A Creative Writing Project for California History
by Rose Owens
This writing project will be based upon the information contained in “Diversity in the Gold Rush Era” (which is included with this lesson plan), as well as other information about the Gold Rush period. This project should follow a study and discussion of life in the mining camps, including discussion of minority groups.
Each student will chose a person to be. (Possible choices are men, women, or children who are Chinese, French, Black, American, etc.) The student will then write a letter home from the gold field as if he or she were that person. Students will need to do some research about the country or area of the United States where they are sending their letters in order to be able to compare California to the place they came from. They will create a name and an address for the person they are writing to.
The letter home should describe an “event” written in the first person. (This may be an ordinary description of life during the time.) It could also include some of the following information:
1. Contrast life in California with life at home. (climate, seasons, living conditions)
2. Describe your mining camp. (where located, mining rules, types of mining)
3. What is the name of your camp?
4. What success are you having?
5. What is hard about mining (or whatever else you are doing to make money)?
6. What do you like about California?
7. Other details (clothes worn, foods eaten, games, hobbies and leisure time activities , household duties, living conditions, transportation).
8. Identify your relationship to the person you are writing to in some way (friend, parent, brother or sister, other relative)
Further research could be involved to discover if envelopes were used. How were letters sealed? What type of postage was used?
Provide a mail sack for students to put their finished letters in. This mail sack will be carried to San Francisco by mule and then the letters will be put on a boat to travel to their destinations. After all letters have been “mailed”, share each student’s letter.
Copyright 1997 by Rose Owens
Diversity in the Gold Rush Era
by Rose Owens
GOLD! It was a magic word, an exciting word. The discovery of gold on Jan. 24, 1848 changed California history. “Gold! There’s gold on the American River!” cried Samuel Brannon as he ran down the street in San Francisco, waving a quinine bottle with gold flakes in it. There were about 900 people in San Francisco at that time. Most of those 900 people were white American males. By summer there were only 100 people in San Francisco—everyone else had “headed for the hills to strike it rich.” During the summer of 1848, the only gold miners in California were people who had been in California at the time gold was discovered. Therefore most of the gold miners were white.
The atmosphere in the mining camps was friendly in the summer of 1848. There was little crime or fighting. Men carried either a pistol or a bowie knife or both but didn’t use them to settle arguments. Miners might have an argument but if they couldn’t settle it, they appealed to another miner to arbitrate for them. Theft was unknown. There was plenty of gold for everyone—it was lying all over the place. If a miner didn’t strike it rich in one spot, there were plenty of other places to try.
[The miners were] homogeneous—an important point. A few of the so-called Old Californians, the ones of mixed descent, tried their hands in the diggings, but not many, and those who did try it soon pulled out. The Mexicans themselves, those from Mexico, some of them experienced miners, had not yet put in an appearance. Those who toiled in the foothills that summer of 1848 were of all ages and all walks of life, but they were Americans almost to a man, and they were of one color. . . . Another explanation for the amazing absence of crime lay in the fact that these men were devoted to their jobs. . . When the sun set they were too muscle-weary to indulge in any pranks. (Chidsey, p. 41).
By early 1849 dramatic changes had occurred. The news had spread to the East Coast, to South America, to Australia, to Europe. People rushed to California from all over the world for a variety of reasons. In France, Italy, Germany, Hungary and Rumania there were political uprisings, unemployment, and food shortages. These conditions caused people to view California as a land of opportunity. Forty-niners came pouring into California across the continent and by boat. They believed gold would be their ticket to a better, richer life. There was gold in California! Anything seemed possible!
This new influx of forty-niners caused problems. The miners began to fear that there wouldn’t be enough gold for everyone. They contrived rules that taxed foreign miners. Foreign miners were only allowed to mine the claims that had already been worked over. Some foreigners were forcibly driven out.
