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The history of the state seal of California begins well before California achieved statehood in 1850. It was designed by a United States Army officer, but due to political and social issues, was introduced by another man, with the creator's approval. It was officially approved by the California Constitutional Convention, held in 1849. Its design incorporated period-specific references to the Union, reflecting an assumption by its creator that California would be swiftly be admitted as a state. It has undergone numerous modifications since, most of which have been stylistic, without significantly changing any of the symbolic imagery or the layout of the design. The last of these changes were made in 1937
The creator of the state seal of California was Robert S. Garnett. Garrett was a major in the United States Army, who would later go on to accept a commission as a general in the Confederate army at the outset of the American Civil War. His design was engraved by Albert Kuner.
During this period in history, a great deal of enmity existed between the military and many of those involved in California politics. For this reason, Garnett felt that his design would be rejected out of hand by the constitutional convention simply because it was created by a member of the military. To circumvent this possibility, he enlisted the aid of Caleb Lyon, the official clerk of the convention. Garnett's proposed design for the seal was presented by Lyon as his own.
Lyon submitted a proposal for the design of the seal and an explanation of its symbols. The design depicts a landscape with a harbor or river dotted with sailing ships, with mountains in the background and a representation of the Roman god Minerva kneeling beside a grizzly bear in the right foreground. A miner works with a pick in the left foreground. A row of 31 stars, one for each state in the Union at the time, follows the upper arc of the circular seal with the word "Eureka" appearing just below them. The words "The Great Seal of the State of California" were placed around the border of the seal.
Each element of the design was selected to have some relevance to California's history and the pride of its citizens. Minerva was chosen to show that California became a state without first being designated as a territory as was the norm. The grizzly bear, eating a bunch of grapes, represents the diversity of the flora and fauna of the region while the landscape shows the great variety of natural beauty to be found in the region. The miner, a sheaf of wheat, and the ships indicate the strengths of California's commerce, agriculture, and economy. The word "Eureka" is refers to the discovery of gold in the region and the acceptance of California as a member of the United States.
The delegates to the convention debated on the design, and numerous changes were proposed by various members. Garnett's original design did not include the grizzly bear or the miner. Both were added by amendment.
Other proposed changes were rejected, and the design was approved by a vote on October 2, 1849. It was revised three separate times, the last in 1937. Each revision made minor changes in the details without intrinsically changing any of the symbology or main elements. The 1937 revision was legislated and officially designated as the one and only legal seal.
The actual seal is a physical object, and is used by the governor and the secretary of state to place an official stamp on documents, much in the way the stamp of a notary public certifies documents. While innumerable representations of the state seal of California exist, by state law, there is and can be only one official physical seal. It consists of a two part die attached to a press that, when used, embosses the seal on a document.