This fascinating group portrait depicts the founding members of the Sacramento Society of California Pioneers, a social organization created in 1854 by some of Sacramento’s leading figures who had also been among the first pioneers to arrive in California during the Gold Rush of 1849. The society’s members recognized that they had lived through extraordinary times and that these formative years would one day be of great significance in the history of the United States and, in particular, California.
The aim of the society was, therefore, to celebrate this legacy and to preserve the memory of its members’ Gold Rush-era experiences for posterity. The organization was built as a fraternal or masonic lodge, in which camaraderie, civility, and patriotism among its members and their families were strongly promoted.
The current portrait was made for the society in 1878 as a way of remembering those pioneers who originally came to California during the Gold Rush, settled in Sacramento, and helped turn it into the new state capital. It was both a celebratory and commemorative sheet meant to cast the society’s founding members as key historical figures in the impressive development that northern California especially had gone through in the last two decades.
The portrait was compiled using a technique known as albumen printing, in which photographic likenesses could be transferred from the negative glass plate directly onto paper. This dramatically expanded the possibility of multiplying photographs or of modifying or compiling them in the manner done here. Our sheet is essentially an overlaying of individual portraits to form a single image, implying that the maker, John A. Todd, had to photograph each of the 109 members individually first (presumably over the course of years). Each of the portraits has been numbered in reference to a legend at the bottom, which in turn identifies the individual members.
For those well-versed in Sacramento history, many of the names listed will be familiar. But even to those not as knowledgeable on this subject, there are some key individuals worth highlighting. Among the prominent founding members of the society, we find men like J.W. Marshall (93), who was the first prospector to find gold at nearby Sutter’s Mill, sparking off the Gold Rush. Another important character was Hugh McElroy LaRue (98), who came from Kentucky and served as Sacramento’s sheriff on multiple occasions. He was later elected to the state constitutional convention, where he spearheaded a revision of the railroad laws to increase regulation. Other notable characters in the formative history of Sacramento, such as John Sutter Jr. or Hiram Bigelow, the town’s first mayor, however, do not figure on this sheet.
The image was created or compiled by John A. Todd, an English amateur artist who emigrated to America sometime during the late 1840s or early 1850s. Todd first settled in San Francisco in 1853, but after losing all of his belongings in a fire, he moved to Sacramento, where he set up an upholstery shop. This composition was issued in 1878 and presumably compiled from photos taken in the years leading up to its publication.
Being a key piece of Sacramento’s formative history, this photographic sheet figures in a number of institutional collections in California, including the California State Library (ID: 001510183CSL01-Aleph), the Sacramento Valley Museum (ID: sc26052), the Center for Sacramento History (ID: 477E54D8-36DC-4264-ADE7-759192542095), and Sacramento Public Library (ID: 962).
We find no records of it being offered for sale on the private antiquarian market.