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If only to explain why, if gold was discovered on the South Fork of the American River in January 1848 (BEFORE the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed, as it happens), the football team in San Francisco is called the 49ers. Pretty much everybody who writes about the Western United States and California wrote at least an article, if not a book, about the Gold Rush between 1998 and 2002 for its 150th anniversary and, as a result, we know a LOT more about the history, especially the social history, of the Gold Rush than many of you learned about it in your American history courses in college. Hence, this refresher.  Follow me below the Great Orange batea that the miners used to pan gold with for much, much more.

To summarize: A week before the treaty that ended the Mexican War was signed, James Marshall had found gold on the South Fork of the American River, and by the time the treaty was ratified, stories had begun to spread throughout California about gold discoveries at John Sutter’s mill site

and further discoveries at the Mormon diggings (now submerged by the Folsom Dam, on the American River about 25 miles northeast of Sacramento). News of these discoveries reached the East Coast by late summer, and President Polk’s State of the Union message on December 5 gave official affirmation of the presence of gold in American territory.

The order in which the gold seekers arrived was dependent on how news traveled in 1848. Remember, the telegraph did not connect the east and west coasts until October 1861. So overland and by water during 1848. By June 1, San Francisco, which in 1846 was a small trading post and presidio populated by no more than 500 people, had been almost stripped of its able-bodied men because they had all left for gold country. Monterey, then the seat of government, was similarly abandoned; agriculture and commerce came to a halt and the territory’s newspapers stopped publishing. When the American military governor, Col. Richard Mason (this course has done wonders for explaining some of the people for whom streets in San Francisco are named), toured the gold country in the summer of 1848, he estimated that at least half of the miners he saw busy at work were California Indians.

News reached Hawaii on June 24 on a boat that had departed San Francisco on May 24. As many ships as were available were outfitted for the journey to the Pacific Coast, and a large proportion of the Americans and Europeans residing in the islands,  along with many native Hawaiians, went to California. As soon as winter came, many of them went back to Hawaii.

The next gold seekers, and the first significant group of Americans from outside California, arrived from Oregon: about 2-3,000 settlers. The Gold Rush had a complicated effect on the Oregon territory:  the influx of miners created an expanded market for Oregon’s agricultural production, BUT the number of people who left and didn't come back tended to have a filtering effect that magnified the social and cultural homogeneity of the region (New England on the Pacific). Unlike the people who would arrive from the East Coast, the Oregonians who went back did so quickly – hundreds reappeared in Oregon by the end of 1849 and it is estimated they brought back $5 million in gold. This, combined with the market for timber and agricultural goods to be shipped south, meant that Oregon avoided any of the economic downturns that characterized the 1850s in the East. It also brought an influx of northeastern merchants who saw commerce in Oregon as a more sure thing than the more risky opportunities offered by the instant cities of the gold rush (San Francisco, Marysville, Sacramento and Stockton).

The NEXT group came north from Mexico. Most of the Mexicans arrived from Sonora, and they were already familiar with California because they had been the bulk of settlers sent northward to colonize Alta California, and they had flocked to Rancho San Fernando (northwest of downtown Los Angeles) when gold was discovered there in 1842. About 6,000 Mexicans found their way to the mines despite the Mexican government’s worries that the province would be depopulated and the frontier would be left unguarded against Apache raids, and at least half of the Sonorans returned home at the end of each mining season. Stores in Sonora were stripped of their merchandise which was taken north for sale at a great profit.

Sonorans, as it happens, were experienced miners. They introduced the methods of mining in creek beds that made the rapid exploitation of California’s gold resources possible. Specifically,they brought a panning system based on use of a wooden bowl, or batea, which they were very familiar with, and a dry-wash method which involved the arrastra, a piece of equipment operated by a water-wheel. The town of Sonora, California, is a reminder of their presence.

Then came goldseekers from Chile. They received the news on August 18, 1848 from the brig J.R.S., which had sailed for 64 days without many of the ship’s crew, who had decided to join the hunt for gold. There want much excitement until the schooner Adelaide arrived from California on September 12 with $2500 worth of gold dust. When another ship arrived in November with 130 pounds of gold dust, the rush was on. The first 45 people to leave Chile were English and American merchants who had settled in Chile, many of whom had become Chilean citizens (very much like the Anglo Californios we discussed last week). The port of Valparaiso was transformed into an important port of call when hundreds of ships from the East Coast stopped there for provisions and fresh water after rounding Cape Horn.

