History 383 - Dr. Gayle Olson-Raymer
The California Gold Rush and the Contoversy over the State Constitution
Goals for Today's Discussion:
- To examine the "bottom line" facts about and the major consequences of the California Gold Rush.
- To understand the different types of mining that took place in the Sierra
- To unravel the political intensions of Californians as they planned their new state government and created their first constitution.
- To examine the five major debates that occurred during California's Constitutional Convention.
- To examine a different perspective of the Americanization of California and the consequences of the California Gold Rush through the eyes of Rodolfo Acuna.
Goal #1: To examine the "bottom line" facts about and the major consequences of the California Gold Rush
Gold Rush Facts:
- Gold was discovered on January 24, 1848 by James Marshall at Sutter's Mill in Coloma.
Gold initially was valued from $12.00 to $35.00 an ounce.
(In 2012, an ounce is worth approximately $1,500)
- At one point, eggs (if any) were $3.00 each; whiskey was $16.00 a bottle, pills were $10.00 each without advice, $100 with advice.
- The world's second largest gold nugget, and California's largest, was found at Carson Hill in Calaveras County in 1854. It weighed in at 160 pounds.
- The lure of sudden wealth brought about rapid, uncontrolled population growth of California.
- In early 1848, California's non-Indian population was less than 20,000.
- In 1850, the federal census accounted for 93,000 - but that does not include the census returns from San Francisco, Contra Costa, and Santa Clara counties because they were lost.
- In 1852, the state took its own census and counted 223,856.
- In 1860, the federal census accounted for 380,000.
- In 1870, the federal census accounted for more than 560,000 Californians.
- All the gold produced in the century between 1840-1940 was worth less than the value of 1 year's agricultural output of the state in the 1960s.
- In 1848, about 6000 miners obtained $10 million worth of gold.
- In 1849, about 40,000 miners obtained between $20 and $30 million worth of gold.
- In 1852 - the peak year of gold mining - about 100,000 miners obtained close to $80 million worth of gold.
- The state's gold production increased year by year until 1865 when it was less than $18 million.
Major Consequences of the Gold Rush
- Many of the men already in California - sailors, soldiers, landless tenants - abandoned their jobs/trades to get rich quick.
- Americans as well as people from around the world came to California to get rich quick and then return home to live on their wealth.
- Some east coast businessmen who were already wealthy gained further wealth, especially by transporting people to California by sea.
- Chinese workers immigrated to the gold fields and attempted to assimilate into the economic life of California.
- Very few individuals really prospered from placer mining. Most of the large profits fell into the hands of corporations who could afford hydraulic and quartz mining. In 1855, Hinton Rowland Helper published The Land of Gold: Reality versus Fiction. In it he stated that after three months of digging in the mines, he had realized a profit of 93 and three-quarter cents. His conclusion, "California can and does furnish the best bad things that are obtainable anywhere in America."
- Hydraulic and quartz mining dramatically damaged California's landscape - damage that can still be seen in some parts of the Sierras today. Bayard Taylor's publication in 1852 of New Pictures from California described a hydraulic operation where a sixteen-foot nozzle directed water at a hillside at 120 pounds of pressure per square inch: "Like a giant bleeding to death from a single vein - the mountain washed itself away." In a later book published in 1854, he wrote the hydraulic mining had washed "enough material into the Yuba River to fill the Erie Canal." As can be seen in the photograph to the left taken on the American River in 1852, placer mining attracted huge populations of miners.
- Mexicans were dispossessed of their land and their political power - not just by racial policies and procedures directed against them, but also at the hands of Mexican rancheros who assumed that siding with the white settlers would guarantee them positions of power and prestige in the new state of California.
- Small-time politicians, or those seeking greater political power, came to California looking for new political opportunities. Many Southerners who feared the federal government planned to legally bring an end to slavery, saw bringing California into the union as a slave state as the key to their economic survival.
- California might have been better off if gold had never been discovered; given its other natural advantages, it might have become just a populous and prosperous - but such prosperity would have been more gradual, orderly, and civilized. This is a recent, revisionist interpretation of the consequences of the Gold Rush.
- Throughout most of the 20th Century, historians described the California gold rush as the most significant and progressive factor in California's history.
- However, some historians have more recently argued that California might have been better off if gold had never been discovered and that given its other natural advantages, it would have become just a populous and prosperous - but such prosperity would have been more gradual, orderly, and civilized.