The rush to the gold field created or revealed selfish people who wanted to get there first so they could get the most gold. It was not uncommon to find food, clothing and other necessities abandoned beside the trail in order to lighten the oxen’s load. These supplies were often destroyed to prevent their use by someone else who might use the supplies to get to California first. John Borthwick noticed that men coming from the East across the Isthmus of Panama were “rude, argumentative, and complaining. . . and they did nothing to help each other. . . Those returning from California were thoughtful of their fellow travelers and willing to put up with any inconvenience for the good of all.” (Heritage, p. 109-110) This change in the people who came to California was rather startling. The difficult journey to California—whether by land or by sea—seems to have enabled the miners to learn compassion. Perhaps seeing death and overcoming hardship helped them to understand how vulnerable they individually were. The selfish travelers became kinder miners.
One of the heart-warming things about the gold rush days was the willingness of most men to help each other. . . . A very down-at-the-mouth young man appeared at a place where some thirty miners were working. The men looked the stranger over, and asked him why he was so dejected. He had had nothing but bad luck, the young man explained; the claims he had staked all turned out to be worthless, and he was ready to quit and go home.
One miner spoke up: “Boys, I’ll work an hour for that chap yonder if you will.” And they did. At the end of the hour they turned over about $100 in gold dust to him, and gave him a list of tools, telling him to come back when he had bought them. “We’ll stake a good claim for you, and after that you’ll paddle your own canoe.” (American Heritage, p. 109)
According to the laws the miners developed, a man could stake a claim and it was his as long as he worked it at least one day a week. (How often the claim must be worked varied from town to town, but one day a week was typical.) Cholera, dysentery, scurvy, pneumonia, rheumatism and accidents were common in the mining camps. Often miners would band together and work a sick man’s claim for him the required one day a week until he was able to resume mining himself.
In Marysville, a young man was severely injured and lost both of his legs. He couldn’t do any kind of work and didn’t have enough money to buy a ticket home. Two of his friends took him to a hotel where there was an entertainer. They put the injured man on the stage in a chair while the singer and the violinist played and sang a song called “Not Old Dog Tray But Poor Dog Tray”. The audience gave generously. A ticket was purchased and the young man was sent back to his family in the East on the next ship.
Justice varied in California. If an American stole a mule, he was whipped. But if a Mexican stole a mule, he was hanged—even if there was no proof. Negroes, Indians and Chinese were not allowed to testify in court. Greasers (people of Spanish/Indian descent) were not accepted. (The term greaser originated before gold was discovered. When the Spanish dons traveled from one hacienda to another, a peon would walk behind the carriage with a bucket of grease to grease the axle.)
Consideration for other miners did not seem to hold if the others spoke a different language or if their skins were not white. And in a place where there were men from all parts of the world, this attitude led to trouble. In all too many cases, Americans took the arrogant attitude that they had a right to push all others out of the way.
Sometimes differences were settled fairly, even though a big roughly, as in Rich Bar when in the summer of 1850, a group of Frenchmen and another group of Americans arrived and started to stake out claims at the same time. A battled threatened for a while, but some sensible person suggested that each side pick its best man and let the two decide who stayed and who went. The fight lasted three hours, but it was a fair one. When the Frenchman lost, his countrymen moved on without further argument. However the Frenchmen were ultimately the winners because the area they moved to a short distance upstream turned out to be the richest yet found in Rich Bar; to this day it is called French Gulch.
More ugly, though, was the so-called French War near Jackson where a group of French miners had opened up some rich new claims. There was no doubt that they had every right to stay, but the greed of some Americans was aroused. They spread the lie that the French had raised their own flag and had openly defied the government of the United States. Then, when the mob spirit was high, they forcibly drove out the French and robbed them of their sites.
The same sort of thing happened much more often to Mexicans and to miners from South America, who were called Chilenos whether they came from Chile or any other county in Latin America. They not only spoke a different language, they were looked down upon because their skins were swarthy. Americans argued, in an attempt to justify their actions, that since they had just taken California away from Mexico, the Mexicans no longer had any rights there.
Unfair taxes were specially contrived to make things harder for the Latin Americans, and if the claims they staked happened to pay
well, they were often driven off them. They were robbed, beaten, and sometimes murdered. It is not surprising that some of them became robbers.
