New Exhibition to Open at Museum

Popular songs about the State of California, from the Gold Rush through the vaudeville era, are celebrated in the new exhibition Singing the Golden State, which opens on April 6 at the San Joaquin County Historical Museum. The exhibition spotlights graphically striking sheet-music covers published from 1849 through the 1930s.

Music that celebrates California.

Music that celebrates California.

"In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, publishers understood that potential sheet-music buyers judged pieces of music—like books—by their covers," says James M. Keller, curator of the exhibit. These images were sometimes by notable illustrators and artists.

In Singing the Golden State, the subject is California—its history, its geography, its people. The exhibit includes sheet music organized by such topics as the Gold Rush, fairs and exhibitions, commerce and advertising, clubs and organizations, sports and amusements, children, minorities, transportation, and a tour of the Golden State. There is a section on the state song, "I Love You, California," composed in 1913.

Until the 1930s, when the dissemination of popular music shifted to radio, sheet music served as a form of media. "If something happened," says Keller, "there's a fair chance someone wrote a song about it." The examples on display include sheet music for several songs relating to the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915 and the "California Flood Mazurka," memorializing the great 1862 flood in the Central Valley, the largest in California's recorded history.

Singing the Golden State is a traveling exhibition from Exhibit Envoy, The Society of California Pioneers' Sherman Music Collection, and The James M. Keller Collection, curated by James Keller. It will be at the San Joaquin County Historical Museum through June 1, 2014. The Museum is open Wednesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Exhibit Envoy provides traveling exhibitions and professional services to museums in California. For more information, please visit www.exhibitenvoy.org.

Why Save Old Records?

Old government records are on my mind. Yesterday, I worked in downtown Stockton with one of members of the San Joaquin County Historic Records Inventory Project. So far, the team has inventoried about fifteen hundred items, bound volumes that range in size from small to enormous. We still have a long way to go before we're finished.

Books of deeds at the Museum.

Books of deeds at the Museum.

I couldn't helping asking myself how I would justify going to this trouble.

Several answers came to my mind, and there are probably others. One of the most obvious is hard to explain: We—or lots of us, at least—just like old "stuff." I suppose old objects allow us to touch the past. I see this impulse related to the acquisition of antique furniture, machinery, and clothing. The possibility of making money—witness Antiques Roadshow—seems to solidify this impulse.

Another justification speaks to identity, the need to understand our origins, not only at the personal level but also among groups and nations. I've lost track of the number of patrons who've visited the archives at the San Joaquin County Historical Museum in search of tiny bits of genealogical data: a birth date, the name of a long-lost grandparent, or when a couple married. Those pieces may be small, but they are very important for genealogists. In many cases, they can't be found anywhere else except government records.

Much the same can be said for history as a formal discipline. At times, government records buttress major interpretations that deal with significant issues. Sometimes, they're crucial for the never-ending quest to understand human thought and behavior. The hope, according to the familiar truism, is that the process of grappling with weighty historical issues will help us avoid making mistakes that marred the decisions of our forebears.

One of the most compelling justifications for this project, though, is the practical value of the records. Today, all sorts of legal decisions hinge on historical evidence. Attorneys, administrators, judges, elected officials, and a host of others depend on reliable records to arrive at just and fair decisions. Think about it: contracts, property rights, child custody, rights of way, and real estate title all rest on reliable historic records. Those of us who live in and around the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta need not be reminded that claims to water rights also depend on historic documentation.

So is it worth the effort? It doesn't bother me at all to serve as a guide for antiquarians, genealogists, historians, and a host of professionals that turn to such records to avoid endless disputes and untold grief.

Theresa and Charles Wriston: Chapter Two

Who would have ever thought? Last week's post, which involved Charles Wriston, his wife, Theresa, and their two children, triggered a lot of feedback. The responses tended to fall into two categories.

The California Constitution of 1849, written at Colton Hall, Monterey, granted women trailblazing rights.

The California Constitution of 1849, written at Colton Hall, Monterey, granted women trailblazing rights.

The first filled in missing biographical details. Thanks to one of Charles's blood relatives, I know now that he lived to the ripe old age of ninety. Men characterized by "habitual intemperance and dissipation" usually don't live that long—sometimes they do, but not usually. It looks as though Charles mended his ways.

