The recently dedicated historical landmark plaque at Hirschman’s Pond misrepresents the true history of the pond, the ecological destruction caused by hydraulic mining, and the Native Nisenan community who were displaced from the site. History is more than names and dates, but it also should include the fuller social and cultural context, particularly as more information about the history of this region has come to light. The laudable intention to honor ethnic diversity has been undermined by the flawed language on the plaque.
- A historical plaque that ignores history
The plaque honors Leb Hirschman, an owner of the abandoned hydraulic mine at that site, who reportedly“mined around Oustomah Hill.” Left unsaid is that ‘ustomah (anglicized as “Oustomah”) was the Nisenan name for their settlement that is now Nevada City. The plaque corrects a mistake about Hirschman’s identity but then makes a more significant historical error in using the Oustomah name with no explanation of its meaning.
All four of the signers are long-time residents of the Cement Hill Neighborhood, a place where the survivors of the Nisenan peoplelived for many years on the Nevada City Rancheria. We find it unconscionable that a historical plaque cites “Oustomah Hill” as a mining location, without any mention of the people to whom that name belongs, and whose land was destroyed by the mine. Historical wrongs are committed by errors of omission as well as by errors of commission.
Shelly Covert, spokesperson for the Nevada City Rancheria Nisenan Tribe, suggested last year that the plaque or an additional sign could add the language, “‘ustomah is the original Nisenan place name for what is now known as Nevada City. To learn more about the Nisenan visit nisenan.org.”
- A product of destruction of the land and the native people
There is valuable new research being done about the history of mining and the Native Nisenan community in our region. For example, there is the new book by historian Tanis Thorne, Nevada City Nisenan, and other works in preparation. We have learned that the area around “Oustomah Hill” was the home of many native people before it was totally obliterated by the water cannons of Hirschman’s hydraulic mine. It is the destruction of “Oustomah Hill” that is the actual origin of Hirschman’s Pond.
This landmark has been promoted as honoring the vibrant Jewish Gold Rush community, immigrants who came here to escape persecution in Europe. Three of us are of Jewish heritage. Given the history of persecution of our forebears, we find it a grievous error to honor Jews by memorializing activity that contributed to the genocide of the native peoples and the ecological rape of the earth.
Most Jewish settlers were not miners. There were many early Nevada County Jews who could have been honored for their cultural and economic contributions to our community. For example, Henry Meyers Blumenthal was the first publisher of The Union newspaper. Abraham Salaman built the first fire-resistant brick structure in Nevada County (the current Williams Stationery Building).
Leb Hirschman bought a mine that was later abandoned after the Sawyer Decision of 1884 outlawed dumping of mining debris and ended the practice of hydraulic mining. Over the years the site gradually healed from its toxic beginnings to become the wildlife habitat we enjoy today. We can thank the Bear Yuba Land Trust and Nevada City Parks and Recreation, not Leb Hirschman, for helping transform the trail and pond into a resource for our community.
- Correcting a historic error
We made these objections known to the sponsors of the landmark and plaque last year, after the plaque wording was made public. They told us that all the formal decisions had already been made. No one was willing to reconsider the plaque language, even after an offer was made to reimburse the cost of the plaque. We hope that by making these objections known to the wider public, a new conversation can begin. Can we honor our history in a more inclusive way, recognizing the good will on all sides of the discussion? It is never too late to correct an error, one that misrepresents our history to our visitors, and to ourselves.
The Nevada City Nisenan are still here, and they are telling their own story. You can read the book by tribal leader Richard Johnson, The History of Us, visit the Nisenan website www.nisenan.org and visit the ‘Uba Seo gallery on Broad Street. The current exhibit is appropriately named “ERASED.”