Society of California Pioneers
Backstory and Context
The Society of California Pioneers, established the same year California became a state in 1850, is headquartered at the former U. S. Army's Montgomery Street Barracks in the Presidio of San Francisco. The Pioneer House contains the extensive historical collections of the Society, as well as a free museum and non-circulating library which are accessible to the public. Guided tours and school programs are also available. The Society's collections include over 10,000 documents related to California's history from the Spanish and Mexican eras to World War II, as well as historic photographs, music, artwork, and historic artifacts.
History of the Society of California Pioneers
In August of 1850, San Francisco was to hold a funeral procession for President Zachary Taylor, only a month after California became the 31st state in the Union. A group of six prominent San Franciscans, all early emigrants to California, met on August 23, to discuss their role in the funeral procession as California Pioneers. These six, William D. M. Howard, Sam Brannan, Talbot Green, Ben Lippincott, William Swasey, and James C. L. Wadsworth, decided to invite all San Francisco men with at least three years of residency to join them in the procession. The forty to fifty men who showed up became the basis for the Society of California Pioneers, a group whose goals was to "perpetuate the memory of those whose sagacity, enterprise, and love of independence induced them to settle in the wilderness," . It is the oldest continually-operating organization west of the Mississippi, was responsible for opening one of the first libraries in California, and is still maintained by the direct descendants of pre-1850 pioneers. Brannan’s Express Building, at the intersection of Montgomery and California, became the first headquarters for the society in 1854. The following year, the society established an acquisition fund and opened a public reading room. Between 1860 and 1878, the Pioneer Hall library's collection grew from 600 to 3,000 volumes, and Society member James Lick donated a lot for a the California Pioneers to construct their own building in 1862. When the economic downturn caused by the eruption of the Civil War took its toll on the Society's members, James Lick's donations also supported many California Pioneers. In addition, Lick donated yet another plot of land on Fourth Street when the Society required a larger building in the 1880s. The second Pioneer Hall was completed in 1886, but both the new and old Pioneer Halls were destroyed in the earthquake of 1906. During the ensuing fire, most of the books in the Society's collection were lost--only documents in the vault, including Sutter's original diary chronicling the 1848 discovery of San Francisco gold, survived. The Society of California Pioneers rebuilt their collection and moved headquarters four more times before settling at the Presidio in 2014. In 1939, the last of the original California Pioneers died. Though women participated in the Daughters of California Pioneers (1900-2006) and the Women's Auxiliary (founded in 1901), it was not until 1996 that the Society opened membership to women.
The Alice Phelan Sullivan Library
Over 10,000 books, manuscripts, maps, journals, newspapers, and autobiographical materials related to the early history of California (from the 17th century on) are available at the Alice Phelan Sullivan Research Library. In addition, the library has more than fifty pioneer diaries, an eight-volume set of autobiographies and accounts written by its founding members at the turn of the 20th century, 250 newspaper collections and 300 periodical collections, 1,000 diaries and ship's logs, and 3,000 maps. Other documents include playbills, sheet music, scrapbooks, ledgers, pamphlets, the Cooper-Molera papers on early California, the Patterson Mining Collections, Angel Island immigration records, and the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915 collection. The materials are non-circulating, but the library is open to researchers by appointment. Some of the materials are also available online at the Society of California Pioneers website (linked below). Online exhibitions include: Autobiographies and Reminiscences of Early Pioneers: 1900-1904, Getting to The Gold Fields, Popular Songs of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, Yosemite Lantern Slides circa 1900, Judging By The Cover: The History of Decorative Publishers’ Bindings, and Alvin Aaron Coffey: African American Pioneer.
California Art and Photography Collections
California's early artists founded the Bohemian Club, joined the Society of California Pioneers, volunteered for the Vigilante Committee fire department, and otherwise helped shape the history of the area--a history they both participated in and helped document. The Society of California Pioneers' gallery of pioneer art, including drawings, paintings, and prints, was the only San Francisco art collection with full public access during the 19th century. Though much of the original art collection was lost to the disasters of 1906, the Society formed a new collection, totaling 2,500 works today--not counting the archive of 60,000 photographs, lithographs, panoramas, and daguerreotypes (early photographs rendered on silvered metal plates). During the Gold Rush, daguerreotypes were much in demand, as many new Californians wanted to send photographs back to their families. The Pioneers hold an extensive collection of California-produced salt prints (warm-toned photographs with a matte finish), albumen prints, stereographs, and special photographs including Carleton Watkins' enormous vintage glass-plate prints and Eadweard Muybridge's 360 degree panorama of San Francisco.
As the Gold Rush of 1849-1849 swelled the population of San Francisco, the city strove toward culture and refinement. Formal portraiture and scenes of everyday life in the city were in demand, drawing artists to the new "Paris of the West". In 1857, San Francisco held California's first major art exhibition. With the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, landscape artists from around the world came to paint the California landscape and seascape. Based in studios in San Francisco, artists such as Thomas Hill and William Keith, went out on sketching trips, bringing back field drawings as a basis for their paintings. In 1872, San Francisco artists including Jules Tavernier, Thomas Hill, William Keith, and Theodore Wores formed the all-male Bohemia Club, an artistic and cultural center. Around the same time, the plein air painting style became popular among Californian artists, some of whom traveled to Paris. Out of this influence came the distinctly Californian Tonalism, popular from the late nineteenth century to the 1920s. The San Francisco Art Association founded the California School of Design in 1893, which evolved later into the San Francisco Art Institute. The first class in the school was composed of 60 students, 46 of whom were women. One of these women, Alice Chittenden, went on to become the first woman faculty member of the School of Design and was one of the first women to exhibit at the Bohemia Club. After the 1906 Earthquake and fires, the California art scene became more regional, with the exception of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915. Impressionism and California Decorative style dominated from 1917-1929, when the Great Depression disrupted the economy, including the art market. All of these eras of California art, and on into more modern styles, are represented in the collection of the Society of California Pioneers.
History of the Society. California Pioneers. Accessed April 09, 2017. http://www.californiapioneers.org/home/history/.