Structures of Collective Identity ~ Temporality

November 21, 2011 § Leave a comment

A New Year Inspires Reflection:

"San Francisco New Years Eve, 1898"

Image in The San Francisco Call (January 1, 1898) depicting the celebration of New Years Eve as the procession passes the Claus Spreckels Building (The Call Building)

As the New Year approached, many San Franciscan’s took stock in what the year of 1897 had brought the city, California, and the Union. Demonstrating the pervasiveness of the Gold Rush Pioneer Myth of California, writers, intellectuals, and the commercial-civic elite looked to the past with reverence at those Anglo-American who led their city into the future by transforming a temporary rush & boom of the 1850s, into a long-term development into a “New Era,” in the words of the San Francisco Call. As historian of commemoration, John R. Gillis has demonstrated, “memories help us make sense of the world we live in,” and we constantly revise our memories to fit our current identities.

Social Identity Dynamics:

Certainly the conception of any identity is socially and historically constructed. As historian of tradition David Lowenthal writes of the centennial exhibition of the United States in 1876, it led “many [in]to retrospection, and historians adjudged the century’s earlier decades more fruitful, harmonious, and admirable than the later ones.” But this tendency of retrospection did not presuppose romantic nostalgia of the past. Individuals and groups may acknowledge the virtues of yesteryear and the benefits of relics and roots, but many also know that the old has to give way, that youth must be served, that new ideas need room to develop – that the past does indeed constrain the present.” Many San Franciscan’s saw their society entering into a new epoch of Californian and thereby American history. The state’s growth was seen as a sign of the progressive trajectory of a region once inhabited by a diminishing empire.

Image from The San Francisco Call (December 26, 1897) from the children's page

The concept of the city’s progressive development was not lost on San Francisco’s commercial-civic elite. The idea and teleological progress of Manifest Destiny informed San Francisco’s elites that although the pioneers of California were exceptional, they were but intervening steps in the path of civilization on the Pacific Coast. “In this sense,” as historian of California Kevin Starr demonstrates, “as a concept and as an imaginative goal” Californian identity as it developed in the late 19th-century suggested “the cutting edge of the American Dream.” Better than had been seen to develop out of frontiers elsewhere, the story of the Californian republic on the Pacific shores would be the exemplar of Turner’s progressive frontier mechanisms. Many cultural elites, in Lowenthal’s phrasing, “realize that tradition is a brake on progress.” The Society of California Pioneers and the Native Sons of the Golden West in contrast had long commemorated both California’s Admission Day and Marshall’s gold discovery, reinforcing this imagining of American rebirth in a new land. However these organization’s held that California’s pioneers were not degenerates, as a linear vision of societal progress would suggest. But, there “had [also] been some blending in the preceding decades, some moments of amalgamation and imaginative identity wherein Americans had glimpsed possibilities of an alternative California.” The California origin story’s construction was a competition.

New Era Edition

Image of California's Minerva in "New Era Edition" of The San Francisco Call (December 19, 1897).

Individual identity is itself socially, politically, and historically constructed. The same goes for group and urban collective identity. In essence identity is contested, while fractures and silences are more than apparent, but pervasive. The value in regional identity (and individual) though is not in how factual the selected imaginings and rememberings are, as David Wrobel reminds us. But “‘why historical actors constructed their memories in a particular way at a particular time’” that reveals the intricacies of individual and collective identity.

In San Francisco the Pioneer Gold Rush Myth had always held sway among the city’s commercial-civic elite. From the days of the Vigilante Committee to the more recent Chinese Exclusion of the 1880s, the city’s commercial-civic elite employed, participated, and sanctioned this Anglo-American legacy through repeated public rememberings and civic commemorations. This leads me to ask, and likely answered in further posts: What were the most significant ways of remembering the pioneer past in San Francisco? How is this pioneer myth received by the thousands of San Franciscans, let alone those who were not white? And did it matter if you were not white? Origin myths are not factual, neat, or clean, thus could a Chinese San Franciscan see themselves within this pioneer myth?


  • Gillis, John R., ed. Commemorations: The Politics of National Identity. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1996.

  • Glassberg, David. American Historical Pageantry: The Uses of Tradition in the Early Twentieth Century. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1990.

  • Lowenthal, David. The Past is a Foreign Country. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

  • Starr, Kevin. Americans & The California Dream: 1850-1915. Oxford. Oxford University Press, 1973.

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


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