Francis Bret Harte (August 25, 1836 – May 5, 1902) was an American author and poet, best remembered for his short fiction featuring miners, gamblers, and other romantic figures of the California Gold Rush. In a career spanning more than four decades, he wrote poetry, fiction, plays, lectures, book reviews, editorials, and magazine sketches in addition to fiction. As he moved from California to the eastern U.S. to Europe, he incorporated new subjects and characters into his stories, but his Gold Rush tales have been most often reprinted, adapted, and admired.
Harte moved to California in 1853, later working there in a number of capacities, including miner, teacher, messenger, and journalist. He spent part of his life in the northern California coastal town of Union (now Arcata), a settlement on Humboldt Bay that was established as a provisioning center for mining camps in the interior.
The Wells Fargo Messenger, July 1916, relates that after an unsuccessful attempt to make a living in the gold camps, he signed on as a messenger with Wells Fargo & Co. Express. He guarded treasure boxes on stagecoaches for a few months, then gave it up to become the schoolmaster at a school near Sonora. He created his character Yuba Bill from his memory of an old stagecoach driver.
The 1860 massacre of between 80 and 200 Wiyots at the village of Tuluwat was well documented historically and was reported in San Francisco and New York by Harte. When serving as assistant editor for the Northern Californian, Harte editorialized about the slayings while his boss, Stephen G. Whipple, was temporarily absent, leaving Harte in charge of the paper. Harte published a detailed account condemning the event, writing, "a more shocking and revolting spectacle never was exhibited to the eyes of a Christian and civilized people. Old women wrinkled and decrepit lay weltering in blood, their brains dashed out and dabbled with their long grey hair. Infants scarcely a span long, with their faces cloven with hatchets and their bodies ghastly with wounds." After he published the editorial his life was threatened, and he was forced to flee one month later. Harte quit his job and moved to San Francisco, where an anonymous letter published in a city paper is attributed to him, describing widespread community approval of the massacre. In addition, no one was ever brought to trial, despite the evidence of a planned attack and references to specific individuals, including a rancher named Larabee and other members of the unofficial militia called the Humboldt Volunteers.
At first glance, the plays appear to be very different. Harte greatly revised his famous short story to turn its title character into an attractive ingénue sent by her mining camp foster parents to acquire an education and polish in France. There she and the son of an aristocratic family fall in love and confront complications of class and money. In Davis's play, a comic opera, three Americans come to Timbuctoo to exploit it. But two of them decide to support the young prince of the kingdom who is trying to gain his rightful throne and marry the girl of his choice. Despite malicious intrigues, both works end happily, reflecting their authors' Old West beliefs in a society where character takes precedence over birth. Both plays besides being valuable additions to the literature of the period are intrinsically entertaining.