Military Governor Bennet Riley’s Visit to the California Gold Fields, Summer 1849, Part Two

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

This second part of a post highlighting a report, dated 30 August 1849 and a copy of which is in the Homestead’s collection, from Bennet Riley, California’s military governor, concerning a visit to the gold fields of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in summer 1849 and included in an important government report called “California and New Mexico,” turns to an important subject concerning rumored conflict among miners of different ethnic groups in the diggings.

While the first major onrush of 49ers had been arriving around the time of Riley’s tour, the contingent of miners to date were largely Latinos from California, Mexico and locales further south or Americans and other whites already in California.  It is not possible to determine, however, how many 49ers were in the fields when the governor visited.  He described the situation as:

Before leaving Monterey I heard numerous rumors of irregularities and crimes among those working in the placers; but, on visiting the mining regions, I was agreeably surprised to learn that everything was quite the reverse from what had been represented, and that order and regularity were preserved throughout almost the entire extent of the mineral districts.

He went on to suggest that in each community “or tented town,” he found that there were alcaldes (equivalent to a mayor in the Mexican and Spanish civil system) and constables (police officers), “whose judicial actions are sustained by the people, and enforced with much regularity and energy.”



Riley acknowledged scattered examples of “temporary excitements and difficulties,” claiming none were important “or led to serious results.”  While the alcaldes may have exercised powers not conferred to them by law, Riley believed “the general result has been favorable to the presentation of order and the dispensation of justice.”

Yet, there are mountains (pardon the pun) of accounts that state otherwise and that attacks by Americans and Europeans against Latinos, in the early stages of the rush, and Chinese miners not long afterward, were routine and violent.  Is it possible that Riley’s tour was known ahead of time or made known by quickly spread news?  Perhaps Riley only spoke to Anglo miners and others in the gold regions quick to reassure him of the peaceable nature of the “tented towns” he visited.

The governor then turned to another topic: “very exaggerated accounts . . . respecting the ease with which the precious metal is extracted from the earth.”  Rather, he continued, “many who come to this country with the expectation of acquiring sudden wealth, with little or no labor, will be sadly disappointed.”  He acknowledged that hard labor could bring a very high reward, but cautioned that the endeavor was extremely taxing and any fortune to be made came at the price of “severe labor and fixed habits of industry and temperance.”



Accounting for the wide variances in gold found in the region, Riley opined that “the general averages per diem . . . will not vary much from an ounce to an ounce and a half per man.”  He believed that the working population of miners was about 10,000, a number that would explode exponentially in coming months and years, while there was a much larger general population.  Some estimates, incidentally, are that there were about 10,000 non-Indians in all of California before the discovery of gold in early 1848.

Strangely, Riley returned to the subject of reported tensions among miners, feeling, again, that they “were greartl exaggerated” and that, barring a few exceptions, peace and order were routinely to be found.  What he didn’t say earlier, but added here, however, was:

In some of the northern placers a part of Americans and Europeans, urged on by political aspirants, who seem willing to endanger the peace and tranquility of the country, in order to promote their own personal interest, have assumed the authority to order all Mexicans and South Americans from that part of the Territory.

The governor added that the latter “quietly submitted” to these orders and headed to the southern mines, “where the American population manifested a very decided disposition to afford them protection should they be further molested.”  He went on to suggest that “the more intelligent and thinking portion of Americans” considered the forced removal “as illegal and injudicious.”

Riley specifically identified “the English, Irish, and German emigrants, in the northern placers” as being the prime movers “against the Mexicans, Peruvians and Chilians [sic] . . . to create a prejudice and excitement against the Spanish race.”  In other words, it was one group of foreigners, in his view, abusing another group, while Americans refrained from this behavior.

This is frankly preposterous, as is his claim that the motivation for driving out Latinos was “probably actuated by pecuniary interest,” when it is obvious that racism was a primary reason.  In a continuing accusation that is still in the national conversation about immigration, Riley added that “the great influx of people from the southern portion of this continent was diminishing the price of labor,” while the pack animals they brought also drove down the expenses of transport.


Merchants saw their prices drop and, thereby, “have suffered by the change,” although grossly excessive costs for goods were routine in the mining regions.  So, Riley deemed it necessary to state that “it is natural that they should feel incensed against that class of foreigners [some who would have been citizens just two years before under Mexican rule] who have contributed most to effect it.”

On the other hand, the governor did offer the statement that others in the mining regions felt “that the great majority of the laborers and consumers in the mining districts have been benefited by this change.”  Moreover, according to this view, “it would be injurious to the prosperity of the country to restore things to their former state by the expulsion and prohibition of foreigners from the mines.”

Another extraordinary statement by Governor Riley is this:

Americans, by their superior intelligency and shrewdness in business, generally contrive to turn to their own benefit the earnings of the Mexicans, Chilians, and Peruvians in this country, and any measure of exclusiveness which is calculated to diminish the productive labor of California would be of exceedingly doubtful policy.

He continued by saying that, when asked for his opinion on expelling non-Americans and Europeans from the gold fields, he replied, “no persons, native Americans [not Indians, obviously!] or foreigners, have any legal right to dig gold in the public lands,” although until the federal government developed policies on the matter, “they would not be molested in their pursuits.”  Moreover, Riley observed, “I could not countenance any class of men in their attempts to monopolize the working of the mines” with these questions left to judicial authorities.

Tomorrow we’ll move to part three of this remarkable report, so check back then.


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