“Eureka” – California Motto – Phrase Origin

Every state within the United States has a state motto. Sometimes these are in English, like Rhode Island’s “Hope” or Washington’s “Into the Future,” and many are in languages other than English. So what about California’s “Eureka?”

The origins of the California motto “Eureka” come from the Greek word meaning “I have found it!” The phrase references the discovery of gold in California and the resulting 1840s gold rush.

Keep reading below to learn about the origin of California’s motto. We’ll go through the history of the motto and its Greek origins, as well as some examples of other mottos in the United States.

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The History of California’s Motto

The term “Eureka” first cemented its place in California history in 1849 with the creation of the first California state seal. Major R. S. Garnett designed the seal, and it was unveiled at the 1849 Constitutional Convention. In 1850, California officially became a state. Though the seal’s design ended up with some slight tweaking, the term “Eureka” got to stay.

A year before Major Garnett designed the seal, James Wilson Marshall discovered flakes of gold while building a sawmill. This discovery brought an influx of prospective prospectors to California. With this population increase, California became eligible for statehood in 1950. 

Since the discovery of gold was a huge part of California’s population and subsequent economic boom, it makes sense that the term “Eureka” would earn a place on the state seal. The state motto became official in 1963.

The History of the Term “Eureka”

“Eureka” is the English translation of the ancient Greek term “εὕρηκα” and roughly translates to mean “I have found it.” The term is originally attributed to Greek mathematician Archimedes.

Archimedes was born in Sicily in 287 BCE. After studying in Alexandria, he returned home to work as an engineer under King Hiero II. He supposedly designed or improved weapons used to fight against the Romans during the Second Punic War. 

The discoveries and inventions of Archimedes include:

  • Archimedes’ principle of calculating volume and density.
  • Archimedes’ screw to pump out water.
  • Claw of Archimedes, a rumored weapon used to defeat attacking ships.
  • Heat ray, another rumored weapon that supposedly used mirrors to direct light.

It was during the discovery of Archimedes’ principle that he supposedly used the term “eureka.” As the story goes, he had been asked by King Hiero II to determine whether the crown Hiero had commissioned was truly pure gold. However, Archimedes could not damage the crown to do so. While climbing into the bathtub one night, he noticed the water level rose, leading him to conclude that a similar experiment could be done to determine volume and density.

According to legend, at this discovery, Archimedes leaped out of the bathroom and excitedly took to the streets, still naked, and shouted “Eureka!” While it’s a fun story, there’s no mention of the gold crown or the revelation in any of Archimedes’ writings.

The History of the Gold Rush

The first non-indigenous people to make it to California was a Spanish expedition in 1542. Though the expedition decided that there was nothing of interest in California, Spain laid claim to the area. Some explorers ventured into California and communicated with the indigenous populations throughout the centuries, but nothing much happened until Spain established a mission in 1697.

Spain established more missions and began to send expeditions to explore more of what is now the United States. They retained their claim on California until Mexico gained independence in 1821. In 1846, tensions between Mexico and the United States reached a peak during the Mexican-American War. By January of 1847, Mexico had ceded California to the US. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 formalized the United States’ purchase of California.

Only a few days before the treaty was finalized, James Wilson Marshall discovered gold.

Marshall is quoted as saying, “It made my heart thump, for I was certain it was gold.” He and his boss, John Sutter, tried to keep the gold a secret. Somehow, by mid-March, a local newspaper caught wind of the story. Though residents of nearby San Francisco were initially skeptical, a local storekeeper went to see for himself. When he returned, proudly showing off the gold he had collected, the gold rush was on.

By August, there were 4,000 miners in the area, and the numbers only continued to grow. Hopeful miners started arriving from: 

  • Oregon 
  • Hawaii 
  • Mexico 
  • South America
  • China 

In December 1948, President Polk announced the discovery of gold in the country. Americans flocked in from the east coast by the thousands through the following year, coining the term “‘49-ers.”

With a population topping 100,000 and a newly erupted economy, California became the 31st state in 1849. Their state constitution barred slavery, a move that caused a wave of disruption in Congress. Surface gold dwindled in the state by 1950, resulting in hydraulic mining taking hold in the area. Despite the dwindling gold supply, California’s population continued to grow. By the 1860s, the population had grown to 380,000. Today, it’s over 39 million.

