I would vote Museum of California in Oakland, as my favorite one in the San Francisco Area. It is divided into three levels. The first floor on the ground explains the natural history of California, including ecology, our water-source projects, unique West Coast bio-diversity and legal battles for their protection.
For history and culture, it was the second floor that made my jaws drop. Not only did I see detailed exhibits concerning every phase in California’s history, but also poignant personal records from people in the past, as well as modern descendants of all communities, narrating their stories from their own point of view.
The third floor contains exhibits of artists from California but I did not find time to visit it, having lost an entire day in the history section itself. Here are some photographs and stories behind them.
[Content Warning – Historic prejudices and injustice]
First Communities of California
This part of the museum focusses on Ohlone people, who were local to the San Francisco area. The artifacts and storytelling are commissioned to modern Ohlone artists and historians, who use “We/Our” instead of “They/Their” in the labels, shifting the traditional European gaze in history-telling of indigenous people.
Pre-European foods in California – Acorn mush, potatoes, salt, wild game and herbs (like sage) and wild berries for seasoning.
The above is an art-piece by an Ohlone artist depicting an earth-renewal ceremony which is practiced today.
Spanish Exploration & Contact
The name California comes from here.
California was long-thought to be an island instead of a peninsula.
Europeans introduced Native communities to domesticated animals like cattle and horses. But these also led to bringing animal-originated diseases from Europe which local folks did not have immunity towards. This killed locals as much as direct conflict with guns.
Ohlone people used feathers to show veneration to their deities and ancestors. When an early European expedition left behind a cross, it was later found with feathers on it, as a gesture of honoring from locals.
As Spain and Portugal fought to divide up the Western Hemisphere, the Pope drew a vertical line, which gave Brazil and Atlantic islands to Portugal and the rest of Americas to Spain. If you ask me, it looks like the Spanish were clearly more favored in Rome.
Spanish Conquest and New Society
The Missionary system in California was complex. On one hand, they took the lands from Natives and exploited their labor for supporting their income. But on the other hand, Missionaries attempted to protect them from further Spanish military expansion or resource-extraction schemes. Since Spain was a Catholic country, the missionaries petitioned the Pope himself to protect native people who had converted to Christianity. This strategy was eventually unsuccessful and large-scale replacement and resource-extraction by European military generals eventually happened.
A Conquistador’s helmet.
Castas – At this point in history, the region was inhabited by many groups of people – Indigenous communities, Afro-Caribbeans, Creoles, Spanish-Moors and Northern Europeans, as well as a lot of mixed families between them. This gave way to an elaborate Caste-System and a stratified society, with each “Casta” having limited access only to some foods, and some types of clothing, giving rise to distinct cultures between them.
As a Part of Mexico
At the time Mexico gained independence from the Spanish Empire, its society was no longer built upon early Mission systems. They were now replaced by Ranchos. Ranches were large farmlands for cattle-herding, driven by ruthless private ownership, and self-sufficient societies with private security within each ranch.
The Spanish word for cowboy is Vaquero, which is the origin for the modern word Buckaroo.
The Mexican-American war resulted in ceding a large number of territories to the United States.
California becomes a US Territory
After California became a part of the USA, an unexpected development happened – gold was stuck here. This lottery of nature would now lead to thousands of people from all over Americas, Europe and China to come to this place to chase after the golden dream. California would transform from a frontier land to the land of millionaires.
I will cover the next exciting phase of history in upcoming parts.
California – II : Gold Rush and Wild Wild West
California – III : Hollywood, War, Technology & Justice