Group Formation During the California Gold Rush

Historians studying the California Gold Rush have debated how the miners that went there to find gold became a cohesive group –the forty-niners- in the context of their interaction, both with other groups –Chinese, Hispanics, Blacks- and among themselves.  While some analyzed how the miners had to struggle for order –against the disorder brought by the irresponsibility and corruption of some– by establishing democratic institutions, others studied the effect of the interrelations between the different ethnic populations and the bonding of the group, taking note of the accelerated process of racial formation which contributed to social stratification between whites and non whites in a diverse California. Still others looked at how the Yankees turned forty-niners, miners on their way to the source of gold circumnavigating America, carried Victorian values of racial hierarchies and manifest destiny in their encounters with Latin Americans and constructed an image of the non-white in which perversity, temptation, and forbidden pleasures played a role, creating a pattern that would define their future relations in California.

Unfortunately, all have missed examining the measure in which the process of formation of the group was class bound, ignoring the change in concepts, images and meanings after the influx of investment capital and the subsequent development of a working class. The three missed the role of the capitalist period, which defined meaning, relations of production, and racial structure.

In a work written in 1886, Josiah Royce dealt with the formation of a group –the forty-niners — through the struggle for order, initiated after the sad lessons of disorder, by the right values and the establishment of democratic institutions[1]. Initially, respectful citizens settled in California; in their quest for wealth they became an amoral and involved in sinful behavior, with two tendencies: a sense of irresponsibility and a marked distaste of foreigners. Disorder then did not appear in initial stage at the mining camps, but became a corrupt and later one, the result of circumstances, in the early months –end of 1848 and beginning of 1849- when American miners followed their orderly instincts, “willing to compromise matters in dispute” and to remain “on pleasant terms with everybody.” The influence of the political background of the (white) race and the nation, could achieve order, but an unstable and unsecured one, against corruption and vice. This depended upon the social conditions in the camps, in turn determined by the two predominant methods of mining: pan mining and cradle mining. Pan mining produced ephemeral encampments and individual efforts: a source of disorder and questionable behavior. Cradle mining provided for more stable settlements, working together in crews and camps, and made possible the employment of Indians (as a prolegomenon of the capitalist stage). This method could lead to “jealousy” and violence to further disorder. As technology improved, the miners settled, established small partnerships and brought their wives and families. Communities learned the sad lessons of disorder and began to form town governments, thus bringing additional order and adding to the initial settlement churches and schools and attracting sizable capital investments, as well as putting an end to mob violence, “irresponsible freedom” and lynching. The mining pioneers could thus “purify themselves” of disorder by a “simple progress from social foolishness to social steadfastness”.

Royce studied the history of the California Gold Rush from the point of view of a Whig historian. He believed in an unavoidable progress, in a happy ending, in laisez faire, in the fortunate advent of democratic institutions as a solution, and in the great spirit of man. The settlers appeared basically as “respectful citizens”, and “disorder” just as a consequence of special circumstances. “Good humor” could solve problems. Even though “disorder” existed in the beginning of the California Gold Rush, the establishment of democratic institutions brought it to an end naturally and inevitably, a Whig history characteristic. His nationalism, an additional trait, expressed itself through the belief in manifest destiny. A key phrase, “simple progress from social foolishness to social steadfastness”, showed his view of a march of progress, an increase in understanding, cleverness and political wisdom, more than in social organization, economic growing or egalitarian status. Royce, a philosopher of the absolute idealism, was born by the end of the Gold Rush in a typical Gold Rush town, Grass Valley, and experienced the end consequences of the Gold Rush from first account. He saw in the California population the opportunity to give birth to a new man, and in Kevin Starr’s commentary, “one born of a higher provincialism that fused individualism and loyalty to a benevolent relationship with nature”[2] Even though Royce pointed out to the existence of two binary opposites of order and disorder, he refused to characterize the situation during the Gold Rush as either one or the other as a much later social historian would do, and agreed that there coexisted exponents of both, criticizing those who picked just one alternative. He described a linear analysis process, which went benevolently toward more progress and more order, another Whig trait. Royce interpreted the events of the past in the light of his present day situation. He considered every perceived approximation to the situation in his present days as an advance, and every problem as a negative obstacle.