But even the Mexicans and Chilenos were held in high regard compared to the Chinese. When the first gold was found at Coloma in 1848, there were only seven Chinamen in California; by 1850 there were at least twenty thousand and they were coming in a flood. (American Heritage, pp. 110-111)
The Chinese were the largest single ethnic group of miners in the west. The Chinese, who were often called “Celestials”, suffered severe discrimination. They were not allowed to mine. The Chinese were forced out of mining camps and sometimes even murdered. The Chinese were not allowed to own property. The Chinese (like all foreigners who arrived in San Francisco by boat) were charged a tax of $5-$10 per person to pay for medical costs that they might incur. However, the Chinese were excluded from the city hospitals in San Francisco (which were funded by the head tax the Chinese were forced to pay). No one wanted to live near the Chinese. They were ridiculed because of their clothes, queues (pigtails) and accent. Children threw mud at them. Caucasians wanted California to be for Americans and felt they should get rid of the “Yellow Peril”.
The Chinese in America have been patronized, welcomed, lynched, despised, excluded, hated, liked, admired, but rarely understood or simply accepted. They have been creatures of whom stereotypes have been created. They have been pictured as wise, crafty, honest, frugal, law-abiding, soulless. We all know that “a Chinaman’s chance” means no chance at all. Most adults today might still remember the rhyme:
Chink, Chink, Chinaman sitting on a rail,
Along came a white man and cut off his tail.
That is, fortunately, a couplet of a bygone day. We almost never hear “Chink” used any more and most people know that “Chinaman” has a derogatory connotation because of the reference to “John Chinaman,” implying that Chinese were all alike and had no individuality. (Lee, p. 129).
Some of the conflict occurred because of the reasons the Chinese came to California. In Southern China crops had failed and jobs were few. Families were being forced to sell their children as slaves in order to survive. Then the Chinese heard about Gum Shan (the “Mountain of Gold”). The Chinese came to California, not as immigrants but as sojourners—here today and gone (home) tomorrow. The typical gum san hok (Gold Mountain Guest) would
remain in “Ka-la-fo-ne-a” no longer than necessary. When he had made his pile—perhaps $500—he would return home to his patient wife and family for a life of relative ease in Kwangtung. . . . He did not want to be assimilated; on the contrary he preferred to be insulated from the fan kwei (foreign devils) all around him. He had one foot in Frisco but the other was still firmly planted in Canton. His great ambition was to make a lot of money and become a Gum San Hock—a returnee from the Golden Hills. While he was in San Francisco his one pressing desire was to be left alone. . . .
Even after death the ties with China were strong in the Chinese. Hence the shiploads of bones and ashes of the dead which year after year left the Embarcadero bound for Hong Kong. For example, when the French ship Asia sailed in January, 1858, she bore the embalmed bodies of 321 Chinese. (Dillon, pp. 15-16
Immigration records are not clear as to how many Chinese sojourners eventually did go home to China to retire--certainly less than half. Some Chinese went home every 5 years or so for a visit but returned to America to work again. If they were married, they left their wives and children in China. Because they saw themselves as sojourners, the Chinese saw no real need to change their style of dress, cut their pigtails or live like the other miners. They weren’t planning to stay. So the Chinese congregated together and Chinatowns grew up in California. It would appear that the growth of separate living areas in San Francisco and the mining towns was partially a result of the attitude of the Chinese themselves and partially because they had no other choice--no one would allow them to live anywhere else.
The building of the transcontinental railroad brought more Chinese to California. When Charles Crocker needed workers to build the Central Pacific Railroad, he first hired Caucasians but instead of working all they were after was a free ride down the track to the Washoe Silver Mines. So then Crocker hired Chinese workers. Ten thousand Chinese workers were recruited or imported to do pick and shovel and earth moving work on the railroad. The white workers called the Chinese “Crocker’s Pets”. When the railroad was finished, the prediction was that the Chinese would return to China. Although most of the Chinese had originally came to California with the intention of returning to China, the majority remained in California. In fact, even more workers came from China. Some Chinese moved to the cities where they became vegetable and fish peddlers, ran laundries or became servants.
At one time laundry had to be sent to Canton or Honolulu. Before the Chinese came, laundry was done by Spanish-American and Indian women who washed on the borders of a little fresh-water lake about two miles from San Francisco. Wah Lee started the first Chinese laundry on Washington Street. By 1876 San Francisco had three hundred Chinese laundries each employing about five men. . . . What they did know was that the regular price was $8 for doing a dozen shirts [and] there were very few women in California to do this kind of work, and that at $5 a dozen they, the Chinese, could get the business.
