Monuments to monsters
Why are we still honoring these problematic figures with statues and tributes?
In September 2018, Phaedra Jones of Stockton was driving through Folsom, saw a sign for Negro Bar Recreation Area and took to the internet in outrage and disgust.
After doing a deep dive on the history of the park, Jones learned about the riverside gold-mining operation run by African-Americans during the mid-1800s Gold Rush. While it’s an empowering story for some (read “This black gold ain’t Texas tea,” A&C, June 13, 2002), she launched a campaign to rename the park with a 21st century alternative.
It’s a fair concern, considering the implication of designating a location for one ethnic group and this country’s inescapable history of segregation. As of January 7, her online petition had 33,516 signatures from people supporting a new name, potentially one honoring a specific miner. But their push is opposed by those who consider Negro Bar historically accurate.
After the violent march in August 2017 by white supremacists protesting the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, monuments to the Confederacy came tumbling down all across the South. California mostly kept its distance from that movement; it’s more of an “over there” problem that we can tsk-tsk about.
But the Golden State has its own skeletons in the historical closet, many of them honored with street names and statues. So we turn our gaze to some problematic tributes in the Sacramento region.
If you put something up on a pedestal (sometimes literally), you don’t necessarily see the historical context. And it’s usually easier to leave it on that pedestal, despite criticism and demands for removal.
These are monuments to people who helped make Sacramento and California into what they are today, but who had deeply troubling, even deadly, interactions with Native American tribes across the state.
It’s past time to ask ourselves: Why are these monuments still here? What does it take for one to fall out of favor with the capital city?
Hideous hometown hero
Let’s start with a previous honoree who was actually erased from signs across Sacramento.
Meet lifelong Sacramento resident Charles Matthias Goethe (1875-1966), a millionaire philanthropist, conservationist and one of the founding fathers of Sacramento State. He won accolades and commendations from Gov. Pat Brown, received an honorary law degree from the University of Pacific, had parks and schools named after him and even had a celebratory day named in his honor (March 31) by Mayor James B. McKinney. Goethe received more honors than most Sacramentans ever will.
He was also an impassioned eugenicist.
Eugenics—the pseudoscience of crafting an ideal human race through selective breeding, a staple of the Nazi Holocaust—lost its legitimacy in the United States. But not that long ago. California had a forced sterilization program that operated from 1909 into the 1960s. All told, 20,000 individuals deemed unfit for the gene pool were sterilized by the state.
Concerned primarily with preserving white, Nordic genes, Goethe was a member of the Human Betterment Foundation and founded both the Eugenics Society of Northern California and the Immigration Study Commission, the latter used to measure the impacts that Mexican immigrants were having on the average intelligence of U.S. citizens. He spoke in support of Nazi Germany’s programs of sterilization, traveling there and witnessing what he described as an “applied science,” a marvel in action. He shared eugenics pamphlets with the public and supported eugenics movements financially.
His reputation for philanthropy is more than a little ironic, given the word’s etymology (kindliness, humanity, benevolence).
But rich people who give away lots of money often get things named after them. Until fairly recently, Goethe’s name was plastered all over Sacramento. Charles M. Goethe Middle School wasn’t renamed for civil rights icon Rosa Parks until 2007. And Goethe Park wasn’t changed to River Bend Park until 2008. Sacramento State’s signs honoring its longtime benefactor (he left hundreds of thousands of dollars and his mansion in his will) have also disappeared over the years. It was 2005 when the university’s Charles M. Goethe Arboretum became the University Arboretum.
Goethe’s fall from ill-gotten grace does show that as historical perspectives shift from twisted ideologies and with enough activism, officials are willing to rebrand.
Sacramento drew a line in the sand by no longer honoring Goethe—who supported Nazis, tirelessly and shamelessly argued for maintaining the purity of the white race and contributed to the racist narrative that immigrants were making the United States a worse place because of their inferior genes.
That’s the baseline. Who else is bad enough to be removed?
For decades, California students went through a rite of passage in the fourth grade: recreating the colonization of the state by crafting miniature dioramas of the Spanish missions.
It’s a tradition that the state’s educational standards are shifting away from. In 2016, the curriculum framework for fourth graders suggested that teachers avoid the typical mission project, specifically calling out the “sugar cubes” and “popsicle sticks” used by students to make models of what are now viewed by many historians as Franciscan labor farms and heritage erasers. As the curriculum notes, such an activity “does not help students understand the period and is offensive to many.”
Junipero Serra, a Franciscan priest known as the father of the Spanish missions in California, is enshrined in a bronze monument in Capitol Park. He looms over a cut-out version of the state, holding a cross and looking penitent and stern. A nearby plaque gives tribute to Serra, claiming “he brought civilization to our land and in deed and character he deserves a formost place in the history of our state.” That’s not the extent of his honors, though. Pope Francis canonized Serra in 2015, and a statue of the 18th-century prosthelytizer fills one of California’s two spots in the National Statuary Hall Collection in the U.S. Capitol, along with President Ronald Reagan. Each state’s statues honor individuals who have had an impact on their history, and Serra certainly fits the bill.
Serra, born in 1713 in Spain, made it a personal crusade to convert as many non-Christians as possible to the Catholic church. He came to North America in 1750, and it wasn’t until 1769, when he was 55, that he established Mission San Diego de Alcalaacute;. He then founded a string of eight other missions along the California coast.
