Living Under the Pioneer Myth

January 7, 2012 § Leave a comment

Pioneers, Gold, and Urban Collective Identity in American San Francisco:

"Golden Jubilee Invitation"

This is a newspaper print reproduction of the invitation sent out across the state and the nation to join San Francisco in celebration the 50th anniversary of gold being discovered.

I have spent three days reading a few of San Francisco’s newspapers for November, 1897. Between the visions of San Francisco’s Pacific empire, stories of European imperialism, and the greatness of San Francisco, the city’s newspaper media expressed an unrivaled optimism following on the heels of the early 1890s economic depression.

However in January of 1898, as the Society of California Pioneers had been doing for over 40 years, it was decided among the city’s commercial-civic elite to celebrate the 50th anniversary of gold being discovered in a grand public celebration.

Since the 1850s the legacy and memory of a particularly Anglo version of the California Gold Rush grew, and dominated the state’s self-awareness effectively denigrating the contributions of all who came before. Native Californian’s for example, were reportedly “improved” by the introduction of “new” women whom the pioneers brought with them (San Francisco Chronicle, November 17, 1897). The Spanish and Mexican legacy of course was denigrated to an ignorant and mismanaged empire which was easily surpassed by Anglo- development (The San Francisco Call, Nov 18, 1897). By the 1890s, this collective memory of California’s evolution from a failed Mexican state into a successful Anglo-republic had taken hold among many of the city’s commercial-civic elite and had become enshrined in the institutional memory of the state and San Francisco’s most powerful cultural organizations. Some of the most influential included the Society of California Pioneers and the Native Sons of the Golden West.

Image of the Native Sons' of the Golden West hall

San Francisco’s commercial-civic elite ensured that the dominant Anglo-pioneer origin myth (or “Pioneer Myth”) would not be forgotten. Those who had the most influence on these memories in 1890s San Francisco understood themselves to be direct (albeit improved) descendants of California’s first pioneers. It was pioneering Anglo’s, they imagined, whom traversed the Sierras and sailed the seas to rescue a failing Mexican state from chaos. After the 1870s, through influential organizations like the Society of California Pioneers and the Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden West, the only California histories that were accessable in the 1890s (in monuments, displays, lectures, pageants, etc) were those of the established Anglo-elite.

How do those who could not possibly share this Pioneer Myth, understand their place in a society which essentially silences minority contributions in commemorating and remembering the past? How do migrants whether Anglo- or otherwise build an identity in a region in such flux as the first 50 years of California’s development under the United States? One key here is participation. Participation in public celebrations for instance, demonstrates at the least awareness, and a degree of understanding of the dominant urban identity. what does the relationship between this dominant Anglo-American vision of California history and the audience who would interpret it, reveal how regionalisms develop? How does a historian evaluate minority, liminal, and persecuted identities and communities in a hegemonic society like San Francisco in the Gilded Age? These questions will be difficult to answer, however others including George Sanchez have made significant strides into understanding cultural hegemony in the urban landscape through time.

Similar to Gilded Empire’s construction of collective identity, George Sanchez looked at generational changes in Mexican migrants and later Mexican-Americans and Chicanos, as they experienced acculturation and assimilation in early 20th-century Los Angeles. What he found was that participation in the dominant American culture changed by generation dramatically, offering changing opportunities and barriers to survival. This change, good or bad, allowed for different strategies of acculturation and adaption to the dominant Anglo-American framed culture of urban Los Angeles. Changes which often led to becoming more “American” according to local migrant cultural norms. It was the participation in American traditions and cultural norms of migrant children that was particularly clear evidence of a shifting group identity among a larger cultural framework. Becoming “American” in this case did not entail the erasing of difference between minority and dominant groups, but an emergence of a new identity reconciled with the dominant Southern California traditions.

California’s Golden Jubilee ~ January 24-29, 1898

Members of California's Golden Jubilee Committees

Certainly an event which would bring some 200,000 people to San Francisco like the 1898 California Golden Jubilee would produce and reveal conflicting historical memories and imaginations, where differing groups of commercial-civic elites cooperated and participated in deploying an arranged vision of California history. The Pioneer Myth as displayed in the 1890s were all too clear on the position of Mexicans, the Chinese, and other minority groups within San Franciscan society. During the Golden Jubilee these same minority groups were ordered in such a way to demonstrate the dominance of Anglo culture on the city. Irish, German, Italian, Mexican, Japanese, Chinese, and other minorities were displayed in ranking order of social importance, demonstrating the contributions of each culture on the city’s collective image of itself. The Irish brought liberty, the German’s their Protestant ethic, and the Italians their labor. However, lower minorities as they were perceived added more savory elements that were not wholly embraced by the city’s elites. The Chinese for instance received almost universal derision, yet their survival in California remained a distinct point of Anglo- cultural pride among the city’s elites. Nowhere in the world some elites commented, could the Chinese grow to be so healthy, so cared for, and so numerous.

It is here at the convergence of insurgent and established identities like San Francisco’s Golden Jubilee where the constructive dynamics of imagining new emerging collective identities are revealed. It is here where cultural, economic, and social power transforms individual and groups sense of themselves into a broader shared social imagination. This discussion will continue throughout postings on Gilded Empire.


  • Sanchez, George J. Becoming Mexican American: Ethnicity, Culture and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, 1900-1945: Oxford University Press, 1995.

  • Lears, T. J. Jackson. “The Concept of Cultural Hegemony: Problems and Possibilities.” American Historical Review 90 (June 1985): 567-593.

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


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