To economize on rent, two firms would very often use the same premises alternating night and day around the clock. The laundrymen . . . were able to pan soapsuds and find gold dust from dirty shirts, a bonus added to the regular price for laundry.
The old Chinese laundryman of that era sprayed shirts from a mouthful of water, ironed night and day with a heavy iron, and was the subject of ridicule and curiosity in the town. He tried to buy the goodwill of children with lychee nuts, but the stories of a large chopping knife hidden under the counter was ingrained into young minds and the image of an opium-smoking rat-eating “Chinaman” stuck. (Lee, p. 15)
In San Francisco, a Chinese houseboy was almost a necessity for the affluent.
He became a part of the family, raised the children, cooked the meals, did all the shopping and shared in the happiness and sorrows of the family. And he was found in almost every well-to-do- home in California in the last half of the nineteenth century. (Lee, p. 16)
The Chinese were “a gap filler”—doing what no one else would do. They adapted to the white man’s customs and slipped away without protesting when the white man wanted his job. It was not long before the Chinese began to dominate the cigar-making, shoemaking and clothing industries in San Francisco.
Between 1850 and 1882, there were 100,000 Chinese men who came to California but only 8,842 Chinese women came. Many of these women were prostitutes. They were slaves and had no choice about immigrating. Few “good Chinese women” came to California. “It was generally against Chinese custom to bring virtuous women so far from home.” (Dillon, p. 8) The Chinese men left their wives behind because they planned to return home to China themselves. Chinese immigration policy also made it difficult for Chinese men to bring their wives. The Six Companies (Chinese Immigration Companies) paid for an immigrant’s passage to America and the immigrant paid them back in installments over a period of 6-7 months. (This was similar to the indentured servants who came to the America colonies.) Chinese men were discouraged from bringing their wives to America and only the wives of businessmen were allowed to come.
No one realized at the time, and few remember now, that Chinese labor in California during this early period developed the resources of the state as they would not have been developed otherwise. California was dependent upon the East for her manufactured goods and supplies which could not be delivered cheaply and quickly. She had land but had not irrigated it or cultivated it. She had the perfect weather for growing fruit but she did not have the human resources to plant it, care for it, gather it, and build a transportation system to bring it to market. (Lee, p. 8-9)
In 1848 blacks were among the first miners. Like other crew members, black seamen (mainly from New England whalers) jumped ship to seek gold. Freed slaves, fugitives, and gangs of “Negro servants” brought by Southerners increased their numbers to about two thousand by 1852—only about 1 percent of the population of California.
California held a powerful attraction for blacks, who hoped that gold would enable them to buy freedom for themselves and their families. In some instances, slaves received their masters’ permission to leave. Their return seemed guaranteed, because they had left their wives and children behind.
Alvin Coffey, a slave from Missouri, dug up five thousand dollars worth of gold for his master. Then he was sold to another Missourian. After unearthing large profits, Coffey paid thousands of dollars to free himself, his wife, and two daughters. James Taylor, from Ohio, already freed by his master, managed to dig up enough to buy freedom for his wife and seven children before he returned home.
Slaveholders from the South often brought their staff to work in the mines. General Thomas Jefferson Green, a rich Texan, filed claims not only in his own name, but also in the names of his slaves. Infuriated miners called a meeting and passed a resolution excluding blacks from the area.
The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, providing for the return between states of escaped slaves, was a threat to those blacks who had found refuge in the North. Many of them looked to California as a haven, since it was so out of the way that their capture would be difficult. Because California had been established as a free state, they hoped for sympathy and under-standing. However, “persons of color” weren’t always welcome, and they were sometimes chased from the diggings.
Fortunately, there were [men] like Scotsman William Downie, whose group consisted of seven blacks and two white men. They worked in harmony and were rewarded with rich diggings. The prosperous town of Downieveille was named in the Scotsman’s honor. (Blumberg, pp. 105-106)
Respectable women in California were hard to find. The miners pined about them and wrote home to their families about their yearnings for “proper honest women”. Respectable women received preferential treatment. If the miners knew that a woman wanted to try her hand at panning for gold, many miners would “salt” the pan in order to make sure she would “see the color”. The “non-white” women of various nationalities who worked in the camps doing laundry and cooking did not “count” as far as the miners were concerned. Nor did the white girls who worked in the saloons. Only “proper, honest women” counted.
