The California gold rush was a defining moment in the history of westward migration in the United States. It was also an important period in U.S. immigration history. Many immigrant groups, especially the Chinese, began coming to the United States following news of the discovery of gold in California. Initially, the call for citizens was open to all, but as immigrants began coming in larger and larger numbers, laws were established to limit immigration and curtail the rights of those immigrants.
Despite the popular conception of the gold rush as an American event, the demographics of those who participated in it suggest otherwise. John Sutter, who had laid claim to the land on which gold was discovered, was not interested in word of the discovery being made public. He was in the midst of building a lumber mill on the South Fork of the American River on January 24, 1848, when gold was found. He wanted to finish his mill and solidify his claim to the land before hoards of gold seekers began coming to his property to search for gold. However, Mormon settler Sam Brannan made sure that word spread, and he had a good reason to do so. He owned a flour mill in the area as well as a newspaper called the Star, and when gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill, he opened a store nearby and stocked it with mining implements.
Newspaper articles touting the discovery made this local event into an international incident. “The Discovery of Inexhaustible Gold Mines in California” read one headline, closely followed by these tantalizing details, clearly intended for an international audience: “Tremendous Excitement Among the Americans: The Extensive Preparations to Migrate to the Gold Region.” With such news, the flood of immigrants was inevitable.
The numbers tell the story. Fully one-third of the “forty-niners” were immigrants. Furthermore, the two-thirds who were native-born made up a diverse group: Among their numbers were Native Americans, freed blacks, and even
Contemporary editorial cartoon lampooning the motives the many immigrants flocking to California to join in the gold rush.
The gold rush is an early example of a number of attempts to sell the West to any and all that might come and settle and thus populate and tame the wilderness. Like so many other attempts to draw people westward, the reality never lived up to the hype. This became painfully true for Chinese immigrants.
The citizens in southeast China were particularly vulnerable to the lure of easy gold. After China’s defeat in the first
As in all gold rushes, the so-called placer phase was short-lived: The gold that was found in abundance near the surface was taken early on, and that which was left was embedded in rock and was very difficult for individual miners to extract. Ultimately, individual miners would be replaced by mining companies. Most of the Chinese who came to America were disciplined, dedicated workers with a strong entrepreneurial spirit. Therefore, they not only worked hard in the gold fields for themselves but also proved to be indefatigable in working for others. This very quality, however, made them a threat to “American” workers, particularly as miners discovered that very few of the people who rushed to California were getting rich.
By 1852, the California state legislature had enacted a foreign miners’ tax, something directed primarily toward the large numbers of Chinese and Mexicans who were mining in California. Furthermore, plans that Chinese immigrants had made to bring their families to California for a new life fell victim to increasingly strict anti-Chinese immigration laws. The ultimate expression of anti-immigrant and anti-Chinese hysteria found expression in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which suspended Chinese immigration for ten years.
Ultimately, those men who had traveled from China to California to find an escape from poverty for their families wound up alone in California. Few records remain of these lonely men, only scattered
The Chinese were not the only immigrant group that suffered persecution in the gold fields of California. All immigrants were targeted by legislation that made their lives much more difficult than those of Americans. They were also targeted by physical violence. For example, a group of French
Brands, H. W. The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream. New York: Doubleday, 2002. Lively history of the event that Brands describes as having launched “the most astonishing mass movement of people since the Crusades.” Does an admirable job of placing the California gold rush in the broadest possible historical perspective. Caughey, John W. Gold Is the Cornerstone. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1948. Brief overview of several significant facets of the gold rush, including the original discoveries, the rush of the forty-niners, and the impact of the gold rush on California and United States history. Gordon, Mary M., ed. Overland to California with the Pioneer Line. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1984. Collection of memoirs of participants in various land expeditions to California during the 1840’s. Holliday, J. S. The World Rushed In: The California Gold Rush Experience. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002. First published in 1981, this book examines the California gold rush through the voluminous and often compelling diaries of a single prospector, to which the author connects the letters of hundreds of other gold seekers. Johnson, Susan Lee. Roaring Camp: The Social World of the California Gold Rush. New York: W. W. Norton, 2000. Innovative social history of the California gold rush that explores the event’s multicultural dimensions and the collisions among vastly different cultures. Well written and filled with fascinating anecdotal material. Limerick, Patricia Nelson. The Legacy of Conquest. New York: W. W. Norton, 1987. A must for any serious study of westward migration, this book pays particular attention to the roles of overlooked minorities. Chapter 4, “Uncertain Enterprises,” concerns the gold rush. Ward, Geoffrey C. The West: An Illustrated History. Boston: Little, Brown, 1996. Chapter 7, “Seeing the Elephant,” provides an overview of California’s gold rush, paying special attention to the role that immigrants played in the event. The chapter also contains important photographs of mining. Yung, Judy, Gordon H. Chang, and Him Mark Lai, eds. Chinese Voices: From the Gold Rush to the Present. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006. The introduction to this volume is a succinct account of the Chinese experience during the gold rush and after.
Australian and New Zealander immigrants
Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882
Contract labor system
Foreign miner taxes