American Grand Jury Foundation
The grand jury
Civic commentaries
Civics and Home schooling
Local government facts
About us
Terms of use
Contact us

Civic Commentaries

California’s First Civic Gadfly

(A review of Philosopher Pickett, by Lawrence Clark Powell, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1942)


For all of his faults, Philosopher Pickett was the “very model” of a modern gadfly. Many a civic boodler, high binder, and grifter felt his lash in the 40-year period that he practiced his craft of government watching. Reading the names of the people who hated or admired Pickett, or alternated between those emotions at different periods, is like walking the streets of San Francisco today and reading the names on its street signs. In one way or the other, Pickett’s life and the lives of Kern, Larkin, Latham, Leidesdorrff, Mason, Sloat, Stockton, and many other notables intertwined. As the author of the only biography of this unusual man stated, “He had been in the thick of things, and had known everyone.”

The famous historian, Bancroft, called him San Francisco’s Diogenes. You’ll find Pickett mentioned in the papers of Thomas Larkin and other California history books. Despite his fame, or notoriety as his enemies might have it, no photograph of him is known to exist, and no one knows where, in a Mother Lode cemetery, his final resting place is. In some cases, only scraps are left of his various broadsides, tracts, and “pronunciamientos,” as he sometimes referred to his writings.

Although Powell’s book is brief (178 pages including its index), the author has captured enough information to provide important insights into Pickett’s nature. One thinks of the old question, “Does a man make the times, or do the times make the man?” With Pickett, as with most historical figures, the answer can only be inconclusive. What is certain is that Pickett was an intelligent, irascible, principled man who found himself “a lone voice of protest against the corruption which characterized the ruthless exploitation and development of California” between the end of the Gold Rush and the last decade of the nineteenth century.

Pickett was a Virginian, a descendant of people who settled that country a century before the American Revolution. His cousin was General George Pickett, whom General Lee ordered to charge a massive concentration of the Union Army at Gettysburg. In the year President Monroe, another Virginian, was elected to a second term (1820), Philosopher Pickett was born. He attended a “church academy” and completed that institution’s course of study at the age of 19. Judging by many references in his writing to mythical and real characters of antiquity, Pickett acquired an education in the classics.

At age 22, Pickett journeyed to Oregon, resting at Fort Bridger along the way. His several years in Oregon were tumultuous. Pickett apparently had little use for religious hierarchies in his early days, and at one point aggressively opposed a group of Methodist missionaries in Oregon. This resulted in a legal battle that Pickett won; I have no doubt that this early, and somewhat spectacular success, fired his enthusiasm for confrontation for the remainder of his life.

One example of Pickett’s early display of his strong will and determination is how he publicized his public-policy ruminations. In the absence of paper, he made shingles on which he wrote his pronunciamientos and nailed them to trees in his Oregon campaign against his missionary foes. Somehow he acquired the means to purchase more conventional materials for publishing his views and is credited with starting, in 1845, the “first newspaper on the west coast”: the Flumgudgeon Gazette and Bumble Bee Budget. During his brief Oregon period, he bested a local politician in a fierce political battle, became a “judge,” and briefly served as a member of the “Rangers,” a territorial militia. As busy as he was, he found time to pursue a study of geology in that State.

On the eve of the Gold Rush, in 1846, Pickett moved to California, arriving there shortly after the end of the Bear Flag Rebellion. At this time, Pickett befriended General Vallejo, whom the Bear Flag instigators had, Pickett believed, unfairly imprisoned in Sutter’s Fort. Pickett and Vallejo were life-long friends as a result of this meeting. Pickett also befriended Lieutenant Kern, probably because of Kern’s scholarly, gentlemanly deportment.

At this point in Pickett’s life, Powell confesses, reasonably enough, to some confusion about how to characterize Pickett: Was he a journalist? an explorer? a land developer? a lawyer? Pickett dabbled in all these callings, but he was not a lawyer even in the sense of the word at those times. At one time, he appended “Esq.” to his name, possibly because of the title “Judge” he acquired in Oregon for a few months. Pickett did have some command of the law and in his later years worked as what we might called today a “paralegal’ in several law offices.

True to form, Pickett did not join the crowds at the gold strike of 1848–1949. Instead, he operated a general merchandize store at Sutter’s Fort. During this period, he was forced to defend himself in combat with a well-known brutish character who had established himself at Sutter’s Fort. The account of Pickett’s trial and Sutter’s unusual behavior during the proceedings would have been a good sequence for Paint Your Wagon, the zany, 1969 musical comedy set in the Gold Rush era.

Eventually, Pickett left Sacramento to return to San Francisco. While there, he dabbled in real estate and apparently became somewhat wealthy during this period. When he decided to raise sheep, he journeyed to Hawaii to buy some. Once again, however, he tangled with some missionaries and declared his contempt for them. One should not, however, conclude that Pickett disavowed Christianity. As his story progresses, Pickett makes several references to Christian belief, including an admonition to parents to ensure that their children receive religious instruction. His last words, quoted below, also suggest that some of his early training in the “church academy” of his youth remained with him.

