• How the California Gold Rush Drew People from All Over the World

    Mae M. Ngai ơn Its Earliest Days


    From This Year’s Cundill History Prize Shortlisted Title The Chinese Question: The Gold Rushes and Global Politics by Mae M. Ngai.


    California gold arrived in Hong Kong at Christmas, 1848.

    It came as a packet of gold dust sent by George Allan, the San Francisco agent of the Hudson’s Bay Company. The envelope contained a small sample taken from a payment that Allan had made for a shipment of goods, sent from the company in Hawaii to San Francisco—$6,720—payment that was made entirely in gold dust, about 420 ounces of it (two and a half cups in volume). Allan wrote to his counterpart in Honolulu, “No one here seems to doubt for a moment the purity of the Gold Dust,” but he asked that the sample be sent “forward with all dispatch” to British experts in China for evaluation.

    The same ship that brought gold dust to Hong Kong also carried recent issues of the Polynesian, a Honolulu newspaper. Hong Kong’s English-language weekly, Friend of China, often reprinted articles from the Polynesian for local consumption. In the January 6 edition, Hong Kong readers learned that six thousand people had taken gold valued at $4 million out of the earth in the six months since its discovery in California. The account predicted at least twenty thousand more arrivals in the coming year and the production of $62 million of gold in 1849, one-third of the world’s total product of gold and half of the world’s silver product in 1846. If the numbers (just predictions, really) weren’t exciting enough, the paper reported that digging for gold was not complicated. It involved simply collecting gravel in the bed of a stream and separating gold from the dirt by means of gravity and a little mercury. The arrival of the latest news and of gold itself sent a wave of excitement throughout the British colonial port. The following week the English brig Richard and William carried the first gold seekers from Hong Kong to California. They were not Chinese but Americans, including a former opium runner, a tavern owner, and a livery stable keeper.

    Chinese gold seekers were not far behind. Yuan Sheng, a businessman, left Hong Kong on May 6 on the English bark Swallow, along with two other passengers and a cargo of Chinese goods. Yuan Sheng was from the Zhongshan region of Guangdong province. He was born on Sanzao, one of the small islands off the coast, near Macao. Yuan had actually been to the United States before: he had traveled to New York in 1820, probably on one of the clipper ships of the early China trade, and from there he had gone to Charleston, South Carolina, where he became a merchant. While in the United States, Yuan Sheng became a Christian and a naturalized American citizen. It’s not known when he returned to China, but in 1849 he decided to go back to America, this time to California, most likely not to dig for gold but to find business opportunities in San Francisco, another kind of golden fortune. He already knew English and something of the ways of American life, notwithstanding the differences between New York, South Carolina, and California.

    Yuan Sheng went by the Anglicized name of Norman Assing. His selection of this name is intriguing. His surname is a homophone for the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368) that was founded by Kublai Khan, the son of Genghis Khan. He might have chosen Norman after the medieval Europeans, a contemporary analogue of the Yuan. The Normans and Mongols were formidable conquering forces of their time. Sheng, his given name, means “birth”; Assing is a rendering of “Ah-Sing,” the familiar form of address of his name in Cantonese. Yuan Sheng means “born of the Yuan”; Norman Assing suggests “born of the Normans.” His choice was a clever point of pride even if it remained opaque to his American acquaintances.

    An English-speaking merchant, Yuan Sheng was one of the few Chinese headed for California who were named in the ship’s passenger manifest. We are not certain of those who ventured before him. Only seven Chinese arrived in San Francisco in 1848. When Yuan Sheng arrived in July 1849, there were barely fifty Chinese in California. Euro-Americans writing about exciting polyglot scenes on the streets of San Francisco in 1849 invariably commented on the Chinese they encountered, both high-cultured men in flowing silk robes and miners carrying bamboo poles strung with tools, straw hats, and gigantic boots.

    It was only after President James K. Polk confirmed the reports in December and the U.S. mint at Philadelphia declared a sample “genuine” that gold fever seized Americans east of the Mississippi River.

    The first large group of Chinese to arrive in 1849 came under contract to an enterprising English merchant in Shanghai. That summer the Englishman contracted a Chinese firm, Tseang Sing (xiang sheng, or victory), which hired a ship and a number of Chinese mechanics and laborers, perhaps fifty or sixty men. Each man signed a printed bilingual contract, stating that he, “of [his] own free will, will put to sea . . . to proceed to Ka-la-fo-ne-a.” The Englishman pledged to find employment for the men upon arrival; Tseang Sing advanced each man $125 passage money, which was to be paid back from future wages.