New Zealanders received the news in November 1848 when an American whaler put into port with several newspapers from Hawaii, and Australians learned about the discoveries a month later. Only 649 Australians left for California during the first six months of 1849 but once news filtered back from people who had struck it rich, so many people headed east that newspaper editors began to worry about depopulating the country. This trend was reversed in 1851 when gold was discovered in Australia and all the Australian miners went back.

All of these groups predated Americans arriving from the East, who had to wait until trading ships from Asia who had stopped in San Francisco or Hawaii either rounded the tip of South America or reached the Isthmus of Panama and crossed it with the news.

The Chinese, according to the historian Sucheng Chan, "began drifting in after 1848."  No reliable evidence exists concerning exactly when the news reached China but it was probably in late 1848 as ships from the United States, Hawaii, and England engaged in the China trade regularly called at Hong Kong after 1842 when it was ceded to the British. The first arrivals were  merchants and artisans who remained in San Francisco to trade. Records show that there were 54 Chinese in California on February 1, 1849, 791 by January 1, 1850, and around 4,000 by the end of the year, but more than 20,000 Chinese landed in 1852, and this group made it to the mining fields. Note the caption, taken directly from the source of the photograph.

The Heathen Chinee Prospecting, Calif. Year 1852, Martin Behrman ca. 1852 , California Historical Society

During this first mining season, miners of different cultural origins worked next to each other amicably because there was plenty of surface gold to be had and there were only a few thousand miners.

In the United States, news reached the East Coast by late summer, and President Polk’s State of the Union address on December 5 gave official affirmation of the presence of gold in American territory. One writer commented, “It is not a little singular that the mineral treasure of California should have been reserved” until the moment when California passed to the United States. As the popular press went on to say, gold was disclosed not to the adventurer motivated by a “vulgar lust” for riches but rather to the “hardy emigrant”, the energetic American, the citizen of a republic. Harper’s Weekly would characterize the discovery in 1859 as

perhaps the most significant, if not the most important event of the past century connected with America.
So much for the vulgar lust for riches. The past century, after all, began in 1759, and included the American revolution.

Anyhow, the Americans began to arrive in 1849 (hence “49ers” – they also referred to themselves as “Argonauts”, from the legend of Jason and the Golden Fleece). About 90,000 of them, half who had come overland and half who had come by sea. About 60% of the seaborne travelers were American and about 40% were European, as the news had traveled across the Atlantic. It has been estimated that 300,000 Americans arrived in gold country between 1848 and 1854.

IMMEDIATELY, the American press began to satirize it. Here, for example is The Way They Go to California, published by Nathaniel Currier (of Currier and Ives)

Captions:  1) Airline, through by daylight, Passage $50.  Each passenger must provide a boy to hold his hair on
    “Augustus, Don’t you wish we were down and not up?” “Yes – because I begin to feel air-sick.  Oh Dear! Oh Dear!”
    2) Passengers landed by parachute – miner is saying “Stand from under”
    3) “Rocket Line” – through in advance of the Telegraph passengers not found, if lost; “My hair.  How the wind blows”
    4) Banner on the back of the ship – Passage $125 and found if lost
    5) Men on the dock:  “Bill, I’m afraid we can’t get aboard” “Hold on there I’ve paid my passage and I ain’t aboard”  -- diving off the dock “I’m bound to go anyhow”

As for the overland travelers: 60% drove wagon trains across the Great Plains and over the Rockies and the Sierras. The rest came across Mexico on the Old Spanish Trail. The Gold Rush was one of the largest occupational migrations in American history: according to the 1850 Census, almost 75% of the employed men in California (57,797 of 77,361) were miners. Incidentally, the Gold Rush almost destroyed the whaling business (I SO owe you a diary on the whaling business. Maybe this summer.), as hundreds deserted their ships when they landed in San Francisco to re-provision

Not surprisingly, the various groups of miners were conscious of their ethnicity and drew distinctions between themselves and others by the names they used to refer to one another, the clothing they wore, and by their religious faiths. The local Californios were distinguished from the Sonorans, called calzoneros blancos after the flowing white pants the Sonorans wore, and the Chilenos wore long serapes. American and European gold seekers wore the “miner’s uniform” – broad-brimmed slouched hat, red or blue flannel shirt, patterned kerchief, blue denim pants, thick belt to which was attached at least a bowie knife and a pistol, and leather boots – generally bearded and contemptuous of clean-shaven faces (as shown in this postage stamp).