Pickett dubbed himself “Philosopher,” no doubt because of his conviction that no regime can function well without guidance by its philosophers. Although he had a sense of humor, I doubt that Pickett selected “Philosopher” as an honorific in jest. In those days, it was not unusual to address tradesmen and professional people as, for example, “Lawyer Jones.” Thus, in 1867, he lists himself as “Philosopher” Pickett in the Great Register of San Francisco.

For Pickett, the acquisition of wealth was low in the order of things. He referred to gold as “The curse of the Almighty.” As proprietor of his store at Sutter’s Fort, he often extended credit to shady characters, a practice that soon took a toll on his profits. Although Powell generally portrays Pickett sympathetically, he refers to several occasions in which self-interest may have motivated Pickett. For example, he campaigned to relocate the State Capitol from Sacramento to Sutterville, just south of the capital city. Powell points out that Pickett also owned some land at the proposed site. In Pickett’s time, the idea of moving the Capitol was sensible, as anyone who has ever seen pictures of Sacramento under water on several occasions in that period might agree.

Pickett also sided with the Confederacy during the Civil War, supported slavery, and some years before recommended the slaying of “untamable rascals” (Indians) in the Siskiyou Mountains. However, during the period of Chinese migration to California, Pickett loudly excoriated employers who mistreated the immigrants and characterized them as “intelligent, industrious, economical, ingenious, freemen and freedom-loving.”

None of Pickett’s efforts to own a newspaper came to fruition. Most of his works were published in other outlets. Although Powell states that Pickett’s major interests were “land and government,” one could add a third subject: taking jabs at power. These concerns and, of course, the need to earn enough money to keep afloat, seemed to have figured into Pickett’s decision not to have married, though he wrote eloquently of the joys of family life. Still, Pickett did claim to be

… wedded to a bride (if I may thus personify what most persons tell me is a Utopian idea of mine, a mere chimera or hallucination of the brain)—political reform in California. By nature designed for such an occupation; with ardent zeal I have for years past devoted myself to this cause. The thieves and money-changers and soul-traders must be driven from our temple of liberty. The fathers of this republic did not build it to be desecrated and have its high seats filled with such a band of plunderers as have taken possession of and polluted this western wing. Truly they have made it a den of thieves, and more unclean than Augean stables or a guano island rookery.

If the philosopher’s muse failed him, Pickett did not hesitate to resort to drama. In Chapter 13, “De-chairing a Justice,” Powell relates how Pickett entered an official meeting of the California State Supreme Court and, by an astute piece of timing, seated himself in the chair of one of the justices, who Pickett claimed was unlawfully seated therein. This rash act resulted in an eight-month stay in the San Francisco jail. Even in this trying circumstance, Pickett managed to lessen the blow. The jailors found him to be such a likeable inmate that they allowed him to live in a small room on the jail roof, an abode thereafter known as the “Philosopher’s fort.” By this time, sufficient public support of Pickett had developed that the remainder of his sentence was canceled.

Judging by the themes of his many writings, Pickett probably would have been a Democrat in this era, though his stance on slavery, the civil war, and Native Americans would have caused him some problems. Otherwise, his sympathy for the working class, for the public ownership of certain utilities, and his antagonism toward “Plundercrats” seem to exclude him from Republican or Libertarian political camps. I also think he might have been an environmentalist, judging by his love of nature, especially geology.

Although they are lost to us today, there is evidence that Pickett was going to write a book about natural phenomena, using notes he made throughout his travels. His last essay about such matters was written a few days before his death in 1882. In late fall of that year, he journeyed to Yosemite. He seems to have foreseen that his days were near their end. Before the Yosemite trip, he packed his few belongings and some gold coins and left them with a notary public. The latter was instructed, upon Pickett’s death, to send the package to his brother William in Tennessee. That done, Pickett’s week-long stay in Yosemite began. During this time, he wrote an account of the scenic beauty of the Yosemite Valley for the Bulletin. Presumably, he was going to deliver his manuscript to the paper when he returned to San Francisco. However, he became ill and delayed his return trip.

Pickett somehow found his way to a hotel in the village of Mariposa. A Mrs. Gallison owned and operated the hotel. Seeing immediately that Pickett was in a desperate condition, Mrs. Gallison gave Pickett a room and directed him to bed. Fortunately for Philosopher Pickett, Mrs. Gallison had a charitable disposition, and she cared for him during his final hours. On November 16, as Mrs. Gallison sat by his side, Pickett took her hands and “drew them gently across his brow and face.… The good woman’s tears fell on the pillow beside his weary head. With great effort, he raised his hand and pointed up. ‘The gate is open,’ he whispered, and closed his eyes forever.”

Although the Mariposa Gazette reported that Pickett was lain to rest in the community cemetery, the grave is not marked. That is not surprising for the times. What is curious is his choice of the poem Pickett desired to be read at his funeral: Byron’s Inscription on the Monument of a Newfoundland Dog. Powell characterizes the poem as “misanthropic,” one of its elements to be sure. It is also about dying alone who “Unhonoured falls, unnoticed all his worth.” Rather than dwell on what might be seen as Pickett’s venture into self-pity in his final hours, I prefer to speculate on what Pickett would have accomplished in exercising his beloved Constitutional right to petition had he lived in the days of the Internet.

May 1, 2008

Return to top

Return to
Civic Commentaries
main page


©2008-2017 American Grand Jury Foundation, All Rights Reserved