by Paul R. Spitzzeri
One of the most striking aspects of the flood of humanity that poured into Gold Rush California at the end of the 1840s and in the first half of the 1850s was the diversity of migrants, gold seekers and otherwise, who flocked from many areas of the world. From México, Central America and South America, Asia, Polynesia, the United States and Europe, the tide of arrivals numbered somewhere on the order of a quarter million.
Left in limbo for several years while Congress debated intensely about what to do with the particularly vertical possession, wrested from México in 1846-1847 and which turned the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which admitted new states, alternately free and slave-holding, based on geography, upside down. The situation was such that residents, many recent arrivals, decided, in the absence of timely action by the national legislature, to form their own constitution at the end of 1849.
Spurred by this independent action, Congress finally enacted the Compromise of 1850, which allowed for California to join the Union that September as the 31st state and ostensibly “free,” but, by the time a state government was organized. The delay in establishing the basics of government while the population expanded dramatically had all kinds of ramifications, not the least of which was a virtually unchecked level of violence, much of which was between ethnic groups, brought together in the most unusual of circumstances.
Even if there had been quick action by Congress on California’s status and a government set up sooner, it is an open question whether the fighting between these groups would have been much ameliorated. Beyond the question of a government, there is the matter of funding and, with taxes very low by modern standards, it is not a surprise to learn that, with such essential functions as law enforcement and court operations, there was chronic under-funding, which meant a dearth of officers and officials, who were generally not well-trained nor, in many cases, particularly motivated to do their jobs well amid the lack of support.
Ethnic groups in the gold fields were in seemingly constant conflict and, while Latinos, due to proximity and experience with mining, were the first to reach these areas, it was not long before Asians and Anglos arrived. Europeans and, especially, Americans grew dramatically in numbers and soon asserted authority and consolidated control in the mines. Latinos and Asians were generally unmercifully harassed, often killed or injured, as well as forcibly removed, while a Foreign Miners Tax was an economic weapon used against them.
In Los Angeles, violence skyrocketed in the Gold Rush years and, while claims of a murder a day occurring in the Angel City in 1853 are certainly grossly exaggerated, even the documented totals of a few dozen homicides in a given year, for a community of just several thousand, is a stunning rate by modern standards. The bloodletting certainly wasn’t always inter-ethnic, but there was also no question that racism ran rampant in the region during that period.
In early 1857, just after the last “Big One,” an estimated 7.9 earthquake rumbled through the area, greater Los Angeles was rocked by a different kind of earth-shaking event, the killing of Sheriff James R. Barton and four Anglo men in a woefully under-staffed posse he led to find the Flores-Daniel Gang, which committed a murder and several robberies in the mission town of San Juan Capistrano. As a recent multi-part post on this blog summarized, the nearly unfettered revenge and retribution included the lynching of several Latino men, gang members and others, and, while some of the executioners were Californios led by Andrés Pico, the role of race in the bloodletting has to be considered in any study of that period.
This summer, posts on this blog will focus on an incident from July 1856 in which an American deputized constable killed a Latino men under circumstances that led to days of threats of large-scale violence between Anglos and Latinos. These two crises followed years of ethnic tension that went back as far as the Mexican-American War and the ferment of the Gold Rush and, while there were certainly many instances of friendship and economic, political and social ties between Angelenos of different ethnicities, the Fifties were frequently filled with animosities and acts of discrimination and violence that belied the pueblo’s seraphic moniker.
In this context, it is interesting to read “The World in California,” an unattributed article in the ninth issue of Hutchings’ California Magazine, published in San Francisco from 1856 to 1861 and which featured short stories, poems, travelogues and other notable content useful to the student of the Golden State in that period. Publisher James M. Hutchings, who hailed from Towcester, a town 65 or so miles northwest of London, was an arrival to California just around the time that gold was discovered.
While Hutchings pursued mining, real estate, ranching and other ventures, he soon became a publisher, first with lettersheets, which had illustrations surrounding blanks spaces for correspondence. His best-known of these was “The Miners’ Ten Commandments,” which had eleven vignettes around the text and not only reflected his background in that field, but also his extensive travels through the mining regions of the state, while his publication of the first image of Yosemite also brought him much attention.
In summer 1855, Hutchings developed a partnership with Anton Rosenfield, a Jew from Bavaria in what later became a united Germany and, a year later, they launched their magazine, which ended just as the Civil War broke out, but its somewhat brief existence does not reflect the importance it had as an early California literary and travel magazine. Though he abandoned publishing, Hutchings ran a hotel in Yosemite Valley, sold forest tree seeds, and died in 1902 after being run over by his team of animals while riding towards Yosemite. A summary of his early years in California was written by Jen A. Huntley-Smith and published in 2005.
