by Paul R. Spitzzeri
The image of the pioneer in early American history is as powerful and pervasive as any, usually embodied in the rugged male blazing trails through “new” territory, generally westward, as if the indigenous people of the continent did not quality as pioneers in their own right. At the Homestead, when Walter P. Temple built La Casa Nueva, he made sure that, in a sunburst tile design outside an arch in the Mission Walkway leading to his adobe mansion, his grandfather, William Workman, was identified as “A Pioneer.”
That identification also resonated strongly with Walter’s uncle, father and brothers when they joined the Society of California Pioneers, an organization formed in San Francisco in 1850, around the time that California was admitted to the Union as the 31st state, even though most of the charter member had only lived for a short time in what became known as the Golden State.
Jonathan Temple was actually a rarity in the Society in that his residency in California went back over two decades when it was formed, while his half-brother, F.P.F., only a resident of eight years still was an “old-timer” compared to the other “pioneers.” F.P.F.’s sons Thomas and William, his first and third children with Antonia Margarita Workman, became members of the organization, as well, though it is unknown how active any were, given that they were among the very few who lived in southern California and the Society was decidedly San Francisco oriented.
The featured object from the Museum’s collection for this post is an 1862 publication issued by the Society to commemorate the laying of the cornerstone for the “New Pioneer Hall” at Montgomery and Gold streets (just west of where the iconic Transamerica Pyramid building stands today), this event held on 7 June, along with an address to celebrate California’s 12th anniversary of admission to the Union, this given on 9 September. After the latter, resolutions were passed “in regard to providing financial assistance to John A. Sutter of Sutter’s Fort and Sutter’s Mill (where the Gold Rush began in early 1848).
The focus is on the two speeches with the first given by Willard B. Farwell (1829-1903), who was born in Marlboro, Massachusetts, about 20 miles from Reading where Jonathan and F.P.F. were from. He was among the earliest of the Gold Rush ’49ers, arriving in California that summer and taking the first steamboat to ply the Sacramento River ferrying miners towards the fields—the craft was, of course, named The Pioneer.
An avid inventor, Farwell was also the editor of the San Francisco newspaper, the Alta California (which, not surprisingly, published his speech in its edition of the 8th) served as president of the Society in 1863-1864, was appointed a naval officer at San Francisco by President Lincoln, was a county supervisor in 1885-1886, and, most notoriously, was the author of one of many anti-Chinese books, The Chinese At Home and Abroad (1885), as well as a memoir about his migration to California.
In greeting his fellow Society members, Farwell began by asserting that
The work which we have assembled to perform, co-incident as it is with a marvelous epoch in the world’s history, commemorates alike the planting of Americanism in this Western land, and the nativity of our fraternal organization . . . In our hearts it is regarded as second alone to that day which gave birth to American Independence, to which it is so close and fitting a successor.
He also noted that 7 July “is the anniversary of the unfurling of the American Flag over the soil of California, and of the organization of the Society of California Pioneers,” the first being the date when Navy personnel raised “Old Glory” at Monterey in 1846 in the American seizure of California during the Mexican-American War and which Farwell averred was “a blessed day in our country’s history.”
After noting that the new hall would resound with such Society members and heroes as Henry W. Halleck, George Stoneman, William Tecumseh Sherman, and others who served in the Army or had official roles in California before the Civil War but rose to great prominence, in these three cases, as Union generals during that conflict, Farwell asserted that it was right to “renew our fealty to the Union.” This was because “traitorous hands have trailed [the flag] in the dust, and desecrated its folds,” while “black hearted conspirators sought long to compass its permanent dishonor, and our national destruction.”
The orator added that “from abroad come the aunts, and jeers, and threats of nations that should have been first to have sympathized with us in our efforts to bring the authors of this long list of horrors to retributive justice.” But, he offered, “in the providence of God, and the true greatness of American republicanism, the wicked schemes of these monster men are being thwarted, and a terrible retribution is approaching.” Of course, it took almost three more years for that to happen and there were broad concerns that the Union would not triumph over the Confederacy for quite a while longer.
After waxing eloquently over the Civil War conditions of the country, Farwell, warned “pioneers, whilst we cherish this patriot faith, this loyal love of our country and her institutions, let us not be unmindful of the social duties of our daily lives.” He wondered if, far in the future, later generations might not discover the time capsule laid in the cornerstone and find the relics “to remind them of the fathers and the founders of this then great commonwealth of civil and religious freedom.”
