“California Gold Diggers, Mining Operations on the Western Shore of the Sacramento River,” lithograph published by Kellogg & Comstock, circa 1850
On January 24, 1848, James Marshall discovered gold at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma, California, near modern Sacramento. Over the next few years, 300,000 people from around the world descended upon California in hopes of striking it rich. From a labor history perspective, the interesting story about this is not the process of panning for gold, but the way this story reflected the intersection of race, gender, and labor that helped define 19th century America.
When white Americans reached California to pan for gold in 1849, they were not expecting to see racial diversity. In many ways, California was the first time when Americans really dealt with racial diversity. But they weren’t the only people coming to the gold diggings. That word spread around the world and there was faster ways to get there than walking across the California Trail if you lived in Asia or Latin America. There were Native Americans already living in California. There was the local Mexican population too. On top of that, thousands of Mexicans came north, as well as Peruvians and Chileans. French and Germans arrived from Europe. Australians and New Zealanders crossed the Pacific from faraway. Most significant was the many, many Chinese arriving every day. All of this shocked white Americans.
On top of this was another issue–the lack of women. Early California had almost no women, outside of prostitutes and of course the indigenous and Mexican population. There certainly was not enough women to do the work women did in normal white Anglo-American 19th century households. Who would cook? Who would clean? No one really knew. At first, basically men lived like slobs in tents and in the growing city of San Francisco. But this was not really desirable. So these men tried to group together to share the domestic tasks. While white men predominated, enough other men remained around early on to exchange some cooking techniques and the like, but by and large, the domestic world was grim for these miners. Despite being in ecologically fertile California, some miners came down with scurvy because they simply could or would not replicate women’s labor in the kitchen or even go pick the abundant wild fruits. Sometimes, one man took over the cooking while others did the mining labor and proceeds were split. Said future governor Lucius Fairchild, when writing to his family about his work in a hotel, “Now in the states you would think that a person…was broke if you saw him acting the part of hired Girl, but here it is nothing, for all kinds of men do all kinds work.”
The white Americans had no intention of letting the Chinese or the Mexicans into the diggings. They routinely forced these miners out, often violently. Oddly, they did not like the French either, although the Germans and Australians were generally fine. Quickly taking over the government in the face of U.S. control over California after the Mexican War, the white American miners created mining districts where foreign citizens could not work. Miners bragged about stealing claims from the French and the Chinese, arguing that “coloured men were not privileged to work in a country intended only for American citizens.” In 1850, California instituted a foreign miners tax directed at Mexicans and French. That was soon repealed, but a new one was implemented in 1852 that was directed at the Chinese. This hefty tax moved the Chinese out of the mines and into the laundries, replacing that female labor white miners so missed.Mexican miners actually resisted the mining tax, but this led to huge parades of armed American miners intimidating the foreign miners into giving up.
So most of the foreign miners lost out, even though some continued to try and work and fight Anglo dominance. There are a number of reports of white miners being killed after the passage of the foreign miners tax, although the veracity of the stories are impossible to verify. However, that didn’t mean they had no role at all in the California labor hierarchy. The Mexicans and especially the Chinese could then fill that female role of work. This is basically where the tradition of the Chinese restaurant and the Chinese laundry in the U.S. begins. In the male-dominated West, where women usually lagged well behind men, often into the 1910s and 1920s, the Chinese played that female labor role.
The Chinese did continue trying to mine, often buying up stakes that whites thought would not play out. But the foreign miners tax, combined with the daily racism they faced, would largely force them out of the diggings entirely. With the Chinese finding a more stable economic place picking up the female labor, white miners increasingly found themselves disappointed by the gold explorations. It did not take long for the easy diggings to pan out. Corporate mining soon took over, with the use of hydraulic hoses that required significant capital to get at the gold under the ground. The ideal of the white miner finding the huge nugget and yelling “Eureka!” ended by the early 1850s. While white miners who stayed (many hoped to return to eastern states and often did) wanted to create a white man’s paradise, which helps explain why California completely rejected being a slave state after the Mexican War, in fact, it would quickly become a corporate run state, with the mining companies leading the way until the railroads took precedence after the Civil War.
For the broader trajectory of American labor history, the story of how labor in early California is most significant in thinking how it both reflected and helped shape racialized and gendered labor roles through the 19th century. By 1848, ideas about race, gender, and labor were well set. Perhaps this is less surprising with gender, as the eastern United States had even gender ratios and thus fairly stable gender roles in the household and on the job. But in terms of race, with the exception of African-Americans and to a lesser extent Native Americas, the northern states of the U.S., where by far most although certainly not all whites migrated from, had relatively small populations of anyone not white. What happened in California was a combination of resentment that anyone competing with whites would even be there with the necessity for someone to take over that gendered labor that white men felt was not their place to do. Certainly the gender ratios in California eased over time, but by the 1880s, when the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed and anti-Chinese violence was common across the West, men still vastly outnumbered women. Yet that resentment managed to outpace the need for those laborers, at least among the common workers of the West.
I borrowed much of the information for this book from Susan Johnson, Roaring Camp: The Social World of the California Gold Rush.
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