A Californian Pioneer: Claus Spreckels Obituary (January 2, 1909)

An obituary reports the death of a person and gives an account of his or her life. In this case, however, the death of Claus Spreckels was also used to give an interpretation of the early phase of California history, dominated by pioneers and robber barons, and to contrast this period with the more civilized “progressive” California of 1908. In addition, Spreckels was presented as an all-American citizen, not as an immigrant. Obituaries like these were an important source for incorporation of former foreigners into the imagined community of the “Land of the Free.”

From:  “Claus Spreckels Death,” San Francisco News Letter 77 (January 2, 1909): 21.

“Claus Spreckels represented an era in history. He belonged to the age of blood and iron. He belonged to the period of the Huntingtons, the Stanfords, the Crockers and others of the type who builded the empire of California. The age these men lived in was the age of result-makers. It was an unlovely, crude age, an age of grubbing and remorseless money-gouging and wealth-getting, and there was little of refinement in it. Of all the men who have made the history of early California there is probably none who made his money out of the people with less suffering to the people than Spreckels. It is reported that in his short span of existence of eighty odd years he amassed some fifty-one millions of dollars. This is an awful, almost terrifying lot of money. It represents unheard of, unthinkable, opportunities to do harm. It might have been a mighty enginery for good. The results, except as they mean the piled-up millions in the family coffers, have meant much for California, but they might have meant much more! Directly, Mr. Claus Spreckels might have done much more for his fellowman. Indirectly, he did a great deal, but what he did was only incidental to the things he was doing for himself. He was a wonderful man. He was an irresistible force. He was a part of the age we have mentioned above. It was not an age in which conscience ever played a very active part. It was not an age in which heart, dominated mind. It was an acquisitive, performing, crude, cruel, conquering age, and it may lie that it could trader no conditions have been different. It was a wonderful era: it was the era of the builders of empire, but it was a period of soul atrophy, and the big sugar king, who lies in silent state, and to whom his sons and their families make obeisance, was no less a king than some of the rulers of the old world. He had carved a throne out of golden dollars, and be recognized no other signet of authority. He is gone, and with his going are broken many combinations in business. Everywhere in this community and in Hawaii there will be a new alignment as a result of the death of this great big performer of things.

Mr. Claus Spreckels was a most interesting figure. His achievements were all made without the help of others and not through combinations with others. His were new ideas. While this indomitable man was engaged in many things that gave employment to thousands of people, there was nothing in which he held interest that ever occupied his time more than the single item of sugar. He owned a million dollars or more of the San Joaquin Valley Railroad stock. He was the owner of more than ten millions in real estate in San Francisco. His investments in San Diego had grown to a value of eight millions. He was interested in the Western Sugar Refinery, to the tune of fifteen millions or more. His interest in the Oceanic S. S. Co. was rated at two and a half million dollars. He had immense interests in Hawaii plantations, and his holdings in Union Pacific and Southern bonds were large. His Havemeyer holdings amount to about fourteen millions, and he was interested in the First Federal Trust and other financial institutions in this city. It is estimated that the total valuation of the estate is about fifty-one millions of dollars. It must not be believed that this moneyed sugar king was all iron and inflexibility, for he was identified with many of the charities of the city, and he had donated many thousands of dollars to public improvement. San Francisco owes much to Claus Spreckels, but it is a pity he was not big enough to have been indebted to him for much more than mere money may give. Some people have estimated the Spreckels fortune hundred millions, but it is probable that half of this amount is nearer the correct figure amassed by this wonderful man in his life-time.”