Bolton, Herbert Eugene

Bolton, Herbert Eugene

Bolton, Herbert Eugene, 1870-1953, American historian and teacher, b. Wilton, Monroe co., Wis. He taught history at the Univ. of Texas (1901-9), Stanford (1909-11), and the Univ. of California (1911-44) and became an outstanding authority on Spanish colonial days in the West. He edited and translated numerous important journals of Spanish soldiers and priests, widening the printed sources immeasurably, but he is perhaps better known for such works as Texas in the Middle Eighteenth Century (1921, repr. 1970), The Spanish Borderlands (1921), Outpost of Empire (1931, repr. 1966; the story of the founding of San Francisco), and the biographies Rim of Christendom (1936, repr. 1960; on Father Eusebio Francisco Kino) and Coronado (1949). For these sound studies of a colorful period Bolton employed a prose that reflected his own vigorous and colorful personality. He also promoted the study of the history of the Americas as a unit of human development. He was also director from 1916 to 1940 of the Bancroft Library at the Univ. of California.

See studies by L. Hanke, ed. (1964), and W. R. Jacobs et al. (1965).

Herbert Eugene Bolton (July 20, 1870January 30, 1953) was an American historian and one of the most prominent authorities in Spanish-American history. He originated what became the Bolton theory of the history of the Americas and wrote or co-authored 94 works. A student of Frederick Jackson Turner, Bolton disagreed with his mentor and argued that the history of the Americans is best understood by taking a holistic view. The height of his career was spent at the University of California, Berkeley where he served as chair of the history department for 22 years and is credited with making the renowned Bancroft Library the dominant research center it is today.

Early life and education

Bolton was born in Wilton, Wisconsin in 1870 to Edwin Latham and Rosaline (Cady) Bolton. He attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he was a brother of Theta Delta Chi, and graduated with a bachelor's degree in 1895. That same year he married Gertrude James, with whom he eventually had seven children.

Bolton studied under Frederick Jackson Turner from 1896 and 1897. Starting in 1897, Bolton was a Harrison Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania and studied American history under John Bach McMaster. In 1899, received his Ph.D. from University of Pennsylvania and then taught at Milwaukee State Normal School until 1900.


From 1901 to 1909, Bolton was a history professor at the University of Texas, where he taught medieval and European history. He became interested in the Spanish colonization of the Americas and in summer 1902 began traveling to Mexico in search of historical documents.

The Carnegie Institution asked Bolton to write a report of information found about United States history in Mexican archives, and the report was published in 1913. Soon afterward, Bolton became an associate editor of the Quarterly of the Texas State Historical Association (now the Southwestern Historical Quarterly).

In 1904, Bolton and Eugene C. Barker published With the Makers of Texas: A Source Reader in Texas History, a Texas history textbook. In 1906, Bolton began studying Native American history in Texas for the U.S. Bureau of Ethnology, writing more than 100 articles for the Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico.

In 1911, Bolton became a professor at the University of California, Berkeley. There he served as the chair of the history department for 22 years and became the first director of the renowned Bancroft Library. He taught the "History of the Americas" course, which attracted up to a thousand students a week. At Berkeley he supervised more than 300 master's theses and 104 doctoral dissertations. In 1914, Bolton published Athanase de Mézières and the Louisiana-Texas Frontier, 1768-1780. A year later, Bolton published Texas in the Middle Eighteenth Century: Studies in Spanish Colonial History and Administration and declined the presidency of the University of Texas.

Over the next 29 years, Bolton published many works, including Texas in the Middle Eighteenth Century (1921), The Spanish Borderlands (1921), Outpost of Empire (1931), Rim of Christendom (1936) and Coronado (1949), for which he received a Bancroft Prize from Columbia University.

In 1932, Bolton served as president of the American Historical Association, and in 1944 retired as a professor. He taught briefly at San Francisco State College (now University) in retirement. He died of a stroke in Berkeley in 1953.


Bolton is best known for his exploration of Spanish colonial trials and translation of the important journals of Spanish soldiers and priests, which vastly expanded the written record of that period. His 94 written works are still influential today, especially through the concepts of the Spanish Borderlands and the Bolton theory. Currently, the Bolton Prize honors works in Latin American literature to commemorate his controbutions to this field.

Bolton's biggest mistake was his February 1937 authentication of Drake's Plate of Brass, which was a forgery of a mythical brass plaque purportely placed by Sir Francis Drake upon his arrival in Northern California in 1579. The plate is currently on display at the Bancroft Library where he served.

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