E is for Eureka, State Motto and Victorian Mansions

Raising my children in the US, I have always been amazed by the level of chauvinism that gets packed into the school curriculum and this goes for both the federal and state identity. Aside from American topography, my kids had to learn state trivia, like state symbols, animals, mottos, flowers, you name it. State identity is important in this country if only to underscore that the rights and power of states are just as important as those of the federal government. I get it, but what you might not get is that the California state motto is EUREKA. If you say, that’s Greek to me, you’re right because it is, and it is in fact the only state motto of all US mottos that is in Greek.

Supposedly, Archimedes, a Greek mathematician yelled EUREKA, for I have found it, when he tried to solve a mathematical mystery. The motto for California emerged when they were designing the seal for California in 1849.


This seal, better known as the Great Seal of the State of California, shows a kind of Pallas Athena, with, in the background, mountains and the Sacramento River, which is filled with ships with wind in their sails. Someone realized a bear had to be in it, too, but the designer was running out of space, so the bear looks rather pathetic and small, pasted onto Athena’s feet like the dog someone just picked up from the pound. The term Eureka refers to the cries of discovery the gold seekers used to blurt out, and maybe the choice for this motto is not so bad, since by finding gold, the greatest mass migration (to the West) occurred, and California was “found” in the process, or more accurately, put on the map. Over night, San Francisco changed from a hidden fishing village into a major port and metropolitan city. Before that time, the state was, quite literally, a white space on the map.

In 1957, California’s state senators tried to change Eureka (which wasn’t even the official motto as the motto was only displayed on the above mentioned seal) into the words  ‘In God We Trust’. This never happened, and in 1963, Eureka became the official state motto.


The fate of the Indians near the current city of Eureka was just as bleak as the fate of the Indians in Death Vally (see my previous entries) as the finding of gold attracted lots of gold seekers from everywhere.  The Wiyot, Yurok, Hupa and Karuk tribes lived in peace with each other but that peace came to an abrupt end during the first gold expeditions. In Humboldt County itself, whose capital is Eureka, no gold was to be found but the ports of Eureka and Trinidad developed quickly into ports of trade and passengers. The miners who settled here drove the Indians off of their ancestral lands, messed with their food chain, which led to conflict,  as well as massacres and disease (many Indians died from European diseases for which they had developed no immunity).

Within Humboldt County the lust for gold was soon replaced by a lust for “red gold”, or rather the redwoods which were so numerous along the coast. They formed a prehistoric forest because elsewhere in the world, the redwoods didn’t survive the Ice Age. In a state where the population grew exponentially, houses needed to be built and the redwoods were excellent building material and thus lined the pockets of the execs of the wood  industry.


To show off their wealth, they built beautifully ornate Victorian homes in and around Eureka and even though San Fran has its share of Victorians, Eureka is a Victorian gem, sitting right at the edge of the Pacific. The most famous house, and maybe, after Hearst Castle, the most imposing building in Northern California is the Carson Mansion (1884-1886), built by William Carson who used to brag that he was the man who cut down the first redwood ever.


The house is a hodgepodge of Victorian styles, in which the Queen Anne style dominates. In fact, the place is almost a parody of itself, a Disney setting and a house where a gothic family might live with very strange hobbies. Sadly, the house is not open to the public but you can go to this website to see the interior of the house: www.ingomar.org.

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