Adventuring, Reminiscence, and Nostalgia: A Path to an Early California Identity

December 20, 2011 § Leave a comment

The Society of California Pioneers: Identity & Temporal Orientation

Founded in 1850 the Society of California Pioneers was charged to:

collect and preserve information connected with the early settlement and conquest of [California], and to perpetuate the memory of those whose sagacity, enterprise, and love of independence induced them to settle in the wilderness, and become the germ of a new State.

Membership in the Pioneers was reserved for, “all who were residents of California prior to January 1, 1850, and the male descendants of all such who were members.” James W. Marshall, for example, would be one of those revered pioneers, but his legacy of remembrance would be a rocky one compared with other figures in the pantheon of California’s origin story among the Society of California Pioneers. In the future, Marshall’s precise (and longer) story among the Society of California Pioneers will appear in another post. However, just as Daniel Boone opened the Cumberland Gap and the Cooper’s settled Cooperstown in upstate New York, “Men with names like “Sutter, Reading, Larkin, Stearns, Hensley, Bidwell, Marsh, Young and many others” symbolized the virtues espoused by the Society of California Pioneers. These men they argued were, “Pioneers of the first class…gentlemen.”

A Society of California Pioneers diploma of membership as illustrated in 1898

The membership diplomas demonstrate this nostalgic orientation towards the past.  The certificates reveal a keen reverence for the romance of California’s frontier and pioneering past, and by implication a derision of its recent path in industrial development. The certificate depicts an eight paneled series of distinctly wild California scenes, none of which contain imagery of industrialism. The images of independent miners, Mexican vaqueros, and mission neophytes, juxtaposed with the image of sleepy Yerba Buena cove, expansive San Francisco Bay, and the natural wonders of Yosemite Falls and the Sierra big trees, demonstrates a reverence for what seems to have been lost in their mind.

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