While Royce’s belief in a linear process that ends (almost in an automatic fashion), in progress gave him a frame of reference, it rendered as obsolete anything that did not correspond to this view. Thus, conflicts largely miss in this work; which almost reads as if miners merrily went around developing methods for extracting gold and relating to each other’s ethnic groups. He did not define the differences between the groups, the price for a clean and almost pastoral story. Even when Royce considered himself as an objective historian, he seemed associated and identified with the white miners in a nationalistic way, which makes it more difficult for him to understand and explain how non-white miners worked, and lived during the Gold Rush. Royce ignored the role of the existing institutions other than praising their contribution. All settlers acted as the same, without explaining either subgroups or cultures, which limited the analysis. No place for materialistic motivation, for cause and effect appear here, and no explanation about how change happened.

These seemed, precisely, the traits assumed in Sucheng Chan’s work. In “A People of Exceptional Character”, she examined how miner groups developed and interacted on an ethnic basis, developing an accelerated process of racial formation which ultimately contributed to the social stratification between whites and non whites in California[3]. This stratification related to the characteristics of each group; their place of origin impacted the general order of arrival, which in turn determined where they concentrated, and which ultimately influenced in their interaction with Americans. The ethnic consciousness, manifested first through attributes like the names they called each other, their own clothing, and religious faiths, developed first into white nativism and then into racism. Its expressions: physical intimidation, discriminatory rules and the open government sanction manifested through the Foreign Miners Tax.  White miners groups, which included Yankees, English, Irish, and Germans instituted democratic and anti capitalistic rules that denoted solidarity among themselves and self conscience, but still discriminated against the other groups, including French, Latinos, Blacks, and later, Chinese. That egalitarianism gave way to hierarchical class relations when placer mining declined and capital-intensive methods ascended. In this process, racism helped whites to justify the varied oppression of peoples of color and fueled a scramble among the latter for white approval by denigrating other groups. These minorities also segregated and exercised their own ethnocentrism.

Chan wrote from the point of view of a social historian. In her analysis power came from the bottom up, and change occurred, generated at the level of the group. The white settlers turned their ethnic consciousness into nativism and then racism, by virtue of their relationships with non-whites, and only with the (positive) sanction of the state via the Foreign Miner tax. Here, as well, government functioned as just another agent of social change, not even in a protagonist role. The public sphere or political events and processes, then, appeared relegated when compared with the private sphere of individual experiences and well defined group processes. Chan studied the groups from the point of view of their place in the class and social structure, where concepts such as race and class matter, but chose not to inquire into the category of class. She summoned up their experience, in term of behavior, both as survival tools to better confront the challenges of the gold rush and relations with others. These groups seemed whole, all encompassing and definitive, within themselves –in this view monolithic- and in the relationship with others –which they oppose. Chan also spoke about the culture of these groups, by referring to their religious beliefs, their language, how they called each other, and their clothes. She referred to the group culture –an attribute of social historians, particularly that of the Chinese. Within the groups of settlers, differentiated through place of origin and thus geographic location in California and settlement patterns, agency acted– as a capability to better their ways, in the case of whites, through the institution of democratic institutions and egalitarianism between them, which at once gave them an edge toward other groups and provided benefits from their inner solidarity. Chan understood history as coming in clearly differentiated stages or chapters: from racial consciousness through nativism to racism in an axis of time. Each stage lay on the foundation of the former, in a remnant of Marxist thinking. Those social groups did not behave as neutral toward each other but as interrelated, in a binary opposition between whites and non whites, where the groups defined and placed themselves in relation to the other. White miners regarded themselves as the legal owners of the land, the representatives of the country and the purveyors of manifest destiny, and they aspired for the institutions of the State to integrate and accept them as middle class. They clearly looked to establish an hegemonic relationship with the non-whites.

Conversely, Chan did not show definitive traits of a cultural historian, without an emphasis on a changing of meaning. Even if identity constituted a central trait, and the concept of identity actually developed, it did so in a linear way with an (uncharacteristic for cultural historians) look at the process of change, for example, experienced by white settlers Vis a Vis non whites. While language, another cultural trait, played a role in how groups defined each other, the development of the language did not give meaning to the differentiation, but, in this analysis, resulted in just a consequence of the process. The borders between the groups seem well defined, not blurring as in a cultural history study. Even though Chan described what happened to groups of miners from different countries, that approach did not amount to transnational; the characteristic of each nation did not stand in the center of the discussion, but rather the relationship between them. Chan, as a social historian, looked at identities of groups as single entities, and then passed on to the next one, according to country of origin, race or hegemonic situation. A cultural historian would have looked at the points of mixture and blurring between these identities, not at what defined them as different.

