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Grass Valley’s genius?

Who was the smartest person ever to come from Grass Valley?

My father and grandfather, both Cornish old-school hardrock miners who toiled in many Grass Valley mines, would have persuasively argued that the overall honors would go to any miner who heeded the warnings of the mystical Tommyknockers and thereby avoided being clonked on the head by a falling mine timber. And they would be right.

But … if the standard were more narrow – simply sheer brainpower and intellectual wattage – my vote would be cast for Josiah Royce, prominent philosopher of the 19th century.



Josiah’s father and mother – Josiah Royce Sr. and Sarah – had traveled to California in the heady days of 1849. They arrived after a six-month journey by prairie schooner across the seemingly endless road to the land of golden dreams.

Crossing the desert on their journey, Sarah was disheartened. But the sight of burning tumbleweed to the west provided a beacon of hope and a guidepost to the future. Upon their arrival in Grass Valley in 1854, the Royces had already visited many gold camps, and the town was their ninth home in five years.




On Nov. 20, 1855, in a two-story house near the intersection of Mill and Neal streets, Josiah Royce Jr. was born. He was the fourth and last child of Josiah and Sarah Royce and the only boy.

Called Josie by his family to distinguish him from his father, he was, in the words of biographer Robert Hine, “a precocious, left-handed lad with blue eyes and bright red hair.” He would become, in the eyes of many, America’s pre-eminent philosopher. And Grass Valley would always be home.

Royce was shaped by his Grass Valley upbringing. His father failed at mining, and his childhood was hardscrabble, but the lessons learned were profound. To the end of his life, Josiah Royce insisted that the experiences of his mining camp boyhood were the integral factor in the development of his philosophy. Royce believed that a sense of community was the fundamental issue in defining societal development. He felt the struggle to establish communities out of the rough-and-tumble Gold Rush period was the key factor in California history.

“A child born in one of our far western settlements,” Royce once wrote, “grows up amid a community that is a few years older than himself, and not as old as his older brother. Yet he shall look upon all these rickety, wooden houses, and half-graded streets … as the outcome of an immense past; he shall hear the settlement of the town as he hears of ancient history, and he shall reverence the oldest, deserted, weather-beaten rotting log-cabin of the place … “

It was Grass Valley that spurred his first intellectual steps: “My earliest recollections include a very frequent wonder as to what my elders meant when they said this was a new community.” His life work would be an examination of this concept. His efforts would influence generations of American philosophers and social critics.

Josiah Royce lived his first 10 years in Grass Valley. He recalled that “the sunsets were beautiful. The wide prospects when one looked across the Sacramento Valley were impressive, and had long interested the people of whose love for my country I heard much. But what was there then in this place that ought to be called new…? I wondered, and gradually came to feel that part of my life’s business was to find out what all this wonder meant.”

This wonder eventually took him to the new College of California, soon to be renamed the University of California-Berkeley. Royce graduated from the University of California in 1875, studied in Germany from 1875 to ’76, and finally obtained a Ph.D. in 1878 from Johns Hopkins University. He was an instructor in English literature and logic at the University of California from 1878 to 1882. Royce began philosophy instruction at Harvard in 1882 and remained there until his death in 1916.

Josiah Royce’s birthplace is now the location of the Grass Valley Public Library at 207 Mill Street. At UCLA, one of the four original campus buildings constructed in 1929 is called Royce Hall, in honor of Josiah Royce. The Royce Hall auditorium seats 1,833, houses an antique pipe organ and has been host to a wide variety of world-renowned performing artists.

Royce wrote many books, including “California from the Conquest in 1846 to the Second Vigilance Committee: a Study of American Character” (1886), in which he spelled out his philosophy of community as a crucial element of California development. The book is well known for his description of early California history from 1846 to ’56 as the tale of “the selfishness of individuals.” That selfishness, manifested in greed, lack of social cohesion and vigilante violence, nearly destroyed California, Royce argued. He stated that California was an object lesson that proved that if a society failed to be just and careful, it would reap a terrible harvest. Good could overcome evil, but it took community effort and community loyalty. Growing up in the rough, occasionally lawless early days of Grass Valley, Royce was well acquainted with the society he was examining. As a result, his argument was powerful.

Josiah Royce believed in the potential of California and the West. It was a region of ideas, he felt, a land of possibilities. He hoped that his philosophy would provide direction, just like the burning tumbleweed that guided his mother across the desert in 1849.

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Gary Noy is the director of the Center for Sierra Nevada Studies at Sierra College, 5000 Rocklin Road, LRC 442, Rocklin, 95677. (916) 781-7184. To reach Noy by e-mail, gnoy@sierracollege.edu.


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