As of December 31, 2014, I retired from full-time teaching in Humboldt State University's Department of History. While this website will remain online, it is no longer maintained.

History 383 - Dr. Gayle Olson-Raymer

The California Gold Rush and the Contoversy over the State Constitution

Image from the Gold Rush

Introduction: Today we begin the second unit in our course during which we will learn about the political, social, and economic evolution of California during its first fifty years of statehood. Our story begins right after the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and the almost simultaneous finding of gold in the Sierra Nevadas. It is gold that will make California one of the most prosperous, populous, and multi-cultural states in the nation.

Discussion Goals:
  1. To examine the "bottom line" facts about and the major consequences of the California Gold Rush.
  2. To understand the different types of mining that took place in the Sierra.
  3. To learn more about the ways miners tried to police themselves in the violent atmosphere of the mining camps.
  4. To discuss the major consequences of the Gold Rush.
  5. To unravel the political intensions of Californians as they planned their new state government and created their first constitution.
  6. To examine the five major debates that occurred during California's Constitutional Convention.
  7. To gain a preliminary understanding of the early laws in California through the eyes of Elaine Elinson and Stan Yogi.
  8. To understand Rodolpho Acuna's explanation of how Mexicans were dispossessed of their land and their political rights under the early laws of the Gold Rush era

Goal #1: To examine the "bottom line" facts about and the major consequences of the California Gold Rush

Cold Call: Fifth cold call on required viewing - watch "The Start of the California Gold Rush" at

Gold Rush Facts: Map of California Gold Regions

  1. 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 2015, an ounce is worth approximately $1,250). 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.
  2. The lure of sudden wealth brought about rapid, uncontrolled population growth and rapid, uncontrolled prices for necessary goods and services.
  3. More fortunes were made by merchants than by miners. Some men quickly realized there was more money to be made by catering to newly arrived miners rather than mining.
  4. The Gold Rush ushered in the largest mass migration in U.S. history. In March 1848, there were about 157,000 people in the California territory; fewer than 800 were non-native Americans, 150,000 were California Indians, and 6,500 were Californios of Spanish/Mexican descent. Just 20 months later, following the massive influx of settlers, the non-native population had soared to more than 100,000.
  5. Immigrants from around the world rushed to California. By 1850 more than 25 percent of California's population had been born outside the United States. As news of the discovery was slow to reach the east coast, many of the first immigrants to arrive were from South America and Asia. By 1852, more than 25,000 immigrants from China alone had arrived in America.
  6. Men flocked to gold country. By 1852, 92 percent of the people prospecting for gold were men.
  7. 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.

Goal #2: To understand the different types of mining that took place in the Sierras

Placer, Hydraulic, Dredging, and Quartz Mining (The following is adapted from Leonard Richards, The California Gold Rush and the Coming of the Civil War. NY: Vintage Press, 2007)

Sketch of Placer MiningPlacer mining. Individuals and small companies washed "loose" gold from the riverbanks, streams, gulches, and sandbars. It is this type of "get rich quick" mining that attracts people from all over the world - but especially Americans born and bred on individualism. No need for corporations in California, they thought. Here, a man who works hard could become rich. 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. However, 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 ... Photo of hydraulic miningnecessitated steam shovels. More expensive yet was hard-rock 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 Photo of dredge mining, Butte County in 1901dreging 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. 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. Photo of Miners going into the Empire Mine in Grass valley in 1900Many 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. (To see an excellent video on the history of the Empire Mine - the quartz mining hard rock operation in Ophir Valley, go to and click on "Grass Valley - Empire Mines" under "Videos" in the left hand margin.)

Goal #3: To learn more about the ways miners tried to police themselves in the violent atmosphere of the mining camps

One of the best ways toImage of the Miner's 10 Commandments get an understanding of life in the California gold mines is through the Miners Pioneer Ten Commandments. In 1849, James M. Hutchings came to California's gold fields from England. Although he was not successful at prospecting, his Miners Pioneer Ten Commandments was quite successful. First printed in 1849 in The Placerville Herald, it was later reprinted as a letter sheet and sold nearly 100,000 copies. Miners and prospectors used it as stationary. His success with the commandments encouraged his to begin the successful Hutchings' California Magazine, which included fiction, poetry, etchings and descriptions of California life in the mid-nineteenth century.

