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SAN FRANCISCO — An exhibit at the California Historical Society in San Francisco, From the Gold Rush to the Earthquake: Selections from the Collection, includes paintings of a sleepy-looking Yerba Buena Cove and a verdant Palo Alto. The show presents perspectives of 19th-century California, including the Gold Rush, the exploration of the Sierras, the agriculture industry, San Francisco’s Chinatown, and the city’s 1906 earthquake and fire. But more striking than the paintings of the state’s beautiful vistas and bounty is the show’s archival material revealing a more brutal history.
The Gold Rush started in 1848 and just two years later, California became a state. People coming from around the country and world to make their fortunes dramatically changed the region, and California became nationally prominent. Less than 60 years later, an earthquake devastated much of San Francisco, the state’s largest city at the time. The California Historical Society show displays a letter a man wrote to his family about the devastation. Since stationary was in short supply, he wrote on what was at hand — in this case, a shirt collar.
Rarely seen artworks present an idyllic view of the state. There are some large paintings of the Sierras, such as an untitled, undated one of Mount Shasta by William Keith. Real estate barons wanting something to hang on the walls of their mansions and owners of large hotels in San Francisco were in the market for paintings like these. But curator Erin Garcia has also added photos, letters, and books to address some of the less than beautiful realities of the time — the treatment of the Chinese and the Native Americans, for example. During the Gold Rush period, 80% of the state’s Native American population was wiped out — victims of displacement, disease, and murder. In 1849, The Daily Alta California wrote: “Whites are becoming impressed with the belief that it will be absolutely necessary to exterminate the savages before they can labor much longer in the mines with security.”
In the section on the Gold Rush hang some mining scenes, which Garcia calls somewhat “kitschy,” that were originally meant to showcase the Wild West to people back East. There’s also a glass case that holds letters between a man trying to make his fortune in the gold fields and his wife back home on the farm in Wisconsin with the children (it’s rare to have both sides of a correspondence). The case also contains an illustration on some stationary, which Garcia thinks shows how white miners thought about Natives Californians and the Chinese who had come to work.
“It’s kind of a triangular formation with white miners coming down the hill behind a family of Native Americans, then ascending you have Chinese men, just men, workers,” Garcia said. “So, at the top of the heap you have a white miner who represents progress, and then you have the Native Americans descending, then you have the Chinese ascending, but they’re still below the white miner.”
As gold mines became exhausted, Chinese immigrants were seen as competition, and violence against the Chinese became common. In one gruesome incident in 1871, a riot broke out in Los Angeles when a rancher was allegedly shot by a Chinese man, and a mob of Anglos and Latinos surrounded Chinatown (now the site of Union Station) where they shot or lynched an estimated 50 Chinese men.
With the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, white people started to see Chinatown as less threatening, Garcia says, and painters became interested in the neighborhood as a subject. One of the paintings in the show, “New Year’s Day, St. Louis Alley” (1886) by Edwin Deakin, is on an elongated canvas, and he signed the work vertically to mimic Chinese painting.
The case has some Chinese-language newspapers, including The Golden Hills’ News, and portrait studio photos where Chinese people chose how they wanted to portray themselves. One photo shows a man holding a book and a flower, and another a woman with a fan.
“The idea here is to bring a little more dimension to what you’re seeing in the paintings which tend to be landscapes and tend to paint a rosy picture of a really tumultuous time in California’s history,” Garcia said. “This was a time of devastating destruction to Native populations even more so than the period that had come before and terrible inequity to groups like the Chinese and Mexican Californians. The paintings don’t show that because they’re by Anglo Americans or Europeans.”
From the Gold Rush to the Earthquake: Selections from the Collection continues at the California Historical Society (678 Mission St, San Francisco) through March 29. The exhibition was curated by Erin Garcia.