History of The Society of California Pioneers
One August evening in 1850, a group of men gathered at Delmonico’s Saloon on Montgomery Street in San Francisco. Their conversation turned toward the recent passing of President Zachary Taylor and the city-wide funeral procession planned in his honor. The men decided that evening that “they should join the funeral procession as a separate body as pioneers. The suggestion was promptly adopted…” Thereafter a newspaper notice addressed “To Californians of three year’s residence and upwards” summoned some forty or fifty pioneers to partake in the procession together. In the following two months, The Society of California Pioneers organized by writing a constitution, electing officers and commenced holding regular meetings and social events.
The Society of California Pioneers is perpetuated today by direct descendants of those who arrived in California before 1850. The 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire devastated both the building that housed The Society and its contents, including artifacts and documents that had been collected for nearly sixty years. Only the material stored in two vaults, the most valuable and rare of the documents, survived. Following the earthquake and fire, The Society moved to the Civic Center area where the organization remained for more than sixty years. An oral history program was established in the 1970s featuring the personal histories of a variety of notable Californians. In the 1980s, The Society established a Children’s History Gallery in an elegant renovation of the building. This gallery, which included a small theater and unique exhibitions, facilitated the establishment of The Society’s ongoing educational programs for schoolchildren. During that same decade The Society renovated the library which reopened as the Alice Phelan Sullivan Library, providing researchers, students, and others with improved access to our historic collection. By the early 1990s, the library, gallery, theater, and educational programs had established The Society as one of California’s premier small museums and research facilities.
In 1994 a San Francisco urban redevelopment program forced The Society to move out of the McAllister Street location. In the process of relocating to temporary headquarters, the opportunity arose for The Society to compile a thorough digitized inventory of the collection. Dating from before the California Gold Rush to the early twentieth century, The Society’s collection supplies an extraordinary record of the everyday lives of the most culturally diverse population ever to immigrate to a single place at a single time. Today, the categories of the collection include: periodicals; artifacts; clothing; paintings, prints and drawings; the Alice Phelan Sullivan Library; special collections; and photographs. This tremendous variety of historic material comprises one of the most historically significant collections in California.
The Society purchased a site at 300 Fourth Street (at Folsom) in the heart of San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Gardens neighborhood in 1996. At that location, the Alice Phelan Sullivan Library prospered and became the vital part of the academic community that it remains today, providing researchers with enhanced professional services. The Society mounted twenty-two exhibitions in the Seymour Pioneer Museum and Moore Gallery at 300 Fourth Street. A museum education program was developed for each exhibition; these were offered free of charge to thousands of Bay Area public and private schools and nonprofit organizations serving young people.
In 2014, faced with rising costs at the Fourth Street location and seeking improved public visibility, The Society moved to the Presidio of San Francisco. Since then, we have welcomed thousands of happy visitors to our museum gallery with a variety of museum exhibitions and corresponding educational programs. Prior to the pandemic, the number of schoolchildren served increased annually with our outreach continuing to grow, courtesy of our enhanced visibility in the Presidio and collaborations with organizations such as The Walt Disney Family Museum. Our history and past accomplishments, combined with our spectacular location and strong Board of Directors, all lend to a successful future for The Society of California Pioneers.