Migration and State Interest: the Chinese in Gold Rush California

516RBJEX6HLOn the 2nd of February 1848, less than two weeks after the discovery of gold in California, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed, which secured peace at the end of the two-year American-Mexican War. This was important for the United States, which obtained several bordering states and, essentially, the ownership of California. The latter was still part of Mexico in January 1848 when nuggets of gold were discovered in the American River near Coloma. A single article marked the unique event in a local newspaper in March of that year, but two months later, gold was again discovered by a local merchant, who ran through the streets holding  a bottle of gold dust in his hands, shouting “Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!” This finding changed everything.

An extraordinary mobilisation of people commenced towards the area. By August 1848, following a news flash article published in the New York Herald, countrymen and foreigners started migrating to California en masse. The gold rush reached people as far as the Chinese Empire.The first ships from Asia set sail months before arriving in February 1849. Records state that at the very beginning, there were merely fifty-four Chinamen in California, the first ever Chinese immigrants having arrived as early as 1820, according to  U.S. government records. The Gold Rush drew the first significant number of labourers from China who mined for gold and performed menial labor. By 1876, the Chinese in the United States numbered 151,000 of whom the majority 116,000 were in the state of California.

“Gold mining was initially performed in a highly labor-intensive manner using primitive methods such as panning, or rockers and cradles. Early miners worked alone or with a handful of partners, or organized into joint-stock companies as entrepreneurial teams. These mining methods were well suited to the limited financial resources of most Chinese miners. Over time, mining moved to a hierarchical industrial model in which Chinese (and other) workers provided wage labor to mining companies, when major technological advances enabled companies to take advantage of significant economies of scale.

51P7UKdGyHLTwo in particular were important: the invention of hydraulic mining (which required large amounts of water) and advances in quartz mining, both of which transformed mining into a much more heavily capital-intensive endeavor than it had previously been. (…) The early dominance of entrepreneurial, not industrial, mining meant that typically, miners or teams of miners were competing directly against each other for the gold in a given diggings. Under these circumstances, all miners were competitive threats but foreign, and especially Chinese, miners bore the brunt of antagonism from native miners in part because it was easier to rationalize excluding them. (…) Historians have commonly ascribed anti-foreign and anti-Chinese sentiments during the nineteenth century to nativist and racist tendencies, perhaps fueled by beliefs in Manifest Destiny. (Mark Kanazawa, ‘Immigration, Exclusion, and Taxation: Anti-Chinese Legislation in Gold Rush’, The Journal of Economic History, Vol. 65, No. 3, Sep., 2005).” Historian Frederick Merck described Manifest Destiny as fuelled by the idea of redemption of the Old World by all the wonderful potentials of the freshly discovered New World, which would serve as an ideal example for the former. According to this belief, American people and institutions had special capabilities; they fought on a mission to create a perfect agrarian America which would rival the old European order. An enticing destiny empowered them to fulfil what they considered their supreme duty.

When the Chinese arrived, they were treated as outsiders; by being non-European, they did not fit the norms set out by Manifest Destiny, so they ended up being regarded  predominantly as cheap labour. There was also, of course, an underlying economic reason for their exclusion: they were incredibly efficient manual labour. “The evidence presented so far suggests that during the California Gold Rush, antipathy toward the Chinese was driven by the simple fact that foreign miners competed with native miners for the scarce gold, thus lowering their productivity and expected income. Opposition to Chinese workers was rationalized in a number of ways, including depictions of them as virtual slaves to “foreign masters and foreign capitalists,” and suggestions that their presence had various negative, and potentially dangerous, social side-effects without which the state would be better off.” (Mark Kanazawa).

51t5nmHojBLIn spite of this attitude, congressional legislation only started limiting Chinese immigration in 1882. The only reason for opposition to the exclusion of Chinese immigrants in California in the early 1850s was, that the government discovered that they became important taxpayers, when both the state and localities were experiencing major financial hardship. However, once fiscal conditions improved at the end of the 1850s, state attempts to legislate exclusion were successful and the numbers of Chinese coming to the U.S. started being limited. This is yet another example of the age-old migrant conundrum, which, then, as now, puts the hard-working individual at the bottom of a long list of state priorities.