Goal 4: To discuss the major consequences of the Gold Rush

  1. Many of the men already in California - sailors, soldiers, landless tenants - abandoned their jobs/trades to get rich quick.
  2. Some east coast businessmen who were already wealthy gained further wealth, especially by transporting people to California by sea.
  3. California became one of the most multi-cultural states in the US as immigrants from around the world rushed to find gold. By 1850 more than 25 percent of California's population had been born outside the United States. . By 1852, more than 25,000 immigrants from China alone had arrived in America.
  4. Very few individuals really prospered from placer mining.
  5. Hydraulic and quartz mining dramatically Photograph of mining damagedamaged 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.
  6. 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.
  7. The mining camps quickly became violent places populated by men who jeolously guarded their mining claims.
  8. The Gold Rush set the stage for one of the majort characteristics of the new American state - Interaction, assimilation, and conflict among racial and socioeconomic groups shaped California's history. (Class theme)
  9. 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.

And as we shall see next time we meet, during the Gold Rush, another type of Anglo-American migrated to California. Small-time politicians who were 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. It will be these men who will shape California's political future.

End of 9/15 discussion

Goal #5: 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.Image of Califiornia's first Constitution

The Delegates: In 1849, in preparation for statehood, a Convention was held at Monterey to write California's Constitution. The Military Governor, General Riley, called an election for August 1st to elect 37 delegates to attend the convention. During the first meeting of the Convention, it was decided to increase the number of delegates in order to make the body more proportional for the recent flood of miners who had been arriving in Gold Country. The 48 delegates were an interesting lot.

Group Work: Working in groups of 4-5, please do the following:

The Debates: When the delegates met, five major debates dominated the convention.

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.

Goal #5: To understand Rodolpho Acuna's explanation of how Mexicans were dispossessed of their land and their political rights under the early laws of the Gold Rush era

Cold Call: sixth cold call on required reading - Goal 5 below in today's discussion guide and the July 2015 article in The Atlantic, "How one law banning ethnic studies led to it's rise" at

A great deal of discussion has ensued over the past several decades about what the great author Adolpho Acuna has called "Occupied America." Writing in 1988, his book Occupied America: A History of Chicanos,discussed at length what happened to the Mexican population that lived in California after it became part of the United States. In Chapter 5, Acuna notes that "As Mexicans were alienated from their land, equality under the law became a sham."

Read this excerpt from Chapter 5 in Acuna's book and be prepared for a Cold Call discussion when we meet in class:

"The gold rush encouraged the accumulation of large amounts of capital. California gold helped develop other sections of the Southwest and the growth of industry. Entrepreneurs who could afford capital-intensive mining operations monopolized local goverment. State-sanctioned viiolence kept Mexicans in their place. Moreover, they had limited access to the courts - they could not sit on juries and testify in court; many lacked the necessary capital to sue. Measures such as the Land Act of 1851 and the foreign miner's tax encouraged mass violence against Mexicans ... social control was maintained through an acceptance of the inferiority of the Mexican. When squatters, vigilantes, and posses indiscriminately lynched and terrorized Mexicans, the stae did little to control those outrages. Within two decades Mexicans lost the majority of their ranches, and the little political representation they had had in the south vanished. They remained segregated in the old plaza areas ... By the 1800s ... the Mexican became a minority throughout the state and even in Los Angeles ...

Eight of the 48 delegates to the convention were Californios who had the opportunity, if they had voted as a bloc, to champion the rights of the masses. However, like elites in other colonial situations, they attempted to ally themselves with colonizers to promote their own class interest. At this point their relations with the colonizers was cordial. The possibility of prestigious positions within the new order and they belief that they were different from the cholo masses (pejorative term for low-caste Mexicans) separated them from their base. Instead of voting as a bloc, Californios voted for what appeared to be their own immediate self-interests ... Californios could have voted as a bloc to split the territory into north and south, a move that would have given Mexicans control of the southern half. Again, they voted for their self interest; many of the delegates belonged to the propertied class and believed that taxes would be placed on northern commerce rather than land. Generally, the state constitution was favorable to Anglo-Americans; Mexicans won only token victories - suffrnge was not limited to white males (the Mexicans were half-breeds), laws would be printed in Spanish and English, and so on ...

