned to Missouri to transport his four children across the country and, on his final trip, married and brought over his new bride (as well as the baby she delivered on the trail).  

It was difficult, Mr. Chiles said, to write a book about a character with such little source material. “Joseph Chiles had been one of the principles of the wagon train settlers to California in 1841,” he said. “He’d been friends with all the movers and shakers of pivotal migration to California, and his experience spanned the first days of immigration, the conflict with Mexico, the Gold Rush, etc., yet there was nothing by him specifically. He was a man of few words. Charmingly, he felt he hadn’t done anything anyone else couldn’t have done—which is admirable, but very difficult for a historian to grapple with.” 

“Forgotten Trailblazer” is the author’s third book; his previous works focused on the California Channel Islands and his mother’s family in the Santa Cruz Islands. Much of this book focuses on Chiles’s travels from the south and Midwest to California, and Mr. Chiles paints a picture of journeys that were strenuous and, to a modern reader, largely unimaginable. There were 100 ways to die—running afoul of native tribes, getting stuck in a snowy pass, a broken wagon wheel, accidently getting shot with one’s own shotgun, running out of food and contracting nearly any illness—and limited ways to survive. 

Furthermore, when the earliest American pioneers finally reached California, they were stepping into land that was not legally theirs. At the time, what is now California belonged to Mexico. Chiles was always on the periphery of the maelstrom that was California’s founding; he avoided getting caught up in the battle between Mexico and the United States, but was friends with major players on both sides of the conflict.

In highlighting the struggle for power between Mexico and the United States, the author manages to highlight parallels between immigration during that time and ours. Of Mariano Vallejo, the de facto governor of California when Chiles first arrived in the region, the author writes, “It was his preference for Americans, as opposed to other foreign nationals, that motivated him to leniency in the face of this group of illegal immigrants.” 

Later, Vallejo’s successor, Governor Juan Bautista Alvarado, arrested all foreigners illegally in the province, “except in those cases in which the individuals had married locally or were well known and had respectable occupations,” Mr. Chiles writes. Over 20 Americans were shackled and shipped off to Mexico to stand trial.

The author does not gloss over California’s ideas about slavery or the ways in which its settlers—both Mexican and American—treated the indigenous people. He notes that native populations were often used as slave labor to harvest grain and make wine, and that during the Civil War, large swaths of California’s population sided with the Confederacy. 

This was important information to include, Mr. Chiles said, as he found that a great deal of historical writing ignores the contributions of the Hispanic and indigenous populations. 

“I wanted readers to appreciate the nuance of the heroic period of the great migration and the founding of the state,” he said. “Chiles played a notable role in all of that, and I think it’s a story worth telling.”


“Forgotten Trailblazer—Joseph Chiles and the Making of California,” written by Frederic Caire Chiles and published by Spiderwize Press, is available at Point Reyes Books.