    The group arrived in San Francisco in mid-October. They traveled east to Stockton and down the San Joaquin River, whose many tributaries descending from the Sierra Nevada were already buzzing with activity. The company chose a spot on Woods Creek, south of the Stanislaus River, some fifty miles from Stockton. They set up camp on a high, wooded grade above the creek, near a group of Mexicans from Sonora, who called their camp Salvado. Not knowing anything about gold digging, the English-Chinese company hired a Sonoran to teach and supervise the crew. Other Chinese arrived around the same time in groups large and small, especially in Calaveras and Tuolumne counties. Soon there were five hundred Chinese in California, with miners making up two-thirds of the total. The Chinese dubbed “Ka-la-fo-ne-a” Jinshan (Gam Saam in Cantonese), or Gold Mountain.

    We do not usually think of the California gold rush as a Pacific-oriented event. But in its beginnings, before it became “national” (that is, American) and “international” (that is, involving Europeans), it was very much a Pacific affair. John Sutter, at whose sawmill on the American River gold was discovered in January 1848, had arrived in Alta California in 1839 by way of Fort Vancouver, Honolulu, and Sitka, having attached himself to cargo clippers chartered by the Hudson’s Bay and Russian-American companies. He obtained a land grant of 48,000 acres from the Mexican government, in exchange for which he nationalized as a Mexican citizen. He built a fort and started a small colony of settlers, named Helvetia for his native Switzerland, using indigenous and native Hawaiian labor, both willing and coerced. Sutter hired John Marshall, a veteran of the recent U.S.-Mexico war, to build a water-powered sawmill on the American River. Though Marshall claimed he was alone when he pulled a gold nugget out of the millrace, other accounts credited a worker named Indian Jim.

    As news spread of gold at Sutter’s mill, people flocked to the rivers and streams of the Sierra Nevada. For nearly a year the gold rush was an exciting and energetic endeavor, albeit a local and regional one. The first gold diggers came from the existing population of about 165,000 people in Alta California, of which 150,000 were indigenous, with the balance more or less evenly divided between Californios, the descendants of the first Spanish settlers, and white Americans and Europeans. The U.S.-Mexico war had barely concluded at the time of the gold rush; the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed in February 1848, ceding California to the United States. Hundreds of American soldiers and sailors remained stationed in California under U.S. military command, but there was little to stop them from going AWOL for gold.

    By summer, Mexicans experienced in gold and silver mining were trekking along long-established routes from Sonora into Alta California. Then came gold seekers from Oregon, Hawaii, and Chile, arriving by trade routes along the Pacific coast that had been established in the 1830s. In the first year of the gold rush, half the people mining for gold in California were native American Indians, especially Maidu and Miwok in the north. Many Indians—perhaps half of those on the goldfields—worked in the placers on their own account, sometimes in family groups, and traded gold with whites for tools and blankets. But many others worked for Californios and white Euro-Americans, like Sutter, at low wages or for subsistence, replicating the system of Indian servitude of the Spanish-mission ranches.

    By mid-1848, news of gold trickled to the eastern United States, but it was only after President James K. Polk confirmed the reports in December and the U.S. mint at Philadelphia declared a sample “genuine” that gold fever seized Americans east of the Mississippi River. In the coming year ninety thousand people made their way to California. Chileans and Mexicans were numerous, and Europeans, Australians, and Chinese were beginning to come, but white Americans were by far the largest group. Half the Europeans and Americans traveled by the overland route and half by sea, either around Cape Horn or by Panama. The latter, although considerably shorter, involved a weeklong crossing of the isthmus by mule and canoe through the jungle to connect between Atlantic and Pacific coast sailing ships. By 1854 there were 300,000 gold seekers in the hills.


    Excerpted from The Chinese Question: The Gold Rushes and Global Politics by Mae M. Ngai, published by W. W. Norton & Company.

    Mae M. Ngai
    Mae M. Ngai
    Mae M. Ngai is Lung Family Professor of Asian American Studies, Professor of History, and Co-Director of the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race at Columbia University. A U.S. legal and political historian interested in the histories of immigration, citizenship, nationalism, and the Chinese diaspora, she is author of the award-winning Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (2004); The Lucky Ones: One Family and the Extraordinary Invention of Chinese America (2010); and The Chinese Question: The Gold Rushes and Global Politics (2021), winner of the 2022 Bancroft Prize and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Before becoming an historian she was a labour-union organizer and educator in New York City.

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