The article, perhaps written by Hutchings, began by noting that the news of the Gold Rush was such that
Old men looked incredulous; young men listened with eagerness, and saw the airy castles of their future wealth arise in glittering magnificence before them. The middle aged received the recital with caution, not omitting to make many inquiries of the respectability and the trustworthiness of the messengers.
It was continued that “the enterprising, the adventurous, and the enthusiastic decided to visit this new El Dorado” and this included people “of every clime, and of every creed, from the icy North to the sunny South; from the East to the West.” It was claimed, however, that these gold seekers “forgot their nationalities, and their differences, in the all-absorbing thought for gold.”
Moreover, the piece went on, “this commingling of men of all creeds, and conditions, from all quarters of the world, with one common object . . . has given a commendable and cosmopolitan spirit of liberality toward each other—more perhaps than in any other land—and long may we cherish this bond of brotherhood with charity and forbearance.” Notably, the magazine decided to omit an illustration of the Yankee, because it was asserted that Americans were so prevalent broadly in the world.
The Yankee was given the alias of Jonathan, which is particularly interesting given that the first member of the Workman and Temple family to live in California was Jonathan Temple (1796-1866.) Americans, the article claimed, were a breed of “restless genius” who “in a given time build and burn up, and build again, more cities, blow up more steamboats, smash more railroad cars, and kill more men, women, and children, by unavoidable accident, than any other living man.” That peripatetic nature of the American was such, it was asserted, that, when his country wasn’t big enough “he takes a trip to Mexico, says good morning marm, and if she don’t return the compliment, why just takes California . . . and having done this, guessed he’d keep it, as it may be convenient sometime to terminate a railroad on.”
Having breezily summarized “Jonathan,” the unidentified writer turned to “Celestial John and his lardy, types and shadows of the empire of China.” After stating that the population of the Chinese in California was around 40,000, the author then opined that,
a large majority of [them] are doubtless from the lower orders, or castes; exhibiting a cringing, abject sense of servility, to that degree that it appears a fixed trait of character in all but a few of the more intelligent and wealthy.
It was acknowledged that “John” was “probably the best abused foreigner we have among us,” and that, in the mining areas where the Chinese kept to themselves and stayed away from the business of others, “except so far as their mere presence does it,” the situation was such that “he is constantly and almost every where subject to abuse, extortion, and even robbery, and generally with very little hope of redress.” It is notable that the writer added that “we unhesitatingly lift our voice” against this treatment because “if our laws permit them to come amongst us,” and this would change with the exclusion act of 1882, “our laws should certainly give to them protection, which now, unfortunately they do not.”
“John” was then described as “an industrious every day worker” though “content with small wages.” In larger communities, some were merchants who worked “almost exclusively in commodities used by their countrymen.” The Chinese of San Francisco were noted for their “Josh” [Joss] temples of worship and their theater, which, however, were remembered for “the excruciating din” emanating from it. When it came to women, though, it was claimed that, unlike other Asian countries, “the Chinese have sent hither swarms of their females, a large part of whom are a depraved class.” Moreover, it was asserted that, while they had fair skin, “their whole physiognomy indicates but a slight removal from the African race.”
As for the “Chilians,” that is, emigrants from the South American Pacific coast nation of Chile, it was observed that they were more likely to be found in the mining regions than in towns and cities, but with iron bars, ox-horn tools, and wooden bowls as their crude instruments, “they very successfully prosecute their search for gold.” Women prospected with the men, focusing on panning, with the separation of the dirt from the ore after the males brought the piles up to the surface.
The author wrote that Chilean men bore the general look that was “indicative of a desire than the Yankees would just mind their own business, and let him and his mind theirs,” while the expressions on the women were of such a kind that was interpreted as,
I am perfectly satisfied with my condition as a woman, with my cigarita in one hand, and my other hand and arm where it should be, whether the rest of man or woman kind are or not.
This section ended with the observation that “the number of Chilians in California are less numerous than they were three or four years ago, and are annually decreasing, which can hardly be said of any other race of people among us, except the aborigines [the indigenous Indians].” One Chilean woman who remained in California was Viviana Asorca, whose daughter, Josephine Belt, married Joseph Workman, son of Homestead founders William Workman and Nicolasa Urioste.
While they are rarely mentioned as among the denizens of Gold Rush California, “The Hindoo” is given a brief description in the article and the writer began by affirming “Yes, Hindostan ]sic] long since sent greeting to California.” The visual representation is stated to be an Indian who’d lived for three years in the mining region and “in possession of a fair competence, earned by his industry, and saved by his economy and prudence,” though he was shown as keeping a protective hand on his money purse.
