“PEACEABLY IF WE CAN,
FORCIBLY IF WE MUST”
On February 2, 1848, a vanquished Mexico signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and ceded California to the United States, unaware that just nine days earlier, nuggets of pure gold had been found in a creek at a sawmill in the foothills of California’s Sierra Nevada range. The discovery of gold did not make the front page of the San Francisco papers until March 15, but sailing vessels quickly carried the news to countries that bordered the Pacific Ocean. Word soon spread from Mexico to Panama to Chile. In April, the Pacific Mail Steam-ship Company launched five side-wheel steamships to carry eager South American miners north to San Francisco.
At the dawn of 1848, 150,000 native people and a few thousand Mexicans and Californios lived in the northernmost corner of Mexico. Yuroks, Miwoks, Nisenan, Yokuts, and Karuks were among fifty tribes or nations who first inhabited the area. Mestizos, rancheros, peons, Spanish priests, and runaway African American slaves were the first settlers. Their worlds were about to collide.
Word of gold traveled across the Pacific to the Sandwich Islands and from there to China. In port cities across Asia, captains and crews altered their routes, sailed for California, and abandoned laden ships in San Francisco Bay. Many ships rotted and sank in its cold waters as officers and sailors headed for the Sierra mountains. Other ships anchored at the docks and were promptly rebuilt as saloons or restaurants to serve the tide of gold seekers. In San Francisco and Sacramento, stores and offices closed, houses were boarded up, crops were abandoned, and Mexicans, Californios, and white laborers, merchants, artists, and physicians all rushed into the Sierra foothills. They traveled any way they could, on burros, horses, or wagons, sometimes hiking, sometimes buying overpriced tickets on steamships to carry them up the Yuba, Bear, and American Rivers.
From the East Coast, unemployed veterans, just home from the Mexican War, returned to the West—back overland by carriage, on horseback or foot, across the mountains and jungles of the Isthmus of Panama, where they desperately awaited ships to finish their voyage up the Pacific coast. These new “argonauts” joined mechanics, ranchers, laborers, merchants, and professional men and stormed up California’s mountains, sharing an expansionist vision and a military determination. None was interested in laboring as a waiter, servant, mill worker, or field hand, even at wages of ten to twenty dollars per day.
When news of gold reached the newly “open” port cities in China, shipmasters in Hong Kong and Canton had little difficulty convincing Chinese men to sail for California. In rice-growing and fishing villages in Guandung Province, shipping companies circulated broadsheets and maps urging men to forswear country and clan for gold. Facing warlords, destitution, and British battleships, villagers read ads promoting America as a haven of plenty and equality:
Americans are very rich people. They want the Chinaman to come and will make him welcome. There will be big pay, large houses, and food and clothing of the finest description. You can write your friends or send them money any time, and we will be responsible for the safe delivery. It is a nice country, without mandarins or soldiers. All alike; big man no larger than little man. There are a great many Chinamen there now, and it will not be a strange country. China God is there, and the agents of this house. Never fear, and you will be lucky. Come to Hong Kong, or to the sign of this house in Canton and we will instruct you. Money is in great plenty and to spare in America. Such as wishes to have wages and labor guaranteed can obtain the security by application at this office.
Dreaming of wealth on “Gold Mountain,” as California came to be known, Chinese villagers sold their fields or fishing boats, or borrowed money to sail to California. They landed in a raw new territory, a land without traditions of nationhood, authority, ethnic commonality, or even clear geographic borders.
Few Chinese women journeyed across the Pacific. Unlike their brethren, most Chinese women who entered California in the mid-1800s were slaves. Kidnapped for prostitution from the southern ports of China, they were brokered and owned by Chinese merchants who also emigrated to in San Francisco.
The Chinese arrived as California was growing from a cluster of harbor towns and mining camps into a national financial and political force. From San Francisco up through the Sacramento Delta and north to Crescent City, fishing villages and small towns built to trade in hides and tallow rapidly became staging and supply centers for miners eager to move into the mountains. Ninety percent of California’s workforce was tied to gold.