Other State Mottos

Every state in the US has a motto. New York’s motto is the Latin “Excelsior,” meaning “ever upward.” Minnesota’s is French, “L’etoile du Nord,” meaning “Star of the North.” Hawaii’s is “Ua Mau ke Ea o ka ‘Āina i ka Pono,” which translates to “the life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness.” Here are the other state mottos, with their translations when applicable: 

  • Alabama – We Dare Defend Our Rights, inspired by a poem by Sir William Jones.
  • Alaska – North to the Future, suggested by a journalist as a reminder of all that Alaska holds.
  • Arizona – Ditat Deus (God Enriches), inspiration unknown.
  • Arkansas – The People Rule, inspiration unknown.
  • Colorado – Nil sine Numine (Nothing Without the Divine Will), from the poem Aeneid, written by the Roman poet Virgil.
  • Connecticut – Qui Transtulit Sustinet (He Who Is Transplanted Still Sustains), inspiration unknown.
  • D.C. – Justitia Omnibus (Justice for All), chosen as D.C. is the center of the U.S. government.
  • Delaware – Liberty and Independence, inspiration unknown.
  • Florida – In God We Trust, also the motto of the United States.
  • Georgia – Wisdom, Justice, and Moderation, inspired by Plato’s Republic.
  • Hawaii – Ua Mau ke Ea o ka ‘Āina i ka Pono (The Life of the Land is Perpetuated in Righteousness), originally spoken by Hawaiian King Kamehameha III on July 31, 1843.
  • Idaho – Esto Perpetua (May She Endure Forever), inspiration unknown.
  • Illinois – State Sovereignty, National Union, inspiration unknown.
  • Indiana – Crossroads of America, inspiration unknown.
  • Iowa – Our Liberties We Prize, inspiration unknown.
  • Kansas – Ad Astra Per Aspera (Through Hardships to the Stars), inspired by the hardships of pioneers and the bloody battles fought in Kansas.
  • Kentucky – United We Stand, Divided We Fall, a line from the 1768 “Liberty Song” by John Dickinson.
  • Louisiana – Union, Justice, and Confidence, inspiration unknown.
  • Maine – Dirigo (I direct), inspiration unknown.
  • Maryland – Fatti Maschii Parole Femine (Strong Deeds, Gentle Words), originally the motto of the prominent Maryland Calvert family.
  • Massachusetts – By the Sword, We Seek Peace, but Only Under Liberty, from the works of Algernon Sydney in 1659.
  • Michigan – Si Quaeris Peninsulam Amoenam, Circumspice (If You Seek a Pleasant Peninsula, Look Around You), inspiration unknown.
  • Minnesota – L’Etoile du Nord (Star of the North), inspiration unknown.
  • Mississippi – Virtute et armis (By Valor and Arms), inspiration unknown.
  • Missouri – Salus Populi Suprema Lex Esto (The Welfare of the People Should Be the Supreme Law), inspiration unknown.
  • Montana -Oro y Plata (Gold and Silver), inspired by the prolific gold and silver mining in Montana.
  • Nebraska – Equality Before the Law, referencing that black Americans had the right to vote in Nebraska.
  • Nevada – All For Our Country, inspiration unknown.
  • New Hampshire – Live Free Or Die, a quote from Revolutionary War hero General John Stark.
  • New Jersey – Liberty and Prosperity, inspiration unknown.
  • New Mexico – Crescit eundo (It Grows as it Goes), from the poem De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) by Roman poet Lucretius.
  • New York – Excelsior (Ever Upward), inspiration unknown.
  • North Carolina – Esse quam videri (To Be, Rather Than to Seem), taken from Roman statesman Cicero’s De Amatica (On Friendship).
  • North Dakota – Liberty and Union Now and Forever, One and Inseparable, a quote from Daniel Webster.
  • Ohio – With God, All Things Are Possible, from the Bible.
  • Oklahoma – Labor Omnia Vincit (Work Conquers All), inspired by Latin poet Virgil.
  • Oregon – She Flies With Her Own Wings, a quote from Supreme Court Justice Jessie Quinn Thornton.
  • Pennsylvania – Virtue, Liberty, and Independence, inspiration unknown.
  • Rhode Island – Hope, inspiration unknown.
  • South Carolina – Dum Spiro Spero (While I Breathe I Hope), Animis Opibusque Parati (Prepared in Mind and Resources), inspiration unknown for both.
  • South Dakota – Under God the People Rule, inspiration unknown.
  • Tennessee – Agriculture, and Commerce, inspired by Tennessee’s diverse agriculture
  • Texas – Friendship, as the name “Texas” is derived from the Caddo Nation word for friendship.
  • Utah – Industry, a reference to the industrial early pioneers.
  • Vermont – Freedom and Unity, a quote from Vermont’s first governor, Thomas Chittenden.
  • Virginia – Sic Semper Tyrannis (Thus Always to Tyrants), attributed to Brutus after stabbing Caesar.
  • Washington – Into the Future, translated from the Chinook word “alki”.
  • West Virginia – Montani Semper Liberi (Mountaineers Are Always Free), inspiration unknown.
  • Wisconsin – Forward, inspiration unknown.
  • Wyoming – Equal Rights, referencing that Wyoming was the first state to grant white women the right to vote.

Conclusion

The history of California’s “Eureka!” motto is long and winding, beginning with Archimedes 2300 years ago. Though there’s no proof, the term Eureka, meaning “I have found it,” is attributed to him. The term became popular in California after the discovery of gold in 1848. That discovery caused a gold rush, inflating California’s population enough that it was admitted as the 31st state.

Sources

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