Book-keeper, publisher, and historian, Hubert Howe Bancroft was one of the prolific figures of the United States’ history. His influence would help shape the identity and destiny of the American West. Bancroft’s works stand as testament of his passion for life, love of mankind, and his desire to positively impact the world in which he lived. Like many of the West’s figures, Bancroft came from the humblest of circumstances which would prove pivotal to his future success.
Hubert Howe Bancroft was born May 5, 1832 in the Puritan community of Granville, Ohio. His parents, Lucky Howe and Azariah Ashley Bancroft, were steadfast abolitionists and, like most Puritans, valued hard work as one of life’s greatest virtues. Long hours on the plow, strict observance of the Sabgath, and a respect for God’s children molded young Hubert’s character and laid a foundation from which Bancroft could build his career.
As adolescence faded into adulthood, Bancroft left the farm and took up work in a bookstore and publishing house that belonged to his brother-in-law, George Derby, in Buffalo, New York. Bancroft met little satisfaction with his fist posts in the business and eagerly accepted the opportunity to transport and sell a large supply of his brother-in-law’s stock of books in California. Arriving in San Francisco in 1852, Bancroft immediately sold his wares and took to finding work wherever it could be found.
After dabbling in several unsuccessful business ventures, Bancroft eventually established his own printing house and bookstore. Using a loan from his sister (Derby’s wife) and many lines of credit, Bancroft purchased $10,000 worth of books from several East Coast publishing houses and transported them back to California. With his newly purchased inventories, H.H.Bancroft & Company opened for business in December 1856. A resourceful businessman, Bancroft immediately found success in his newly established enterprise. His business quickly expanded, making him a wealthy man.
As the years passed by, Bancroft developed a keen interest in history. Inspired by the American West of old, Bancroft left his company in the hands of his brother, A.L. Bancroft in 1868 and devoted himself entirely to the publication of an extensive history of the pacific Coast, covering the history of the tropics of Central America to the icy shores of Alaska. His plan would include the publication of 39 volumes, requiring the help of dozens of collaborators, and span several decades. Critics of the publication challenged Bancroft’s validity in the facts presented, since he did not acknowledge all those who helped in the collaboration of the 39 volumes. Many claim that Bancroft was the editor instead of the actual author.
Bancroft’s works, found in the Reading Room of Special Collections, represent a convenient and conventional breakdown of western North American into geo-political units. He was acting, of course, under the assumption that there would be a better market for the books if the residents of California, Utah, British Columbia, and so on, could clearly see that the history of their particular region was individually covered. This also allowed the authors to reduce the vast amount of subject matter into workable unites.
Bancroft’s publication eventually became a success, selling more than 6,000 sets–234,000 volumes as a whole, with a gross return of more than $1,000,000. He miraculously managed to recoup on his great investment and did not sustain a loss.
Concerning the success of Bancroft’s collection, Biographer John Walton Caughey wrote, “What is more important, this large sale gave the Works excellent availability. Ever since publication, the set has been easily accessible to readers, students, and researchers. No library need be without it, and in the book markets today, it may be had to prices ranging sometimes below a dollar a volume. This current availability is, in a direct way, a tribute to the success of the sales program initiated by Bancroft, elaborated by Stone, and carried out by their enthusiastic cohorts.
Caughey, John Walton. Hubert HOwe Bancroft, historian of the West. Berkley: U of California P, 1946, Print.
Templeton, Tegan. “The Book of Wealth.” The Book of Wealth. http://www.bookofwealth.info/hubert-howe-bancroft-author-or-editor/ (accessed May 8, 2014)