Anglo miners ... believed that if foriegners were allowed to mine, they would take all the gold out of the United States of America and strengthen some other nation at the expense of Anglo-America. They pressed politicians to exclude 'foreigners' and persecuted them ... Considerable sentiment for exclusion existed in the California legislature. G.B. Tingley of Sacramento warned of a foreign invasion and described Mexicans and Latins in the following terms:

'Devoid of intelligence, sufficient to appreciate the true principles of free government; vicious, indolent, and dishonest, to an extent rendering them obnoxious to our citizens; with habits of life low and degraded; an intellect but one degree above the beast in the field, and not susceptible of elevation; all these things combined render such classes of human beings a curse to any elightened community.'

Many legislators would have voted for total exclusion. However, Thomas Jefferson Green, a Texan, hater of Mexicans, expansionist, and white supremacist, proposed a compromise bill. Green, responsible for seeking new sources of revenue for the state governments, sponsored the idea of taxing foreigners $20 per month. Legislators knew that if they placed a direct tax on all Califiornians for the right to mine, there would be trouble. Foreigners, however, could not vote ... On April 13, 1850, the California state legislature passed its first foreign miner's tax. The measure affirmed the right of the Anglos to exclude Mexicans from the public domain and thus deny them access to capital necessary to upward mobility ...

Mexicans had been frozen out of northern California, and ony in the southern half of the state did the former Mexican elite have any influence. The economy of southern California depended on cattle. The rancheros experienced a brief boom in the early 1850s when they were able to drive 55,000 head of cattle to San Francisco annually at $50 to $60 a head, but by 1855 the price of cattle fell and economic conditions of the southern Mexican ranchers bagan to crumble. In 1850, the state legislature had initiated a tax on land. Although the majority of the state's population and capital were in northern California, the tax burden fell on the southern portion of the state. In 1852, six southern California cattle counties had a population of 6,000 (mostly Mexican) and paid $42,000 in property taxes and $4,000 in poll taxes, whereas northern California, with 120,000 persons, paid only $21,000 in property taxes and $3,500 in poll taxes ... Between 1850 and 1856, the tax rate doubled while miners were exempted; landowners felt the brunt of the load. Rancheros were unable to cope with the fluctuation in the economy and pay taxes ...

Natural disasters of the 1860s accelerated the decline of Mexicanos. In 1862 a flood devastated California ranches. Then two years of drought, followed by falling cattle prices, made it necessary for ranch owners to mortgage their property at outlandish interest rates, resulting in foreclosures ... Prior to 1860, Californios owned all the land valued at over 10,000; by the 1870s they owned only one-fourth of this land and most Mexican ranchers had been reduced to farming rented property. Within a decade Mexicans were relatively landless in California.

As Mexicans lost their land, they also lost their political power. Only in southern California where Mexicans had an absolute majoirty did they retain some local representation, but een there Anglos dominated political offices. The gigantic increase of Anglos statewide crowded Mexicans out of public office. Mexicans were not experienced in competing in the game of Anglo politics, which was especially crooked in California ... By 1851, all native Mexicans had been excluded from the state Senate; by the 1860s, only a few Mexcians remained in the Assembly; and by the 1880s people with Spanish surnames could no longer be found in public office." (pp. 110-118)

Before we leave this topic of what Mexicans lost during the early years of California's history as a state, let's play this subject forward to the year 2010 - when Arizona passed a law prohibiting the teaching of Mexican American studies. At the same time, the state banned Acuna's book, Occupied America. Please read the July 2015 article in The Atlantic, "How one law banning ethnic studies led to it's rise" at which explains the basis of the law, the challenge to the law, and the consequences of the law in California. Be prepared for a cold call discussion on what you read.

After our discussion, let's listen to what Rodolpho Acuna has to say about both the banning of his book and the Arizona law -

Conclusions - The California Gold Rush and the Controversy over the State Constitution

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. The corporate mines had an impact both on California, and on the world as a whole. As Richards explains:
  4. The Gold Rush had many short- and long-term consequences for California:
  5. 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).
  6. California's first constitutional convention largely consisted of men who were not native to California and instead, had immigrated to California with many political ambitions - some of which complicated the constitutional debate.
  7. Mexicans who resided in California after it became a state did not fare well in "Occupied America." California laws were crafted to encourage the loss of their land, to deny them of their economic and political rights, and to stimulate violence against Mexicans - as well as other "foreigners" in California.
  8. 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: