The Negative Impact of the California Gold Rush: An Essay

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Table of contents

  1. Introduction to the California Gold Rush and Its Diverse Impact
  2. The Plight of Native Americans During the Gold Rush
  3. Native Americans' Role in the Discovery of Gold and Subsequent Exploitation
  4. Violence and Chaos: The Deterioration of Relations Between Settlers and Native Americans
  5. Tragic Massacres and the Native American Genocide
  6. Environmental Destruction and Enslavement of Native Americans
  7. Conclusion: The Lasting Negative Legacy of the Gold Rush

Introduction to the California Gold Rush and Its Diverse Impact

The California Gold Rush wasn’t solely negative for the people of California and the state’s overall economic situation. However, some groups of people did not experience this ‘California Dream’ some immigrants seemed to have lived. The Native Americans living in California at the time of the Gold Rush went through unbelievable hardships, easily suffering the most out of everyone. Furthermore, discrimination and racism were issues immigrants from all over the world, especially those of Spanish and Chinese ethnicity, had to experience when coming to California in hopes of gaining wealth. While the discrimination wasn’t nearly as prevalent in the beginning of the Gold Rush, it became more and more of a problem when the gold resources grew scarcer over time and the white Californian miners felt as though immigrants should have no right in taking their gold off of their land.

The Plight of Native Americans During the Gold Rush

The greatest suffering during and after the Gold Rush was, without a doubt, inflicted on the Indigenous population of California. In the early days of the gold rush the indigenous people worked alongside the white prospectors in the mines with one government report estimating that half of the gold miners in California in 1848 were Indians. According to Rawls in ‘Gold Diggers: Indian Miners in the California Gold Rush’, they used to labor as independent agents, trading their gold to white merchants for different kinds of goods. Kamiya adds that “one relatively cosmopolitan forty-niner wrote of them: ‘A more filthy and disgusting class of human beings you cannot well conceive... they seem to be only a few degrees removed from brutes’”. From here on onwards, Indians were cleared from the gold fields and expeditions to kill them were organized by white Americans. Even the governor of California at the time said, “A war of extermination would continue to be waged between the two races until the Indian race becomes extinct” (Kamiya). One can only imagine the constant fear Native Americans had to live with, simply because they weren’t white.

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Native Americans' Role in the Discovery of Gold and Subsequent Exploitation

In ‘Gold Diggers: Indian Miners in the California Gold Rush’, Rawls mentions the controversy surrounding the exact circumstances of the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill. He states that Marshall himself later explained that “at the discovery his laborers, ‘white and Indian’, had collected the first particles” (1976, p. 30). This shows that Native Americans more likely than not should have gotten credit for the discovery of gold in California just as much as white men have.

While Native Americans and white settlers worked alongside each other in the beginning of the gold rush, these amicable relationships between them soon began to change. With more and more immigrants from all over the world coming to California to dig for gold, the government officials – they were few and far between – grew overwhelmed and, according to the Native American Heritage Commission (NAHC), “all effective authority collapsed”, which led to inevitable chaos, violence and uncountable, senseless killings and assaults against Native Americans. The NAHC states that paramilitary troops were created whose seemingly only task was to kill and kidnap Indians. A girl from the Oustemah Nisenan tribe in Northern California later described her accounts with the white settlers as follows: “A life of ease and peace was interrupted when I was a little girl by the arrival of white people. Each day the population increased and the Indians feared the invaders and great consternation prevailed …. as gold excitement advanced, we were moved again and again, each time in haste. Indian children…. when taken into town would blacken their faces with dirt so the newcomers would not steal them….”.

Violence and Chaos: The Deterioration of Relations Between Settlers and Native Americans

This account, provided by the NAHC, shows the fear even young Native Americans had to go through on a daily basis with white men out to kidnap and kill them. Their fear wasn’t for no reason as there have been countless attacks by the white settlers against tribespeople, such as the 1852 Bridge Gulch Massacre and the 1860 Wiyot Massacre. In the former case, also known as the Hayfork Massacre or Natural Bridge Massacre, 150 members of the Wintu tribe in Trinity County were killed by 70 white American men, led by one of the county’s sheriffs William H. Dixon, leaving only about five children unharmed. The reasoning behind the killing was based on a misunderstanding: Colonel John Anderson was killed by the Wintu, however, it was a different group that had actually performed the attack. The people that were killed by the white American men in the Bridge Gulch massacre were innocent. In the latter, also referred to as the Indian Island massacre, 80 to 250 Wiyot people were killed in 1860 by white settlers, who had settled in the area of Humboldt County during the California Gold Rush, using axes, knives, and guns, leaving only a handful of survivors. The local sheriff, Barrant Van Ness, told the San Francisco Bulletin about the motive: revenge for cattle rustling, the act of stealing cattle. A local newspaper called the Northern Californian, described the massacre as follows: “Blood stood in pools on all sides, the walls of the huts were stained and the grass-colored red. Lying around were dead bodies of both sexes and all ages from the old man to the infant at the breast. Some had their heads split in twain by axes, others beaten into jelly with clubs, others pierced or cut to pieces with bowie knives. Some struck down as they mired, others had almost reached the water when overtaken and butchered”.

This incredibly graphic description of the Wiyot Massacre shows the violence Native Americans were subjected to even years after the California Gold Rush had come to an end. These and many more planned attacks of Native Americans before, during and after the Gold Rush, also called Native American Genocide, were senseless killings by white settlers enslaving, torturing and killing innocent Indians in order to take over their land.

Tragic Massacres and the Native American Genocide

Trafzer and Hyer describe the genocide as a ‘Holocaust’, which, in most people these days, will evoke memories of the World War II genocide of European Jews. However, I thoroughly agree with using the term ‘Holocaust’, when describing the killings of the Indians as it perfectly describes the “terror, death, and destruction brought to Native Americans in California during the era of the Gold Rush” (Hyer, and Trafzer, 1999). Not only did the white miners kill California’s people, they also destroyed their natural habitats, killing plants and animals. As Hyer and Trafzer describe it in ‘Exterminate Them: Written Accounts of the Murder, Rape, And Enslavement of Native Americans during the California Gold Rush’, most Indians in California relied on their surroundings being rich in natural foods such as fruits, vegetables, seeds, and nuts as well as fish and meat. The many white miners, however, further jeopardized the Native Americans’ lives by destroying their natural resources by “introducing more livestock and alien plants that destroyed the natural landscape of California” (Hyer, and Trafzer, 1999). What is more, the invasive gold mining techniques and toxic chemicals used in the process were incredibly harmful to the environment, forcing Native Americans away from their homes as it left the soil too poisoned for cultivation and cattle breeding. The total destruction of the environment, including the Native Americans’ habitat, will be further explained in Chapter 3.2 ‘The Destruction of the Environment During the California Gold Rush’.

Environmental Destruction and Enslavement of Native Americans

As if the killings weren’t enough, Native Americans were oftentimes also enslaved by white settlers. In ‘The Enslaved Native Americans Who Made the Gold Rush Possible’ Erin Blakemore explains that “the very land on which Marshall spotted the gold was part of a vast empire built on the slave labor of native peoples” (2018). According to her, John Sutter, the owner of the sawmill at Sutter’s Mill where gold was first discovered in California, would have never become as powerful as he did without the indigenous people, in his case the Nisenan people. He basically forged a friendship with them and ended up turning them into a militia, “outfitting them with uniforms and weapons and training them to defend his land” (Blakemore, 2018). Sutter was also accused of molesting and sexually assaulting Native American girls. The molestation, however, wasn’t the only way for him to show his control over the tribe. A nearby rancher recalled “Often the Sacramento River was colored red by the blood of the innocent Indians”. Sutter kept up to 800 Native Nisenan people as slaves, feeding them close to nothing and not even providing utensils or bowls for their food. At night the slaves were locked up, without beds or furniture. If they refused to do as they were told they were beaten (Blakemore, 2018). As described in ‘The Enslaved Native Americans Who Made the Gold Rush Possible’, the Native Americans weren’t just seen as workers, but also as currency. For as much as two dollars a day, Sutter traded the Nisenan peoples’ labor among local ranch owners and new settlers. John Sutter, unfortunately, wasn’t the only one exploiting the Native Americans. California’s government did very little to protect them and, in fact, only made the situation worse. In 1850, the Act for the Government and Protection of Indians was passed by the state legislature but, unfortunately, too good to be true. The Act did not help keep the Indians safe, despite its promising sounding name; All it did was make it easier for white settlers to sell and enslave them (Watson, 2015). The law seemed to not have been for but against the Native Americans residing in California. The historian James Rawls describes the law as follows: “The name of the law sounds benign, but the effect was malign in the extreme degree. Any white person under this law could declare Indians who were simply strolling about, who were not gainfully employed, to be vagrants, and take that charge before a justice of the peace, and a justice of the peace would then have those Indians seized and sold at public auction. And the person who bought them would have their labor for four months without compensation”.

Conclusion: The Lasting Negative Legacy of the Gold Rush

In other words, white settlers declared any Native American who was out and about minding their own business as vagrants. This would then allow the settlers to detain the Indians and sell them at auctions, allowing someone else to exploit the Indians for their labor, i.e. enslave them. Rawls states that “frustrated Anglo-American miners formed militia groups, trying to exterminate the ‘red devils’, as they liked to call them. Also, in the militia’s mind the Native Americans living in California had become a problem they needed to get rid of. When the Indians resisted the attacks on them and fought back, they failed miserably due to being outnumbered and outgunned”. Frank La Pena, who was a professor of Native American Studies at the California State University in Sacramento, describes someone’s account with a white settler along these lines: “There was a person, up in Humboldt County, who was found with a small child, a young Indian child. And they ask him, 'What are you doing with this child?', he said: 'I am protecting him. He's an orphan'. And they say, 'Well, how do you know he's orphan?', and he said, 'I killed his parents'”.

This shows just how heartless the attacks on Native Americans were and how the Act for the Government and Protection of the Indians did not, in fact, protect them at all, even leaving children without their parents. After the gold rush, killing Indians was made legal due to their aboriginal rights as landowners, says April Moore, a member of the Nisenan Maidu tribe and educator. She adds that the white men received a monetary reward for bringing in the dead bodies, or even just parts, of Indians. The law that prohibited the killing of Native Americans in California was changed only well after 1900 ('Act for the Government and Protection of Indians'). All in all, the Act for the Government and Protections of Indians did nothing to improve the lives of the Native Americans, more so the exact opposite, leaving the Indians betrayed by their own state’s government.

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