So who came west? An interesting book by Brian Roberts, American Alchemy: The California Gold Rush and Middle-Class Culture  (2000) claims that the Gold Rush was a rite of passage for many northeasterners who either were or who aspired to become members of America’s emerging middle class but needed to rebel against certain middle-class values in the process. Consider that passage to California cost money, more than a year’s pay for the average American at the time. Most of the Forty-Niners  were artisans, farmers, clerks, shopkeepers or low-level professionals, They were almost never unattached: often married, usually “respectable,”and almost always connected to a family and a community back East. Most of the 49ers he studied were bred and educated in the values the gold rush came to stand against (piety, respectability, virtue). Of the more than 150 individual whose letters and diaries about their experience in gold country he studied, 27 were women, although almost none of these women had gone west. The lesson for the East? These people returned as a class empowered (and able) to rebel against itself. Sort of like going to Mardi Gras for a couple of years (we'll get to that later). It's likely that Roberts’s account, as seductive as it is, was limited by the fact all of his subjects were literate, writing, as he puts it, according to a literary formula which assigned certain characteristics to people and places; regardless, not many writers have looked at the people in the gold rush this way. This is the illustration from the book cover:
A Gold Hunter on his Way to California, via St. Louis, Henry R. Robinson, ca. 1849, California Historical Society.

Legend has it that a woman helped start the rush for gold. Jenny Wimmer, a cook for Sutter’s workforce, recounted the day when her little son, Martin came running into the house, calling “Here, Ma, here’s something Mr. Marshall and Pa found” and asking her to put it into the saleratus water (water and baking soda) to see if it would tarnish. Jenny replied “This is gold and I will throw it into my lye kettle (in which she was making soap), and if it is gold it will be gold when it comes out,” and the next morning, after her soap was removed and cut, there was the nugget in the bottom of the kettle. Men outnumbered women by about 3 to 2 in San Francisco as of the 1860 census, but the sex ratio for those under 15 was about equal, which meant there were even fewer women for the marriageable men that the ratio suggests, and since many women stayed in San Francisco rather than going to gold country, the proportion in gold country was even more unbalanced. Some women mined from the beginning: generally Sonoran or Indian women, although there is evidence that some “American women” did too: daughters working with their parents, women on their own as friends, some disguised as men joining their husbands in the gold fields.

The few women who joined the migration found that their domestic skills were in high demand, and one reported that “California was the only country [she knew of] where a woman received anything like a just compensation for her work”. This could be running a boarding house, cooking, cleaning, sewing, waiting on tables, and provide “society”.

At first, the Americans were glad to learn mining techniques from the Sonorans and the Chilenos, but as soon as they drew up regulations to govern how claims could be made and kept, their idea of Manifest Destiny meant all the wealth of the state belonged to Americans and tried to freeze the Sonorans and Chilenos out. Note that Americans from southern states who brought their slaves to mine for them weren’t welcome either; they were seen as “capitalists” with subservient “cheap labor” and perceived as enemies of the “American working man”. Once the expulsion campaign began, English, Irish and German nationals lined up with Americans but the French encountered hostility partly because they kept mainly to themselves both in San Francisco and in the mines and partly because they were friendlier with the Latin American miners. Here, in fact, is a French poster from the period.

Emy Forest. Paris: Guillet, ca. 1850. California Historical Society

The first blatantly nativist acts were resolutions passed by Americans to keep foreigners out. The California legislature (California became a state late in 1848) imposed a tax of $20/month on all foreign miners April 1850, but this was repealed in March 1851; Spanish miners didn’t reappear when a more reasonable tax of $3/month was imposed in May 1852. At this point, the nativism that had been directed against foreign born Catholic miners who didn’t speak English metamorphosed into a racist attack on African Americans and Chinese immigrants (    Racial differences presented as a black/white dyad break down completely west of the Rockies). At least half of the African American 49ers were free blacks from the northeast who traveled the same routes and often on the same ships as their white counterparts, and there weren't enough of them, either free or enslaved, to drive out of the mines (the individuals who were lynched during the gold rush were Mexicans, Chilenos and in one case a Frenchman).

