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African Americans and the Gold Rush

Map of California with labeled regions in different colors.

A new map of the gold region in California. Sherman & Smith, 1851.
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This guest post was authored by 2020 Junior Fellow Sophia Southard, University of Kansas Graduate, B.A. in History. This is another in a series looking African Americans in business and the sciences. 

The war with Mexico, discovery of gold in California in 1848, the acquisition of new territory, and the developments of our hitherto undeveloped Western possessions, stimulated the financial pulse, and permeated every avenue of industry and speculative life. - Shadow and Light, by Mifflin Wistar Gibbs, p. 38. .

Map of California with rivers. The locations where gold was found are highlighted in dark yellow.

Map of the gold regions of California, 1849.
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The discovery of gold in California kicked off the largest mass migration in US history. Whites, Blacks, Latin Americans, and Chinese immigrated to the territory in the hopes of striking it rich.

As Rudolph M. Lapp points out in his book, Blacks in Gold Rush California, although some free African Americans such as Reuben Ruby traveled to California and made sizable profits from gold digging, numerous enslaved African Americans crossed over into the “free” state of California with their slave masters. According to Quintard Taylor  in his article, “African American Men in the American West, 1528 – 1990,” “By 1852, 300 slaves were working in the gold fields, and an undetermined but sizable number were house servants in California.” (ANNALS, AAPSS, 569, May 2000, p. 105).  California had entered the Union as a free state in the Compromise of 1850, “but lack of government oversight allowed slavery to flourish in certain regions.

showing dock crowded with men with picks and shovels, and men jumping from the dock to reach departing ship; a crowded airship and a man on a rocket fly overhead; and a man with a pick and shovel parachutes from the airshipballoon and a rocket

The way they go to California / lith. & pub. by N. Currier, c1849.
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The same year, the US census recorded that approximately 962 “Free Colored” people lived in California, with the male population totaling 872, vastly outnumbering the female population at 90. Blacks accounted for a mere 1.5% of California’s total population at the time.

Notably, African Americans and Native Americans were denied the right to vote and the right to testify in court, a law that the California Supreme Court extended to include Chinese immigrants who had come to California to participate in the Gold Rush in the California Supreme Court case, People v. Hall.

A rush to newly discovered gold fields bring in view every trait of human character. The more vicious standing out in bold relief, and stamping their impress upon the locality. This phase and most primitive situation can be accounted for partly by the cupidity of mankind, but mainly that the first arrivals are chiefly adventurers. Single men, untrammeled by family cares, traders, saloonists, gamblers…Shadow and Light, by Mifflin Wistar Gibbs, p. 51.

Miners panning for gold ; entering a mine shaft ; miners with equipment ; and miners cooking at camp. Britton & Rey.
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Free Blacks Head West

Encouraged by positive reports of gold mining success in leading African American newspapers, including Frederick Douglass’ North Star and William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator, Jonas H. Townsend, Newport Henry, and other free Blacks left New York for the gold fields in 1849. According to an article in the New York Tribune, quoted by Rudolph M. Lapp in Blacks in Gold Rush California, Reuben Ruby, an African American man, “had acquired six hundred dollars from four weeks’ digging on the Stanislaus River.” Additionally, the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 may have pushed runaway slaves hiding in Northern states to migrate to California, a supposedly free state, to avoid the risk of recapture. However, the California Fugitive Slave Act of 1852 allowed slave owners to reclaim escaped slaves, making life in the burgeoning Western state more dangerous for both free and enslaved African Americans.

Robert Perkins, Carter Perkins, and Sandy Jones 

The California Gold Rush presented business opportunities for whites, Blacks, Latin Americans, and Chinese alike. In 1849, slave owner Charles Perkins and his Mississippi friends struck out for the Californian gold mines with their three slaves, Robert Perkins, Carter Perkins, and Sandy Jones. When Charles Perkins failed to secure the fortune he sought, he was forced to leave the three enslaved men behind because he could not afford to buy passage back to Mississippi for them all. After fulfilling their end of an informal emancipation bargain with Perkins, one of Perkins’s friends released the men in 1851, and the three former slaves set up a freight hauling business in the mining town of Ophir. Their business, which saw them operating across the northern gold country, helped them amass over $3,000 in personal property, a fortune worth around $98,000 in 2020 dollars. However, in 1852, the California Supreme Court ordered the three African American men back to slavery in Mississippi. With this decision, the court affirmed that “the state has the jurisdiction to arrest and restrain fugitive slaves and to remand them from their borders.” The California Fugitive Slave Act of 1852, in combination with the fact that African Americans could not testify in court, endangered the lives and livelihoods of all Blacks.

Formal photo of Judge Mifflin Wistar Gibbs sitting, facing forward with a serious expression.

Judge Mifflin Wistar Gibbs (1823-1915). Between February 1901 and December 1903
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Early in the year 1858 gold was discovered on Fraser River, in the Hudson Bay Company’s territory in the Northwest. This territory a few months later was organized as the Colony of British Columbia and absorbed; is now the western outlook of the Dominion of Canada. The discovery caused an immense rush of gold seekers, traders, and speculators from all parts of the world.Shadow and Light, by Mifflin Wistar Gibbs, p. 59.

Onwards to British Columbia

Frustrated by the discriminatory and prejudicial laws that prevented them from testifying in court and voting, many African Americans, including Mifflin Wistar Gibbs, migrated to the gold fields in British Columbia toward the close of the 1850s. Many of the same African Americans returned to the United States after the Civil War, and they continued to make a lasting impact in the West. Also, read about our post about African American cowboys in the West during the 19th and 20th centuries.

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2 Comments

  1. Bob
    March 16, 2021 at 5:41 pm

    wasnt helpful for my assignment

  2. maddie
    June 7, 2021 at 10:11 am

    Did not really help me, could be useful if you were only writing about black slaves.

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