Both Josiah Royce and Sucheng Chan wrote about the first period –between 1848 and 1850 of the California Gold Rush, characterized still by the existence of groups of independent miners looking for the precious metal and forging alliances and rivalries dependent upon their method of mining. Both avoided the mention of capital investments as a major element of change. Royce wrote his account relatively shortly after the events took place, in 1886. Born in the area during the Gold Rush, he received his information directly from his parents (especially his mother Sarah, who wrote a book about the epoch). Chan wrote in the year 2000, without personal knowledge.  Their analysis seemed influenced by the methodology they used, Royce as a Whig historian, Chan as a social historian. But their personal background also played a role. He indulged in passing judgment on the settlers, approached them as one of them in a constant search of a sort of pardon or rehabilitation. Her approach, from without, took into account the existence of the same groups of workers and settlers Royce relates to.  Both Chan and Royce condemned the discriminatory behavior of the white settlers, but while Royce believed it was just an unnecessary corollary of their sense of irresponsibility and corruption, an unnatural stage, Chan defined through this racist behavior the formation of an essential racial structure instrumental in how California looks, even today, at foreigners.  Royce adopted the point of view of the white settler, feeling like one of them, only better, more progressive, optimist and knowing. Chan, on the other hand, tried to present a more balanced perspective, one that considered the plight of immigrants, workers and racial minorities.

Chan’s analysis of the California Gold Rush focused on groups at the bottom and studied the differences and similarities between white miners, miners from Latin America, or Chinese, and the development of racial tension between them, in a period when important developments occurred precisely from the top down. She discarded in this work the importance of the huge capital investment in California and the way it transform the process and the state. Her approach looks then as narrow, leaving out the upper class. On the other hand, by considering groups as whole units, she left out the experience of individuals, loosing important lessons that those stories could tell about the era. Not everybody in the groups thought or behaved the same, and some acted as members of two groups or more: especially, white miners called themselves working men, but identified with white owners again foreign miners. Another aspect: some groups, like Chinese, Mexican, or Black miners, lived basically as powerless. The fact that they fought for their rights and dignity in California did not convert them into a part of the power sharing scheme. These groups remained at the social bottom: exploited as workers, oppressed as minorities, and unorganized as far as we know. Not everybody or every group presented resistance. Her view has “too much of a positive spin,” as we defined in class. Finally, Chan did not base much of the interpretation to the groups experience upon a good enough knowledge about what different concepts meant to them, and amounted to guessing.

Here, another historian could develop a model more related to culture and the changing of meaning. This direction appears in Brian Roberts’ work.

Roberts looked at how the forty-niners during their voyage to California constructed an image of Latin Americans through their mutual encounters as pivotal in the determination of their views on non whites after they arrived to the state[4]. That image constituted a development of the values of racial hierarchies and manifest destiny they initially carried. The miners actually started with Victorian values, behaved like they abandoned them and later resumed them (or not), once in California. While they characterized Latin America, according to these values, as “perverse”, full of temptation and forbidden pleasures, they themselves felt free to abandon their Victorian behavior into a frenzy of their own perversion. Literature and the new (sensationalist) daily press contributed to that image of Latin America absorbed by the forty-niners, where “old world charm” mixed with “primitive exoticism”, and “lurid Catholicism” with “passionate vaqueros and señoritas”. In a similar fashion they applied their concept of Latin American backwardness to the church, at the same time perverse and attractive in the beauty of the cathedrals or the liturgy. The “perversity” perceived by miners in Latin America was actually a reverse in their own coin, a mirror of their own perversity, “an attempt to increase their own pleasure” combined with racism. Their presence as one-day visitors in these environments allowed them to feel free to “take the perceived characteristics of a barbarous other”. To cover and justify that behavior, they developed the “perversity” image which enabled them to enhance their racial status, justify conquest and exploitation. The meaning building reached its peak with Latina women, who they saw with an obsession related to nudity and prostitution.  This bidirectional process also included the perception of forty-niners by Latin Americans in their interaction and mutual influence. The Latin Americans hostility toward the Yankees arouse “from a complex matrix of revulsion and desire”. This mutual tension pattern would “continue to frame cross-hemispheric contacts in the future”, not only in Latin America, but especially in California itself during and after the Gold Rush.