He implored his compatriots “be it our task that we so shape its and their destiny, that our memories may be cherished and respected by a posterity that shall have no cause to be other than deeply, sincerely grateful.” An end note added that “frequently during its delivery, and particularly at the close, the applause, loud and continuous, attested the satisfaction of the audience at the sentiments uttered by the speaker” and another stated that “another soul-stirring air by the band” was followed by the reading of a poem by Eliza A. Pittsinger (1837-1908), who was known as “The California Poetess,” though long-forgotten now.
Her work was titled simply “Poem” and the first of its five stanzas more than gets the point across:
Launched high above he waves of doubt and fear,
With hopes outstretching o’er the Western Sea,
Behold the brave, victorious Pioneer!
In friendship firm—in danger bold and free—
Now, fancy, to our charmed and wondering gaze,
In bright phantasmal scenes tat swiftly glide,
Each worthy deed ad sacrifice portrays
That springs sublime above the changing tide—
She leads us back to each eventful day,
A hope’s lone star above the dismal way
In dawning radiance, bade the Pilgrim haste
His cheerless journey o’er the Desert waste—
She leads us back to each eventful morn,
When o’er the dark and restless waves were borne,
A little firm, united, faithful band,
Who sought the “Golden Fleece” in this, our Western Land.
Other elements of the poem speak of “the onward march of Science” and the magic of teeming cities where “once the savage in his rude desire / Fantastic danced around the wigwam fire,” while, under the guidance of the “Great Soul Divine,” a brotherhood in California would, it was hoped “exemplars may we be, of Union—and our land!”
Inside the “casket” placed in the cornerstone were copies of Society documents, the published debates of the 1849 constitution, a San Francisco directory for 1861-1862, the state register of 1859, a drawing of San Francisco in 1849, copies of each newspaper and periodical published in that city, U.S. coins and an American flag. A Masonic ceremony was conducted as part of the event, including the pouring of corn and oil on the stone, and a flag procession included “Captain Seymour, of the Black Hussars carrying the “Los Angeles Bear Flag,” though the Black Hussars was a San Francisco militia.
The Admission Day address was given by Ebenezer H. Washburn (1816-1868), a native of New York and who was in Missouri before he migrated during the Gold Rush to the coast and worked as a merchant in San Francisco. At the time he delivered his speech Washburn was a federal tax collector and his place in California history, at the time, was marked by his being defendant in the case of Lin Sing vs. Washburn.
This suit challenged an “Anti-Coolie” law, which specifically was titled “to discourage the Immigration of the Chinese into the State of California,” passed in 1862 and which subjected all Chinese not engaged in certain occupations, namely, the manufacture of coffee, rice, sugar and tea, these being important products, to a $2.50 monthly “Chinese Police Tax.” The law was declared unconstitutional by the state supreme court and, after leaving office, Washburn worked as a stockbroker until his death.
In his oration, Washburn noted that the admission of California made it “the setting of another brilliant amid the gleaming cluster, which until so recently shone with undimmed splendor on the coronal of Liberty,” but, the onset of the war meant that, “in this dark hour of country’s peril we have assembled with saddened hearts, and subdued spirits, to commune together—to renew our vows of amity, and to review the objects of our organization.”
These included “to cultivate social intercourse among its members,” to collect and preserve materials “connected with the early settlement and subsequent conquest of the country,” and to remember “those who sagacity, energy and enterprise, induced them to settle in the wilderness, and become the founders of a new State.” In addressing specifics, Washburn claimed that
California, down to a period commencing but little prior to the date of our organization, was regarded by the civilized world as a far-off desert land, whose inhospitable coasts and arid wastes presented no prize of sufficient value to tempt nations to its conquest; no inducements to strenuous and sustained efforts at colonization.
Spanish colonization involved a “zealous” Roman Catholic Church “establishing here and there a Mission” and “some few of the descendants of the Conquerors of Mexico” were found, as well, while Russia had “a feeble colony” at Fort Ross “and individual adventurers from our own and other lands had here rested from their wanderings,” this presumably meant the Temple brothers! The seizure of California “was incidental to a war waged for other objects against the nation that then feebly held it in possession.”
Yet, Washburn went on, “here fertile valleys slept in virgin loveliness . . . awaiting but the husbandmen’s caress to yield a glad response in golden grains and generous fruits.” Moreover, due to “God’s providence,” once “civilized man” took possession of California, “suddenly the treasure vaults of nature . . . were unlocked, and from their deep recesses there sprang forth a golden light, whose brilliancy attracted the attention of the world.” In turn came “ambitious and adventurous spirits [who] foresaw in this event the opening of an arena for deeds of high and noble enterprise,” these, naturally, being the “brave and resolute men, the ‘Pioneers of California.'”
