"Becoming California, a series that brings the California Gold Rush alive with the people who lived it."
Gold Seekers Changed the Lives of Natives Forever

by Don Baumgart

"The mania for gold swept through the United States and triggered a stampede for California," reads the introduction to The Fools of '49 by Laurence Seidman.

"Lured by the dream of wealth, of something for nothing, the gold-seekers rushed west. They traveled 15,000 miles by ship around Cape Horn. They crossed the fever-ridden jungles and swamps of Panama. In huge numbers they made the 2,000 mile overland journey by covered wagon across the plains and mountains and deserts from Missouri to the Pacific Coast.

"At their journey's end most of the Forty-Niners found, not fame and fortune, but loneliness, hardship, and back-breaking work. Many of them also found sickness, poverty and death. Other people too paid a heavy price for this folly -- Mexican-American and Chinese people were beaten and bullied, or driven from the mines, or killed; the California Indian population was decimated."

Native Americans (we used to call them Indians) living in California when gold was discovered were at ground zero of a massive population explosion.

The Forty-Niners brought the gifts of alcohol, disease and greed to the inhabitants they found in California. Living in the interior, where Spanish explorers had scarcely touched, the natives found themselves invaded by prospectors who covered every canyon and crevice in their search for gold.

In a year the natives were outnumbered by men who slaughtered game and fouled the clear streams with mining debris. Trees were cut for the raw materials of sluices and cabins. Salmon that flourished in the Sacramento River had been caught by the natives and dried for winter food. Now the fish were gone... replaced by silt and sludge from the mines.

One early prospector described it like this. "...the poor aborigines were abandoned to the mercy of a number of semi-barbarous white men, and died and were killed off with frightful rapidity."

Those who survived caught gold fever.

"Instead of being content, as formerly, with only a breech-clout, they seek fine clothes and pay enormous prices for them," the New York Herald reported in the final days of 1848.

"...thousands of savages, who up to that time had lived on roots and acorns," wrote one observer, "were arrayed in gorgeous apparel costing $500, conspicuous in which was gaudy calico, red handkerchiefs, hat, shirt, pantaloons and blanket or serape. For food in place of acorns and mashed grasshoppers, they purchased almonds and raisins at $16 a pound..."

It was common practice for gold field merchants to keep two sets of weights for their scales, the native ounce weight checking in at two ounces.

Working as laborers when allowed to do so, cheated by storekeepers who charged them twice as much of their gold dust pay as a white man was charged, the natives who had acquired a taste for the frivolities of civilization were being edged out of the mines.

At the beginning of the Gold Rush, natives were allowed to mine or work as laborers for other miners. Soon the influx of gold-hungry men drove the natives off the land. Shot for minor, or imagined, slights by white men who were not punished, the natives began to fight back. Open warfare broke out and the first governor of the state of California, Peter Burnett, told the state legislature in 1851 that "...a war of extermination will continue to be waged between the races until the Indian race becomes extinct."

Villages were burned and natives killed. With a half-million dollars appropriated by the legislature, militias were formed and many struggling miners found better pay warring against the natives than scratching for the vanishing yellow. California was reimbursed more than $2 million by the federal government to cover costs of salaries, supplies, horses and ammunition used against the natives.

It ended as it always did. In 1851 Indian commissioners from Washington met with the mountain-dwelling Maidu, who were forced to sign treaties giving up their land and agreeing to be relocated to reservations. Treaties with 123 other tribes soon were signed and the red man was moved out of the way of the white man. When it was later found that the reservations were on prime agricultural land, new treaties moved the natives to less desirable land.

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Copyright Don Baumgart, 2006


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