A Pacific Gold Rush

On the routes miners traveled to reach gold in the United States and Australia.

By Mae Ngai

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

California gold found by John Sutter in 1848. National Museum of American History.

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.

The tens of thousands of Euro-​Americans who arrived in 1849 called themselves, and came to be known to history and legend as, the forty-​niners, cementing their status as California’s pioneer gold seekers. Certainly, they were the first wave of whites who came from the eastern United States; the economic development of California that they spurred and California’s entry into the Union as the thirty-​first state in 1850 made the gold rush a national—​and nation-​building—​phenomenon. But the American national identity embodied by the figure of the forty-​niner also obscures the beginning year of the gold rush, 1848, when California was still populated largely by native peoples and Californio ranchers, connected to the rest of the world via Mexico and the Pacific, and received its first “foreign” miners from Mexico, Chile, and Hawaii.

Even as the forty-​niners poured in from the eastern United States, California’s Pacific connections grew. Who would feed and provision the masses of gold seekers? There were entrepreneurs among the forty-​niners, like Robert LeMott, who quickly sold a stock of pants and nails he had brought from Pennsylvania. But emigrants from the East could bring only small amounts of goods with them, and there was little farming in California to support the forty-​niners, least of all in the hills. Most American merchants who sold provisions and amenities during the gold rush dealt in imported goods—​dried fish and beef jerky, canvas and clothing, tools, lumber, candles, coffee, livestock, and even prefabricated houses—​from Honolulu, Valparaiso, and Oregon; from Hong Kong and Sydney. LeMott, who speculated broadly, invested in clothing, especially that which was “heavy, well made, and of dark colors.” He wrote that merchants were making a 50 percent profit on everything they sold. Or more: in 1851 over 300,000 barrels of foreign flour—​mostly from Chile—​entered San Francisco, selling at an average price of thirteen dollars per barrel, compared to one dollar a barrel in New England.

The gold rush dramatically changed the nature of the U.S.-​China trade. Yankee merchants in Guangzhou and Hong Kong, anchored in the traditional U.S.-​China trade to Boston and New York via the Indian and Atlantic Oceans, had already begun to establish transpacific routes in the 1830s and ’40s. They linked China to Hawaii and then to California, which was less a final destination than a transshipment point for goods headed to Acapulco, Valparaiso, or, via the Horn, New York. The gold rush represented a new opportunity for merchants in Hong Kong—​both Euro-​Americans and Chinese—​to export diverse goods to California.

Hong Kong was a British colony and a free port—​that is, imported goods from one place could be unloaded and reloaded for export to another place without payment of customs duty—​and as such it quickly became the premier Asian entrepôt for both goods and emigrants headed for the gold mountains. The Chinese population of Hong Kong itself grew as nearly eight thousand people arrived in 1850, with many intending to produce goods for the California market, engage in the shipping trade, or otherwise work in the booming port. Chinese commercial firms in Hong Kong became important players in the California trade and in the economy of the diaspora.


In California, native peoples worked on the goldfields during the first year of the rush. But American gold seekers who came down from Oregon soon targeted them. With gold fever exacerbating racial suspicion, they attacked Indians on the diggings, raping women and killing men. Indians fought back against the Oregonians and then the forty-​niners, who were soon overrunning traditional hunting and fishing grounds. Violence pervaded the mountains.

Settlers’ violence was relentless, and by 1850 the U.S. Army and then state and local militias joined them, committing even larger massacres. Miwok, Maidu, Pomo, Wappo, and other indigenous peoples retreated from the diggings to the mountains and then to sites still higher in the mountains, where they barely survived. State and federal lawmakers also refused to make treaties with California’s Indians, which would have recognized a small portion of Indian lands as sovereign. As Peter Burnett, first governor of the California territory, promised, there would be nothing short of a complete “war of extermination…until the Indian race becomes extinct.”

Increasingly, whites both in the Australian colonies and in California believed that the extermination of indigenous peoples was a necessary condition for white settlement, by which they meant the replacement of native sovereignties with Euro-​American possession and the reorganization of land and economic relations according to the laws of private property and the market. Victoria and California were also based on the principle of free labor. Victoria outlawed convict transportation and contract labor from its founding in 1851, when it split from New South Wales.

