Merchant and promoter Sam Brannan rode through the streets of San Francisco, waving a jar of gold dust and shouting, “Gold has been discovered on the American River.” This was followed by an article in the four-page Californian newspaper, co-founded by Bear Flagger Dr. Robert Semple, which matter-of-factly reported on March 15, 1848, that “gold in considerable quantities” had been found at Capt. John Sutter’s saw mill. It would not be long before the world rushed into California.
The Forty-Niners of legend were depicted in the eastern American press as enterprising Americans scrambling for fortunes in mines, stream beds and gulches of California, not yet a state. But first on scene in the mountain goldfields were Californios (local Mexicans), some natives of the dwindling native Indian population and Americans living on the west coast, along with American soldiers remaining from the just-concluded Mexican War. These included most of the brigade stationed in Sonoma, who deserted virtually to a man. Almost immediately they were joined by Mexicans from the Estado of Sonora.
Actually, before the news of the discovery of gold traveled eastward to the United States, the gold fever was spreading throughout the Pacific basin, attracting Chinese, Chilenos, Hawaiians and British from the convict colonies of Australia. The excitement first reached the Hawaiian Islands, then an independent monarchy, brought by sailors on a ship from San Francisco. The local “Polynesian” newspaper in Hawaii announced on July 15, 1848, that a “crowded vessel” was departing shortly for California and a dozen others would follow with a waiting list of over 200.
Enterprising shipmasters sailing to China, Chile, Peru and across the Far East, bought up picks, shovels, flour, blankets and useful equipment to sell to prospective miners. Then they would broadcast the news of the gold and return with full shiploads of passengers. Inhabitants of south Pacific islands, particularly French colonists, soon joined the migration.
During the first year after the discovery of gold, the various nationalities generally were compatible and despite the great wealth being taken from the ground there was very little crime. Alonzo Delano observed in his “Life on the Plains and Among the Diggings” that “property was safer in California than in the older states.” Historian Hubert Howe Bancroft stated that “during this first year theft was extremely rare, although temptations abounded, and property lay unguarded” (“History of California, Volume VI”). He also reported that murder was rare and in 1848 he only knew of two cases of hangings by vigilantes, one of a notorious French horse thief and another of a Spaniard caught with a stolen bag of gold dust, both after public trials.
In 1849, the Americans began to arrive in significant numbers, by way of ships around the Horn, on wagon trains across the plains and mountains, or by voyages to the Isthmus of Panama, followed by a trek to the Pacific and then via a ship to San Francisco Bay. English, Irish, Dutch, German, Italian, French, Turks, Africans, Sikhs, Hindus, Japanese, Maoris from New Zealand, and South Americans were all among the gold seekers reaching California by the end of 1849.
In early 1849, a rapid increase in crime became a public problem. The causes were several. Among the arrivals were Australians who had been inmates in the British penal colony (the term “Sydneyites” was a pejorative), an influx from the Parisian underworld of prostitutes and their pimps, and Americans on the lam from the authorities in the states. There was a great deal of gold dust gathered by prospectors not handy with weapons or means of protection. As the population increased, “jumping” successful claims – often at the point of a gun – became common. And most crucial, there was very little official law enforcement.
Racial prejudice soon raised its ugly head. Economic resentment was one cause. The Peruvians, Chileans, and many Mexicans had been previously involved in mining and there was jealousy of their skill in the techniques that rapidly produced substantial gold ore. American miners resented the fact that American Indians, Mexicans, Hawaiians and other “foreigners” were willing to work as employees in the mines – a result of having their own claims “jumped” and legislation and practices which made it difficult for threatened individuals to operate safely. The ability of Chinese to squeeze out some profit from the “tailings” of abandoned mines was another complaint of the Anglos. Resented by the Americans were big “strikes” by foreigners, like the Dutchman, who used a muscular Irish partner to do the heavy lifting, to reap $1,000 a day from his diggings.
But an underlying cause of the prejudice was the persistent belief by Americans (and other English speakers such as the Brits, Irish and Scots) that they were superior in all respects to “foreigners,” especially those races and nationalities with darker or different skin colors and traditions. Thus, they and the three successive military Governors felt that “foreigners” should not be entitled to mining opportunities. The guarantee to Californios of rights of citizenship included in the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hildago, which ended the Mexican War, was generally ignored.
Adding to the tension was an overlay of stereotypical prejudices held by the Anglos. The Germans were considered hard-working beer lovers who were willing to learn English, unlike the snobbish French who were characterized as lazy and effete wine drinkers.
The legislature of the new state of California enacted the Foreign Miners Tax of $20 a month for a license to mine, which was used to put some out of business. Only the Chinese consistently paid the tax, gathered by a small army of tax collectors who singled out the Asians. A distressing total of 41 Chinese were shot and killed by the tax collectors.
Starting in the summer of 1849, numerous communities held mass meetings in which they “passed” and published ordinances prohibiting foreigners from locating or working in the area. Typical was The Columbia district “law” that stated: “None but Americans, or Europeans who intend to become citizens, shall be allowed to mine in this district, either for themselves or for others.”
Other such ordinances were adopted during the first half of the 1850s and many were increasingly harsh. Particular targets were Indians, Chinese and all “Asiatics,” “Sonorians,” Mexicans and Hawaiians. There were also beatings, shootings, drumhead trials, lynchings and other atrocities against minorities. Unfortunately, many of the “good people” and local editors tended to look the other way.
Although much of the tension among the races eased as mining became a less dominant industry, anti-Asian pressure continued for more than 70 years.
The criminal activity of the former Australian deportees was crushed by the San Francisco vigilantes, who made extra-legal arrests, trials, executions and deportations. Effective law enforcement was slow in taking hold outside the cities, reaching the wide open spaces only in the 20th century.