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5.  The Winning of Barbara Worth

The Winning of Barbara Worth by Harold Bell Wright, dust jacket  

First Edition

Book Supply Company, 8/1911, burgundy cloth cover, illustrated dust jacket.

  Total sales: 1,635,000


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Disambiguation: This web page is about the 1911 bestselling novel, The Winning of Barbara Worth, by Harold Bell Wright. It is not about the early 20th century movie star who took the stage name, "Barbara Worth," or about Barbara Worth Oakford, the Hall of Fame equestrian -- though both were probably named after the heroine of Wright's novel.

  • Barbara Worth, the actress, was born as Verna Louise Dooley in1906. When she was five years old Wright's book topped the best seller lists, making the name Barbara Worth famous and popular. By the time she appeared in her first movie, a silent western, in 1923, she had assumed the stage name, Barbara Worth, and she seems to have mostly played parts similar to Wright's heroine.

  • Barbara Worth Oakford's father, James A. Worth (1877-1974), was a famous California mule driver. When his daughter was born in 1913, two years after Wright introduced his fictional heroine Barbara Worth -- the romantic young woman of the western deserts -- Mr.Worth named his daughter Barbara. Coincidence? Probably not. Barbara married several times during her life, the last time to Bill Oakford.


When Harold Bell Wright left the pastoral ministry in late 1907 he established a farm near El Centro, in the Imperial Valley,  the southeast corner of the state of California. Here Wright wrote The Winning of Barbara Worth, the best selling book of his career. It was also Harold Bell Wright's only historical novel, telling in great detail the story of the "reclamation" of the lower California desert.  

What is now Imperial County, California, was once the eastern part -- the "barren desert" part--of San Diego county. Much of Imperial County lies below sea level and below the mighty Colorado River, which divides Imperial County from Arizona. In 1901 pioneers cut an opening in the west bank of the Colorado River and began building canals through the sandy soil to carry water to the desert. In 1905 the main canal gate washed out and the entire Colorado river was diverted from the Gulf of Mexico to the dead-end basin of the Imperial Valley, now known as the Salton Sea. Many books have been written about the heroic efforts to turn that river back to its natural course. If the two-year effort had failed, as it very nearly did, the entire basin would today be under salty water. Harold Bell Wright arrived in the area very shortly after the river was restored to its original course and the valley was saved.  Click here to see pictures and read an outline of the actual historical events upon which the book was based.

Though The Winning of Barbara Worth is fiction, Wright's record of details of life in then-San Diego County, is hard to match elsewhere. A good example is his description, in the first two chapters, of travel from San Diego to Yuma--one of the most spectacular and difficult routes in the United States at that time.

In Wright's story, a wagon hauling freight from San Diego, Calif. to Yuma, Arizona, is caught in a terrible sandstorm. When the storm ends, the teamsters find the remains of a wagon that once carried a man, his wife and tiny baby. The parents both died in the storm, but the baby is still alive. They take her to Yuma where she is named Barbara and raised by a wealthy man named Mr. Worth. Since the fictional Barbara Worth was probably about 20 years of age when the Colorado broke it banks in 1905, that description of the road from San Diego to Yuma, when the fictional Barbara was a baby, should have been of the trail in the middle 1880's. But, of course, Wright described the route as he experienced it from about 1907 to 1911 when the book was published. Actually, the route changed little during the 30 years before the book was published--though the road changed from a horse trail to a wagon road during that time--so the differences are minor.

Wright says the route from San Felipe (San Diego) to Rubio City (Yuma) was "200 and more hard and lonely miles." There was only one route that could get a wagon from San Diego to Yuma in 200 miles, the route through Jacumba. The alternative route to the north, through Warner's Hot Springs, was 80 miles longer, and does not fit Wright's descriptions. But we are not left to guess, because Wright uses the correct names for places on the Jacumba route: Mountain Springs and Devil's Canyon. I have not found a record of how long it took stage coaches to travel to Yuma, but the time to Tucson (424 miles) was five days, meaning they averaged 85 miles per day. Jefferson Worth's fictional trip took much longer because it was made in a heavily-loaded wagon, pulled by four mules. Ironically, though Wright described the Jacumba route, and used actual names found along the Jacumba route, he says it was called the "San Felipe Trail," which would translate to San Diego Trail, which was the name of the other, northern route.

DAY ONE: Left San Diego at sunrise. Water barrels empty for climb over mountains. Looking ahead at No Man's Mountain (probably Laguna Mountain), Went up a canyon with a stream below. They camped at a spring at the head of the canyon. At that time the only wagon route to Jacumba was through Campo, 52 miles from San Diego. The route through Alpine and Pine Valley was developed shortly after the book was published. One source says, "Campo was an important settlement, because it was there that the stage coaches and the ten-mule freight wagons stopped to rest their animals after the long climb up the mountain slopes from the west."

DAY TWO: "Gained the pass a little before noon." That pass was at that time called Jacumba Pass. It is about 4000 feet high. They went through Jacumba Valley and started down the eastern side.

Photo: Starting down the road east of Jacumba Pass, 1918.

The town of Jacumba was not built until 1919, long after Wright's book was published. Apparently Jefferson Worth's wagon did not follow the route of Highway 80 or the new Interstate 8, to get from Jacumba to Mountain Springs. Reporting on the road in 1911 one source says,

"For several years road crews had been hacking out a new highway down the mountains from Jacumba. The old wagon road, which had been used by autos for a decade, left Jacumba Valley and went northeast and then almost directly south to reach Mountain Springs, dropping about a thousand feet in three miles."