During the first couple years of the California rush, unfree labor dotted the goldfields—​enslaved African Americans brought by white southerners, California Indians held in servitude by Californios and Euro-​Americans, peons brought by Chilean and Sonoran mining companies, and Chinese workers brought under contract.

But contracts were virtually impossible to enforce on the goldfields because people could simply walk away from their masters to seek their own fortunes in the hills. An English ship captain wrote in 1849, “Fifteen coolies I brought [to San Francisco] from China, and who were under a bond for two years with the party who engaged them, were no sooner ashore than they resisted their contract, and each turned his separate way.” Ramón Gil Navarro, who headed a company from Chile, lost half his workers and even his manager within days of their arrival in San Francisco. Desertion was prevalent, and investors soon gave up the practice of contract labor.


The vast majority of Chinese gold diggers in California and Victoria hailed not from Shanghai but from southern China, especially the Siyi, or four counties, that lay on the western side of the Pearl River delta in Guangdong province. Remarkably, the vast majority came from just one county, Xinning. Xinning was a poor place, owing to its rocky soil and hilly terrain, its cycles of drought and flood, and its relative isolation from the market. The land produced only enough rice to feed its people for half the year, so farmers grew sweet potatoes and peanuts on the hillsides to supplement their crops. Instability from British economic penetration and local political violence made conditions worse. Families sent sons and brothers to nearby cities for seasonal work as laborers, peddlers, and factory workers. No one knows who were the first Chinese from Xinning to venture to California, but they had probably already migrated from their home villages to Guangzhou or its environs. What is clear is that they established a classic pattern of chain migration to California and Victoria and, soon afterward, to the goldfields of Canada and New Zealand. Gold seekers from the Siyi founded the Chinese diaspora in North America and Australasia.

Left: Postcard showing Chinese miner with sluice box, nineteenth century. Right: Gold miners, El Dorado, California, c. 1848.

They were not the first Chinese to emigrate beyond the seas. People from China’s southeastern coastal regions had been trading and settling in the nanyang (southern seas, or Southeast Asia), from Thailand to Champa and Java, since at least the thirteenth century of the Common Era. But in the nineteenth century, mass Chinese emigration reached far beyond the nanyang, as greater numbers left in search of work abroad owing to difficult conditions at home. Southern China suffered from cycles of drought and flood, in addition to economic displacements caused by Western market intrusions and violent upheavals during the long Taiping Rebellion (1850–​64), a messianic peasant movement that sought to overthrow the Qing. Two new streams of long-​distance Chinese migration in the mid-​nineteenth century arose from two different types of Euro-​American colonialism: one involved indentured labor to plantation colonies in the Caribbean and South America, and the other comprised voluntary emigration to the frontier regions of Anglo-​American settler colonies in North America and Australasia.

Contemporary observers in Hong Kong routinely noted that unlike the contracted labor sent to the plantation colonies, Chinese emigration to California and Australia was “uniformly and actually free emigration.” Also like Euro-​American gold seekers, the Chinese were overwhelmingly men. The few women on the goldfields, whether American, Chilean, French, or Chinese, were wives of merchants, entertainers, barmaids, or sex workers. In time the sex ratio among Euro-​Americans improved. But the Chinese population remained overwhelmingly male, in part because custom dictated that a wife should remain in the household of her husband’s parents.

Most Chinese gold seekers paid for their own passage with family funds or borrowed from clan or district associations. Families of lesser means pooled resources to send one or two young men. Those without much land or savings borrowed money. Loans and contracts were common throughout Qing China, including in rural areas, which were often connected to local and regional market networks. Especially in the first years of the gold rush, credit terms were high.

The gold rushes brought large numbers of Chinese and Euro-​Americans into contact with each other on an unprecedented scale, far surpassing the limited experience of European colonial enclaves in Chinese port cities or the occasional Chinese visitors to the United States and England in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The San Francisco Customs Office noted 325 arrivals from China in 1849 and 450 in 1850; in 1850 Chinese comprised only one percent of the California mining population. But 2,700 Chinese arrived in 1851 and 20,000 in 1852. Chinese comprised about 10 percent of the total population of California by the late 1850s, and upward of 25 percent in the mining districts.


Excerpted from The Chinese Question: The Gold Rushes and Global Politics. Copyright © 2021 by Mae Ngai. Used with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.