Minority Experience Throughout The 1848 California Gold Rush

By: Kyle Laguerre

During the 19th century many Americans sought out wealth through means of westward expansion.  With this expansion came new opportunity for many because of the abundant untapped natural resources, both renewable and nonrenewable.  In 1848 after James W. Marshall discovered there was gold in California, many flocked there in search of fortune (Parsons 82).   It is noted that globally “gold fever” was nothing new and that it was not exclusive to California, but it is important to recognize that it transformed the would be state into something entirely new at the time (Tuckerman).  As opposed to many of the rural areas in the central United States California flourished because the gold attracted permanent settlers looking for work, wealth, and land.

Over the next two years California presented freedom for all kinds of people in large part because it had yet to officially be declared a state of the United States until 1850. In comparison to American migrations preceding 1848, the gold had attracted white, black, and Asian men, not just in America but across the globe.   The diversity brought on by the gold rush made California on par with major cities like New York in terms of ethnicity the variety of races occupying the state.  It was recorded “about seventy percent of all immigrants in these years remained as permanent residents” (Roske 188). This residence meant gave minorities somewhat of a presence and granted them some rights  not available in the American east. The diversity had lasting influence on California’s constitution which rejected the practice of slavery outside of legal punishment.  While this presented some assistance in maintaining equality, it did not stop the implementation of legislation the banning black people from attending school with white children or the law banning black, Asian, and Native American testimony against white people at the time (CA Dept. of Education).

During the Gold Rush there were plenty of European immigrants who did not speak English, but for many Americans their intolerance of race superseded their intolerance over differences in nationality. It is stated during the early 1850s that the nativism fueled bigotry previously directed towards the Latin and French emigrants “metamorphosed into a racism against African Americans and Chinese, whose skin color and other phenotypical features differed from those of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants” (Chan 67).  This had much to do with the perceived ‘levels of whiteness’ these races reflected.

Despite the discrimination and oppression faced by minorities in California, there were still plenty who acquired enough earnings from the Gold Rush to improve the lives of their families as well as their own.  It was stated that “blacks in California sent about three-quarter million dollars to their loved ones in the early 1850s to purchase the latter’s freedom” (Chan 68).  Although plenty took up permanent residence in the US, many the Chinese working men were collecting money in order to return home with fortune.  This was significant because it shows that many of the men driven by the Gold Rush were driven by the chance to grant their families better qualities of life.  While plenty of men were just looking to selfishly get rich quick, the overall sense of community in the minority communities helped them rise above the racism and claim a stake in the American landscape they could call their own.



Works Cited

Parsons, George Frederic. “The Life and Adventures of James W.” 1870. EBSCOhost, login.proxy.libraries.rutgers.edu/login?url=https://search-ebscohost-com.proxy.libraries.rutgers.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edshtl&AN=njp.32101078192398&site=eds-live.

Roske, Ralph J. “The World Impact of the California Gold Rush 1849-1857.” Arizona and the West, vol. 5, no. 3, 1963, pp. 187–232. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40167071.

“Key Points in Black History and the Gold Rush.” Key Points in Black History and the Gold Rush – Instructional Materials (CA Dept of Education), www.cde.ca.gov/ci/hs/im/didyouknow1.asp.

H.T., Tuckerman. “The Gold Fever.” [“Godey’s Lady’s Book”]. Godey’s Lady’s Book, 01 Mar. 1849.

Chan, Sucheng. “A People of Exceptional Character: Ethnic Diversity, Nativism, and Racism in the California Gold Rush.” California History, vol. 79, no. 2, 2000, pp. 44–85. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25463688.


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