- These very same historians argue that the gold rush left California environmentally ravished - habitats were destroyed; entire species depleted; hillsides, streams, rivers, and watersheds destroyed. Was this progress asks many historians?
Goal #2: To understand the different types of mining that took place in the Sierras
Placer, Hydraulic and Quartz Mining (quotes from Leonard Richards, The California Gold Rush and the Coming of the Civil War. NY: Vintage Press, 2007)
Placer mining. Individuals and small companies washed "loose" gold from the riverbanks, streams, gulches, and sandbars. Richards' description is excellent:
"The technology was simple. Placer miners relied mainly on moving water and the heaviness of gold, which caused it to settle to the bottom of whatever recovery device they used. Three devices were common. the simplest and best known was the pan. More complicated was a rocker, a wooden box with riffles on the bottom that was rocked back and forth. More sophicated yet was a sluice, a long wooden box with cleats on the bottom that was placed in a running stream. Panning was hard work. The miner first shoveled pay direct into the pan, preferably one that had a flat bottom and tapered sides, about three inches deep and eighteen inches in diameter. Then he submerged the pan into water, rocked it back and forth to get a whirlpool effect, and allowed the lighter dirt, sand, and gravel to wash over the lip until only the heavier gold was left. The process took some time to master, and fifty pans were considered a good day's work." (pp. 83-84)
Over 500 placer camps existed in the Sierras during the Gold Rush.
By 1851, placer mining was gradually coming to an end. As more and more people flocked to the Sierra, there were too many people for profitable placer mining. Eventually, it became clear that individual, placer mining was no longer profitable; to profitably mine gold, Californians were going to have to invite corporations into the state - their hydraulic mining machinery was necessary to keep mining in business.
Hydraulic mining. Large corporations used sophisticated equipment to mine veins of gold embedded in hard rock and gravel ridges. Again, Richards provides a good description:
"Open pit mining...necessitated steam shovels. More expensive yet was hard-rock mining...it necessitated digging shafts, drilling holes for blasting, blasting with black power, mucking the loosened rock into ore cares that were transported by mules to the main shaft, then loading it into ore skips that were hoisted out of the mine, then crushing it at the stamp mill into sand-sized particles, and then chemically processing the particles." (p. 85)
By 1851, some miners who recognized that the placer gold was decreasing, began to get together with their neighbors and form partnerships and joint-stock associations - and so corporate, hydraulic mining with expensive equipment and hundreds of company men took over the gold mining efforts in the Sierras.
By 1860, hydraulic mining "was strictly big business, with a handful of owners and hundreds of wage laborers." (Richards: 87) Everyone knew it was destroying the land, but it was not until 1880 that the practice was banned. By then, it had yielded over $100 million in gold, or one-third of the total gold produced.
Dredging. As gold around the streams and rivers decreased, millions of tons of earth had to be dug up and sifted to recover a few ounces of gold. The dredging machinery became bigger and more imaginative.
Early dredges had a single scoop while later ones had a whole chain of buckets.
Working deep beneath the surface, the dreging machines gouged tons of gravel, rocks and mud from the riverbed to recover a small amount of gold.
The gold was separated on the barge, and the waste - called "tailings" - was thrown out on the bank. Soon there were mountains of tailings as tall as a seven-story building. These huge, barren mountains of waste rock are visible today as you drive through parts of the Sacramento Valley.
Quartz or hard rock mining. Even though the gold found around stream beds was soon exhausted, there was still plenty of gold left in California. But much of it was encased in quartz veins deep within the mountains. Hard-rock miners took over, using their pickaxes to dig shafts up to 40 feet deep.
Thousands of miles of tunnels were dug and blasted through the mountains, shored up with timber cut from the local forests. They loaded the quartz ore into buckets and ore cars, then pulverized it in stamp mills. Mercury (it was called quicksilver then) was used to separate the gold from the fine powder.
Such work required large corporations that could afford the machinery and dynamite. Many used the Cornish pump - brought by Cornish miners and engineers from Cornwell, England - to remove water from the long shafts dug into quarz veins of gold. The main shaft in the Empire Mining Company that was incorporated in 1850, went down 102 feet. In the photo to the right, you can witness the depth of these mines and how miners ascended into them.
This was dangerous work. Explosions, cave-ins, flooding and poisonous fumes from the mercury killed and injured many miners.
