American Experience: The Gold Rush (376)

An excerpt from the transcript:

James Rawls, Historian: In Gold Rush California, men from the United States who had lived lives presumably as upright citizens, came to California with great avarice. They were coming here to get rich quick. And they were frustrated men, because they were not getting rich quick, and they’re looking for someone to blame. What is the cause of my own failure? It’s not me. It’s someone else’s fault.

Narrator: Ever since the first American miners had arrived in California, they had been trying to expel foreigners from the gold fields. But for every one driven out, it seemed, another had come to seek his fortune.

Now, in 1850, there were more than 80,000 Anglo American miners in California, competition was at a fever pitch and anti-foreign sentiment was on the rise.

Richard White, Historian: As you devote more and more labor to getting less and less gold, then it becomes in the interests of people to exclude other people from the diggings. And the best way to do this is on the basis of race and nationalities, as far as the Americans are concerned. They consider California their country, and they are more and more racist in the sense that they see all non-white — as they define it — peoples as inferior.

James Rawls, Historian: Some of the most efficient miners in the early days of the Gold Rush came from Latin America, where there’d been a great deal of mining before. And so from the perspective of the Anglo American miners, who were frustrated with their own failure, the Latino miners became their prime object of hatred, to eliminate them as a source of competition.

Narrator: In the spring of 1850, Anglo gold seekers persuaded the newly-elected legislature to pass the Foreign Miners Tax, a steep levy that was meant to be imposed on all non-Americans. In practice, it was Spanish-speaking miners who were most often forced to pay.

James Rawls, Historian: It really was a prohibitive tax. It was not designed to raise revenue. It was designed to prohibit the mining of Mexicans and other Latin Americans in California. And it had a devastating effect. Within one year of that law’s passage, an estimated 10,000 Mexican miners left California.

Narrator: “Three-fourths of the Mexicans who were here a month ago have left,” one American noted, “with a rather bad opinion of Los Yankees.”

Other Mexicans took to the hills and began to terrorize the mining camps, stealing whatever they could, and often killing those who got in their way.

Susan Lee Johnson, Historian: That increase in violence, some of it probably was perpetrated by Mexicans, but it got to a point where virtually any sort of violence or theft that took place was kind of automatically blamed on Mexicans in the diggings.

Narrator: As the hysteria mounted, newspapers throughout the mining district began to attribute the crimes to a single individual — a man by the name of Joaquin Murieta.

Isabel Allende, Writer: Joaquin Murieta was like the symbol of all bandits, the metaphor for crime. There is absolutely no proof that Joaquin Murieta existed. Probably, there were several Joaquins, several gangs. Sometimes a crime was committed in Los Angeles in the morning, and another crime committed in Sacramento at noon, and they would say it was Joaquin Murieta. How could Joaquin Murieta get from Los Angeles to Sacramento in three hours? I don’t know. But that was in the mentality of people.

Narrator: The specter of Murieta whipped the local Anglo population into such a frenzy that state legislators commissioned a party of Rangers to hunt him down. Eager to collect the one thousand dollar reward, the Rangers shot someone dead, cut off his head and pickled it in a jar of whiskey. The head was later sent on a touring exhibit around the gold country.

Richard White, Historian: The death of Murieta signifies how heavily the tide has turned; that the monopolization of violence is now going to be largely in the hands of Americans. The ability of Mexicans to resist grows less and less. But interracial violence is going to continue on through the 1850s.


Narrator: By the early 1850s, the hunt for gold was spreading farther into California’s interior, and miners were encroaching on lands that had been inhabited for centuries by Native Americans — among them the Yokut and Maidu and Modoc, the Miwok, Nisenan and Pit.

James Rawls, Historian: California was the most diversely populated region within native North America. Native people were living in sparsely-settled villages throughout the entire region of California. Every mountain, every river, every valley had a name. California was rich in resources. They were living, I would say, an abundant life.

Narrator: Now, with the foothills of the Sierra Nevada overrun with gold seekers, Indians found themselves locked in a fierce struggle for their survival.

Richard White, Historian: Miners are moving into lands that Indians are using for fishing, they’re using for hunting. When you start mining a stream, you kill the fish runs. When miners come in in large numbers, they kill or drive off the game. Indians retaliate by taking white livestock. Whites retaliate by killing Indians. And then you get wars, which escalate very quickly.

Frank LaPena, Professor of Native American Studies: If you have starving Indians and they’re seeing cattle that are around, you kill cattle and eat them. Well, somebody kills your cattle, okay, that’s grounds to go out and get that criminal, whoever that is. And then the first village that they come to, and they’ll just kill them. They said, “Well, it’s an Indian. They’re all the same.” And they had nothing to do with it.

Narrator: In an effort to bring the native population under the state’s control, California lawmakers passed what they called “An Act for the Government and Protection of Indians.”

James Rawls, Historian: The name of the law sounds benign, but the effect was malign in the extreme degree. Any white person under this law could declare Indians who were simply strolling about, who were not gainfully employed, to be vagrants, and take that charge before a justice of the peace, and a justice of the peace would then have those Indians seized and sold at public auction. And the person who bought them would have their labor for four months without compensation.

Frank LaPena, Professor of Native American Studies: There’s a white person found with a small Indian child. And he said, “I am protecting him. He’s an orphan.” And they say, “Well, how do you know he’s a orphan?” He said, “I killed their parents.”

Narrator: Ad hoc white militias conducted routine raids on Indian encampments — burning their huts and stores of food, slaughtering the adults, and seizing many of the children.

Meanwhile, communities throughout California offered bounties for Indian ears, scalps, heads.

James Rawls, Historian: The Indian hunters were acting on their own initiative. But the state of California passed legislation authorizing more than a million dollars for the reimbursement of additional expenses that the Indian hunters may have incurred.

Narrator: In the two decades after the discovery of gold, 120,000 Indians — four-fifths of California’s native population — would be wiped out — most by starvation or disease, others at the murderous hands of whites.

Isabel Allende, Writer: The Gold Rush to me is a time of extremes. People who were very decent teachers, for example, in Massachusetts or someplace like that — turn out to be brutal people in California because it was allowed. There was impunity. When there is power with impunity, people do horrible things.

Richard White, Historian: “Genocide” is a word I hesitate to use, but what happens in California is very close to genocide. You’re talking about a kind of horror, which even at the worst of American Indian relations rarely takes place. But it becomes almost the norm in California.

James Rawls, Historian: It was mass murder that was legalized and publicly subsidized. California entered the Union, during the Gold Rush era, shining with gold, but also dripping with blood.