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.

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San Francisco’s Commercial-Civic Elite: A Reminder of Civic Duties and Responsibilities

March 25, 2012 § Leave a comment

During the period which has become known as the Progressive Era in American History, San Francisco’s commercial-civic elite  operated within this progressive impulse in an attempt to promote a more harmonious, efficient, and progressive social development. Especially in San Francisco and California, the social, economic, and class chaos of the 1870s and 1880s had a profound impact on the city’s leadership, civic and commercial. Business leaders, politicians, and influential individuals began to operate in a new social paradigm which attempted at base to preserve the benefits of the Second Industrial Revolution and Corporate Capitalism, but also to regain a semblance of social cooperation, harmony, and stability. While the benefits of the new economy were clearly apparent with the rise of general material prosperity among the population, the depths of poverty, strife, and conflict grew even deeper through all classes. During the 1870s and 1880s, workers clashed with workers, capitalists debated capitalists, and reformers from both sides worked against themselves and the other. Emerging from this dramatic period and pace of change was a sense that something had been lost in this economic paradigm shift. If liberty, community, and family were the foundations of a harmonious and self-sufficient society, how in the trend away from these practical ideals, can society continue to fulfill the ideas of the Revolution of 1776? Industrialization, corporate capitalism, and a clear class based society produced, not community, but discontinuity in American society.

In San Francisco during the 1890s, this progressive impulse led many of the city’s commercial-civic elite to initiate programs that would foster social harmony and cooperation among a diverse and clearly divided urban society.  One way that commercial and civic leaders attempted to foster these ideals of cooperation and harmony was to promote widespread participation in events which celebrated the city and its people. Civic celebrations like California Admission Day, the Fourth of July, and the anniversary of James W. Marshall’s discovery of gold, presented opportunities for the commercial-civic elite to shape society in their own Progressive image. By fostering civic cooperation among classes, businesses, and peoples, the elites saw it as a program of in socialization – or more rightly Americanization. If the traditional ties that bind peoples together were weakening – community, family, and religion – a new civil program must replace it to maintain a cohesive American urban society, they thought. In planning civic celebrations and events in this period, San Francisco’s commercial-civc elite attempted to order their society en mass.

To get a sense of the ideology and percepts of this progressive impulse, I have posted numerous sources of San Francisco’s elite reporting their programs of cultural ordering and Americanization. (Under keyword “collective identity“)  Another, from Edward Coleman, a very influential individual among San Francisco’s elite, illustrates the duties and responsibilities of citizens in celebrating their city and its progress. Calling for widespread participation in California’s Golden Jubilee (1898), Mr. Coleman appealed not to individuals or groups, but to the populace as a whole and explained the duty they had in celebrating and funding Marshall’s discovery of gold fifty years prior. It was the duty of these citizens to celebrate what the city’s elites saw as a shared historical precedent.

The San Francisco Call, December 1, 1897:

[Source Transcription]

Edward Coleman:

During the recent meeting of the California State Miners’ convention in this city the suggestion was made that California should fittingly commemorate, on January 24, 1898, the fiftieth anniversary of the discovery of gold in the state.

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A Way to Remember: Joaquin Miller and the California Gold Rush

March 1, 2012 § Leave a comment

Faith of the Pioneer Myth: 

As California approached its 50th birthday of statehood, its most renowned “poet of the Sierras” penned what would be the motto of remembering the California Gold Rush. Published in the official pamphlet of California’s Golden Jubilee, most visitors and many of the state’s residents would be exposed to this prose. In remembering the Gold Rush, California’s residents referred to the lines in bold (below) for reflection, assistance in commemoration, and in some ways social retribution when invoked in the name of reforming California’s savage past. But more than anything else, Joaquin Miller’s words became a significant temporal linkage. Those who wanted to invoke the Pioneer Myth of California simply had to recite the few words, “The days of old, the days of gold, the days of ’49.”

{Source Transcription}


We have worked our claims,

We have spent our gold,

Our barks are astrand on the bars;

We are battered and old,

Yet at night we behold

Outcroppings of gold in the stars.


Tho’ battered and old,

Our Hearts are bold.

Yet oft do we repine

For the days of old,

For the days of gold.

