In the rough and tumble justice of the mining camps, unpopular minorities invariably suffered under the violent and well-armed majority. Most mining camps sought to forbid certain minorities from competing for claims, in particular Chinese and Mexican miners were chased off claims and driven from mining camps. In 1849, a group of miners calling themselves the "hounds" rampaged through "little Chile," a tent city of Chilean miners outside of San Francisco, killing a woman and beating several men. A group of San Francisco businessmen, uncomfortable with the thought of independent gangs roving the countryside, sought to bring the Hounds to justice, and provided some assistance to the victims.
Chinese were especially despised, embodying to the nativist American the ultimate foreigner. Almost 700 Chinese miners had responded to the earliest rumors of gold in ’48, accounting for roughly a seventh of the 48ers. By 1852, there were 25,000 Chinese in California, making them the largest ethnic minority. They were banned from the most current diggings. Many set about working claims that had been abandoned as unprofitable by white miners, patiently sifting out what gold remained. Others opened restaurants, laundries, and dry good stores, sometimes making more money performing services for miners than the average miner could hope to make in the diggings.
Mexicans, many from the Mexican state of Sonora, formed another major minority groups. They too were banned from many diggings, or were relegated like the Chinese to exhausted diggings. Some worked as day laborers, willing to work for lower wages than white miners did. Yet in some areas, particularly in the Southern Diggings, Mexicans formed a majority. The mining camp of Sonora, for example, was named after the home state of its Mexican inhabitants.
In 1850, the Legislature passed the first law taxing foreign miners, who were required to pay $20 dollars a month for a license to work the gold fields, obstinately to reimburse the state the costs of protecting them and keeping order. While a miner on a prosperous claim (a good claim returned about $16 dollars a day) could easily afford such a tax, foreign miners were already relegated to less prosperous claims, and could ill afford to pay. Some 10,000 Mexicans left the state in disgust. The Legislature repealed the onerous $20 tax in 1851, but instituted a $3 dollar a month foreign miners tax in 1852.
The anti-foreigner sentiment of the state led to the dramatic success of the American or "Know Nothing" Party in the state election of 1855, where Know Nothing candidate James Neely Johnson, only 26 years old, was elected governor, and the Know Nothings gained impressive majorities in both houses of the legislature. The American Party, which enjoyed short-lived success nationwide in the 1850s, was in most parts of the country a response to the influx of Catholic immigrants in the 1840s and 1850s. Most Know Nothings emphasized the need to protect the jobs and votes of native born protestant Americans. In California, however, nativity and religions were secondary concerns of the American Party, which focused its tract against racial minorities. However, once elected, the Know Nothings carried out no comprehensive program. Johnson proved unable to deal with the real problems California faced, floundering before the Vigilance Committees. The Know Nothing Party eventually died out in California, with most of its members absorbed into the freshly formed Republican Party. The anti-Oriental sentiment of the Know Nothings remained a constant in California politics for another century.
Ironically, racial tensions played a major role in ensuring that California would join the Union as a free state. Such status was never guaranteed, and in 1849 many Southerners wished that the southern portion of the future state might by portioned off so that slavery might extend all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Few of the miners who came to California were abolitionists. However, they feared competition, and worried that slave-owning miners might use their slaves to work multiple claims, edging out free miners. When the Texan Col. Thomas Jefferson Green attempted to work his claim with slaves, the miners of the camp quickly gathered in a town meeting, resolving that no black, free or slave, could engage in mining. Similar codes were promulgated across California. There were few free blacks in Gold Rush California, for they were decidedly unwelcome, to the point that in 1858 the legislature attempted to pass a law banning the immigration of free blacks to the state.
For the Indians of interior California, whose lives remained relatively untouched by the missions, the Gold Rush was a disaster of apocalyptic proportions. The miners brought a fresh wave of diseases that decimated their number, while miners overran their territories. Some Indians attempted to fight back; others attempted to make the most of the situation by stealing what they could from the miner’s. Numerous small but violent clashes ensued, in which the heavily armed miners, who were warned by their charlatan guidebooks to purchase rifles, shotguns, revolvers, and bowie knifes for defense against Indians, almost invariably were victorious. Miners organized themselves into gangs to drive natives from the diggings, while volunteer infantry companies sprang up to engaged in a series of Indian Wars, which sometimes ended in the massacre of a village by the poorly trained and ineptly led militia. It is estimated that some 4500 Indians suffered violent deaths between 1849 and 1870, while countless others perished due to disease. Victims of the gold fever, the Indians wandered the land that had once been theirs, homeless, despised, and miserable.
The environment of the Gold Rush made mistreatment of minorities the norm. Part of it can be explained by the sudden influx thousands of whites uprooted from provincial communities, and exposed to the ethnic brew of California. Suddenly confronted by peoples with foreign languages, customs and religions, they naturally recoiled from the alien. Yet the Gold Rush was carried out in an atmosphere of panic conducive to violence. The hardships of the trail must have convinced even the most naïve of the life or death seriousness of their endeavor. Many Argonauts expressed a near paranoia that the gold would dry up before they had a chance to prospect. Thus foreigners represented intolerable competition in the scramble for limited resources and opportunities. Racism thus proved an instrument of economic allocation—ensuring that claims went to the numerically superior and politically enfranchised whites. The racial violence of the Gold Rush only emphasized the seriousness with which whites defended their privileges and purged the competition that minorities represented.
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