The Society of California Pioneers was established in 1850 just as California became the 31st state in the Union. After news of the death of President Zachary Taylor reached California in mid August, six prominent San Francisco men and early emigrants to California met on August 23, 1850 to discuss the funeral procession that was to be held in San Francisco. These six men, William D.M. Howard, Sam Brannan, Talbot Green, Ben Lippincott, William Swasey, and James C.L. Wadsworth met and decided to join the funeral procession as a separate body of “pioneers.” They called a meeting for all men of San Francisco who had at least three years of residency. Between forty and fifty men showed up to march in Taylor’s procession as a group. These men formed the base for the society.
The original aims of the Society were to cultivate social bonds, to collect and preserve information related to California history, and to perpetuate the memory of early pioneers. William D.M. Howard was elected the first president of the Society in 1850. Soon after its formation the Society of California Pioneers began looking for a place of its own and found its first location in Brannan’s Express Building at the intersection of Montgomery and California in 1854. Almost immediately, however, the Society wanted to build its own hall and was able to thanks to the donation of a lot at Montgomery and Gold given to the Society by member James Lick. It was built in 1862 and had space to rent out to provide revenue as well as extensive amenities for social events.
In the 1860s, as members fell on hard times financially, the Society expanded its role as an organization and with the help of generous donations by James Lick, was able to support its members and help them through financial difficulties. James Lick also provided the Society with another plot of land on Fourth Street between Mission and Market. Construction started in 1884 and the second Pioneer Hall was completed in 1886. In the earthquake of April 18th 1906 both Pioneer Hall and Old Pioneer Hall were destroyed.
However the Society was able to bounce back from the disaster and in 1907 the third Pioneer Hall at No. 5 Pioneer Place was completed. The fourth Pioneer Hall was built at 456 McAllister Street and was the home of Pioneer Hall until the 1990s, when they moved to 300 Fourth Street. Today, The Society’s offices, museum, and The Alice Phelan Sullivan Library are housed in Pioneer Hall at The Presidio, on the historic Main Post in one of the iconic Montgomery Barracks Buildings.
The last of the original pioneers died in 1939 and a new era was ushered in. Although junior members had been in control of the society for many years, with the death of the last of the senior member, member distinctions ceased to exist. The Society of California Pioneers was open to all male descendants of California residents (both male and female) who arrived before 1850. In 1996 the Society opened its membership to women. There had previously been two other associated organizations for the female descendants of pioneers, the Women’s Auxiliary, which was founded in 1901 and the Daughters of California Pioneers, which was founded in 1900 and ceased in 2006. The Auxiliary is still active today and now includes both men and women.
Today the Society of California Pioneers is still under the leadership of direct descendants of California pioneers. It serves as a venue for California art, history, and culture. Pioneer Hall has a museum with rotating exhibits and the Alice Phelan Sullivan library, which are both open to the public. It is the location of many exhibitions and programs related to California History. The Society emphasizes educational programs and the preservation of historical materials.