In this fifth chapter of “American Alchemy: The California Gold Rush and Middle-Class Culture”  Roberts performed as a cultural historian with social history traits.  In the introduction of the book, Roberts himself made such a division: he used social history tools to analyze the development of the forty-niner, and he applied cultural history toward the history and characterization of the gold rush itself.  Hence, Roberts showed the daily, real, life of the forty-niners as belonging (or aspiring to belong) to an emerging middle class, and carrying its moral code. These settlers, the “average people” reviewed in the chapter, did not start as professional miners and had to pay for their voyage from their own money, in a private, individual enterprise, not as wage workers under contract.  The era of the Gold Rush on the other side, was studied as cultural, as a fertile ground for the application of cultural traits and beliefs both by the forty-niners and the Latin American inhabitants. Those images existed prior to the meeting of the two groups, and they –by way of myths, stereotypes, words that defined images- determined the character of that encounter. In a remarkable way, this image of Latin Americans constructed by the prospective miners during the preliminary voyages contributed to establishing their social views once they arrived to California.  The settlers applied these beliefs in order to mold their own conduct. Roberts did not show interest in the process of gestation but in the meaning of the phenomenon itself. This meaning changed constantly, bending to interrelations with other groups and experiences, and manifested through language and other cultural traits. That change was non-linear, not discernible in stages.  The question of identity appears as crucial to Robert’s analysis, as he adjudicated settlers with a middle-class identity that enabled them to confront the power of the identity definition of other peoples. Another question surrounded the search for meaning as codes for understanding: the meaning of perversity, of diversity, a difficult task since instability characterized the images: change, really, never stopped. The groups so defined and whose values met in this ground, divided along race hierarchies and sometimes around gender: Yankees versus Latin Americans. Some  elements of social history here, and even traces of New Left history seem to appear, as Latinas, for example, were defined as a sort of victims of the process, and not only as protagonists.  Roberts used a profusion of psychological analysis to explain the thinking of the settlers and their seemingly contradictory behavior and experience. The settlers were individualists, and developed images of both upper class and working class. They did not care here about respectability, being so far away from home, from what made them try to look respectable in the context of life in the East.  Roberts looks at transnational history, as the forty-niners crossing the ocean, both attacked and contrasted the culture determined by national boundaries, and blurred it. Miners arrived and performed a role in the way they expected: as Yankees daredevil. Here, some social history traits that can not be overlooked, since Roberts mentioned the slippery character of the American middle class, and how it collided with other forces. Also, he found a field of confrontation between pairs of values: anarchy versus government; lawlessness versus law and respect, violence versus tranquility, disorder in front of order.

For Roberts, Chan’s accounts may have been too much of a list of events, not clarifying much about the real life of people but identifying here and there groups of participants, while his account correlated continuously between the experiences of the group –the public thing- and those of the individual –the private sphere. While Roberts went back and forth from describing the change as expressed in events to the perception of them in people’s mind, with a marked preference for perception (almost as reality), and witnessed how groups became something else and then went back, as the forty-niners during their voyage, he criticized the assumption of Chan that the groups as categories were written in stone, reified, real. Blacks, Chinese, Chilenos, Mexicans, whites, all appear as in Chan distinct categories. Roberts would critique her for ignoring the connections between the groups, their overlapping. As a category of critique, Chan interpretation of the intent behind the behavior of groups was guessing: Chinese and Blacks, she claimed, as a whole, tried to gain acceptance by whites, by trying to lower the status of the other group. The interpretation of the evidence can be guessing. Instead, Roberts detailed the myriad of possibilities. While Roberts wrote all about change, for Chan he may be not describing any change after all. Even he admitted that “in their meeting with Latin Americans forty-niners generally left prescriptive hierarchies intact”. (140) Miners actually assumed “perversity”, but “perversity” as just the reverse of the same coin of Victorian values. He even defined perversity as “the fact that they [Latin American cultural expressions] came from below, that they were forbidden, and consciously linked to vice” (134) But at the end, there seemed a “possibility that the gold rush was not a departure from Victorian standards” (122) –in referring to perversity as the inversion of values. Perversity, then, was the gold rush, “America’s most perverse, and hence enjoyable, historic event” (121) The blurring of the consequences of change, the definition of the new stages in the process and the real influence that those changes in perception could or could not have on the reality of the Gold Rush in California is telling. For Roberts, the whole process meant “balancing between engagement with and resistance to these cultural forms” (130). So, even if correct in asserting the influence of the voyage through Latin America and the first encounters of forty-niners –whites, Protestants, from the East- with Latin Americans, he did not explain the nature of this influence and how it dictated other processes.  This blurring showed in terms like the “strange contradiction” (125) of Latin America, the “sublime mystery” (126) of Catholicism, and the “opulence” (127 and else) of environments in a region, all perceived as “lack of progress”. His assertion that “these kind of perceptions and experiences would frame the gold rush as a whole” (142) pretended to impose meaning to events, and not the opposite, as the result of these events. He went back to the idealism found in a 19th century thinker like Royce.  Instead, for Chan the whole process focused on the ethnic groups “whose presence affected how gold-rush society became stratified” (44) She established then a “direct linkage” between today’s multiethnic and diverse society in the state and the “unusual pattern” (45) of development due to the Gold Rush.  Roberts, but also Chan (pages 51-53) dwell on the voyage of the forty-niners on their way to California through Latin America. While Roberts described with much detail the changing of images and meanings in the groups involved, Chan just determined the end result, establishing how both forty-niners and Latin Americans benefited from these encounters.