One miner recorded in his journal that:
We were prospecting on the north fork of Weber or Weaver Creek, twenty-five miles east of Hangtown. It was Sat; the rain had been falling nearly all day, when Sam Hit came into camp with the joyful news that he had heard that a white woman had come to Snow's Camp, 16 miles away. Next morning he put on his best jeans pants his mother had made, a pair of alligator boots that he gave an ounce of gold dust for ($18), a red flannel shirt that cost him $4 and his old wool hat, lopped down over his ears, and struck out on foot to see such a wonderful thing as a white woman. When he arrived, it was late in the day, and, as Mrs. Snow kept a restaurant, he ordered dinner at $1.50. While eating he saw some eggs in a pan. On inquiry he learned they were worth one dollar each, so he ordered one cooked. This brought his dinner up to $2.50. It was dark long before he reached camp. He had had a long, weary walk over a steep mountain trail, and, should he live to be a hundred years old, he says he will never forget the day he walked thirty-two miles to see a white woman in California. “ (Hulbert, p. 316)
A HUSBAND WANTED
BY A LADY who can wash, cook, scour, sew, milk, spin, weave, hoe, (can’t plow), cut wood, make fires, feed the pigs, raise chickens, rock the cradle (gold-rocker, I thank you, Sir!), saw a plank, drive nails, etc., and as you can see, she can write.
Her age is none of your business. She is neither handsome nor a fright, yet an old man need not apply. There must be $20,000 settled on her, before she will bind herself. (Seidman, pp. 145-146)
There is one story of American sportsmanship in the Mother Lode country which is brightly to the credit of the swashbuckling Forty-niners. One of the miners who went to the gold-rush town of Weaverville was John Carr, a blacksmith. Blacksmithing proved so profitable that soon Carr was able to leave his shop in charge of an assistant and go east to bring out his wife. He left a few straggly huts and tents. When he returned a year later, Weaverville was a thriving town of two thousand, and lots one could have had for nothing when he left were selling at eight hundred dollars apiece. But women were still rarer than gold. Carr brought back with him not only his wife but his brother’s wife and another man and his wife. The arrival of three women at one time threw Weaverville into ecstasies. It was decided to honor them with a ball. Tickets sold for ten dollars each. Carr records the ball as a historic event, at which “more boiled shirts were worn. . . than ever before at Weaverville.” But that was because most of them were seen repeatedly. The men owning them were generous. Shirts were swapped all night long, so that practically every man had at least one dance in genteel costume. (Shipley, pp. 108-9)
As women were a rarity in the diggings, half of the men might tie a bandanna around their arms and be the “ladies” for an evening of dancing. No one thought it strange to see these bearded “ladies” in heavy boots tripping seriously with their partners through the steps of the polka. (American Heritage, p. 105)
The discovery of gold escalated the ongoing problems between the Native American Indians and the white men.
The first genuine gold rush in American history began in Georgia. In 1828 a slave found gold in a river in northern Georgia, and another black man spotted gold in a creek near Dahlonega. Then a white named Benjamin Park picked up a stone whose deep, rich yellow color had caught his eyes. And knew he had found gold.
All these discoveries were made on Cherokee land. . . By the end of the year a gold rush was under way. Thousands of prospectors poured into Cherokee territory with picks, pans, axes, and rifles, destroying Indian property as they stake out claims.. . . [American’s felt that] the Indians didn’t own the gold-rich land just because they had “seen it from the mountain or passed it in the chase.” No, the gold was white America’s. So the whites grabbed the Cherokee land—and made millions out of it. (Meltzer, pp. 65-66)
There were people who were shocked at the plight of the Indian. They protested, wanting reforms that would enable native Americans to live in freedom, with dignity. But the loudest, strongest voices of the time were in favor of some solution to what was called “the Indian problem.” Three commissioners appointed by the federal government concluded that the choice was between “extermination or domestication” Either kill them or set them up in reservations, where they could become civilized.
