Terry McAteer: Yes, Californians are different; history proves it
A critical look at the history of the Golden State shows a number of reasons why we are different from the rest of Americans. As Californians, we have always forged our own trail, sometimes to the extreme … but you already knew that!
In 1967, Pulitzer Prize winning California author, Wallace Stegner, aptly noted:
“If the history of America is the history of an established culture painfully adapting itself to a new environment, and being constantly checked, confused, challenged, or overcome by new immigrations, then the history of California is American history in extremis. Like the rest of America, California is unformed, innovative, ahistorical, hedonistic, acquisitive, and energetic — only more so.”
We may be ahistorical but our roots of uniqueness are in our genes. Our pioneering forefathers and foremothers came to the Golden State to escape their lousy situation in life and to recreate themselves in another light. We attracted felons, the impoverished, scoundrels and losers all who came here to seek their fiscal fortune and redo their lives. There were no blue bloods, there were no aristocrats; they were people who chased a dream, and Captain John Sutter is a perfect example. Faced with debtor’s prison in Switzerland he fled for America. He gave himself the title of “Captain” and constructed a phony lore of his “tony” roots in Europe, ingratiating himself into the Mexican families who controlled Alta California. The rest is history, from Sutter’s Fort to Sutter’s Mill and the discovery of gold.
Californians are also an inclusive people. Since none have had perfect records nor inherited success, we’ve been people who are historically inclusive. Our state Constitution, adopted in 1850, reflected this diversity as it was the first state constitution written in two languages and was completely inclusive in voting rights. We allowed former Mexican citizens to vote, freed blacks to vote, non-property owners to vote and even extended voting rights to Native Americans who petitioned for the right. These voting rights were unheard of in America at the time. Mexican General Mariano Vallejo is a prime example of this inclusion. He was jailed at Sutter’s Fort by Americans during the Bear Flag Revolt. Following his release he attended the California Constitutional Convention and was elected to the first session of the new California State Senate. In fact, he donated the land that the first state capitol in Benicia was built upon. From being part of the enemy to respected statesman — only in California!
Californians have always been a people who dream big. At the state constitutional convention in 1850, the longest debated item, lasting for days, was over the state’s boundaries. Many argued that the eastern boundary of our newly formed state should include the area now comprised of Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico. This would have made the state huge and unlike any other state in the Union. This has always been the case of our state: to attract and nurture big dreamers. Self-made merchants and bankers named Crocker, Hopkins, Huntington and Stanford dreamed big and were the four men responsible for financing and completing the transcontinental railroad in the 1860s. They put their fortunes and reputations on the line and against all odds, created 150 years ago what was then equivalent to the 1969 moon landing: building a railroad over the Sierra!
California’s uniqueness and sense of fulfilling dreams didn’t stop at the gold rush. At the turn of the century it continued on: the advent of the Central Valley breadbasket, Southern California aviation gateway, Hollywood’s movie and television industry and the tech geeks of Silicon Valley. We also continue to be the state of inclusion, welcoming the largest and most diverse groups of immigrants in the country.
Finally, we continue to attract some of the most eclectic citizenry who each come to pursue their individual dream. As The Mamas and the Papas would sing, “California Dreamin’” is alive and well.
Terry McAteer is a member of The Union Editorial Board. His views are his own and do not represent the views of The Union or its editorial board members. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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