As for Theresa, according to another reader—someone who seems well-versed with an array of genealogical resources—she and her husband continued living together at the Boston House at least until 1925. They evidently continued in that relationship at other addresses in Stockton from around 1930 until at least 1940.

The children's fate is unknown.

The feedback that intrigued me the most came from my good friend, Norm, who worked at the appellate level of the California State court system until his retirement a few years ago. Theresa's legal situation triggered memories of his that reach back to his days in law school. Norm steered me in a direction that eventually led me to an article titled "California's Sole Traders," written by attorney and genealogist Judy G. Russell.

Russell reminds readers that women in nineteenth-century American lacked full equality with men. However, California and a few other states provided a legal framework that enabled them to run businesses on their own, with property rights of their own, protection against debts incurred by their husbands, and access to the courts.

Here's the relevant wording from legislation that dates from April 1852: "Married women shall have the right to carry on and transact business under their own name, and on their own account, by complying with the regulations prescribed in this act."

Which regulations? Well, a woman in search of status as "sole trader" needed to publish her intention several weeks in the newspaper, satisfy the court that she didn't intend to defraud her husband's creditors, and swear that she was setting up her business with her own money to support herself and her children. All of which Theresa, who clearly labeled herself as an aspiring "sole trader," did to the satisfaction of the court.

Whether or not the law of April 1852 amounts to "affirmative action," as Russell suggests, can be debated. But it can be safely stated that, whatever else it tells us, the Wriston's case demonstrates how progressive California's laws were at that time.

Russell's article can be read here.

Surprises on the Trail of Dusty Old Records

What comes to your mind when you hear the words historic county records? Darkened warehouses? Moldering paper? Dusty shelves? How about stories of tragedy, courage, and compassion?

Old records filled with surprises.

Old records filled with surprises.

Since the middle of January, I've had the honor to work with three current or former students from the University of the Pacific taking an inventory of historic San Joaquin County records. Yesterday, while working with one of my colleagues in downtown Stockton, I came across a large leather-bound volume that bore the title Separate Property of Married Women.

I'm still at a loss to explain fully why this volume exists. Why focus on married women? What about married men? Is this simply one more example of the sexism I often see embedded in other historic documents?

Maybe. However, the stories I found inside suggest something a bit more nuanced.

Take, for example, the case of Theresa Grace Wriston, the wife of Charles Ransom Wriston. In May 1914, Mrs. Wriston applied to the court for permission to run a boarding house in her own name. According to the records, her husband had "wholly failed" over the past two years "by reason of his habitual intemperance and dissipation" to support Mrs. Wriston and their two young daughters, aged four and twelve.

Divorce wasn't an option, at least not in May 1914. According to the records, Mrs. Wriston still hoped at that point that her husband—described in the application as "strong" and "able-bodied"—would "again become a useful member of society."

Did he reform himself? We'll probably never know. However, we do know that the judge approved Mrs. Wriston's application. She proceeded to buy a boarding facility in her own name on North Hunter Street, in Stockton, with capital furnished by her brothers. Soon afterward, she reopened it as the Boston House.

Did Mrs. Wriston succeed? The volume doesn't say. Nor does it reveal whether she and her husband ever ended their marriage. The story ends suddenly, leaving a string of unanswered questions.

Separate Property of Women doesn't promise to tie up all the loose ends. Instead, it teases us with intriguing glimpses. In the case of Mrs. Wriston, it parts the curtains slightly for a brief look into the life of a gutsy and determined woman, and it allows us to witness her navigating the legal system of her time—effectively—to protect herself and support her children.

Never judge a book by its cover, I've been told. Who could have ever have predicted that dusty old records would contain such nuggets?

Museum Offers Workshop on Writing Memoirs

One well-known family from American history.

One well-known family from American history.

Isn't it nice to be remembered? Isn't it even nicer to be remembered for the reasons you want to be remembered? How about your children, their children, and their children's children? Will they recall anything about you other than your name and a few faded pictures?

Next month, the San Joaquin County Historical Society Museum will conduct a workshop designed for people who want their descendants to remember them. It is titled "Letters to My Grandkids: A Personal Memoir Workshop," and it will take place at the Museum from 1:00 to 2:00 p.m. each Thursday of March.

Here are the subjects for each week:

March 6

  • Why learning about family history is important.
  • How to prepare a short letter or story.
  • Suggestions for topics, and assignment.

