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Gold Rush and the Peopling of California

The discovery of gold in 1848 at Sutter’s Mill spurred a great wave of migration to California. Hundreds of thousands of people descended on the territory from across the continent and across the oceans.

Gold rush miners, 1852

Gold rush miners, 1852

Courtesy of California History Room, California State Library

Chinese were among the immigrants who joined Americans in the quest for gold. Competition for mining stakes led to tensions among the gold seekers, often resulting in discriminatory actions toward the Chinese.

Gold rush assayers’ ingot, 1850

Gold rush assayers’ ingot, 1850

Gold rush assayers’ ingot, 1850

Gold rush assayers’ ingot, 1850

View of San Francisco, around 1852

View of San Francisco, around 1852

A Connecticut Gold Miner

In 1849 William Sumner Johnson of Connecticut headed to San Francisco in search of gold. He wrote letters home to his wife about the circuitous route he took across the continent, by sea and on horseback.

 

Letter written by William Sumner Johnson to his wife, 1849

Letter written by William Sumner Johnson to his wife, 1849

Chinese in California

The gold rush enticed many Chinese to leave home to seek their fortune in California. On arrival, immigrants found that tales of gold lying in the streets were a fantasy. To survive, many adjusted their expectations and found jobs on the railroad and in Chinese businesses.

Chinese railroad workers, 1919

Chinese railroad workers, 1919

Courtesy of Amon Carter Museum of American Art Archives

Chinese shop sign, Shēn Róng Yù Guì, advertising medicinal goods, California, around 1890

Gift of Joan Pearson Watkins

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Los Angeles Chinatown with shop signs, 1922

Los Angeles Chinatown with shop signs, 1922

Courtesy of Library of Congress
 

Wok, made in China, used in California, 1800s

Chinese preparing food in a California mining camp, 1800s

Chinese preparing food in a California mining camp, 1800s

Chinese Exclusion

White laborers considered the Chinese competition and responded with hostility. Californians led the effort to prohibit further Chinese immigration, encouraging passage of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act.

This pitcher illustrates a Bret Harte poem that rebuked a white cardshark cheating a Chinese man. It was misunderstood as a condemnation of the Chinese.

 

Bret Harte’s poem “Plain Language from Truthful James,” with images by Joseph Hull, 1871

Bret Harte’s poem “Plain Language from Truthful James,” with images by Joseph Hull, 1871

Pitcher, with scene from poem “Plain Language from Truthful James,” around 1880

Gift of Jay and Emma Lewis

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