In the 1960s, activist minister and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream for social justice and racial equality for African-Americans. He envisioned a United States where people weren’t discriminated against based on the color of their skin. That dream is still a work in progress, but a glimpse into the California Gold Rush illuminates the nation’s historic challenges for achieving racial harmony.
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It’s been 170 years since tens of thousands of hell-bent men and women swarmed into northern California in 1849 to reap their share of newly discovered gold. Crazed by the lure of instant wealth, they jammed aboard cramped sailing ships or endured fatiguing overland treks in order to dig placer gold out of the Sierra Nevada foothills.
Many of California’s African-American miners had been free men from Northern states such as Massachusetts, New York and Pennsylvania.
Gold has held a strong magnetism among humans for millennia — enough to start wars or launch sea-faring expeditions to far corners of the world. But it was only in California where an average person could walk into the gold districts and dig out a bucketful of nuggets and go home rich. Before that, all the wealth went to kings, queens, emperors or religious institutions. California also had no established government, which led to a go-for-broke mentality, with no controls environmentally or socially. No wonder the California Gold Rush spawned the greatest voluntary migration in human history. The free-for-all was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
The astonishing news of the mineral strike captivated people from around the world and gold fever spread like a global contagion. Word flashed from the American River where James Marshall found the first specimens on Jan. 24, 1848. From there it spread to San Francisco to Hawaii and Sonora, Mexico, and then to Asia, Europe and the U.S. cities along the Atlantic Coast. During the summer of 1848, most newspaper editors, preachers and politicians expressed skepticism of the sensational rumors emanating from the Pacific Coast until American military officers returned from the Mexican-American War. In late 1848, several officers presented President James Polk with so much gold that Polk himself became a believer. Of course, he was proud of the surprising, newfound wealth since he instigated the unpopular war that confiscated California from Mexico. During his Dec. 5, 1848, State of the Union address, Polk took credit for the bonanza as he confirmed that stories of abundant gold in California were indeed true. The next month 50 ships sailed from New York City for San Francisco.
The daring gold seekers came by the thousands despite the daunting and life-threatening difficulties of the journey. Some died before reaching the gold diggings and many more perished after they arrived. Conditions were so harsh and unwholesome in the primitive mining camps that during the second half of 1849, one-fifth of the 90,000 recently-arrived immigrants died.
The physical challenges of reaching and surviving the Sierra gold fields were difficult enough, to say nothing of the financial hardships, but for some of these optimistic opportunists, racial prejudice would prove the greatest obstacle to their success. In 1850 and 1852 California’s legislature repeatedly passed a Foreign Miners Tax, which penalized non-white miners from China and Central and South America. The law was supported by white American miners, as well as Irish and German immigrants. Not only did Chinese immigrants protest the new tax, they were furious when restrictions against African-Americans and Native Americans were applied to them, because they believed they were socially and culturally superior to people of color — especially American-slaves.
California’s indigenous Indians were nearly eradicated in genocidal violence, but African-Americans suffered the most from intimidation, racist mining laws and physical abuse at the hand of white American miners backed by complicit California politicians. Institutional discrimination against blacks was systemic in the Golden State. California joined the Union as a free state on Sept. 9, 1850, but many local slaveholders did not voluntarily free their slaves. In fact, at California’s 1849 constitutional convention in Monterey, delegates spent more time debating the contentious rights of African-Americans than any other topic.
One activist who strongly supported the abolition of slavery in California and nationally during the convention was John C. Frémont, the man credited with being the first Euro-American to see Lake Tahoe in 1844. In 1850, Frémont was appointed one of California’s first two senators; the other was William Gwin, an active slave owner from Mississippi. In 1856 Frémont became the country’s first Republican presidential candidate, running on a progressive platform of freedom for all African-Americans. Indicative of California’s pro-slavery leanings at the time, only 19 percent of the new state’s eligible citizens voted for Frémont in his loss to James Buchanan.
In 1852, two years after the federal government enacted its own version, California’s legislature passed a harsh Fugitive Slave Act ensuring possession of “slaves to owners returning to the Southern states.” Scores of African-Americans were captured by bounty hunters paid to return them to owners. The law mandated that any slave brought to the territory before 1850 statehood was not guarded by new constitutional decrees protecting blacks in the state. California also limited voting to adult, white, male citizens (no women of any race) and also denied blacks the right to have their children attend public schools with whites. Lax law enforcement made it possible for slavery to exist in many parts of the state until the end of the Civil War. The state also passed a much-hated testimony law where blacks (or any other minority) could not testify or bear witness in a court of law against a white person.
Many of California’s African-American miners had been free men from Northern states such as Massachusetts, New York and Pennsylvania. This was especially true in the Sacramento River region, a hotbed of abolitionism in the 19th Century. A few blacks had struck it rich in the mines, while many others established successful businesses such as hotels, laundries and restaurants. Some slaves were even able to buy their emancipation. The free black community in Sacramento was strong, organized and relatively wealthy, which led them to finance and support the abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad in California and throughout the country. The lack of equal civil rights, and often human rights during the 1850s, brought African-Americans together in four Colored Conventions. The sense of community and racial pride instilled by these conventions helped generate California’s first black churches, library and the Mirror of the Times, a weekly newspaper that addressed issues for African-Americans.