All across America Indians who were in the way were usually sent to reservations located west of their home territory. The dilemma in California was that only ocean was west, and it was unthinkable to send Indians east. California’s first governor, Peter H. Burnett, stated that “a war of extermination will continue to be waged. . . until the Indian race becomes extinct.” During the nineteenth century thousands of Indians were hunted down and killed. (Blumberg, p. 105)
The California Indians suffered most from the gold rush simply because they were there. Their lands were either in the diggings or on the roads to them. The forty-niners had little understanding or respect for the Indian culture and way of life. Wherever and whenever Indians were in the way, the Americans simply swept them aside. Caught up in a drive for riches, the white men were in no mood to tolerate any opposition or to worry about whose lands they were on, whose streams they were fouling, whose burial grounds they were defiling. No treacherous, ignorant savage (said they) was going to stand in the way of their pursuit of the rainbow. White men’s disease, white men’s greed, white men’s alcohol destroyed the Indian peoples. . . .
Wherever a strike or discovery was made, forty-niners poured in, and mining camps sprang up. Within a year, the Anglos outnumbered the Indians. The Indians watched with dismay the invasion of their territory, the slaughter of their game, and the poisoning and polluting of their streams by mining sludge and refuse. Many of the acorn-producing oaks and nut-bearing pines were chopped down and the timber used to build cabins, dams, and sluices. . . .
In the mining towns and the diggings themselves, the Indians were held in lowest esteem and treated with contempt. In 1848 they were allowed to mine either for themselves or as laborers for white bosses. But as the mines filled up with forty-niners arriving from the East and Oregon, the Indians were ordered off the land and driven out. . .
The Indian culture began to change. What were luxuries and novelties at first, began to take on importance and become necessities. Emulating the white man’s dress and style of living, lured by the possibility of possessing things they had never owned or desired before, the Indians became enmeshed in the digging of gold to satisfy these new desires. They abandoned their ancestral way of life and fell victim to artificial longings. . .
Because their culture did not stress accumulation and greed, the Indians were scarcely a match for the shrewd white storekeeper or prospector, who often cheated and shortchanged them. Relates Grimshaw: “In trading with Indians, it was considered legitimate (even in the stores at Sutter’s Fort) to have two sets of weights. The Indian ounce weight was equal to two ounces standard and so on up.” (Seidman, pp. 186-189)
Copyright 1997 by Rose Owens
Focus Questions to include in the general discussion:
1. Why was there conflict between the Indians and the white man? Was the conflict over gold lands a new and separate issue?
2. How do you suppose the young handicapped man felt when he was “put on display” on the stage in order to help raise money to send him home? Do similar situations occur today?
3. Why do you think traveling to California and working in the mines changed people? How did they change?
4. What reasons can you think of to explain why there was little or no conflict in
the summer of 1848 in the mining towns and lots more after that?
5. What solutions might have helped the different nationalities get along better in the mining towns? Would any of these solutions help people of different nationalities get along better?
6. Why were “good, honest women” valued in the gold fields?
American Heritage editors, The California Gold Rush, American Heritage Publishing Co., Inc., New York, 1961.
Blumberg, Rhoda, The Great American Gold Rush, Bradbury Press, New York, 1989.
Chidsey, Donald Barr, The California Gold Rush, Crown Publishers, Inc., New York.
Dillon, Richard H., The Hatchet Men: The Story of the Tong Wars in San Francisco Chinatown, Coward-McCann, Inc., New York, 1962.
Hulburt, Archer Butler, Forty-Niners: The Chronicle of the California Trail, Little, Brown, and Company, Boston, 1931.
Krensky, Stephen, Striking It Rich: The Story of the California Gold Rush, Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers, NY, 1966.
Lee, Calvin, Chinatown, USA, Doubleday & Company, Inc., New York, 1965.
Loftis, Anne, California—Where the Twain Did Meet, Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., New York, 1973.
Meltzer, Milton, Gold, Harper Collins Publishers.
Seidman, Laurence I., The Fools of ’49: The California Gold Rush, 1848-1856, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1976.
Shipley, Lee, It’s an Old California Custom, The Vanguard Press, Inc., New York, 1948.
Story Lady Home Page