March 13

  • Refresher on paragraph and story construction.
  • How to embellish your legacy letters with art.
  • Questions and discussion of problems encountered.
  • Share work in progress.

March 20

  • Relating personal stories to national and world history.
  • Questions and discussion of work in progress.
  • Additional prompts for ideas.
  • Share work in progress.

March 27

  • Resources available for publishing of memoirs and personal history.
  • Questions and discussion of work in progress.
  • Share completed work.
  • Evaluation of workshop.

The cost for participation will be ten dollars for members of the San Joaquin County Historical Society, and fifteen dollars (plus parking at Micke Grove Park) for nonmembers. For additional information, contact Robin Wood at the Museum (209) 331–2055 or (209) 953–3460.

Exhibit of Historic Postcards to Open at Museum

One of the most fascinating but little-known treasures of the San Joaquin County Historical Museum may be its collection of historic postcards. The scenes they depict range from the mundane to the bizarre. Starting the first week of March, visitors can catch glimpses into this rich collection of local resources when the Museum opens an exhibit based on its own holdings.

Historic insights  welcomed: postcard of now-forgotten Delta Crest Nursery, Borden Highway, Stockton. (ca. 1928).

Historic insights welcomed: postcard of now-forgotten Delta Crest Nursery, Borden Highway, Stockton. (ca. 1928).

Today, postcard collecting is the third most popular hobby in the world. Postcards capture moments that remind us of places, people, and events. Sometimes they are the only existing images of buildings and locations that are long forgotten.

The U.S. Postal Service issued the first pre-stamped postcard in 1873. This was the only postcard at that time that could be sent in the mail. In 1898, the U.S. Congress passed the Private Mailing Card Act, which gave private companies permission to produce postcards. Congress required these cards to include the printed words "Private Mailing Card" on the back. Blank areas on the front were reserved for writing messages; addresses went on the back.

Postcards with divided backs were introduced in 1907. From then on, senders could use the back for both the address and the message. At the same time, "real photo" postcards appeared. These changes increased the popularity of postcards, which purchasers started to save in picture albums.

Until 1915, German printers dominated the postcard industry, However, when World War I broke out production moved to the United States. The new wave of postcards had a white border to save ink and detailed picture descriptions on the back.

From 1930 until 1944, cotton paper was used to print postcards, thus giving them the look of linen cloth. In 1939, Union Oil Company introduced the first photochrome postcards. The images on the front of these closely resembled real photographs and are the kind we purchase today.

A Call for Images of the Calaveras River

Volunteers from Stockton's Friends of the Lower Calaveras River and professionals from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, along with videographers from NarrativeLab of Portland, Oregon, are working on a video documentary of the removal of barriers along the Calaveras River to fish that migrate between fresh and salt water.

Recent photograph of the Calaveras River.

Recent photograph of the Calaveras River.

The participants have already searched the holdings of the San Joaquin County Historical Museum, the Haggin Museum, the University of the Pacific, and the Bank of Stockton for related photographs and drawings.

If you know of any images not found in those archives, or if you own any you would be willing to deposit in an appropriate local repository or have scanned for digital access, please send a message to the following address: leighjohnsen@sanjoaquinhistory.org.

Subjects of particular interest include:

  • The Calaveras River before damming and development.
  • Early development along the Lower Calaveras River (Highway 49 to Stockton).
  • Fish and fishing activity along the Calaveras River.
  • Images of Native American activity along the Calaveras River.
  • Major flood events involving the Calaveras River.

Genealogy Seminar Scheduled for Stockton

How could local genealogists be so fortunate? One month ago, I posted a notice in this blog about an upcoming genealogy workshop in Seaside, California. (See post for January 3, 2014.) Recently, I learned about another genealogy seminar coming up in Stockton.

Burns Tower, University of the Pacific.

Burns Tower, University of the Pacific.

This all-day seminar will occur on Saturday, February 22, 2014, in the Biological Sciences Building, 3312 North Kingston Way, Stockton, on the campus of the University of the Pacific. It will start at 8:30 a.m. and last until 3:00 p.m.

The organizing force behind this event is the San Joaquin County Genealogical Society, with sponsorships from the California State Genealogical Alliance and the Jacoby Center for Public Service and Civic Leadership, at the University of the Pacific.

