“Everyone comes to California for the same four reasons,” explains John Hogan, the Education & Gallery Manager of the Presidio’s new Pioneer Hall. “To get rich, to become famous, to be around people who think the same way, and for the weather.” Hogan identifies as a proud California transplant, but his employer, the Society of California Pioneers, would never grant him membership. The Society only accepts “direct descendants of pioneers who arrived in California prior to January 1, 1850.” And while it dawns on me that my family might qualify for membership, I will never know as much about California’s history as Hogan or his colleagues.
In spite of its exclusivity, The Society of California Pioneers will share its 165-year history with the public at its new location in San Francisco’s historic Presidio. This space houses the Pioneer Hall museum and the Alice Phelan Sullivan Research Library. The Society offers free educational programs to school-aged children and access to the research library is available by appointment.
As Hogan gives me a preview of the new location's debut exhibit, Treasures from the Archive, he points out the pioneer staples that most visitors would expect to find: Gold Rush ephemera from Sutter’s Mill, antique rifles and photographs of Yosemite. As we circulate among partially installed displays, the construction of pioneer history takes shape in my mind.
Just as the Society of California Pioneers originally wanted to keep the “Johnny-come-latelies” out of their gentleman’s drinking club in the 1850s, there are still those who would like to exclude today’s newcomers. Tech is the new gold, but for those who have been “roughing it” in San Francisco for years, the rush feels the same.
When James W. Marshall discovered gold on John Sutter’s property, they both anticipated “unheard-of wealth – millions and millions of dollars, in fact,” according to Sutter’s account displayed at Pioneer Hall. In the end, neither was able to strike it rich. Hogan explains that Marshall spent the latter part of his life wandering the streets hoping to exchange his story and signature for a dollar.
Billion may be the new million but income inequality has been a driving force throughout California’s brief history. The exhibit pointedly contrasts the opulence of the original one-percenters and the struggles of those left destitute: with objects such as a solid gold toothpick on one side of the hall and a crude amputation kit on the other.
Discovery without struggle does not make for a compelling narrative, historical or otherwise. Pioneering can be just as controversial as the newly coined term, “Columbusing,” which describes the attitude that a place does not exist until a white person “discovers” it. Although our relationships to pioneers throughout history may be conflicted, both “day-ones” and new arrivals shape our romantic views of California by constantly rediscovering this place we call home.
That being said . . . let the record show that I was here first.
Treasures from the Archive runs through December 31, 2014. For more information, visit californiapioneers.org.