It is also interesting to read that, unlike other Asians, the Indian did not display a “cringing servility to superiors,” but, instead, “he has learned to stand up in the form and dignity of a man, while he awaits the first opportunity for a passage to his native land.” It was averred that Indians “came here only as an adventurer in search for gold” rather than as permanent residents and, after a digression purporting to understand Hinduism and which claimed that Indians thought “Christians show no more of religion in their practices then he,” the writer ended by stating, “thus he returns to his home and to his countrymen, thinking less favorably of Christianity than when he left his native land.”
Addressed next are Mexicans, who, however, are also denoted as “native Californians,” though, usually, Californios are described as distinct from those born in México and who migrated north. The author added that a coat-of-arms for them would have to include the lasso and the spur because, it was asserted, “his lasso is his living, and his spur the great incentive to his locomotion” as it was claimed that “his own legs were made solely and purposely for throwing across a horse, and therefor will use them for no other purpose, if he can help it.”
It was then claimed that
Of this world’s possessions, the next in importance to his horse is the beautiful señorita, and which should, of the two, command the preference, seems to be the point just now argued between them [in the accompanying drawing.]
The “resident native Californian” having the horse and associated “field sports” as a large part of his life “combines many traits of a social nature, that would be deemed commendable in any people” including, foremost, “generosity and hospitality.” On the other hand, the writer opined that “it is equally our positive belief that from the migratory portion, distinct, apparently, from the settled and landed portion of the population, “has arisen more of robbery, rapine, and deeds of blood, than from any other class of our population.” It is significant to note, though, that no mention was made of the violence committed by “Jonathan” as Yankees purged people of color from the mines of the indigenous California Indians from their tribal lands.
Other ethnic groups discussed were the Germans, Russians and Italians. The first were adjudged to be “social and ever happy” comprising many of the merchants and artisans of the towns and cities, but also represented in large numbers in the mines “engaged in every possible pursuit connected in any way with money making.” Germans were also described as “proverbially law abiding and upright in their dealings” as any other group.
Russians, early explorers of the far northern coast, were to be found in the mines and were denoted as “hardy” and “indomitable” in their pursuit of gold, while predisposed to keep to their own activities, this said to be “that great secret so difficult to most of mankind.” Italians (and Greeks—there seeming to be no distinction) were briefly noted as organ grinders, musicians and artists, but also as “an industrial and frugal class, content with low wages” in the mines “and taking the world easy as it goes.” With fishing “they constitute a considerable force,” while the writer concluded that they “are as clearly identified as a distinctive feature of our great babel of races” as any other ethnic group.
Finally, there were the “Loafers,” said to be as distinctive as Gypsies, though, while the latter had two genders, the former had one—all, apparently, being male. These “beautiful specimens of the genus homo” were of a murky ancestry and history, but “though all countries may possess a fair quota” it was offered that “California endures rather more than her share, as every part of the world seems to have sent its representatives here.”
With a philosophy that “the world owes us a living,” the Loafers were said to be avid lovers of fine art, through the illustrations on a deck of cards and these tools of their trade also revealed the republicanism of their artisans because “they annihilate more kings and queens annually, or some within an ace of it, than there are upon all the thrones of earth.”
The metaphor extended through the use of “clubs” through violence and the display of “diamonds” for gaudy show, while Loafers would “destroy, seduce, or may the purity, by rendering unclean, every heart that comes within their influence.” After determining that many of them were “sensible fellows” and “scholars” who were “graduates of the cold lunch institute,” not to mention “good judges of liquor,” this section ended with the observation that the author “said more in his favor than we supposed it possi[ble] when we first took him in hand.”
“The World in California” is a remarkably idiosyncratic essay with a strange mixture of views of some of the ethnic groups in the Golden State. Blanket racist characterizations are intermingled with some positive descriptions and commentaries, outright bizarre musings (such as about Hinduism), and the serio-comic depiction of the Loafer, among other elements. How representative it might be of broader views at the time and place is a question, but it certainly does make for interesting reading.
Thanks for a very well written and extremely interesting article! The included illustrations are very insightful and could be of great use to reenactors and others trying to replicate 19th century dress. Fascinating to see how casual some of the clothes are, like the Italian man with low cut shirt and chest hair showing. Great job presenting this one!
Hi Dana, thanks for the comment and kind words about the post. That’s interesting about the possible application to those interested in clothing of the period. Perhaps the casualness is connected to the social class of the groups as represented in the article?