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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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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The Identity of Space: California’s Golden Jubilee

February 12, 2012 § Leave a comment

Living with the Identity of Space:

Continuing a strategy of providing the primary sources along with analysis, here is another significant statement of California and particularly San Francisco’s collective identity. While the process by which this collective identity is established is complex, (see my exchange on the USIH Bloghere) the resulting influence of an established identity is that residents of the state and the city must reconcile their own individual and group identities with those deployed by the commercial-civic elite and the socially powerful. Below is a statement printed in California’s Golden Jubilee Souvenir Program which describes the story of California and San Francisco’s rise as the most significant example of American Manifest Destiny.

Collective Statement of San Francisco’s Established Historical Identity

[Source Transcription]


Fifty years ago to-day a man stood shouting in the wilderness, “I have found it! I have found it!” His hand held rigidly aloft a scrap of yellow metal. It was gold! Being a simple man and ignorant of the fact that he was a maker of world history, an accident of Fate, he naturally thought to turn his find to his and his companions’ profit solely, limiting the rich secret to their own small circle. But see how Fate made little of his intentions, and how events, like a heard of stampeded cattle, overrode his plans.

There were other men and also a woman in this camp in the wilderness, and they shared the secret and soon it was traveling. Just how is not known. One account relates that the woman, having no one else to tell it to, narrated the great event to a passing teamster, who happened providentially along. But he was a doubting teamster, and teh woman finally gave him one of the little scraps of gold, –thus triumphantly convincing him. And so the teamster went his dusty way, and at the first tavern sold the metal to quench his thirst, and with it went the story. Others again say that one of the laborers grew tired of work, and, quitting, took with him some of the shining bits he had picked up in the creek bed. Presently he fell in with a man who had been a practical miner in another country, who stared and questioned, and forthwith hastened to the scene with pick and pan, –the forerunner of untold thousands of other men with pics and pans. But what does it matter how the story leaked away? It was the world’s secret, not theirs; and, while at first it crept forth in devious whisperings, it was not long before it was passing orm mouth to mouth, outspoken, and even as it passed the sound of it grew louder, thrilling and vibrating in the hearts of those who heard and passed it on to others, until its mighty voice went thundering to the four corners of the earth,–Eureka!  Eureka! I HAVE FOUND IT!

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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.

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.

Regional Imagination: Poka-Dots, Hammer Pants and Seattle Grundge

November 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

California Regional Identity – Is it Simply Participatory?

Pinecrest, California

Photo of Pincrest Lake, California, some 6,500 ft elevation in Tuolumne County

It was a funny thing growing up in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California in the 80 and 90s. Besides Hammer Pants, Poka-Dots and Seattle “grunge,” among other things, my community remained relatively isolated from national trends in fashion, music, & mass urban popular culture. The cities and “the city” (read San Francisco) were places far distant, yet strangely familiar. The idea that an urban identity existed came to me when I was young and I noticed quite clearly that not only were the clothes different from us country folk, but also the attitudes of urbanites were quite different.

However in the late 90s a new California identity emerged in California popular culture. This new northern California identity came with little fanfare to my hometowns (I moved a lot in a small area), yet by the time I left high school in the late 90s it was clear that “NorCal,” as one commercial brand put it, became more than just a state of mind but an identity with varying levels of participation. For my friends and others around me it was a way of distinquishing oursleves from the rest of the nation, and particularly in contrast to the stereotypes of wealthy, elite, and capitalist Southern California. If you didn’t identify with northern california, explicitly or implicitly, you were in effect considered an outsider.

In hindsight, thinking about this almost hegemonic regional identity illustrates two distinct dynamics in imagining a regional identity. First one is geographic. Simply living in Northern California, I was almost obliged to identify with “NorCal” or a Northern California identity. However, on the other hand, identity is also participatory and did I participate in this northern identity or simply benefit from it? Is ignoring the popular imagining of regional identity acquiescing to cultural hegemony?

