Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Scarcity of Dynastic Families in Davis (76)


One image (and perhaps stereotype) of community functioning asserts that a town’s pioneer families develop economic and social advantages that are passed down through generations of their children. These descendants come to dominate their communities as “family dynasties.”  

I do not know the degree to which this image accurately describes American communities. But I am struck by how little it seems to apply to Davis.

In the second part of her book Davisville ‘68, Larkey provides lists of pioneer families. Phyllis Haig once told me that considerable effort was put into identifying and profiling all the earliest families both in the town and in the surrounding countryside. Those lists are reproduced here.



If we take these families as our “founding family” frame of reference, and even add families arriving a little later, we can ask, To what degree do the descendants of these families (1) still live in or near Davis and (2) do so as “dynastic families”?

My short answer to both questions is: To a very small degree.

As best I can determine, only one family on these lists has maintained even a modest socio-economic presence in Davis across the four-plus generations that have now elapsed since Davis’ founding. But even that family is, I think, only barely or marginally “dynastic” in that it has only a narrow sector of power and limited scale of influence in the Davis arena.

Indicative of just how marginally dynastic that one family is, I venture to say that many Davisites cannot correctly guess the family’s name.

Several factors seem to have inhibited the formation of dynastic families in Davis.

One, the earliest Davis families amassed relatively little concentrated wealth to pass on to successor generations and, two, there were not all that many of those families in the first place.   

Three, one by-product of an emphasis on quality formal education--something seen right from the start in Davis--is social access to larger worlds and mobility into cosmopolitan occupations. That is, these families gave their children the skills they needed easily to leave Davis.  

Four, it was only well after World War II that Davis began to become the kind of place that would be attractive to well-educated people not deeply involved in intense university research. By that time, families that might become dynastic had already dispersed.

Let me mention one possible (albeit minor) consequence of the lack of a significant number of Davis dynastic families. When there are good numbers of these families in a community, they form an important set of builders of institutions that celebrate early local history--such institutions as museums, historical societies, memorials, and places named for them. Lacking such a dynastic base, Davis’ local history infrastructure is relatively limited--relative even to the northern regions of Yolo County (which has more dynastic families).*

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* Lacking the historical ballast of dynastic families, memorialization opportunities are heavily influenced by developer pet themes (e.g. streets named for colleges or birds) and the political agendas of city council members at the time of memorializing something (e.g. city park names). As a consequence, the public place culture of Davis is either oddly generic and bland or culturally quirky more than locally historic.