California’s new leaders promptly abandoned the area’s ties to Spanish priests and Mexican ranchers. They identified with the Anglos and debated how to govern thousands of Chinese, Chilean, French, Mexican, and Peruvian prospectors. In the Sierra Nevada the Chinese argonauts encountered Native Americans and Mexican Americans who were facing death, enslavement, or violent pogroms by white men eager to quickly gather the golden ore that had lain sparkling in California’s rivers for thousands of years.
The gold rush also offered a serendipitous finale to a war premised on national expansion and the extension of slave territory. By 1845 abolitionists had lost their decadelong struggle to prevent the annexation of Texas. The Washington Union, a paper of southern Democrat views, wrote, “Who can arrest the torrent that will pour onward to the West? The road to California will be open to us. Who will stay the march of our Western people?” That year John O’Sullivan, editor of the Democratic Review, declared that it was “our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.”
Ideas of white superiority bracketed the image of white expansion, “free development” and industrial inevitability in California and the West. The Illinois State Register insisted, “Shall this garden of beauty be suffered to lie dormant in its wild and useless luxuriance? . . . myriads of enterprising Americans would flock to its rich and inviting prairies; the hum of Anglo-American industry would be heard in its valleys; cities would rise upon its plains and sea-coast, and the resources and wealth of the nation be increased in an incalculable degree.” Mexicans, wrote the American Review, must yield to “a superior population, insensibly oozing into her territories, changing her customs, and out-living, out-trading, exterminating her weaker blood.”
At the same time, the final push for the abolition of slavery was taking hold. The American Anti-Slavery Society declared that the Mexican War was “waged solely for the detestable and horrible purpose of extending and perpetuating American slavery through the vast territory of Mexico.” The poet and abolitionist James Russell Lowell, through his character Hosea Biglow, a New England farmer, announced,
They just want this Californy
So’s to lug new slave states in
To abuse ye, an’ to scorn ye,
An’ to plunder ye like sin.
Newly organized workingmen in New England well understood that despite the military’s promises to enlistees of plunder, pay of seven dollars per month, and a land grant of 160 acres, territories seized from Mexico “would be giving men that live upon the blood of others an opportunity of dipping their hand still deeper in the sin of slavery. . . . Have we not slaves enough now?” As the war began, a convention of the New England Workingmen’s Association announced that its members would “not take up arms to sustain the Southern slaveholder in robbing one-fifth of our countrymen of their labor.”
The young labor movement had reason to be fearful. Under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the vast territory seized by the United States could extend southern slavery to the Pacific coast. And so, in the Compromise of 1850, in return for admitting California as a free state, the United States would absorb remaining territories without “any restriction or condition on the subject of slavery.” That year Congress also passed the Fugitive Slave Law, which stated that any federal marshal who did not arrest a runaway slave could be fined one thousand dollars; any person suspected of being a runaway slave could be arrested without a warrant and turned over to anyone claiming to be the owner; a suspected slave could not ask for a jury trial or testify on his or her behalf; and any person who aided a runaway slave by providing shelter, food, or transportation faced six months’ imprisonment and a one-thousand-dollar fine. The law also offered a “fee” or bribe for every slave remanded back into slavery. The presumptions of the treaty, of the law, of national entitlement, and of race would soon shape the history of Chinese America.
At the end of the Mexican War, most returning veterans could not hold on to their allotments of land, but they still clung to the myth of white possibility and expansion in the West. Wrote a young naval officer, “Asia . . . will be brought to our very doors. Population will flow into the fertile regions of California . . . public lands . . . will be changed from deserts into gardens, and a large population will be settled.”
This “large population” was to come to the Pacific Northwest from all over the globe. From 1845 to 1849, the Great Hunger in Ireland, caused by Britain’s long interference with Ireland’s agriculture and also by a potato fungus killed between five hundred thousand and a million people from 1845 to 1849 and destroyed the Irish economy. Some two million desperate Irish refugees immigrated to England, Canada, Australia, and the United States—and thousands hopefully made their way west.
In France, Austria, Hungary, Italy, and Germany, between February and June 1848, radical movements of working people and students erupted. These seemingly spontaneous protests demanding liberty and revolution were soon crushed, and many dissidents fled to the United States. Some went west.