This mission system repressed indigenous cultures, replacing long-established traditions, languages and spirituality with European culture. It forced Native Americans to perform manual labor, and when they attempted to return to their tribes, soldiers forced them back.
Defenders of the mission system call it the first real civilization in California, even though it led to the steep decline of the Native American population due to the introduction of diseases and conflicts with European settlers.
While it’s undeniable that the state’s history was shaped by the missions, and that present-day California exists due to the spread of European culture, that’s not something everyone celebrates.
In 2015, state Senator Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, introduced a proposal to replace the U.S. Capitol statue of Serra with one of Sally Ride, the first American woman in space.
The Senate passed the resolution, but Gov. Jerry Brown opposed it. And so, the Serra statue perseveres.
As long as we’re speaking about people famous for creating the new world at the expense of Native Americans, we ought to talk about Christopher Columbus.
The Italian mariner is one of the most controversial figures in history. His name is on cities and countries across the Americas, all because he ushered in the era of European colonization.
In recent years, public perception of Columbus has changed, as historians have focused on the atrocities committed by the explorer and his crew.
He’s also a marble emissary at the center of the state Capitol rotunda. Columbus kneels in a perpetual state of requesting ships from Queen Isabella. The trio of statues by Larkin Goldsmith Mead, given to the state by Darius Ogden Mills in 1883, is named “Columbus’ Last Appeal to Queen Isabella.”
The Capitol Museum’s description mentions some outcry around the time the Capitol was undergoing restoration in the 1970s, namely from the Native Sons of the Golden West, who suggested a Californian be honored instead of Columbus. That didn’t pan out.
In 2016, the California Poor People’s Campaign demanded removal of the statues, essentially saying that Columbus was synonymous with genocide of indigenous Americans. That didn’t work, either.
Perhaps the celebrated tradition of legislators and lobbyists tossing pennies from the second floor of the rotunda into Queen Isabella’s crown is what’s keeping the statue in place.
The work of art is in a prominent, public place, so whether it’s intended to be a statement or not, it is—and not a particularly welcoming one. Is it time to put the statue in a museum somewhere?
The reality of John Sutter
Sacramento is a town steeped in myth. It was born during the Gold Rush pioneering days, so its history is often heavily romanticized. The city as it stands today was built on the backs of many people that don’t have fancy development districts named after them.
Take a stroll through the Sutter District. The height of fame in Sacramento is having a section of the city rebranded with your moniker—and “General” John Augustus Sutter’s got more than that.
He has a fort in the heart of Midtown. He has a health care system named after him. Add to the list a middle school, a street, a creek, a mountain range—and even the late first dog of California, Sutter Brown.
The commonly told history of Sacramento in respect to Sutter is a very American tale. Sutter left his home in Switzerland with nothing but the ghosts of his past, including the family and debts he walked out on, in search of a brighter future in the New World.
Joined by 10 native Hawaiian workers after he stopped in Honolulu, he arrived in California in 1839. With some land grants from the Mexican governor, he found himself in a place he dubbed New Helvetia. With the help of Native American laborers, Sutter built a fort and started a settlement near the Sacramento River. He was doing alright for himself. Then, by his own account, the discovery of gold at his mill in Coloma ruined him. His workers ran off to pursue their fortunes, his mill was sacked, he had debts to pay and things weren’t looking good.
Well, according to his account in Hutchings’ California Magazine, he took the considered advice of everyone else in the West, outfitted a gold expedition with “one hundred Indians, and about fifty Sandwich Islanders (Kanakas) which had joined those which I brought with me from the Islands.” After moving camp several times and coming up empty, the Kanakas became more indebted to Sutter as they spent wages on “grog-shops,” and he decided the endeavor was no longer worth pursuing. The illustrious wealth he was after never materialized, and he decided to return to Hock Farm, his farming settlement in what’s now Yuba City, with “all my Indians, and who had been with me from the time they were children.”
Eventually, Sutter lost his money and died in poverty in 1880.
In addition to his own accounts of his interactions with Native Americans, which are more than enough to raise eyebrows, other accounts are even more troubling.
James Clyman, a frontiersman, wrote in his diary in 1845 about an experience with Sutter (complete with spelling errors): “Capt keeps 600 or 800 Indians in a complete state of Slavery and as I had the mortification of seeing them dine I may give a short discription 10 or 15 Troughs 3 or 4 feet long ware brought out of the cookroom and seated in the Broiling sun all the Lobourers grate and small ran to the troughs like somany pigs and feed thenselves with their hands as long as the troughs contain even a moisture.”
There’s more evidence to suggest that Sutter sold Native Americans into slavery, and potentially worse. In 2016, a Native American musical called “Something Inside is Broken,” written by members of local tribes and depicting Sutter as a man responsible for countless deaths, traumas and more, debuted at Sierra College. The movement to accurately depict Sutter and his interactions with local Maidu tribes is ongoing, but it doesn’t appear his honors will be taken away anytime soon.
Sacramento and California shouldn’t rewrite history, but should be aware of historical context. There are a surprising number of tributes to problematic historical figures, particularly those hostile to the indigenous people of the state. This isn’t a squeaky clean refuge of political correctness, but a place still coming to terms with its own history.