Herbert Eugene Bolton, historian, was born in Wilton, Wisconsin, on July 20, 1870, to Edwin Latham and Rosaline (Cady) Bolton. He attended the University of Wisconsin, where he graduated with a bachelor's degree in 1895. That year he also married Gertrude James; they eventually had seven children. Bolton continued studies under Frederick Jackson Turner in 1896–97. From 1897 to 1899 he was Harrison Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied American history under John Bach McMaster. Bolton received his Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania in 1899 and for the next two years taught at Milwaukee State Normal School. In 1901 he went as instructor of history to the University of Texas, where he remained until 1909. Though he taught medieval and European history at UT, he soon developed a lively interest in the history of Spanish expansion in North America. Beginning in the summer of 1902, he made a series of pioneering forays into archives in Mexico. At the invitation of the Carnegie Institution he prepared a report on materials for United States history in Mexican archives, and this was published in 1913. Bolton was an associate editor of the Quarterly of the Texas State Historical Association (now the Southwestern Historical Quarterly). In 1904 he and his colleague Eugene C. Barker published a textbook, With the Makers of Texas: A Source Reader in Texas History. Beginning in 1906 Bolton studied the history of Indians in Texas for the United States Bureau of Ethnology and wrote more than 100 articles for the Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. His interest in Texas history was reflected in more than a dozen learned articles as well as in his published volumes on Athanase de Mézières and the Louisiana-Texas Frontier, 1768–1780 (1914), and Texas in the Middle Eighteenth Century: Studies in Spanish Colonial History and Administration (1915). Although his later research and writing were more concerned with the Pacific coast, Bolton retained a strong interest in Texas history. He declined the presidency of the University of Texas in 1914 but continued to look back with affection to his years there.
From 1909 to 1911 Bolton was professor of American history at Stanford University, and from 1911 until his retirement in 1940 he was professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley. From 1919 to 1940, except for two years, he served as chairman of the history department, and for the same twenty-two years he was director of the Bancroft Library. At the University of California he inaugurated a course called "History of the Americas," in which he emphasized the need to study the Americas as a whole. He outlined this thesis in his presidential address to the American Historical Association at Toronto in 1932, under the title "The Epic of Greater America." Although he became professor emeritus in 1940, Bolton taught as lecturer in history from 1942 to 1944.
He was tireless and enthusiastic in his research, in the exploration of old trails and historic sites, and in putting the results of his research and travel on paper. His bibliography consists of ninety-four entries, including nearly two dozen books written or edited. His concept of the Spanish Borderlands, the crescent-shaped area from Georgia to California, as a fruitful field for study and interpretation was an important addition to historical thought. He is also remembered as a great teacher. He lectured to large undergraduate classes and conducted research seminars for graduate students. More than 300 master's theses and 100 doctoral dissertations were written under his supervision. As a teacher, scholar, and writer, he was an individual of lasting influence. Bolton died of a stroke at Berkeley, California, on January 30, 1953.