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William McPherson Papers

Identifier: H-Mss-0524

  • Staff Only

Scope and Contents of the Collection

This collection consists of correspondence, diaries, photographs, account books and journals, land and tax records, manuscripts, scrapbooks, notes, transcripts, reports, newspapers, clippings, promotional materials, and ephemera, relating to the family, life, career, and intellectual pursuits of Orange County, California, avocado rancher and historian William McPherson (1885-1964).

The collection consists of two record groups of approximately equal size.

The first record group contains correspondence, diaries, photographs, account books and journals, land and tax records, scrapbooks, notes, newspaper and periodical clippings, ephemera, and other materials relating to the McPherson family. The materials document the family’s immediate origins in Chaumont, New York, the move of two brothers and their cousin to California in the 1860s, their settlement in what became Orange County in the 1870s, and their involvement in local agriculture, in particular in the raisin grape industry of the 1880s. The bulk of the record group consists of the papers of William McPherson (1885-1964). These include his diarie--which extend, in effect, from 1898 to 1945 (with sporadic entries until 1951), and supplement those of his father, which extend from 1864 to 1892--chronicling in detail McPherson’s life as a rancher active in the promotion of the avocado industry, historian, and collector of books and manuscripts; his notebooks, which contain extensive research notes on Southern California, and in particular, Orange County, history and anthropology; and his geographic and subject files, which are especially rich in late 19th- and early 20th-century promotional materials for Orange, San Diego, Riverside, and San Bernardino Counties. Photographs in the record group, most of which date from before 1920, document sites throughout California and neighboring states; the majority were taken by McPherson himself between 1906 and 1912, and document in particular the mission and community of San Juan Capistrano and life in rural Orange County in the early years of the 20th century.

The second record group consists of several discrete collections of non-family-related primary materials acquired by McPherson by purchase, gift, or trade. The largest of these is the Avocado Collection, a hybrid collection consisting of records of the Secretary of the California Avocado Association, primarily for 1919-1925; miscellaneous records and papers of the California Avocado Exchange (from 1927, Calavo Growers of California), for 1924-1958; records of McPherson’s involvement in the avocado industry; and McPherson’s subject files on the avocado industry. The materials include correspondence, reports, minutes, catalogs, circulars, flyers, newspaper clippings, and periodical publications and document all aspects of the avocado industry in Southern California, including efforts of the industry to perfect cultivation methods, standardize varieties, improve the quality of the avocados produced, and market what was still considered an “exotic” fruit to the general population. The Orange County Ranchos collection consists of material--primarily photographic reproductions, but including some original document--relating to the history of Orange County ranchos, in particular Rancho Santiago de Santa Ana and and the mission and community of San Juan Capistrano. The collection of 19th century California newspapers includes what appears to be a unique copy of the Santa Ana Herald for 12 October 1878. The Historical manuscripts collection consists of historical document--primarily letters, but also including appointments, bills, commercial drafts and papers, financial accounts, legal proceedings, logbooks, passports, receipts, reports, stock certificates, and surveys--acquired by McPherson as single items or in small groups. The collection contains substantial numbers of Spanish- and English-language materials relating to California that were directly relevant to McPherson’s research. However, most of the documents do not relate to California; they appear to have been collected for their connection to well-known individuals or specific events, and represent McPherson’s eclectic collecting interests. These documents include Americana (1748-1932), British materials (1664/65-1921), Civil War papers, ship logbooks (1822-1855), literary scrapbooks (1846-1908), and American and British women (1828-1928). Smaller collections within this record group include the political papers, 1920-1925, of California State Assemblyman Jeffrey Joseph Prendergast (R-Redlands) (1875-1962) and correspondence, bills, and legal papers, 1876-1895, relating to the business interests and probate of Colorado River steamboat captain and San Diego businessman and banker Alfred Henry Wilcox (1823-1883).


  • Creation: 1664/65-1970.
  • Creation: Majority of material found within 1884 - 1945


Restrictions on Access

This collection is open for research.

Publication Rights

All requests for permission to reproduce or to publish must be submitted in writing to Special Collections.


William Frederick ("Will") McPherson was born in the family home (later given the address 11601 Prospect Avenue), east of Orange, California, on 16 July 1882, the second son and middle child of Stephen McPherson (1839-1917), a school teacher and viticulturist, and his wife, Jennie Vincent (1849-1935). His father, born in Chaumont, Jefferson County, New York, had come to Santa Clara County, California, by way of Ohio, in 1862, and to Southern California in 1872. Will McPherson graduated from Santa Ana High School in 1904, obtained a teaching credential, and for the school years 1905/1906 through 1908/1909 served as principal-teacher of the San Juan Capistrano Grammar School; dismissed from that position for an indiscretion with the daughter of a prominent local family, he obtained a similar position for the school year 1909/1910 at Fountain Valley. In August 1910, McPherson entered the University of California at Berkeley, originally studying civil engineering, but later switching to law; he graduated in June 1914. Unable to obtain other work, he returned to teaching. Despite the escapade of 1909, he was again employed as principal-teacher at San Juan Capistrano for the school year 1915/1916, but his intemperate support of Germany led to his dismissal in June 1918. This ended McPherson's formal employment: he joined his elder brother Vincent on the family farm, which was planted primarily in Valencia oranges, rare table grapes, and avocados, the latter still considered an exotic fruit, and only recently cultivated in sufficient numbers to be considered a "commercial" crop. The McPherson brothers became leading avocado growers, and Will was active in both the California Avocado Association (of which he was Secretary from 1927 to 1930) and in the California Avocado Growers Exchange (from 1927, Calavo Growers of California) cooperative.

