Chinese Laborers of the 19th-century California Gold Rush: A Brief History

Chinese Laborers of the 19th-century California Gold Rush: A Brief History

By Aïda Yuen Wong, Professor of Art History at Brandeis University; Founder and Head of Design of Callimode, an Asian American contemporary jewelry brand specializing in luxury designs to express antiracism in Asian calligraphy. Ethical & Sustainable Jewelry with Recycled Gold and Non-Conflict Diamonds.

September 29, 2022

Discovery of Gold Drew International Migrants

The California gold rush began when substantial gold deposits were discovered near Sacramento in 1848. The gold rush was the first period in which gold was mined from a large scale, open-pit mine. The initial discoveries were made in January 1848, but word traveled slowly, and while many miners arrived in 1848, the beginning of the California Gold Rush was the next year, in 1849. 

Gold was discovered in January 1848 when James Wilson Marshall was building a sawmill along the American River northeast of modern-day Sacramento. At first, gold was retrieved from the ground, but later from streams and rivers using pans. 

At first, the majority of the fortune-seekers were native-born such as people from Oregon and Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii), but soon, crowds from other countries--including Latin America, Europe, Australia, and China--joined in the quest for gold. The gold rush peaked in 1852 and afterwards, as the reserves ran low, it required more sophisticated methods of mining that people could not easily do with their bare hands. 

Chinese Laborers Among the Original 49ers

The height of Californias Gold Rush was 1849; as such, thousands of immigrants worldwide became known as 49ers. The Gold Rush played a major role in the integration of the Californian economy with the economies of the Eastern U.S. As word spread about the discoveries, thousands of would-be gold miners traveled to San Francisco and surrounding areas by sea or land; by late 1849, the non-indigenous population in California Territory was about 100,000 (compared with the figure before 1848 of fewer than 1,000). 

Large-scale Chinese labor migration began after China began receiving reports about Californias found gold deposits. In 1849, Chinese began to emigrate to the U.S. in order to be gold miners in several Western states, including California, as well as North Dakota and South Dakota.  After 1851, Chinese gold seekers arrived in large numbers in California. The gold rush attracted over 25,000 Chinese immigrants to California to find gold mountains, which were promoted in Chinese cities and towns. Due to the hardships in China such as the devastating Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864) which claimed 20 million lives, Chinese immigrants seeking a better life left China in droves during the mid-to-late nineteenth century.    

Although Chinese immigrants were at first thought too weak or delicate for such labor, after the early days when the Chinese were in line, it was decided that they should be hired in California as much as could be found (where the majority were either in gold mines or service industries like laundry and cooking). Most Asian miners and immigrants in the gold rush era were Chinese.     

Prior to the California Gold Rush, the Chinese population of the West was low. At the height of immigration during the 1852 Gold Rush, 20,000 Chinese migrated to California, of the total population of 67,000, so that Chinese immigrants made up almost 30% of all immigrants. To accommodate the gold-diggers, churches, schools, towns, and new roads were constructed, and these activities also hastened the admission of California into the United States as a State, which occurred in 1850. 

The overwhelming majority of nineteenth-century Chinese to the United States arrived in San Francisco, a settlement that had been home to several hundred before the Gold Rush, but had mushroomed to a metropolitan area with a population approaching three hundred fifty thousand by the end of the century.

Discriminatory Laws Against Chinese

By 1870, the United States had 63,000 Chinese, 77% of them in California. Those who were Californians became more and more hostile toward these immigrants. The rise led many natives in California, particularly in unions, to become hostile toward Chinese immigrants.    

The government of California passed many laws that were not friendly towards Chinese immigration, including the insultingly named Anti-Coolie Law in 1862. From the start of Californias Gold Rush to 1882 - the year that the American Federal Law ended Chinese inflows - about 300,000 Chinese came to America. 


Deserted hotel in the former mining town in Mono County, California. Gold was first found here in 1859

Anti-immigrant sentiments spread through mining camps because of increased Chinese immigrants, and the California Legislature passed the Foreign Miners Licensing Act in 1850, charging all non-U.S. citizens $20 a month. Irish, English, Canadian, and German miners protested, causing the law to be rewritten to exempt any miner who was a "free white person" or any miner who could become an American citizen. Even though the amount would be lowered in 1852 to $4, the law and its amendments were overtly racist. 

Despite the signing of the 1868 Burlingame Treaty between the U.S. and China, American political and labor organizations rallied against "cheap Chinese labor" and fanned the rhetoric of "Yellow Peril." White gold diggers turned violent against their Chinese counterparts, burning and killing many of them. These crimes went largely unpunished. Local press and populace criticized pro-Chinese employers and religious organizations. Later Chinese were completely ban from mining. 

Chinese workers had to seek other means of survival, such as railroad construction and laundry. To make their lives more difficult, San Francisco, imposed a special license fee on Chinese laundries. In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, the only American law specifically banning a single racial group from immigrating to the United States. The law was set for ten years, then extended by the Geary Act in 1892. These laws also forbade the thousands of Chinese men already living in the United States to bring their wives and children over. In addition anti-miscegenation laws in many Western states prohibited the Chinese men from marrying white women. In the South, many Chinese American males married African American women. 

In 1924, American laws extended its discriminatory policy by barring further entries of Chinese. By then, Asian immigrants except those from the Philippines which had been annexed by the U.S. in 1898, were denied citizenship and naturalization.These laws only relaxed in the 1940s when the United States and. China became allies in World War II. The Magnuson Act of 1943 finally permitted Chinese immigration to the U.S., but large-scale immigration would not begin until 1965 when national origin quotas were lifted. 

Cited Sources

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