If done properly, hard-rock mining is less destructive than other forms of mining. But the early hard-rock miners were careless, and their refining techniques were crude. Tons of toxic mercury were washed down from the mountains, where it killed fish and wildlife. Large quantities of mercury still remain in the bottom of rivers and in San Francisco Bay, where they have entered the food chain.
By 1851 , seven or eight quartz mine corporations existed in Grass Valley alone. The Empire Mining Company operated until 1956 and produced an estimated 5.8 million ounces of gold from 367 miles of underground tunnels.
Goal #3: To unravel the political intensions of Californians as they planned their new state government and created their first constitution
Between the end of the Mexican American War and California’s admission as the 31st state, political authority in California was a hybrid arrangement that struck a precarious balance between American military government and local governmental procedures from the Mexican Era.
- A series of military governors ruled, but not for very long. Five served during the first ten months of American occupation.
- Local government was controlled by the Mexican rule of an alcalde whose office combined executive, legislative, and judicial authority. Most alcades were Californios.
- Although such governments were not in keeping with American political traditions, the U.S. Congress was tied up with many national issues that delayed California’s admission to the Union. What were some of these issues in the late 1840s and early 1850s?
- Nonetheless, in June 1849, the current military governor, Bennett Riley, exceeded his authority and ordered the election of delegates to a constitutional convention to meet in Monterey in September.
- The 48 delegates were an interesting lot.
Class Assignment: Working in groups of 4-5, take 15 minutes to examine the Members of the California Constitutional Convention, 1849 and to address the questions posed at the bottom of the page. What these men argued about and what they accomplished during the six weeks they met in Monterey formed the basis of what was to become the 31st state.
The delegates in Monterey confronted 5 major debates while creating California's first constitution.
- 1st debate: Should they create a terroritial or state goverment?
- The debate - most northern Californians, under the leadership of Gwin (who hoped to become a senator of the new state) favored statehood. Those against statehood were southern delegates who knew the seat of power had been in the north and feared they would face heavy taxes and little say with a state government. They preferred a federal, territorial government. One delegate supported splitting the state in two - an idea that failed but is still alive today.
- The resolution - Statehood easily passed.
- 2nd debate: Should the state be free or slave and should "free negroes" be allowed into the state?
- Chronological understanding of the background for the debate in California.
- In 1829, slavery was abolished in Mexico and all of its territories - California included.
- In 1846, the U.S. Congress debated the Wilmot Proviso which proposed that any new territories - California included - gained as a consequence of winning the war with Mexico and acquiring Mexican territory must prohibit slavery. It passed the House but failed in the Senate. The argument used to defeat it in the Senate was known as the common property doctrine which was based on four premises:
- The federal government was a creation of the states.
- Land acquired by the U.S. belonged to the states, and the federal government had no authority over such state acquisitions.
- As an agent of the state, the federal government could not discriminate against citizens of any state.
- Thus, citizens from slaveholding states could freely enter states or territories with their slaves.
- In 1847, the Wilmot Proviso was reintroduced in February, again passing in the House but failing in the Senate.
- In 1848, the attempt to make the Wilmot Proviso part of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo failed.
- In March, Sam Brannon used his newspaper, The Californian, to propose that California be all-white - no slaves, no free blacks.
- In 1849, Brannan repeated his desire for an all-white state at a public meeting in Sacramento where he was supported by the presiding officer, Peter H. Burnett, an immigrant from Missouri. The resolution passed with a unanimous vote.
- In April, miners on the Yuba River drafted a legal code that limited the size of a mining claim to what one man could work by himself - thereby, through implication, outlawing slavery in gold country.
- In June, T. Butler King arrived in California with a secret mission from President Taylor. King, a slaveholding Democratic congressman from Georgia, was to encourage Californians to form a state so that Congress would not have to make the decision about whether it would be free or slave. The decision would be up to Californians - and they should declare it a slave state. Shortly thereafter, Thomas Jefferson Green arrived with a group of Texans and 15 slaves. They staked claims on the Yuba River for themselves and each of their slaves.
- On July 29, the Yuba River miners voted "that no slave or negro should own claims or even work in the mines." A committee informed Green and his party that they had until the next morning to leave. The slaves fled that night followed by the Green party on the next day.
- National Understanding of the Slave Power debate - Was there actually a Slave Power and if so, how would it work to make California a slave state?