The seminar will feature four sessions:

1. "Family Stories: Genealogy Beyond Just the Dates." Presenter: Linda Serna, member of the research team for "Genealogy Roadshow," and Vice President of Programs for the Orange County Genealogical Society.

2. "Fun Tools to Help Genealogists Work Smarter." Presenter: Tim Cox, a resident of San Francisco and Education and Events Coordinator for the California Genealogical Society.

3. "Researching Your Mexican Ancestors." Presenter: Letty Rodella, President of the Society of Hispanic Historical and Ancestral Research.

4. "Reconstructing Family Information When You Start with Almost Nothing—A Case Study." Presenter: Janice Sellers, member of the Oakland, California FamilySearch Library, and editor of The Galitzianer, a quarterly newsletter focused on Jewish research; The Baobab Tree, journal of the African American Genealogical Society of Northern California; and ZichronNote, journal of the San Francisco Bay Area Jewish Genealogical Society.

The seminar is free, though registration is required at the following site: https://sjgsseminar.eventbrite.com.

For additional information, contact Sheri Fenley at sherifenley@gmail.com.

Trivial Pursuit: The San Joaquin County Edition

One of the Museum's staff members has been working forever on a project that has taken her through every single issue of the San Joaquin Historian, the Society's historic periodical, ever since its creation in 1963. And she's done it several times. Last week, I suggested half-seriously that she knew enough to put together the authoritative San Joaquin County edition of Trivial Pursuit.

Richard Nixon: San Joaquin County favorite?

Richard Nixon: San Joaquin County favorite?

I might as well have invited her to pull out her toenails. Her reply was swift and firm: No way! I think I detected more than a hint of exhaustion in her voice. She may have actually rolled her eyes as she turned away.

But, come on, why not? Really. Why don't those of us with a passion for San Joaquin County and its history pool our talents and create our own special edition of Trivial Pursuit? I can't imagine a more entertaining way to build community and quicken aging synapses. The exercise might even be educational.

I'm willing to prime the pump with a few questions of my own. Here we go:

1. What was Tillie Lewis's unofficial title? a. Potato Queen; b. Tomato Queen; c. Delta Queen; d. Dairy Queen; e. Tillie who?

See how much fun this could be? Here are a couple more questions:

2. French Camp got its name from: a. French mercenaries; b. Canadian trappers; c. tasteless European art; c. a nearby POW facility.

3. Which presidential candidate won the popular vote in San Joaquin County during the election of 1860? a. Richard Nixon; b. John C. Breckinridge; c. Nobody; California wasn't part of the United States; d. Abraham Lincoln.

You get the idea. The possibilities are endless. I also like the idea of a wiki devoted to San Joaquin history. But I doubt that misguided entrepreneurs could resist the temptation to use it as a billboard for selling discounted Viagra.

What do you think? If a special edition of Trivial Pursuit charms you, send me some sample questions at the following address: leighjohnsen@sanjoaquinhistory.org. I'll try to share them with our resident San Joaquin County history expert. Maybe she can be persuaded to look them over if we promise not to harm her toes.

More Help for Historic Researchers

I thrive on research. I never know what insights I might gain as I wander from book to book and document to document. But sometimes I don't want to wander. I just want an answer, and I don't want distractions: I want it now.

Government records housed at the San Joaquin County Historical Museum.

Government records housed at the San Joaquin County Historical Museum.

Enter the computer.

Over the past few weeks, the Museum has been the site of activities that promise to help streamline research in San Joaquin County's government records. The objective of those efforts is to digitize most of the County's deeds and to make major parts of them available over a computer at the recorder's office.

This is a significant event. In recent years, the County's collection of historic deeds have been scattered among a number of locations, the county museum being one of them. Some volumes might be found in the archives of the Museum, whereas others might be housed in downtown Stockton. The same goes for indexes: a researcher might need to travel miles to view volumes that should be sitting next to each other on a shelf.

Digitization of these records promises to bring about major changes. Not only will the project end up creating one centrally located digital repository, it will also enhance capabilities to search and view. In addition, it will save users time and money, reduce their levels of frustration, and enable them to manipulate data in ways previously impossible.

Meanwhile, preparation of the updated historic records inventory discussed in the previous blog promises to facilitate research in other county records.

The digitization project has only started. The person to thank for this turn of events is the San Joaquin County recorder/county clerk, Kenneth Blakemore, under whose direction the scanning has commenced.

Stay tuned for occasional updates.