The speaker did, however, offer praise to “the earlier Pioneers—the Pioneers, par excellence, of California” who were those “of hardy frames and heroic souls” and led only “by a noble ambition and a spirit of daring adventure” who, unaware of the golden bounty lying hidden away, were “the Pioneers or Pioneers to this coast.” For these “elder brethren” were given “the chiefest places of honor” in the Society.”
Washburn, however, asserted that those who “induced the organization of this Society,” included those who came from “almost very nation of the earth,” though, obviously, there were no Chinese, Mexicans, South Americans or Blacks in the organization. He went so far as to ask “have we not found sectional pride and bigotry, and local prejudices, yielding and melting away?” and whether members “learned to regard more kindly and more charitably the opinions of our fellow men” and judge them “according to their qualities of head and heart.”
He did proclaim the “healthful influences” of the Society whose members had “heart-strings lacerated and still bleeding” from being separated from their friends and family in their far-away native lands. He drew from his experience and being “in the hour of my deepest distress” as fellows from the group “gathered around me, and spoke words of comfort which fell as balm upon my wounded spirits.
In this era, in which “fratricidal hands . . . have proved false to their oaths, false to their honor, false to their county, and false to the dearest hopes of humanity” were accosted by “some strange madness” of pride, bigotry and hate, were turned into “incarnate fiends.” Even California and San Francisco were “invaded by this fell demon of discord,” but this did not happen within the Society.
Washburn observed that “history has been aptly termed “Philosophy teaching by Example,” a quote attributed to Thucydides, the great ancient Greek historian and the Society’s collection and preservation of historical material “shall furnish records of philosophic instruction to coming generations.” This involved gathering newspapers, pamphlets and periodicals in the Society’s growing library, but also “the personal observations and experiences of living actors” and biographies of “early Pioneers” would be invaluable. Having addresses, orations and poems such as those published in his pamphlet were also considered important. He continued,
Let us resolve that these acquisitions shall prove the nucleus of a magnificent collection. Let us gather from every source treasures in this department of knowledge, and guard them with jealous care, constituting a vast store to which the future historian may resort, rejoicing in the fact that the Pioneer Society faithfully accomplished this.
As to memorializing the “pioneers” of California, “the genius of eloquence and of song shall pay homage to their memory, and their deeds shall stand recorded upon the fairest page of history.” Unlike the marauding Norsemen in England or Italy or the Spanish in the New World, America had the Pilgrims who brought “the principles of civil and religious liberty” and were “the apostles of a higher civilization” and “the missionaries of a purer faith.”
While military forces were involved, Washburn insisted that “the early Pioneers” brought their principles to bear peacefully so that, by the time the war came to California and the flag raised, “the native Californians ranged themselves beneath its protecting folds and looked up to its beaming stars as harbingers of a more glorious future.” He even offered “all honor to Native Californian American citizens!” adding that “many of them have been promoted to high places of honor and trust within our State” and “all of them remain true and loyal to their allegiance” unlike the Confederates. Of course, the soaring rhetoric was one thing at this event, but the real world was quite another!
Though he did not intend to single out individuals, Washburn paid homage to San Francisco capitalist James Lick (who once owned Santa Catalina Island in our region) for his financial support of the Society as well as his donation of the lot for the new Society hall. He also mentioned “the generous, noble-hearted SUTTER!” whose hospitality and kindness, including to immigrants, the homeless and the destitute, were praised. It was added that “to-day we hear that misfortune has come upon him” and the orator hoped that “free-will offerings [will] be showered upon one whose many virtues have endeared him to the hearts of all.”
In its resolution, a committee of the organization’s former presidents reported that $500 was raised at the Admission Day event and to be invested for Sutter’s benefit and that newspapers would publish the resolutions “and urge upon their readers the propriety of contributing something in aid of this fund.”
Washburn ended by lauding his fellow pioneers and the city of San Francisco and ended with a paean to the Golden State:
I see revealed an Empire transcending in magnificence any that the sun has ever shone upon, and over all I see proudly waving the banner of Freedom, our country’s flag, every star lustrous in renewed splendor, its folds radiant with the reanimated hopes of humanity.
As these scenes crowd upon my imagination, my bosom swells with conscious pride that I, too, am a Pioneer of California.
As for the Society of California Pioneers, it is still active and has recently reopened with an exhibit on “African American Histories in Rural California,” demonstrating just how much the organization has changed with the times.