The cry “California for Americans!” soon boomed across the foothills of the Sierra Nevada and the lower Siskiyou Mountains. In 1849 a mob of white miners in Mariposa County declared that any “Chinaman” who mined for gold must “leave on twenty-four hours notice, otherwise the miners will inflict such punishment as they deem proper.” In Marysville, demonstrators proclaimed that “no Chinaman shall hence forth be allowed on any mining claim in the neighborhood.”
Rain had finally come to the arid creek at Camp Salvado, washing down the dry dark dirt to expose clusters of golden nuggets to Chinese miners working for an English stock company. News of the Chinese discovery quickly spread. A gang of white miners promptly rode down to Salvado and assaulted the Chinese, who fled from their prosperous claim. Stunned by this first mass purge, the English investors abandoned the diggings, and the sixty remaining Chinese miners trekked over the mountain into Tuolumne County. There they built Chinese Camp, likely the first all-Chinese town in the United States. The roundup at Camp Salvado ignited the brutal firestorm of purges that burned in the West for fifty years.
Like white miners, the Chinese built bunkhouses or boardinghouses or pitched tent camps—rough male villages. During the gold rush, the proportion of both Chinese and white women to men was low, about three to one hundred. Few miners of any nationality asked their wives or fiancées to join them in the gold fields. Across the country, abandoned white wives exercised their new rights under California’s liberal laws and divorced the men who had rushed to the diggings. Until the end of the nineteenth century, the divorce rate in California was the highest in the world.
The low number of Chinese women probably made the Chinese communities in America particularly vulnerable to persecution. Chinese women would have foretold family, civilization, and permanence, and their very presence would have stood as a barrier to the idea that the Chinese had come to the United States as “sojourners”—temporary and enduringly foreign.
The first Chinese woman in the gold town of Sonora was an enslaved young girl who worked in a bar selling drinks and sex to white miners. Known to whites as “China Lena,” she grew vegetables in a large garden and peddled them on the hilly streets, carrying them in two baskets hanging from a pole across her shoulders. But Lena was forced to live in China Camp, supervised by a Chinese pimp. In an era when southern whites warned that abolition would lead to interracial sex and “amalgamated” races, the California State Legislature banned marriage between Chinese and whites. But the enslaved prostitution of Chinese women grew quickly into a tolerated and profitable business.
“CALIFORNIA FOR AMERICANS!”
In the spring of 1852, sixty white miners, accompanied by a brass band, rode through a chain of Chinese diggings along the sandy shore of the American River. They assaulted two hundred Chinese men who shared a claim at Mormon Bar, then rode a few miles down the river and attacked four hundred Chinese miners camped along Horseshoe Bar. Although the Chinese miners greatly outnumbered the vigilantes, they abandoned their river claims, no doubt fearful for their lives. The white miners boasted to the press that they helped the Chinese dismantle their tents.
Early that summer, white miners in El Dorado County barricaded the dusty stage road and turned back all wagons and coaches carrying Chinese passengers and freight. At nearby Weber Creek, vigilantes set fire to the tents and tools of Chinese miners, burning out the Chinese camp.
In Columbia, white miners facing Chinese competition along the riverbeds, blamed capitalists, shipowners, and merchants, men who “engaged in the importation of these burlesques on humanity,” thus “fastening . . . a system of peonage” in the gold fields. These greedy investors “would crowd their ships with the long-tailed horned and cloven-footed inhabitants of the infernal regions, and contend for their introduction in the mines on an equality with American laborers, if they could add one farthing to the rates of freight, or dispose of one pound more of pork or for a few shillings of rice by the operation.” The Columbia miners announced that they were “empowered to take such steps as they may deem necessary” to make sure that “no Asiatic or South Sea Islander . . . be permitted to mine any longer in Columbia, or any where else in California . . . either for himself or for others.”
But more and more Chinese flocked to Tuolumne County, and in September 1852, white miners called the first Jamestown Miners Convention and demanded that no immigrant from Asia, Polynesia, or South America be given citizenship. They agreed to vote only for state legislators who would “drive the coolies from some of our mining districts.” Their demand, wrote the Daily Alta California, was “harsh and unlawful in design and dangerous in tendency” and was conceived in a spirit of “hatred and hostility” without parallel in California.