The State Where It Happens

Alexander Hamilton has sung and danced his way back into the hearts and minds of theater-going Americans thanks to the Pulitzer-winning musical “Hamilton.” And while Hamilton himself is a decidedly East Coast-based historical figure, his renewed popularity has sparked a decidedly West Coast reaction.

“If people are learning and so engaged in the story of Hamilton,” says Adam Hirschfelder of the California Historical Society, “then we saw it as an opportunity to talk about colonialism.”

The California Historical Society’s latest exhibit is titled “Meanwhile Out West: Colonizing California, 1769-1821,” a nod to the fact that while American revolutionaries were changing the course of history back east, Spanish colonialism was engulfed in transformation along the Pacific Coast. Made up of art and documents from CHS’s collection and artifacts borrowed from the Autry Museum of the American West, the Phoebe Apperson Hearst Museum of Anthropology and the Museum of Mission Dolores, the exhibit aims to provide insight into the Native American and Hispanic experience during the late 18th and early 19th century.

Inspired by a key theme from the Lin-Manuel Miranda musical, “Who tells your story?” the “Meanwhile Out West” exhibit engages female, Native American, and Hispanic voices in detailing the significance of the numerous artifacts. Through these voices, the exhibit offers alternate perspectives on the Spanish colonialism of California.

“Who tells your story — that’s an important thread in the play,” Hirschfelder says. “Who tells the story of the United States and who tells the story of California — those are the questions we’re trying to ask?”

The exhibit is dominated by a massive and colorful timeline that covers an entire wall. A timeline at top charters British colonial history through the revolution and into the formation of the United Sates, while a timeline on the bottom offers details on what was happening simultaneously in California. It’s an easily consumable look at the dramatic change afoot in what was then Alta California.

Exactly who tells history is a concept upon which the CHS is actively expanding. The organization has partnered with the University of California at Davis’ California History-Social Science Project to change the way California public school students learn about state history. Called “Teaching California” and funded with a $5 million grant, the program will create a free online database of California’s historic and archival resources. Those resources will be allow the state’s K-12 educators to more fully teach the complexities and truth of the state’s history. Gone will be the days of California 4th graders learning only of docile natives and benevolent missionaries — a history that was very dependent on the ones telling it.

“It’s really exciting to think about bringing these ideas forth,” says CHS Executive Director Dr. Anthea Hartig, “either here (in the museum) or online.”

Exhibited in tandem with “Meanwhile Out West” is a collection of Alexander Hamilton-related pieces on loan from the New York Historical Society. Students who come to learn new perspectives on California history may be particularly taken with the life-size statues of Hamilton and Aaron Burr in mid-duel. The highly detailed bronze figures are posed with their guns aimed at one another across the museum’s great hall. It’s a striking exhibit piece — and a dramatic treat for anyone who visits the CHS location at 678 Mission St in San Francisco.

There actually is a little-known Hamilton-California connection: William Stephen Hamilton, one of the younger sons of America’s first Secretary of the Treasury, came to California in search of gold in 1949. The younger Hamilton found none and died the next year. While William Hamilton came to openly regret his move to California, he’s still buried here — doomed to spend eternity in the Sacramento Historic City Cemetery.

Perhaps in retrospect, the younger Hamilton would consider himself lucky. The touring company of “Hamilton: An American Musical” is currently enjoying a run in Los Angeles before a brief stop in San Diego, following a sold-out engagement in San Francisco. And as the CHS exhibit demonstrates, California has been at the forefront of ingenuity and transformation long before it ever became a state — just as busy during the times of Hamilton as were the country’s founding fathers 3,000 miles away. To quote a painting that famously hangs in the office of California State Senator Kevin de León, “California was not part of this nation when its history began. But we are clearly now the keeper of its future.”

Journal of Alta California plans to partner with the California Historical Society on an event next year aimed at looking back at the history of the 1848 Treaty of Hidalgo.

Beth Spotswood is Alta's digital editor, events manager, and a contributing writer.
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