Mountain Springs is still there, though there is no reason to stop anymore. Today the east-bound traffic goes down the awesome In-Ko-Pah gorge, and the west-bound traffic comes up the Devil's Canyon -- really two divisions of the same steep gorge. The 1911 description of the old wagon trail continues from Mountain Spring:

"...then it followed the bed of Devil's Canyon, a virtual tunnel between towering red rock hills and dropping another thousand feet to the upper desert floor. Any auto caught in this narrow gap in a desert cloudburst could be picked up by rushing water and battered to pieces against the walls."

Jefferson Worth's crew filled their barrels at Mountain Spring and ate lunch there, then continued to Wolf Wells (Coyote Wells) on the desert floor, where they camped.

DAY THREE: Traveled across entire Imperial Valley to the start of the sand dunes, about 20 miles from the Colorado River and Yuma. They were caught in sandstorm (hasn't changed) and took shelter for the night.

DAY FOUR: Remained in shelter all day.

DAY FIVE: Found baby Barbara Worth, left sand hills, traveled all day and all night. Three miles after leaving dunes came to Dry River. This may be area known today as Gordon's Wells, but here things begin to get weird, as Wright's story begins to take precedence over geographic accuracy.

DAY SIX: Traveled all day. It is only about ten miles from the dunes to the Colorado River, so they should have been there for an early lunch. But they traveled all afternoon and camped another night.

DAY SEVEN: Got to Yuma, where Jefferson Worth lived and worked, just after noon.

Click here to read Wright's description of the flood from The Winning of Barbara Worth(But don't pay any attention to the nonsense in the introduction on that site about the Salton Sea proving that a fresh water lake can become salty very quickly.  The Salton Sea did not begin as a fresh water lake in the 20th century.  Salt that had accumulated from countless Colorado River floods -- over very long periods of time -- was already in the center of the Imperial Valley waiting to be dissolved again by the water from the Colorado River.  It was an "instant brine--just add water" situation.  And to nitpick further, the Salton Sea is not in the Mojave Desert, which begins north of Palm Springs and extends hundreds of miles north.  It is in the Colorado Desert, which is about one mile lower in elevation and extents east into southwestern Arizona.)

Click here to read in-depth information about The Winning of Barbara Worth, including early advertising, printing, sales and critical acclaim.


     All American first editions are by the Book Supply Company and look exactly like the illustrations above.  The first edition was also available in leather.  Hodder and Stoughton published a British first edition.  The book was reprinted many times by A. L. Burt, Grosset and Dunlop, Thorndike, Appleton, Buccaneer (?).  Most of the early reprints carry no indication that they are not first editions.  More recently, four distinct gift editions have been published by The Holtville Tribune, The Harold Bell Wright Society, Holtville Printing and Graphics, and the Imperial County Historical Society.

     This book sold far more copies than any other title Wright wrote, and is therefore the most common title found on bookshelves today.  Judging from the collectibles available today it seems that The Book Supply Company also did more to promote this book than any other. It was at the release of this book that they circulated a set of 12 postcards, other postcards showing Harold Bell Wright and his ranch, a bookmark, a cabinet card ("Only Picture Ever Taken of the Author and His Family"), a brochure about Harold Bell Wright, and a flood of advertisements in many journals. The book came with an attractive dust jacket which is rather hard to find today, though not rare. It could also be bought with a special suede leather removable cover which after a few years badly stained the cloth cover and inside pages. Some copies came in a special Christmas box, others with a Christmas band around the book. (First printing: 175,000; second one month later: 325,000; total  by 1947: 1,635,000.)

Notes for owners of "Books and Collectibles"

P.  Holtville Tribune, 1987
Q. Holtville Printing and Graphics, 1991 ("Limited Edition 1991 Holtville Printing and Graphics" stamped on cover.  Due to errors by both the typesetter and the binder, the title page and spine mistakenly attribute this edition to the Holtville Tribune.
V.  Imperial County Historical Society Commemorative Edition, 1998.
W. Harold Bell Wright Society Edition, 1998

Review of Book by Dr. Joyce Kinkead  Copyright 1979 by Joyce Kinkead.  Used by Permission.           

           Wright's early novels extol the superiority of country people over urban people.  When he turns to the great open spaces of the West, he transfers this idea to the rugged individualists and to the West as Mecca.  Showing a continued interest in humanity, Wright presents conflicts between East and West, country and city, and experience and education.  The characters represent these conflicts as the urban, educated man is pitted against the natural, rural man.  Either the latter wins, or the urban male is converted to the nature of the West.  The novels which focus on these conflicts and a transcendental view of nature include the following:  The Winning of Barbara Worth, When a Man's a Man, A Son of His Father, The Mine with the Iron Door, Long Ago Told, and The Man Who Went Away.  These novels demonstrate Wright's southwestern expertise, for when he moved to Southern California and, later, Arizona for his health, he became aware of the culture, geography, and industry of that region.  His expertise is easily recognizable in the later books.

            One of Wright's most successful novels about the Southwest, The Winning of Barbara Worth (1911), was immediately accepted by the reading public, probably because of Wright's unique publishing campaign and because of the novel's subject matter and setting. Continue >

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Last updated 08/06/14