Commemorating Regional Empire, Part I: San Francisco’s Golden Jubilee, 1898

September 6, 2012 § Leave a comment

Regional Identity and Historic Legacies:

Newspaper reproduction of handbill for California’s Golden Jubilee

As 1897 was fading into memory, the Society of California Pioneers of San Francisco saw a unique opportunity for next year’s celebration of Marshall’s gold discovery on the American River.[1] It had been 50yrs since the Golden State began its evolution into an American place.[2] Every year in January, the Society celebrated the time, place, and people of the California Gold Rush. Composed of individuals present (or descended from) in the earliest days of American occupation of Spanish, an then Mexican California, the Society sought to preserve and disseminate the history which fueled the energy and growth of San Francisco of the 1890s. The Pioneer Myth that emerged as the narrative of the state’s development, needed little reinforcement in the city which came to dominate regional mining, commerce, and culture by the 1880s.[3] Why did San Francisco hold such a commanding presence in the memory of the inhabitants of California and the city of San Francisco? Why were organizations like the Society of California Pioneers still celebrating this event fifty years later? In short, Marshall’s discovery was but the first in a long series of events which led first to American occupation of California, then statehood, and finally the region’s economic and social development. San Francisco was the city that exemplified this transformation. And there would be no place more appropriate, the Society of California Pioneers thought, to commemorate such a seminal event in California’s history.

The Society of California Pioneers was not the only organization to interpret the debt owned to Marshall in the 1890s. Since 1857 one group, the Mechanics’ Institute, reinforced the city’s origin myth on an industrial scale through annual Mechanics’ Fairs, presenting themes of national, regional, and local progress. Like the Society of California Pioneers, the Mechanics’ Institute traced their own identity and understanding of the city’s rise to that faithful day Marshall plucked that gold nugget out of the American River. Public celebrations like the Mechanics’ Fairs structured and presented the Mechanics’ Institute’s version of California history as much as it presented the city’s present progress. An image demonstrating one facet of this vision, below, came from a pamphlet likely distributed at California’s Golden Jubilee & Mining Fair (1898).

San Francisco's Advantages as an Outfitting Point for the Klondike

Map depicting the advantages of San Francisco in outfitting for the Klondike Gold Rush.

This pamphlet image illustrates, among other things, a widely held belief by many of San Francisco’s commercial-civic elite that the city had conquered and commanded the commerce of the Pacific Coast by 1898. No one survives in the Klondike, this cartoon suggests, without depending on the fruits of San Franciscan productivity. All the freight, supplies, and machinery used, it seemed, passed through the port of San Francisco. This same formulation would be evidenced by the exhibits, presentations, and speeches taking place at fairs like the Golden Jubilee.

Scanned image of December 19, 1897 issue of San Francisco Call – The New Era Edition

This interpretation of California’s historical narrative was founded in large part on the material progress made since the 1850s.[3] Since the Gold Rush, San Francisco dominated commerce, trade, and banking for California and most of the Pacific region. In the 1890s many in San Francisco remained confident in the city’s ability to maintain this hold on regional commerce. The Society of California Pioneers for instance understood this continued dominance as a demonstration of American’s Manifest Destiny to conquer west of the west begun by James W. Marshall. James D. With a more elite twist, Phelan’s speech at the 1896 Mechanics’ Fair for instance, presented a similar understanding of the city’s urban evolution from its savage origins. Although San Francisco’s actual dominance was quickly being challenged by other urban centers bursting from their own growth such as Los Angeles and Seattle.[3]

Many San Franciscans were confident that the city would maintain its dominance into the next century, despite the obvious ignorance of growing Los Angeles and its own golden citrus empire. The San Francisco Call for example declared in a special issue, December 19, 1897, that the city was entering into a “New Era” of prosperity and growth that had not been seen since the Gold Rush. In addition, the San Francisco Chronicle, other editorials, and magazines similarly echoed these sentiments throughout the 1890s as a psychological and material uptick in economic activity boosted confidence. In celebrating Marshall’s discovery in 1898, it was this progressive mindset that structured the celebrations exhibits and in turn structured the historical memories of those who attended. The Golden Jubilee would declare the city’s growing commercial and regional advantages and the city’s progressive social development. From educational demonstrations, to exhibitions, to exhibits, the Golden Jubilee presented a way of looking at the present and the past. To many San Franciscans this image would not be a challenge to interpret. Many San Franciscan’s thought the city had emerged a truly successful, industrial America place by the 1890s, overshadowing the conflict, chaos, and corruption of the 1870s and 1880s.

By the 1890s the empire of the United States had reached a defining moment. The (in)famous Frederick Jackson Turner would declare in 1893 the end of the frontier in America. The disappearance of uninhabited land was a turning point in American history, Turner argued. To many of San Francisco’s inhabitants and commercial-civic elite, Turner’s declaration and the perceived shrinkage of economic opportunities in the interior west encouraged a shift in perspective. The Pacific would become the new frontier, one that Turner had not discussed in 1893. But how would the old steadfast Pioneer Myth so imbedded in the Californian and San Franciscan identity frame the shifting of frontiers? Would it be the same frontier which created true Americans in the continental West according to Turner? What did this expanding frontier mean to the city of San Francisco and how can we interpret the changing interpretations?

In Part II we will get into more depth on just what shifts were occurring in the Pioneer Myth and in the minds of San Francisco’s commercial-civic elite especially. Until then, check out the Gilded Empire links below for an extended discussion on related parts and concepts.

Further Reading:




  • [1] Golden Jubilee Committee. Official Souvenier of California’s Golden Jubilee – Held at San Francisco, California – Beginning January 24, 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.

  • [2] Berglund, Barbara. Making San Francisco America: Cultural Frontiers in the Urban West, 1846-1906. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas,2007.

  • [3] 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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