Although McPherson supported himself financially as a rancher, his real love was history and literature, in particular the history, literature, and anthropology of Southern California. Always a voracious reader, he began collecting in his teens, and in earnest when his positions as principal-teacher, and then as successful rancher, provided him with disposable income. Although McPherson initially collected only books, by the mid-1920s he had begun to collect manuscripts, newspapers, magazines, maps, and photographs as well. By 1929, the collection had grown to more than 10,000 bound volumes, plus thousands of maps, manuscripts, and ephemera, the finest private library of Southern Californiana in the country. It was so extensive that the McPherson brothers built two separate buildings, the larger eighteen by thirty feet, to house it. Although financial difficulties in the early years of the Great Depression forced McPherson to dispose of duplicate works, and even to part with some of his more valuable items, he resumed collecting in the late 1930s, and some of his most significant acquisitions of manuscripts and other archival materials date from the early 1940s. Although he published only seven articles and one book, McPherson was considered a leading expert in Southern California history, anthropology, and agriculture, and was often consulted by other researchers. However, by 1950, McPherson had ceased to collect new materials, and the order and condition of the library had begun to deteriorate. The living conditions of the McPherson brothers evidenced increasing squalor. In late 1960, Will McPherson had descended into dementia, and was removed to a nursing facility in Garden Grove; at the same time, his elder brother Vincent, who did not suffer from dementia but was frail, moved from the family home to the house of Mexican-born friends who lived nearby, where he died in May 1962. Will McPherson died in the nursing home in Garden Grove on 8 September 1964. Both brothers are buried alongside their parents and other members of the extended McPherson family in the Santa Ana Cemetery.


  • Don Meadows, A California Paisano; the life of William McPherson (Claremont: Honnold Library Society, 1972).
  • William McPherson Papers, H.Mss.0524, Special Collections, Honnold Mudd Library, Claremont University Consortium.
  • Extent

    22.5 Linear Feet (53 boxes + 1 map case drawer)

    Language of Materials



    Correspondence, diaries, photographs, account books and journals, land and tax records, manuscripts, scrapbooks, notes, transcripts, reports, newspapers, clippings, promotional materials, and ephemera, relating to the family, life, career, and intellectual pursuits of Orange County, California, avocado rancher and historian William McPherson (1885-1964). Family papers document the McPhersons' settlement in Orange County in the 1870s, and their involvement in local agriculture, first in the raisin grape industry, and then in the avocado industry. Half the collection consists of original Spanish- and English-language correspondence, manuscripts, photographs, printed materials, and ephemera collected by McPherson in the pursuit of his intellectual interests, in particular the history and anthropology of Orange County--and especially Rancho Santiago de Santa Ana and San Juan Capistrano--from the 1770s to the 1920s. The collection includes papers of 19th-century entrepreneur Alfred Henry Wilcox and California State Assemblyman Jeffry Joseph Prendergast, as well as a large number of documents with a focus beyond Orange County and Southern California, including Civil war diaries and letters, a collection of ship logbooks from the 1820s to the 1850s, literary scrapbooks, and McPherson’s collection of autograph letters and documents relating primarily to American, British, and California history, and dating from 1665 to 1932.

    Series Arrangement

  • Record Group 1. McPherson family papers, 1848-1968
  • Series 1.1. McPherson Brothers, 1884-1889.
  • Series 1.2. McPherson family, 1848-1903 [2013].
  • Series 1.3. McPherson, Stephen, 1864-1907.
  • Series 1.4. McPherson, William, 1849-1968.
  • Series 1.5. Photographs, circa 1870-1961.
  • Subseries 1.5.1. Photograph albums, circa 1870-1953.
  • Subseries 1.5.2. Photographs, circa 1880-1961.
  • Physical location

    Please consult repository.

    Custodial History

    The papers were taken into the custody of William McPherson's friend and colleague, Don Meadows, acting as agent for McPherson's custodians, in early 1962. They were transferred to the Library of the Claremont Colleges, most probably in stages, between that time and approximately 1972.

    Acquisition Information

    Bequest of William McPherson, 1964.


    Limited accruals to the collection are anticipated.

    Separated Materials

    Ms. McP 1-165, formerly part of this collection, now form a separate collection, Claremont Colleges Library, San Gabriel Mission Matrimonial Investigation Records (Collection H1964.2).

    Processing Information

    The papers were processed by Michael P. Palmer in 2013.


    Guide to the William McPherson Papers
    Finding aid written by Michael P. Palmer.
    8 June 2013
    Description rules
    Describing Archives: A Content Standard
    Language of description
    Script of description
    Language of description note
    Finding aid written in English.

    Repository Details

    Part of the 01 - Special Collections & Archives, The Claremont Colleges Library Repository

    800 North Dartmouth Ave
    Claremont CA 91711 United States