Adventuring, Reminiscence, and Nostalgia: A Path to an Early California Identity

December 20, 2011 § Leave a comment

The Society of California Pioneers: Identity & Temporal Orientation

Founded in 1850 the Society of California Pioneers was charged to:

collect and preserve information connected with the early settlement and conquest of [California], and to perpetuate the memory of those whose sagacity, enterprise, and love of independence induced them to settle in the wilderness, and become the germ of a new State.

Membership in the Pioneers was reserved for, “all who were residents of California prior to January 1, 1850, and the male descendants of all such who were members.” James W. Marshall, for example, would be one of those revered pioneers, but his legacy of remembrance would be a rocky one compared with other figures in the pantheon of California’s origin story among the Society of California Pioneers. In the future, Marshall’s precise (and longer) story among the Society of California Pioneers will appear in another post. However, just as Daniel Boone opened the Cumberland Gap and the Cooper’s settled Cooperstown in upstate New York, “Men with names like “Sutter, Reading, Larkin, Stearns, Hensley, Bidwell, Marsh, Young and many others” symbolized the virtues espoused by the Society of California Pioneers. These men they argued were, “Pioneers of the first class…gentlemen.”

A Society of California Pioneers diploma of membership as illustrated in 1898

The membership diplomas demonstrate this nostalgic orientation towards the past.  The certificates reveal a keen reverence for the romance of California’s frontier and pioneering past, and by implication a derision of its recent path in industrial development. The certificate depicts an eight paneled series of distinctly wild California scenes, none of which contain imagery of industrialism. The images of independent miners, Mexican vaqueros, and mission neophytes, juxtaposed with the image of sleepy Yerba Buena cove, expansive San Francisco Bay, and the natural wonders of Yosemite Falls and the Sierra big trees, demonstrates a reverence for what seems to have been lost in their mind.

In the center of the membership diploma, a shield depicting the members name and induction date are flanked by the two representative symbols of California frontier life ~ California’s most representative pioneers. On the left, a wilderness trapper, with grizzly kill; and on the right, the independent miner and his placer mining tools. The juxtaposition of the frontier trapper and miner with the images of California’s natural and pastoral greatness suggest a reverence for the beauty being spoiled by the later onslaught of miners, merchants, and business men as they crowed into American San Francisco to make their fortunes. In speeches, publications, and pamphlets the Society of California Pioneers would continually recount the romantic reverence of Mexican California while almost simultaneously offering respect at most, to those who took the California pioneer’s foundation and built a western house of civilization.

Headline describing the program for California

As the Society of California Pioneers saw it, the inhabitants of Alta or Mexican California were, “the good and the bad from all of the old States in the Union and from Europe, Australia, Mexico and South America.” However, “we found here a wilderness,” one Pioneer described, “a land groaning under waste,” he reminds the audience, “it is now populous, smiles and looks glad,” because of American infiltration. They understood those Anglo-Americans in the mix brought an enlightened mentality. “We were the forerunners – the John the Baptists – of civilization and prosperity on the shores of this great ocean,” the same Pioneer continued. In a speech given to an assembled group of the Society of Pioneers in 1870, an orator recognized a distinction between Mexican California and American California that demonstrated the extremity of their commemorative reverence of California’s romantic past. “A noble type…generous, hospitable Native Californian,” he explained. A people “among us that is fast passing away,” once lived among us. Was it simply that the first pioneers of California would not live much beyond the state’s 50th anniversary?

In recognizing General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo as worthy of admission among the pantheon of California’s fabled pioneers, the Society of Pioneers made a clear distinction between themselves, and the cosmopolitan industrial society that emerged in San Francisco after statehood. They understood themselves to be a vanguard force symbolized by the, “daring John C. Fremont [and] the veteran Sloat.”

How long this Pacific coast region might have remained the uncultivated and uncivilized wilderness it was when the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo concluded our war with Mexico?

In the Society’s view of California’s mythic history, Fremont’s great Bear Flag Rebellion, the raising of the American flag at Monterey by General Sloat, the arrogant independence of “John” Sutter and his fort, would be recounted as the direct legacy of the Society of Pioneer’s members. This nostalgic and romantic orientation of their identity was demonstrated well into the 1890s as they celebrated James W. Marshall’s fiftieth anniversary of gold being discovered on the American River. In this celebration, Marshall would be reinstated into the California pantheon of frontier pioneers. The story of how Marshall fell out of favor in the Society’s vision of California’s past and how his image was rehabilitated, reveals an analogous parallel of a legacy of influence the Society had on San Francisco’s collective memory.


  • The Pioneers.” San Francisco Chronicle (1869-Current File), 9 September 1884, 1.

  • A Neglected Anniversary.” San Francisco Chronicle (1869-Current File), 1884, 4.

  • Golden Jubilee Committee. Official Souvenier of California’s Golden Jubilee – Held at San Francisco, California – Beginning January 24, 1898 and Ending January 29, 1898. Containing the Programme of Each Day’s Events, With Much Reading Matter of Interest Pertaining to the Discovery of Gold, and Many Illustrations.. San Francisco: H. S. Crocker Company, Printers, 1898.

  • Berglund, Barbara. Making San Francisco American: Cultural Frontiers in the Urban West. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press Of Kansas, 2010.

  • Genzel, Glen. “Pioneers and Padres: Competing Mythologies in Northern and Southern California, 1850-1930.” Western Historical Quarterly 32 (Spring 2001); 55-79.

  • Wrobel, David M. Promised Lands: Promotion, Memory, and the Creation of the American West. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press Of Kansas, 2002.


Tagged: , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

What’s this?

You are currently reading Adventuring, Reminiscence, and Nostalgia: A Path to an Early California Identity at Gilded Empire.


%d bloggers like this: