The Heritage We Renounce

Blood on the Gold

True Story of the 1849 Gold Rush, Part 2

Revolutionary Worker #1042, February 13, 2000

On January 24, 1998, California authorities began a three-year commemoration of the Gold Rush and California's statehood. A myth has been built around the Gold Rush--of rugged people making their fortunes on the American frontier, through hard work and luck. But in reality, the gold of California was washed out of river sands by the blood of many thousands of victims.

Part I of this series appeared in RW #1039 and is available on the web at

When gold was discovered at Sutter's Mill in 1848, the news spread in the East like a fever. Millions of Europeans had been drawn to the U.S. on the promise of "Free Land!"--but most found themselves in the hard life of a dirt farmer, not the leisured life of the propertied gentry. These were hard times for farmers in the Northeast United States--and many were facing bankruptcy and 12-hour days in the new textile mills.

But suddenly, a new promise seemed to arrive from the West. "Free Gold!"--it was supposedly "just lying there" in the rivers and hillsides of distant California, "for the taking."

One hundred thousand gold seekers flooded into California in 1849. About 80 percent of these miners were Anglo-Americans from the East--and the remaining fifth were immigrants from Mexico, China, Latin America, Australia and many countries in Europe. Black freemen came too, often arriving as sailors and deserting their ships.

These 49ers left lives and loved ones behind to make the difficult journey to California. But few of them "struck it rich."

Anglo-American 49ers found themselves serving as foot soldiers in an invasion for "Manifest Destiny"--helping to carve out coast-to-coast empire on the mainland of North America. The Native people, Mexican inhabitants, immigrants, and African-Americans faced suppression and displacement. And in the process, large numbers of the Anglo-American miners too were ruined, exploited, crippled, and even killed.

The Miners' Life

"You can scarcely form any conception of what a dirty business this gold digging is and of the mode of life which a miner is compelled to lead... We live more like brutes than humans."

letter from a miner

Dysentery was common because miners drew water from seep hole wells only two to three feet deep. Cholera struck San Francisco in 1850, 1852 and 1854, each outbreak claiming as many as 5 percent of the city's population. A San Francisco physician estimated that one-fifth of those who came West died within six months of arriving in San Francisco.

1852 marked the peak of gold production. After that, it was very difficult for individual miners to make significant profits in the gold fields. The average miner's take declined from $20 per day in 1848 to $10 per day in 1850, $5 per day in 1853 and to $3 per day in the late 1850s.

As the easily accessible gold was removed, the remaining gold required increasingly capital-intensive technology to extract--including the powerful water jets of hydraulic mining and deep mining. In 1853 it was reported that over $3 million was spent to divert a 25-mile section of the Yuba River. An historian wrote: "The new owners were what contemporaries called capitalists and the operation of this process sometimes meant a transfer of control from the working men in the foothills to the business and financial men in the cities."

The 1860 census reported that only one miner in 10 owned land or significant personal property. A historian concluded that "in a disproportionate number of cases the man was a propertyless miner... No longer living in camps, hoping to strike it rich, they now dealt in embryonic industrial slums, hoping for a living wage."

By the late 1850s a substantial majority of miners had become proletarians, working for wages while they enriched their employers.

Many worked in the quartz and hydraulic mines in California or in the silver mines of Nevada's Comstock Lode. Miners in the Comstock worked in 110 to 120 degree heat 2,000-3,000 feet underground, blasting out ore with newly invented explosives, suffering the dangers of cave-ins, lethal fumes and fires. There was no compensation for death or dismemberment in the mines--the dead were hauled out of the mines and new workers took their places.

A few were able to make vast fortunes out of the Gold Rush. These are the men whose names appear on street signs, universities, hotels and museums throughout the "Golden State." The railroad capitalists Charles Crocker, Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins and Collis Huntington used the Gold Rush to build even larger fortunes. William Ralston, whose Bank of California owned the Comstock mines, would hold huge banquets for fellow members of the ruling class, feeding hundreds of wealthy friends at a time, off of plates of solid gold and silver.

Labeled "Foreigners" in Their Own Land

In 1848, California was occupied, stolen from Mexico by military force and ruled over by a United States military governor. The process of "Americanization" of newly conquered California suited the U.S. ruling classes well--and the Gold Rush was encouraged from the White House itself. In December 1848, President Polk unleashed a stampede when he told Congress: "The accounts of the abundance of gold in the territory are of such an extraordinary character as would scarcely command belief were they not corroborated by the authentic reports of officers in the public service."

In 1848, before the Gold Rush, there were 14,000 Californios (the Spanish-speaking part of California's population). Skilled Mexican miners shared their technical skills with the newly arriving "green-horns" from the East, introducing Spanish mining terms like "bonanza" (rich ore) into English. By 1854 the population of California had increased to 20 times its pre-Gold Rush level.

The ruling class of the U.S. used this invasion to carry out an "instant Americanization" of California. And the dog-eat-dog workings of capitalism created deadly divisions among the miners.

With government backing, non-Anglo miners came under attack. U.S. General Persifor Smith declared that any non-citizen who mined for gold would be considered a "trespasser." In April 1849, vigilantes at Sutter's mill attacked Chilean, Peruvian and Mexican miners. On July 4, a mob killed Spanish-speaking miners and stole their property. One thousand Chilean miners fled to San Francisco hoping to find safety, but were attacked there by vigilantes called "the Hounds."

Spanish speaking people and immigrants were denied basic political and legal rights. An anti-vagrancy act was officially targeted at "all persons who [were] commonly known as `Greasers' or the issue of Spanish or Indian blood." A 1790 U.S. Federal law reserved naturalized citizenship to "white" people only--and it remained in force for almost a hundred years. During its first session, the California legislature announced that voting would be limited to white men who were citizens.

Many Californios were stripped of their lands--even though the U.S. had promised to respect their land rights. An elite class of Anglo-American landowners emerged, and California soon had the greatest concentration of land ownership in the United States.

Meanwhile, the lynching of Latino people continued. One town earned itself the name Hangtown. The attackers counted on backing from the courts. One vigilante said: "Give them a fair jury trial, and rope them up with all the majesty of the law. That's the cure."

The testimony of Latino people, Black people, Indians and Chinese immigrants was not accepted in court. In one case, a judge said, "as both defendants are greasers, their oaths should not be taken as true."


In 1850, the California Assembly passed a "Foreign Miners Tax," intended to drive Latino and immigrant miners out of the gold fields by demanding a huge amount of money. This tax stirred a revolutionary mood among the miners of Sonora, California. Some had just arrived from Europe's revolutionary upsurges of 1848--where the revolutionary working class had appeared on history's stage and the red flag had flown for the first time over street barricades.

In Sonora, 4,000 miners refused to pay the "Foreign Miners Tax." The next day, 400 American troops marched on the miners' camp. One soldier wrote: "Men, women and children--all packed up and moving, bag and baggage. Tents were being pulled down, houses and hovels gutted of their contents; mules, horses and jackasses were being hastily packed, while crowds were already in full retreat."

The soldiers arrested two French miners described as belonging to "the Red Republican order." The next day, 500 French and German miners stormed into town shouting revolutionary slogans and demanding that the two French miners be freed. The government gave up trying to impose the tax.

Among the Mexican people, rebels like Tiburcio Vasquez and the legendary Joaquin Murieta rose up and received widespread support. At his trial Vasquez declared, "A spirit of hatred and revenge took possession of me. I had numerous fights in defense of what I perceived to be my rights and those of my countrymen. I believed that we were being unjustly deprived of the social rights that belonged to us."

Gam Saan Haak

In 1852, over 20,000 Chinese--Gam Saan Haak (Travelers to Gold Mountain)--immigrated to California, looking for gold and work. That same year, the California Assembly denounced "the concentration within our state limits of vast numbers of the Asiatic races."

In May 1852, the legislature passed a second Foreign Miners' License Tax--this time aimed at Chinese immigrants. The law required a monthly payment from every miner who was not a citizen. By 1870, California had collected $5 million from Chinese miners--accumulating between 25 and 50 percent of all State revenues.

In 1855, a law was passed entitled, "An Act to Discourage the Immigration to this State of People Who Cannot Become Citizens Thereof." Seven years later another law was enacted--officially called the law to "Protect Free White Labor Against Competition with Chinese Coolie Labor and to Discourage the Immigration of Chinese into the State of California."

There were repeated attacks on communities of Chinese immigrants. Their homes and shops were often destroyed. Chinese people were lynched, scalped, castrated and branded. Their long traditional, braided queues were cut off to humiliate them.

