Shawn Hubler

The future in California’s past

Video: A tour of the treasures in the California State Archives

This often forgotten trove of history is open to the public and contains copies of everything from the original copies of the state Constitution to Prohibition-era photos in San Quentin record books.
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This often forgotten trove of history is open to the public and contains copies of everything from the original copies of the state Constitution to Prohibition-era photos in San Quentin record books.

Looking back is not among California’s signature strong suits. Young men don’t go west to dwell in the past.

In fact, to the extent that California has had a historic promise, it’s that if you come here, you can get away from all that backstory, all those crowds of ancestors, yoo-hooing from the graveyard. So it’s an adjustment to learn that when California became a state, the first act of its lawmakers was to establish an official state memory bank.

The original 1850 Act Concerning the Public Archives, the first law on the state’s books, dwells at the California State Archives, which was created by that very law. You can go ruminate on it in all its sepia-toned glory. Secretary of State Alex Padilla wishes you would.

Overseeing the state archives is one of the responsibilities of Padilla’s office. Not long ago, after he told The Sacramento Bee’s editorial board that he wished Californians would use the repository more often, my colleague Erika Smith and I stopped by the building at 1020 O St. to check out its myriad papers, maps, proclamations, genealogical documents, legislative records and other historic gems.

Padilla is right. The state archives is a major resource, and one of the cooler ways in which your tax dollars are working. He’s also right in observing that too few Californians seem to know that resource is out there. Though the state archives’ curators hold regular tours and the building is a stop on Sacramento’s annual Archives Crawl, which typically brings in several hundred visitors each October, the building seemed terribly empty on the day we toured it, and this is supposed to be American Archives Month.

The building itself is an achievement. Californians whose own memory banks date to the 1980s might remember how then-Secretary of State March Fong Eu stumped up and down the state trying to raise money to improve the old archives building, a falling-apart heap of a place with a leaky roof and a serious pigeon infestation.

I remember Eu telling any reporter who’d listen about how, on rainy days, you needed an umbrella to search the records being stored on the top floor, and how stinky the window wells were, due to generations of bird droppings. The building finally was replaced, and since 1995, the state’s 125,000-cubic-foot trove has been housed in state-of-the-art, acid-free, climate-controlled splendor.

And “trove” isn’t too strong a word for it.

Even if you’re not one for ancestors and attics, there’s something compelling in, for example, the 1852 census records from Placer County, where forward-looking men from all over the world optimistically listed their occupation as “miner.”

Or the land grant applications, predating statehood and in handwritten Spanish, from men and women wanting more land to raise more cattle. Or the black-and-white mug shots of Prohibition-era lowlifes who took one risk too many and ended up in the San Quentin record books.

The original state constitution is stored in the building’s vault, in Spanish and English, reflecting the often conveniently forgotten fact that California was born bilingual. Also in storage is a gorgeous hand-lettered, ink-on-linen 1895 map of the Lake Tahoe wagon road that became Highway 50.

On display at the moment are, among other things, the state’s earliest automobile registration records, the Marx brothers’ original 1933 articles of incorporation and the “Equality Tea” trademarked by suffragettes, who served it at “tea parties” during their campaign for a woman’s right to vote.

There are floors and floors of such relics, though most archive visitors are researchers, lawmakers, professional historians and others who, for legal or legislative reasons, need to know the original intent behind state laws.

Those folks use the archives by the thousands, according to Nancy Lenoil, the bespectacled state archivist whose staff helps them sort through the various iterations of legislation – the author’s versions, the analyses and amendments of caucuses and committees, the notes and testimony of those who weighed in on them and the papers of the governors who signed them.

The records also hold oral histories of political figures and the papers of some of California’s most influential political operatives. Lenoil, who has worked at the state archives since 1987 – and who has made a little history herself, as the first woman to run it – says the newest challenge is dealing with texts, emails and other digital records.

“Right now, we have about 22 terabytes of electronic records,” says Lenoil, “four of which came from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger when he left.”

Such information is important and illuminating, and not just to historians. Here, as anywhere, our roots are a major factor in who and what we become. One of the best things about an archive is its capacity to breathe life into those ancestral names in the graveyard, and one of the best things about this archive is what it confirms about California’s signature strong suits.

Scratch the surface of what we’ve left behind, and there we are, in all of our various early iterations – angling for more land, pestering for the vote, registering new cars, opening businesses, striking gold, setting out for Lake Tahoe. It’s no wonder this state had to pass a law to make sure someone preserved its records; otherwise, no one would have had time to bother.

Never have you seen so many eyes so fixed on the future. Never has a past been more about where people are going, and less about where they came from.