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Feature

“History Alive!”

A Chautauqua for California

HUMANITIES, January/February 1998 | Volume 19, Number 1

Produced by the California Council for the Humanities, "History Alive!" features dramatic, historically accurate portrayals of figures of the California Gold Rush. A chautauqua performance, modeled after the tent assemblies of nineteenth-century America, encourages audience members to engage directly with these historical personalities and the scholars who portray them.

Between February and the end of the year 2000, the California Council will schedule appearances by these characters in more than one hundred communities throughout California. It is giving grants to enable smaller nonprofit organizations to stage chautauquas in their communities.

Juana Briones. One of the most prominent women in early California, and one of most successful in the American period. Juana Briones grew up as the daughter of the commandante of the Presidio at San Francisco and, with her husband, was one of the first civilians settled in the colony of Yerba Buena. Her success on her own as a businesswoman, landowner, rancher and humanitarian was unusual for a woman of those times. She was also one of the few Californio landowners who successfully fought for her land grants, in what are now San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Yee Fung Cheung. A famous herb doctor who came from China in 1850 to care for Chinese miners and others. Yee Fung probably prospected for gold before giving it up to practice what he knew best--herbal medicine. He set up his first herb shop in Chinese Camp in Fiddletown. Later he set up offices in Virginia City, Nevada (during the silver strike) and in Sacramento. Dr. Yee was joined in his practice by his second son, T. Wah Hing. Both affected many famous cures and took care of the sick of all races and nationalities.

Antonio Garra. A Cupeno Indian, Garra was the leader of the 1851 Indian Tax Revolt in southern California against the United States for the same reasons that inspired the American colonialists to revolt against England -- no taxation without representation. He also fought for Indian rights to due process in the judicial system. He lost his struggle and his life in the cause.

José Jesús. A Siakumne Indian of the Central Valley Yokuts, Jesús was an alcalde (mayor or leader) at Mission San Jose, who after secularization, returned to the Central Valley and became a leader of his people. During the California period, he earned himself a reputation as "the Christian horse thief." During the Mexican-American War he was contracted by Sutter to fight alongside his Indian brethren as soldiers in Captain John Frémont's Company H of the California battalion. After the war he was hired by Charles Webber and Associates to contract Indian labor ofthe Stockton Mining Company, which opened up almost all of the southern mines.

William Leisdesdorff. A native of the Virgin Islands whose father was a Danish planter and whose mother was black. He went to San Francisco in 1841 in command of an American schooner after making a fortune in New Orleans as a cotton broker. In San Francisco he built the City Hotel and a large warehouse and acquired 35,000 acres of land on the American River. He was appointed the vice-consul under Thomas Larkin. He launched the first steam vessel on the San Francisco Bay. A small downtown San Francisco street is named for him.

Biddy Mason. An African American woman prominent in the early urban history of Los Angeles. Her story exemplifies how Californians struggled with issues of slavery in the 1850s. Arriving in Southern California as a slave in 1851, she later won her freedom and became a midwife and nurse, a philanthropist, and organizer of the First African American Methodist Episcopal Church of Los Angeles.

Pio Pico. Pico was born at the Presidio of Santa Barbara of Spanish, Italian, Indian and African ancestry. Both as a politician and as an entrepreneur he espoused the views of many native-born Californios over directives from distant seats of government. As the last Mexican governor of California, he presided over the secularization of the missions and turned over their vast landholdings to private hands and moved the capital of California from Monterey to Los Angeles. Although he fled California during the American takeover, he returned to build the first major hotel in Los Angeles and serve on the City Council. By the time of his death, Pico had lost everything.

Mary Ellen Pleasant. Civil rights activist and philanthropist known as the "Mother of Civil Rights" in California because of her work in saving runaway slaves, and winning a civil rights case in court. She funneled some of the wealth she earned in real estate and running several boardinghouses in San Francisco during the Gold Rush into her philanthropic and civil rights activities. She fought to secure justice for "colored" citizens in general, and ex-slaves in particular in California.

Sarah Royce. She came as an infant from England to New York. In 1849 she and her husband embarked for California, bringing along their two-year-old daughter. Royce's detailed memoir of that crossing is one of a very few written by a woman. She and her husband settled in Grass Valley and raised four children, among them the noted philosopher Josiah Royce. She subsequently lived in other California communities and was a vital force in shaping educational and religious institutions wherever she lived. Her life in California spanned a 42-year period, ending with her death in San Jose in 1891.

Dame Shirley. Using the pen name Dame Shirley, Louise Amelia Smith Clappe was the first acclaimed literary figure in the state's history, earning that status as the chronicler of life in the mining camps at the height of the Gold Rush. Coming to California from New England with her husband who practiced as a doctor in the Sierra gold mining camps, she described the rugged life and the conflict among the diverse cultural groups with clarity and insight in a series of twenty-three letters written to her sister between 1851-52 and later published in the Pioneer, San Francisco's leading literary magazine of the time. She greatly influenced writers Bret Harte and Mark Twain.

John Sutter. An émigré from Switzerland who came to California to establish his "New Helvetica" in the land of opportunity. A man with vision and organization, Sutter built an economically thriving outpost of Anglo-American settlement in Mexican California based on livestock and lumber using Native American labor. The discovery of gold at a mill owned by Sutter launched the "rush" for gold that ultimately led to his undoing, ruining him financially as the mass of humanity tramped through his lands on their rush to the gold fields.

Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo. Vallejo held both military and civil authority over a vast area of Northern California during the Mexican period. He maintained a local military force, and was acknowledged by foreign merchants, visiting dignitaries, and citizens as the representative of the Mexican government. His land grants at one time included most of what are now Marin, Sonoma, Napa and Solano counties. Although imprisoned by Americans during the Bear Flag Rebellion, he later participated in drafting the new state Constitution, acting as a negotiator and translator, later serving as a state senator. While he lost most of his property during the American period, he retained enough land to sell Mare Island to the U.S. and to offer the town of Benicia as the new state capital.

Camillo Ynitia. The last chief of the Coastal Miwok village of Olompali, he was one of the handful of Native Californians who successfully traversed three diverse cultures. Born into the traditional Miwok world, he adapted to the Spanish world, experienced the Californio/Mexican world, and witnessed the entrance of the American world into California. Considered a gente de razon (a person of reason) during the Mexican period, he was a compadre of Vallejo, who helped him acquire Rancho Olompali.He outwitted Captain John C. Fremont and survived the Bear Flag Revolt.