In one Nevada town a Chinese laundryman was tied to a wagon wheel and driven through the town until his head fell off. One Chinese fisherman was branded, his ears sliced with a knife, his tongue cut out and then killed. On a single night in Los Angeles in 1871, 20 Chinese men were executed by lynching, burning or crucifixion.

By the 1860s, most Chinese immigrants had been forced out of the mines and most of them worked building the railroads. By exploiting the desperation of Chinese workers, railroad capitalists were able to lower labor costs by one third. The Chinese railroad workers carved roadbeds out of the sheer 1,400-foot wall of rock above the American River using primitive tools and explosives. Many died. Meanwhile, railroad capitalist Charles Crocker argued before a legislative panel that Chinese workers should never be allowed to become citizens.

In the 1870 census, 61 percent of the 3,536 Chinese women in California listed their occupation as prostitute. Some were sold by destitute families with a promise of marriage. On their arrival in the U.S., Chinese women were sold at open auctions on the San Francisco docks in full view of police. They were virtual slaves, locked up in small compartments. "My owners are never satisfied, no matter how much money I made," one Chinese prostitute wrote.

Black People in the Gold Rush

By 1860, over 4,000 free Blacks had arrived in California. Most Black Californians settled in the gold-bearing regions around the middle-fork of the American River. Black miners were often forced to work under the most deadly conditions--working in poorly constructed riverside mineshafts where many died in cave-ins.

The presence of Black people was hugely controversial. Many new arrivals were afraid that Black slaves in California would greatly suppress the wages of "free" working people--and so advocated a ban on any Black migration. The issue was debated longer than any question at California's constitutional convention in 1849.

A year later, in 1850, California entered the U.S. as a "free state"--where slavery was officially not allowed. Black migration was allowed, but laws prohibited Black people from voting, testifying in court, or serving in the militia. Like other "free states," California adopted a Fugitive Slave Law--which meant a slave entering California remained a slave, and required the state government to return runaway slaves to their masters. In reality, many working people in California, including Black people and Indians, lived and worked in slave-like conditions.

A powerful anti-slavery movement grew up in California. Black people held state conventions repeatedly in the 1850s. Many white people supported their cause--including 300 attorneys who signed petitions against the unjust anti-Black laws. A German man visiting California during the Gold Rush wrote that Black people in California "exhibit a great deal of energy and intelligence in saving their brothers," and were "exceptionally talented" in aiding runaways. In a landmark legal case, Archie Lee, a slave brought by his master to California, won his freedom. The case was financed by contributions raised by 4,000 Black freemen.


The official myths of the United States have always promised poor people some quick way out of oppression. People are told they can "lift themselves up" without challenging the system or organizing--by becoming rich themselves!

The feverish news of "Free Gold in California" produced a flood of people into California. If "free land" had not made them rich, then surely nuggets of gold strewn across the landscape would do it.

This promise was hollow. Great fortunes were made in these heady years--but mostly for the huge mining barons, railroad magnates and merchant capitalists who held state power and the economy in their hands.

This promise of "Free Gold" was built on the same lies as the old promise of "Free Land." The land was never "free"--it was inhabited. And the capitalist system has always produced a greater and greater concentration of wealth while impoverishing the many.

In the frantic search for gold, the Eastern gold hunters found themselves confronting the Native people and Mexican people of California. The Gold Rush helped consolidate the U.S. conquest of the West Coast. It dispossessed the Mexican people and accelerated the genocide of Native people. And meanwhile, the overwhelming majority of the Eastern "49ers" either left the gold fields broke or were driven into wage slavery for the new capitalist class of California.

The story of the Gold Rush is a story from capitalism's early rise in the U.S. Today, there is feverish talk of a new Gold Rush--in high tech and stock markets--but once again, behind the hype, an upper crust benefits, while vicious measures target the poor, the immigrants and oppressed nationalities.

Over these 150 years, this system has never changed its nature--it still builds its fortunes by exploiting human suffering. And that is a lesson worth learning and sharing during this Gold Rush anniversary.


Strangers from a Distant Shore: A History of Asian Americans by Ronald Takaki. Penguin Books, 1989

The Decline of the Californios: A Social History of Spanish-Speaking Californians 1846-1890 by Leonard Pitt. University of California Press, 1971

Mexicano Resistance in the Southwest by Robert Rosenbaum. University of Texas Press, 1981

The Black West by William Loren Katz. Simon and Schuster, 1987

A Golden State: Mining and Economic Development in Gold Rush California edited by James Rawls and Richard Orsi. University of California Press, 1999

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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