The Chinese, on the other hand, had no previous experience of being an oppressed minority. Remember that these were the people who, a decade and a half later, found work in constructing the transcontinental railroad, The Chinese were     Initially tolerated because they arrived late, after the Mexicans, Peruvians, French and Chilenos had left, and the Chinese were only miners who Foreign Miner’s Tax could be collected from. African Americans took pains to remind European Americans that the Black American is, as Philip Bell, a pioneer black newspaper editor in California put it :

American in all his ideas; a Christian by education, and a believer in the truths of Christianity.
The first union and the first major labor strike in gold country didn’t occur until 1869.

So what does it all mean in historical terms?  Some scholars see this as a national experience, in fact an expression of American national character. The Gold Rush established California as the point in the United States where you could reinvent yourself (as America itself had been for immigrants). It joined East and West (more properly, it joined the West to East, especially as the East finally found a compelling reason for incorporating the territory won during the Mexican War)and it prompted people from the East to go west. Finally, it started California on a course of development unlike that of any of the other western states.

Western historians have looked at this as an event that established a romantic era in Western History. It enshrined the Forty-Niners as Founding Fathers and sinful San Francisco (instead of Puritan Boston or Quaker Philadelphia) as the Mother City of the region. Further, California as it is now was shaped almost entirely under American sovereignty in the absence of any dominant group, and that probably accounts for the persistent cosmopolitanism of San Francisco. A more cynical view sees the Gold Rush as the single event that started the West on the boom-bust cycle it still experiences from time to time.

The Gold Rush deviated from the usual pattern of American relocations in crucial ways. The Gold Rush wasn’t a frontier of farm settlers or land seekers, but of gold seekers, resource exploiters and others who made a living from them. Plus, it was urban, despite the small towns in gold country that survive over 150 years later.  Most other western mining booms didn’t develop into continuously growing population centers:  the discovery of gold near Denver certainly did, but the growth of San Francisco was even more spectacular and ethnically diverse

As far as San Francisco is concerned, it’s almost safe to say no gold rush, no financial center -- 1,000 people in 1847, 6,000 in 1850, and 100,000 twenty years after that. It’s interesting to contrast the early success of the Irish in Northern California with the “no Irish need apply” nativism they encountered in New England: by 1859 San Francisco and the Gold Rush region included 100,000 Catholics, most of them Irish, served by 57 Catholic churches and 60 priests. No commercial center either. Jews arrived in northern California from 1849 on, and Jewish charities and commerce flourished by the end of the 1850s.

While some of the arriving Jews joined the Gold Rush as miners, most served San Francisco and the mining towns as merchants and artisans. The most famous of these, Levi Strauss, arrived from Bavaria in 1850 with a considerable stock of merchandise including denim cloth, and by 1853 he and his two brothers who had stayed in New York had formed Levi Strauss Work Clothes, which was successful even before Strauss began copper riveting the pockets of blue denim work pants in the late 1860s.

For the country?  The miners who arrived from the East all intended to go home with a full share of California’s wealth, to change the prospects of the families waiting for their return, and to improve their standing within the family and the community. What they came back with was memories of “slumming.” How else to excuse the fact all these middle class men traveled thousands of risky miles, openly gambled, drank and slept with prostitutes (and, as the historian Susan Lee Johnson suggests, each other), and then for the most part failed to bring much money home (this is difficult to quantify, but “more often the case than not.”) They had "seen the elephant". A New York Times editorial from 1861 explains:

We have all our little troubles in this life, and for those who are not too proud, to use a popular phrase, it may be added that we have all our elephants to see. It is narrated of a certain farmer that his life's desire was to behold this largest of quadrupeds, until the yearning became well nigh a mania. He finally met one of the largest size traveling in the van of a menagerie. His horse was frightened, his wagon smashed, his eggs and poultry ruined. But he rose from the wreck radiant and in triumph. "A fig for the damage," quoth he, "for I have seen the elephant!"
This became the great adventure. As I said, Mardi Gras!

Not sure what we'll discuss next week. Possibly the Broderick-Terry Duel and California's relation to the Civil War (and a story about Statuary Hall in the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.).

9:01 AM PT: Off to run some errands, and I should be back by 3-3:30 PM Eastern. Thank you, Community Spotlight, for republishing this.

Originally posted to History for Kossacks on Sat Sep 28, 2013 at 04:30 AM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight and California politics.

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