The novel I’m currently writing alludes to race relations between whites and Native Americans, Hispanics, and African Americans during the California Gold Rush years. However, I do not touch on the Chinese influx into California. Why not? Because my novel takes place in 1848-1850, before the large wave of Asian immigration to California began.
The U.S. Census in 1848 reported that there were three Chinese men in San Francisco. One source states there were 54 Chinese in California in February 1849, then 791 by January 1850, and around 4,000 by the end of the year.
Word of the discovery of gold in California reached China sometime in 1848. A few Chinese men set out for California to seek their fortunes, just as prospectors from around the world did. They sent back word to their home provinces that California was a “Gold Mountain” where the precious metal lay on the ground waiting for them.
It wasn’t until these reports reached China that the Chinese began immigrating to California in large numbers, reaching the new U.S. in 1851 and after. Around 2,700 Chinese came in 1851 and 20,000 arrived in San Francisco in 1852. By the end of 1852, there were 25,000 Chinese in California. See The Story of California From the Earliest Days to the Present, by Henry K. Norton (1924). By the mid-1850s, the Chinese were the largest single group of Gold Rush immigrants to California other than whites.
“The typical Chinese gold seeker was in his late teens or early twenties, male, single, and uneducated. His purpose was to return to China as soon as he had accumulated his wealth. He did not intend to assimilate into the California community and he assiduously protected his traditional life style. Customs, clothing, language, food, and the traditional queue set him apart from his fellow miners.”
Because the Chinese workers’ intent was to amass their fortunes return to China, they were incredibly hard workers and were willing to do work that many others did not want to do. They worked gold claims that whites had already abandoned. They worked as cooks and in laundries. They started small businesses supplying miners. They accepted wages far lower than white workers, who had better opportunities in the gold fields.
Another reason the Chinese were not particular about the work they did was that there was a strong prejudice against them. This was true of attitudes toward other foreign miners, African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans, but the Chinese were visibly different and kept to themselves.
According to most reports, the Chinese kept to themselves more than most other immigrants to California. White prospectors tended to mine by themselves or in small groups. By contrast, Chinese worked in larger communities and so retained their conspicuously different language, food, hair and dress, religion, and other customs.
African American and Hispanic laborers were also easily identifiable, and often were kept separate both legally and socially, but the longer history between whites and these groups meant that they were more easily assimilated into Western life than the Chinese.
Starting in 1850, the California legislature passed laws taxing foreign miners. The Foreign Miners’ License Law imposed a tax of $20/month on all foreign miners, but this immediately took workers out of the mining camps. A destitute population returned from the mines to San Francisco, causing social and fiscal upheaval. The law was repealed in 1851.
But in 1852 California instituted a new tax on foreign miners who were not U.S. citizens. Although this tax was lower—three dollars per month—Chinese miners made only six dollars a month. Moreover, Chinese could not become U.S. citizens, so the tax effectively precluded the Chinese from mining, while permitting white foreigners to become citizens and avoid the tax. As a result, the Chinese had to earn their keep otherwise.
Although some Chinese sought legal protections in the California courts, in 1854, a California Supreme Court decision declared that they could not serve as witnesses in court proceedings. Section 14 of the Criminal Act stated “no Black or Mulatto person or Indian shall be allowed to give evidence in favor of, or against, a White man.” The court found that this law was intended to preclude all non-white persons from testifying against whites.
After this decision, the Chinese immigrant communities became even more insular, deciding most disputes among themselves. As a result, they were viewed as having their own secret laws—which, of course, they did, because it was the only way they could find any justice.
About the time the Gold Rush bonanza declined, the railroads needed workers. The Chinese became the primary labor force for the railroads in the West in the 1860s. They laid most of the tracks from Sacramento across the Sierra Nevada mountains.
Chinese immigration came to an abrupt halt in 1882, with the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act—the first U.S. immigration law excluding a specific national or ethnic group, though similar acts followed against other racial and ethnic groups. This act remained on the books until 1943, but quotas for Chinese immigrants remained impossibly low until 1965.
As I researched this post, I found many parallels between treatment of the Chinese in the 1850s and how some think we should treat Muslims today. Conspicuously different religions and cultures have always been difficult to assimilate. This topic may not be an issue in my novel, but writing this post has given me a new perspective on history, and on our politics today.
When have you learned something about history that you see reflected in today’s society?