For the days of forty-nine. (my emphasis)

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Popular Foundations of Identity: The Narrative of Gold’s Discovery in California

February 19, 2012 § Leave a comment

Popular Myth of James W. Marshall’s Discovery of Gold:

          When James W. Marshall discovered gold in 1848, Alta California and the western continent that would become the United States had only just begun its integration into the larger global economy. By 1898, the fiftieth anniversary of that seminal event came to bear on many Californians. Those who identified with the United States’ westward expansion saw themselves on the vanguard edge of the last frontier. The now famous “frontier thesis,” extolled by Frederick Jackson Turner had only just been declared, and California was but the latest and most promising frontier. The “frontier” according to Turner had closed when open land was gone. And to Californian’s in 1898, little seemed to be left of the frontier wilderness legacy of Alta California and the California Gold Rush. San Francisco had become the Pacific Metropolis in the eyes of many. The legacy of Marshall’s discovery in 1898, suggested that the social development of American California was founded on a single event, a single man. The Californian identity around the turn-of-the century was one of a pioneer legacy.

          Printed below is the story of gold’s discovery as presented in California’s Golden Jubilee souvenir pamphlet. The narrative had already been molded and changed since it was first told in 1848-49, as you will read. Official historian of the Society of California Pioneers, John Hittell, when presented with contradictory evidence of the date of discovery, spent a decade tracking down the sources that would speak the truth. By 1893, Hittell presented his findings. But what this change in the narrative suggests is more than a changing date of discovery, but the uncertainty of popular myth and the identities in which they are built upon. Little changed in regard to those who identified with this pioneer myth. However, the fate of John W. Marshall in his later years demonstrates that narrative truth had little influence on the popular myth of California’s birth as an American republic.

[Source Transcription]

The Story of the Discovery of Gold

          It was in the fall of 1847 that Marshall began building that famous sawmill which incidentally led to his discovery of gold. Marshall was in the employ of CAPTAIN JOHN A. SUTTER, a prominent man connected with the pioneer era. He was born of Swiss parents in Baden, February 28, 1803, and was there reared and educated. He served in the army of France until he was thirty years of age, and then emigrated to the United States. His main object in coming was to found a Swiss colony, but while examining the region about St. Charles, Missouri, he lost all his effects by the sinking of the steamer in the Mississippi River, and so abandoned the project. He then set out with a party of trappers, under Captain Tripp of the American Fur Company, to cross the Rocky Mountains. Arriving at For Vancouver, he took ship fro Honolulu, and from there came to San Francisco. He then revived his colonizing scheme, choosing the Sacramento River country for the scene of its foundation.

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James D. Phelan: The Golden City will Rise Again

February 13, 2012 § Leave a comment

The Duty of Collective Identity:

[Source Transcription]

Mayor Phelan’s Call for a Celebration.

California’s Golden Jubilee is the celebration of an event which meant everything for California, a great deal for the Union, and much for the world.

On January 24, 1898, –fifty years ago–gold was discovered by Marshall. At once–Minerva-like–a State sprang into existence. California and all its subsequent history and development, anticipating ordinary processes by two hundred years, took their inspiration from that day. The world was enriched, and the fame of the new State sounded from pole to pole.

Californians would fail in their duty to themselves, to their State and to their country if they did not fittingly celebrate an event upon which so much depended. A celebration will honor a worthy and patriotic sentiment, recall the fact to the minds of men that this is still “the Golden State,” and at the same time attract the argonauts of 1898, now about to seek the golden fleece in the far North. Bearing in mind that our State’s gold is not only in the hills and streams, but in the sunshine, flowers, fruits, grains and wine,–perennially and inexhaustibly golden,–let us make the Golden Jubilee Celebration commensurate with the golden possessions of California, and the golden promise of the years to come.

James D. Phelan, Mayor

Source Citation:


James H. Budd: The Governor Codifies the State’s Golden Past

January 24, 2012 § 2 Comments

The Golden California Holiday:

Image of the title page of the official pamphlet for California's Golden Jubilee, 1898

Printed below is the transcription of a declaration by James H. Budd, Governor of California (1895-1899), that January 24th, 1898 would be declared a legal California holiday. According to newspaper reports, this was not his idea but a request by the leading organizations of the California Golden Jubilee Executive Committee. The members of this committee included San Francisco’s most prominent figures in politics, culture, and industry. James D. Phelan, J. H. Jewett, and T. J. Parsons, respectively, led the push to declare January 24th a legal holiday.

Exemplified in a speech opening the Mechanics’ Fair in 1896 (Click here for full speech), James D. Phelan held a particularly strong view of San Francisco’s providential destiny in which would be codified into California’s newest holiday. Where he wrote:

No longer let it be said, then, of San Francisco, that, in the words of Bret Harte, she is “serene, indifferent to Fate,” but let it rather be known that she is alive to her interests, conscious of her duties, and prepared to merit her destiny manifest, but, as yet, unearned and unwon.

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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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