The story of
George Monroe’s ascent to the top of his profession lay hidden
for a century, languishing amid that tantalizing, antique
fragrance of disregarded city records. The only one who remembered
the story was an elderly African American blacksmith named George
Millen, left alone in San Diego in 1897. Under questioning by the
jury in a coroner’s inquest, Millen in his southern, possibly
Cajun accent, revealed an epic tale that led from the Antebellum
South, through the California Gold Rush and the dawn of Yosemite
tourism, to Southern California at the brink of the automobile
era. In a few deft sentences, Millen rescued his family’s
history from being forever lost. He also testified to the triumph
and power of self-definition that was achieved by his indomitable
sister, Mary Ann Monroe.
Mary’s son, George Monroe, had in his short life become a
famous stagecoach driver and guide, introducing a stellar cast of
international celebrities to Yosemite. Mary’s husband, Louis,
was a civil rights activist following the Civil War. Together the
family established and operated a ranch and farm.
Through the entire arc of her life, Mary asserted her inner
strength and intelligence though beset by adversity and tragedy,
and endured just long enough, as the reader will learn, that the
very nature of her death would result in the preservation of her
Reports of George Monroe’s transcendent abilities have
filtered down to us through occasional articles, inspiring his
placement in the title of this book. But it is crucial to remember
that the boldness, drive, and strategic agility displayed by Mary
and her brother and husband merit them equal standing with their
famous son. This is the story of a determined, talented family
emerging triumphant from a systemically oppressive cultural milieu
of gender and race bias.
To date, knowledge of George Monroe has come primarily from
three sources: press coverage of Ulysses S. Grant’s visit to
Yosemite in 1879, Monroe’s 1886 obituary, and writer Ben C.
Truman’s reminiscences from 1899 and 1903. This book reaches far
beyond those sources with fresh, new research.
Essential to the story is the colorful backdrop of
Monroe’s career with the Yosemite Stage & Turnpike Company,
the complex, fascinating social climate in which the Monroes found
themselves, and the local and national historic events that so
directly affected their lives. The copious endnotes are provided
not only to substantiate the story, but to enrich it with extra
details, and to provide clues to aid further research.
As a note to the reader from the author’s perspective, a
history book always becomes more vivid by conjuring up in the
imagination the places, the smells, sounds, and feel of the air,
and especially the people—the cadence of their voices, and what
they might say over dinner if you could only join them.
very well written, carefully documented story."
– Dr. John Oliver Wilson, School of Social Welfare,
of California at Berkeley