Where did the San Francisco 49ers get their name?

You might think you know the origins of the San Francisco 49ers, but there are some unusual inspirations behind the name and mascot.
Super Bowl LVIII - San Francisco 49ers Practice
Super Bowl LVIII - San Francisco 49ers Practice / Chris Unger/GettyImages

When Super Bowl LVIII kicks off, the players and crowd will be covered in their team's colors and names. Mascots will walk around, exciting the crowds to cheer louder. With any luck, it'll be the kind of game that fans will never forget, with plays that make it into the history books.

But during commercial breaks or while waiting for the halftime show to kick off, fans might start wondering where the two teams got their names. While the Kansas City Chiefs and the San Francisco 49ers might sound fairly straightforward, there are some surprising twists and turns with their names and mascots.

The San Francisco 49ers were founded as part of the All-America Football Conference, moving into the NFL after the AAFC shut down in 1949. Throughout their almost 80-year-long history, they have never changed their name or location, which speaks to how connected the two are. Here's everything you could want to know about the origins of the 49ers name and mascot Sourdough Sam.

California Gold Diggers Illustration
California Gold Diggers Illustration / Historical/GettyImages

Where did the San Francisco 49ers get their name?

This is one of the simpler team nickname origins. The 49ers got the name from the nickname given to those who moved to California looking for gold. Their name came from the year that the most people came: 1849. Thanks to the gold rush, the population of California boomed enough for it to become a state in 1850.

When founder Tony Morabito was trying to come up with what his new, West Coast team could be called, his business partner Allen E. Sorrell suggested that he consider California's history with gold mining. After all, they were trying to earn money with a risky venture in the west too.

However, there have been some complaints about the 49ers' name, similar to those made against the Kansas City Chiefs. After all, the influx of people were responsible for removing the indigenous people who had been living in California.

Within 30 years of the California Gold Rush, 4/5ths of the population of American Indians living in California was gone, and thousands were enslaved for the state's development. So while the name itself is not explicitly racist, it has a complicated history, particularly when connected with other historically-grounded sports teams.

Green Bay Packers v San Francisco 49ers
Green Bay Packers v San Francisco 49ers / Tom Hauck/GettyImages

Why is the 49ers' mascot Sourdough Sam?

Given a pretty consistent background regarding their name, why is their mascot seemingly so detached from it? The answer has to do with a combination of what worked well on a field and what made a more friendly image for the team.

When the 49ers first got started, their logo was "a goldminer in boots and a lumberjack shirt, firing a pair of pistols. One shot just missed the miner's head, while the other missed his foot." In 1968, it switched to a much simpler image similar to the current SF monogram for easier use on helmets and merchandise.

While the logo was tied closely to the name, the mascot is a bit more complicated. The 49ers originally had a mule named Clementine, which matched up with other teams that used real animals as mascots. The mule made sense because it was heavily connected with the gold rush, both as a way for people to travel west and a means of transport for gold and heavy tools.

After Clementine was retired, the 49ers tried a variety of prospector and miner characters based on their early logo. However, none of these landed quite right with the fans. Finally, they settled on a version of the current mascot: Sourdough Sam.

Fun Fact!

The 49ers website states that Sourdough Sam has a pet named Clementine, bringing the mascot history full circle.

Sourdough Sam was introduced in 1994, and while he does have a pick axe meant to indicate that he is a miner, his name and personality suggest a different pastime. According to their website, "Known for his love of sourdough bread, [Sourdough Sam] would take the bread with him on a hard day's work of digging in the gold mines."

So where exactly does the sourdough bread come into play? Well, it's a little complicated. While sourdough bread has been around in some form for practically all of human history, it wasn't popular in the early Americas. However, some of the thousands who flocked to California in the Gold Rush were from France, where sourdough was popular.

The rumor goes that it became the signature food for the prospectors and miners, which gradually made it part of San Francisco's wider culture. In fact, one of the strain of bacteria used to make sourdough bread has actually been named "Fructilactobacillus sanfranciscensis."

The name and images connected with the San Francisco 49ers all go back to the California Gold Rush, but it takes a little bit of digging to connect all the dots.

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