"Lake Tahoe, California"

Photo of Lake Tahoe, California in the Winter of 2010-11. Photo by Calhistorian

This 21st century paradox of space and identity I imagine was not all that different from Northern California a hundred years prior as I look at it in San Francisco in the 1890s. By the time I left for the University of California in 2007, I seemed to almost appropriate or accept this identity, not through comparison or direct association, but by contrast. I was NOT Southern Californian!

One factor which influenced my identification with Northern California was the urban spaces I associated with. As a rural resident, I identified myself as rural. But at the same time I wasn’t just a citizen of Tuolumne County, but of California, and the United States. Psychologically my identity stretched to Washington D.C., San Francisco, and other satellite urban spaces in which I interacted. While Sacramento provided a image of civic governance and state power, it was San Francisco which filled my visions of the quintessential city – the apex of urban development. It was images and visions of San Francisco when I thought of cities and the urban environment. This I imagine was little different for California’s of the late 19th century. While Sacramento could represent state power, San Francisco could represent everything else.

Certainly there are geographic levels of association to urban places. The nearest city where I grew up, Sonora, California, was for a long time my only reference to such an agglomeration of capital, people, and the built environment. But as I widened my experience beyond my home county, San Francisco came to represent the center of Northern California culture. The apex of science, art, culture, and urbanity, could all be readily drawn from “the city by the bay.”

So when I evaluate regional identity in 1890s California, do we see a similar situation of geographically split identity as I experienced myself? According to historian Glen Gendzel (Pioneers and Padres: Competing Mythologies in Northern and Southern California, 1850-1930. 2001) and others, two distinct regional identities existed in the late 19th century as well as into today. Centered on the “instant city,” a Northern California identity matured as San Francisco and the northern part of the state developed into a wide and productive mining and commercial economy. In contrast, in the 1880s, Los Angeles began to see its own development mature into an urbane future. As the Southern Pacific Rail Road was completed, floods of midwest migrants, as well as Mexican immigrants developed the southern part of the state. San Francisco began to see that the legacy of the Bear Flag Republic, the Gold Rush, and dominance of the Pacific market was being challenged by the supremacy of LA, its population, and its inland empire.

"Won't They Remain Here In Spite of the New Constitution?"

"Won't They Remain Here In Spite of the New Constitution?" - Image Courtesy of Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

While San Francisco came to see its own past as based in “Pioneer Myth,” it easily incorporated California’s Spanish and Mexican heritage as subjugated historical memories. The Spanish and Mexican periods, the Pioneer myth illustrates, was supplanted by the more industrious and pious christians from the East. The 1894 California Mid-Winter Fair held in San Francisco was precisely this declaration of Anglo- and San Franciscan supremacy and dominance of the new emerging California. Perhaps in contrast to Gendzel, who points to two independent and competing regional identities based in the south and north, maybe it is more appropriate to argue that L.A. appropriated the Spanish and Mexican legacy out from under San Francisco’s pioneer legacy as it rose to prominence in the 1890s and 1900s.

Therefore while we can agree that two distinct regional identities operated, derived from two perceived urbane landscapes and regional imaginations (SF & LA), were they mutually exclusive? In other words are we still stuck in a theoretic rut by assuming that identity is static, conforming, or unintelligent? As I had difficulty when I was young figuring out which ‘identity’ to accept (Northern or Southern), identity in the 1890s was likely influenced by similar ambiguities and choices. Thus, how are we to determine historically how a person identifies themselves?

If we accept Mexican-American historian George Sanchez’s model of cultural adaption, “any notion that individuals have occupied one undifferentiated cultural position – ‘Mexican,’ ‘American,’ or ‘Chicano’” must be abandoned for the sake of accepting “multiple identities.” For me the new paradigm hinges on participation and multiplicity of ends in deploying various identities. How are we to understand Chinese and Japanese participation in the pioneer myth of San Francisco? What discourses played between these seeming contrasting identities? Or, as with my case, how do we reconcile a rural identity which is intimately bound to an urban space, like San Francisco and the pioneer myth?


  • 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.

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

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