Holliday wrote a masterly history of the California Gold Rush that capped three decades of painstaking research on the era.
Holliday's The World Rushed In: The California Gold Rush Experience, first published in 1981, is noteworthy for its innovative narrative style that blends scholarly commentary and analysis with words of the miners themselves and their families.
Kevin Starr, a California historian and former state librarian, describes Holliday as a pioneer of the docudrama narrative. Documentarian Ken Burns featured Holliday in his PBS series The West, and once said "no one writes better about California's irresistible past."
Holliday's narrative drew heavily from the diaries and correspondence of William Swain, a farmer in Youngstown, New York who made a seven-month trek to California in 1849. Swain penned detailed accounts of his transcontinental journey.
Holliday was introduced to Swain's writings during his final year at Yale University. Ed Eberstadt, a dealer in rare books, showed Holliday Swain's diary, which was part of the Yale collection. Eberstadt emphasized that it was the "most important" diary of the Gold Rush, but Holliday initially wasn't impressed with Swain's journals.
After reading diaries left by other 49'ers, Holliday realized the significance of Swain's writings. Most diaries from the Gold Rush were "little more than daily recitations of miles traveled and weather conditions, with an occasional complaint or observation about food, dust or some other discomfort," Holliday once wrote.
His full name was Jaquelin Smith Holliday II, but he preferred to go by the initials of his first and middle names. He used the nickname Jim among friends.
Holliday majored in history at Yale, graduating in 1948. His studies at Yale were interrupted by World War II, during which he served as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Navy.
Holliday received a doctorate in history from the University of California, Berkeley in 1958.
He was founding director of the Oakland Museum of California. Holliday's attempt to involve members of Oakland's African American community in the governance of the museum resulted in his dismissal two months before the facility's opening in 1969.
Holliday's 2nd wife, Belinda Vidor Jones, was daughter of director King Vidor.