John Caughey; Historian, Civil Libertarian


John Walton Caughey, an author and educator who was considered the dean of California historians and a leading intellectual civil libertarian, has died at age 93.

Caughey died Friday in Brookhaven Convalescent Home in Lexington, Mass., according to a family spokesman in Belmont, Mass.

A history professor at UCLA from 1930 until his retirement in 1970, Caughey wrote textbooks and scholarly articles that were so readable they became popular with mainstream readers.


His book “California,” first published in 1940, was evaluated by a Times book critic at the time as “unquestionably the most important and valuable single-volume history of California ever published.”

Caughey’s more than 25 books also included “Los Angeles: Biography of a City,” which he edited in 1976.

His prolific writing included books on American and Western history as well as accounts of California. Among the books were “History of the Pacific Coast of North America” in 1938, “America Since 1763: A Survey of Its History” in 1955, and “The American West: Frontier and Region” in 1969.

For nearly three decades, Caughey edited the Pacific Historical Review, and he was literary editor of Frontier. He also edited the “Chronicles of California,” an account of the centennials of the Golden State and the Gold Rush.

His teaching career was interrupted for more than two years in the early 1950s when the civil rights-advocating Caughey refused to sign an oath then required of UCLA faculty asserting that he had never belonged to the Communist Party. Caughey used the time productively--writing in protest of the McCarthy era, which had caused his temporary ouster, in such articles as “A University in Jeopardy” for Harper’s magazine.

He excoriated McCarthyism further in his 1958 book, “Clear and Present Danger: The Crucial State of Our Freedoms.”


Often working with his wife, LaRee, Caughey wrote some textbooks that generated controversy, including “California’s Own History” for fourth grade and a U.S. history textbook, “Land of the Free,” for junior high.

An activist as well as a historian, Caughey served on the board of the ACLU of Southern California for three decades, helping the group in its fight to integrate Los Angeles schools. He chronicled the story in “To Kill a Child’s Spirit: The Tragedy of School Segregation in the Los Angeles Schools,” published in 1973, and “A Plan to Desegregate the Los Angeles Schools” in 1977.

The Wichita-born Caughey was also active in the Congress of Racial Equality, the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People and the United Civil Rights Council.

Caughey also served as president of the Pacific Coast branch of the American Historical Assn., the Organization of American Historians and the Western History Assn.