- On the national scene, many abolisionists and Free Soilers believed that there was a conspiracy of southerners who wanted to forever protect slavery and that they had a disproportionate amount of power in national politics.
So the question has arisen among historians - was there really a slave power? Over the past couple of decades, the following facts have been used to indicate that a slave power did indeed exist.
- The planter aristocracy - an extremely small percentage of southern society - controlled the social, political, and economic power of the South.
- In 1860, the white population of the South was just above 8 million.
- Only 383,637 slaveholders lived in the south. Of these, only a small proportion owned 40 or more slaves and 800 or more acres.
- From the election of George Washington to the election of Lincoln in 1860, Southerners controlled the national government most of the time.
- 49 of 72 years were controlled by Southern slave-owning anti-federalist Democrats.
- The only presidents to be reelected were slave-owning Democrats.
- 2/3 of the Speakers of the House, Chairmen of the House Ways and Means Committee, and Presidents Pro Tem of the Senate were Southerners.
- For the entire 72 years, the majority of Supreme Court justices were Southerners and most were slave owners.
- The South held disproportionate political power under the Constitution.
- The South had a disproportionate amount of power in the Senate. Although the North had a greater number of total population by 1850 (60%) and 70% of all the nation's voters, they only sent 50% of the Senators to Congress as there was an equal number of free and slave states. Thus, they could deny the veto power to any northern Senators on slavery issues.
- The South had disproportionate strength in the House. The 3/5 compromise gave slave states an average of 20 more congressmen after each census than they would have had on the basis of a free populace.
- The slave states had about 30 more electoral votes than their share of the voting population would have otherwise allowed.
- From 1800 to 1860, the Democrats were the dominant political party. Ironically, while they were the party of states rights, they used their power in Congress and the Presidency to pass federal laws designed to strengthen slavery as a national institution.
- In 1835, Congress placed a ban on debating slavery issues in the House - a ban that was not lifted until 1845.
- In the 1830s, the Post office banned sending any anti-slavery materials to the Southern states.
- In 1850, the strongest manifestation of federal power occurred with passage of the Fugitive Slave Act.
- The debate - Under leadership of delegate William Shannon who had worked with the Yuba Miners, a section was proposed: "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, unless for the punishment of crimes, shall ever be tolerated in the State." It was seconded by Gwin, a pro-slavery advocate who recognized the miners would never allow slavery. Because he badly wanted the Senate seat, he supported the anti-slavery clause.
Delegate Morton McCarver a Democrat from Kentucky, added an amendment to Shannon’s motion, "Nor shall the introduction of free negroes under indentures or otherwise, be allowed." He withdrew his amendment after it was noted that the issue of slavery must first be decided.
Nonetheless, debate continued for two days. Arguments for the amendment - free blacks were bad members of society; black competition would degrade white labor; laborers would learn for their masters many times their worth. Arguments against were the morality of the amendment and fear that it might jeopardize California becoming a state. (p. 76).
- The resolution – California would be a free state and the McCarver amendment was soundly defeated. (8 to 31)
- 3rd Debate: Should married women have property rights?
- The debate - should this provision be added to the Constitution: "All property, both real and personal, of the wife, owned or claimed by her before marriage, and that acquired afterwards by gift, devise, or descent, shall be her separate property, and laws shall be passed more clearly defining the rights of the wife, in relation as well to her separate property as that held in common with her husband."
- The resolution - It passed. There was very little argument because there was a desperate need to bring women into the new state. Delegates believed the law would attract single, marriageable as well as married women to the state. They also passed a community property law whereby the wife jointly owned everything she and her husband acquired during their marriage.
- 4th Debate: What should be the boundaries of the new state?
- The debate - On one side, delegates argued that a 450,000 square mile area was too vast for one state and instead recommended an eastern boundary that is almost the same as that with today's Nevada.
Gwin, however, argued that any constitution should cover the California mapped by Charles Preuss who worked with Fremont. They argued that a big state would solve the issue of slavery once and for all and that in the long run, the Pacific coast would have much more power in the Union. However, some delegates distrusted Gwin, arguing that Congress would reject a big state, send back the constitution and require another convention - a convention that would reopen the issue of slavery and make California a slave state.
- The resolution - Shannon offered another scenario: that the eastern border of California be the Sierra Nevada which was a "great natural boundary." This was the final decision.
