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How did the San Francisco 49ers get their name? Origin and meaning

The San Francisco 49ers scored a stunning upset against the top-seeded Green Bay Packers, earning themselves a shot at the NFC Championship.

GREEN BAY, WISCONSIN - JANUARY 22: Quarterback Aaron Rodgers #12 of the Green Bay Packers is sacked by defensive end Arik Armstead #91of the San Francisco 49ers during the 4th quarter of the NFC Divisional Playoff game against the San Francisco 49ers at L
Quinn HarrisAFP

The San Francisco 49ers pulled off a stunning upset against the top-seeded Green Bay Packers last weekend, earning the right to play for the NFC Championship against the Los Angeles Rams. If San Francisco wins, they will be able to gun for their sixth Super Bowl championship.

The excitement at the prospect of another Super Bowl appearance by the 49ers has been tainted for some because the team’s name has some very negative connotations.

The 49ers were founded in 1946, and hold the distinction of being the first major league professional sports franchise based in San Francisco. It has stayed in the city since then.

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Commemorating the Gold Rush

The team’s name is a nod to history. The California Gold Rush began in 1848 but it took a year for the word to get out, and so by the time 1849 rolled around, thousands of fortune hunters had arrived in Northern California to mine for gold.

The miners who arrived that year faced very favorable odds of getting rich. They were early at the scene and there remained a lot of gold to be had. There were also no taxes or land rights disputes at the time as California had yet to become a state. These miners were called the “forty-niners”, and the name was an easy choice for the football team when it was formed.

The name was embodied by the team’s mascot- a gold-prospector-inspired character named Sourdough Sam who has undergone several changes to his appearance over the years.

What's in a name?

Some have called for a change to the team’s name in recent years. While not quite as obviously racist as those of other franchises, it is said that the term “49ers” honors a generation of fortune seekers that exploited, enslaved, and killed native Americans.

Around this period of US history, the government reportedly armed local militias to kill Native American men and seize women and children to be sold to miners and used as free labor.

If more voices come out to protest the connotation of the franchise’s moniker and its relationship to the genocide that took place during this period, San Francisco might just be the next team to be seeing a change in their name.


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