- 5th Debate: To what extent should the constitution protect California against mining corporations? All corporations?
- The debate - California should champion the rights of labor (it had already done so with prohibiting slavery.) So the next question became did laborers want to compete with wage labor - men who worked for corporations? Both mining codes and mining "laws" reflected the respect for hard manual labor in California. The goal throughout gold country was to prevent absentee ownership and a monopoly of mining claims."
Thus, none of the delegates argued on behalf of corporations but, instead, asked how the constitution could protect California against the corporations. The only serious debate was about banks and paper money with some delegates not wanting a bank, and other wanting what they called "associations for the deposit of gold and silver."
- The resolution - California laborers, especially those in the mines, did not want to compete with corporate labor. The constitution made it difficult for corporations to attract investors by taking the radical stand of prohibiting limited liability - whereby stockholders were only liable for their actual share in the corporation. Instead, California law stated that a stockholder was liable for his proportionate share of a corporation's entire indebtedness.
The new constitution was submitted to the voters in December, 1849 and passed by a vote of 12,064 to 811 - although the voting turnout was quite poor.
- Congress took eleven months before approving the Monterey constitution and California’s petition for statehood.
- In the meantime, California had no authority from Washington - it could not send representatives to Congress, and its officeholders operated with dubious legality.
- Nonetheless, California legislators were elected, met, and immediately elected two U.S. Senators - John C. Fremont and William Gwin, both of whom we will discuss in detail next time we meet.
Goal #4: To examine a different perspective of the Americanization of California and the consequences of the California Gold Rush through the eyes of Rodolfo Acuna
Conclusions - The California Gold Rush and the Controversy over the State Constitution
- Immigrants did not come to California as pioneers hoping to build a new land; they came with the hope of getting rich quick. Most of the "49ers" stayed not because they had become rich, but because they had failed to accumulate enough money to get them back home.
- Few individuals made it rich in the gold mines; instead, most profit in gold country came from corporate stockholders and employees and the owners whose laundries, hotels, restaurants, bars, clothing and hardward stores, and brothels provided services for the miners.
- The corporate mines had an impact both on California, and on the world as a whole. As Richards explains:
- the world's gold supply increased six or seven times;
- the gold was extracted between 1848 and 1858 - mainly in California and Australia - more gold than the world had produced in the previous 150 years;
- California gold made its way into the world market because Californians imported nearly everything they needed and paid inflated prices for such products; and
- gold replaced silver as the standard metal for world currencies. (pp. 89-90)
- The Gold Rush had many short- and long-term consequences for California:
- The population of California soared as people from around the world came to get rich quick.
- Some east coast businessmen who were already wealthy gained further wealth, especially by transporting people to California by sea.
- Chinese workers immigrated to the gold fields and attempted to assimilate into the economic life of California.
- Hydraulic and quartz mining dramatically damaged California's landscape - damage that can still be seen in some parts of the Sierras today.
- Very few individuals really prospered from placer mining.
- Hydraulic and quartz mining dramatically damaged California’s landscape – damage that can still be seen in some parts of the Sierras today.
- Mexicans were dispossessed of their land and their political power .
- California might have been better off if gold had never been discovered; given its other natural advantages, it might have become just a populous and prosperous – but such prosperity would have been more gradual, orderly, and civilized.
- Delegates to California's first constitutional convention debated many topics, most important of which were whether California should be a state or territory (state); California should be free or slave (free), married women should have property rights (yes); its borders should be large or limited to the Sierras (limited); and if corporate stockholders should have limited liability (no).
- Historians James J. Rawls and Walton Bean conclude that "The gold rush was the product of a kind of mass hysteria, and it set a tone for California and created a state of mind in which greed predominated and disorder and violence were all too frequent." (California: An Interpretive History, Ninth Edition, p. 115)
For more Gold Rush resources, see:
- For a wonderful, first-hand account of what it was like in California during the Gold Rush from a woman's perspective, see The Shirley Letters from
In 1851-52. All 23 letters the Louisa Amelia Knapp Smith Clapp - known by her pen name "Dame Shirley" wrote to her sister Molly are available in their entirety online at http://www.gutenberg.org/files/23280/23280-h/23280-h.htm#133
- Timeline of History, Price, and Economics of U.S. Gold provides a great chronological understanding of the way gold has influenced the U.S. economy at http://www.tchistory.org/TCHISTORY/Gold_Timeline.htm