Roberts divided groups not in a rigid and clear way but rather partially, blurred and doubtful. How did the experience of the miners in their way to California through Latin America express their class origin? Were their contacts with Hispanics all the same or different in the isthmus of Nicaragua and Valparaiso, Chile? Because change looked as a constant in the story of the miners, it remained difficult to define a category they belonged to. The instability in the values held by the miners in Roberts’s perception made it difficult, again, to grasp a truth, a reality, a valid statement. How did the miners finally arrive in California: as Victorian values holders? As repudiators of these values? Did the experience make it easier to develop smooth relations with Chilenos and Mexican miners once they arrived? Did they feel closer to those Latin Americans? There was no cohesive story, no master story capable of explaining everything, only different stories for each group which could contradict each other, or cause a zero sum, since images and representations differed, and each group held different accounts of reality. Roberts did not explain what happened next when the contact between Latin Americans and Yankee miners ended. No next step, no new stage, not a second period. He showed just a lonely and disconnected point in time. How did the change in the values the miners held influence events? This question remained unanswered. Finally, and stemming from these former limitations, Roberts could not dwell on how the experience and performance of the miners reacted with the advent of big capital.

Instead of these three approaches, historians should have studied the formation of groups during the Gold Rush period in California as related to antagonistic class relations between a forming mining proletariat and the increasingly powerful big business, so prevalent that in less than four years it replaced the prior temporary mode of production in this area. After all, Roberts characterized this as a “period of market revolution and class formation”. In the cohesion of groups they observed, they failed to consider the role of class formation, nor its two main implications: the degree of organization inside the proletariat, the class that would have been an antidote against the ethnic divisions that both Chan, and Roberts find natural, as well as their encounter with big capital as industrialization replaced the first stages of the gold rush.  Royce, a Whig historian, showed a national pool without differentiations. Chan, a social thinker, subordinated in this work the class division to the ethnic one, even though she recognized that “the miners’ nativism…contained a strong dose of class antagonism.” (59) Furthermore, she mentioned the real motor of development in social relations: the introduction of capital and the fact that white workers opposed, not the new type of exploitation stemming from it nor organized against it, but against ethnic workers: they did not welcome the “capitalists and their subservient cheap labor [which] were perceived as enemies of American workingmen.” (60)  Roberts, a cultural historian, showed the forty-niners as middle class people, full of Victorian values, at the moment they left the East coast; that they arrived to California not as contracted hands, but as independent small entrepreneurs, as not much more than squatters, occupying almost illegally a land just claimed by the US. And yet, very fast, they were referred to as “workingmen” by Chan, Royce, and Roberts, not as middle class. When did this change of class happen? How? No answer. This could have been studied as the consequence of the introduction of big capital, and as the primitive techniques of extraction declined in effect and profitability. The increase in the influx of investment capital –another way, in those days of growing, ascending, buoyant capitalism, to express the growing of the working class- had to be instrumental in the melding of workers into a cohesive group, as well as in the formation of ethnic consciousness. After all, this was not a vacation for the thousands upon thousands of workers in California, but tumultuous times, with the Mexican American war just over, revolution in Europe, the slavery question burning, Civil War on the edge, and a time of rapid changes in the relations of production.  A look into the Gold Rush from this point could better clarify the advancement of mining techniques and the fluctuation of “order” and “disorder” described by Royce, the development of an ethnic construction as in Chan, or the changes in the relationship and concepts held by forty-niners and Latin Americans. If such a study was conducted, ethnic confrontation could have been understood as an attempt by capitalists to lower costs, and to prevent a unified front of the working class. It succeeded in that, as white workers tended by turning to racist positions to separate themselves from non-white to assure themselves some crumbs in the capitalist process. In that sense, racist acts were the culmination of a construction of differences of workers based on ethnicity, where white workers –coming from middle class and farmers, feared and opposed turning into a part of the proletariat.

[1] Josiah Royce, California: A Study of American Character (1886), Chapter 4 “The Struggle for Order: Self-Government, Good Humor and Violence in the Mines,” 214-237, 295-296.

[2] Greg Critser, “The Golden Rush, Kevin Starr’s California” L.A. Weekly, 14 October 2005.

[3] Sucheng Chan, “A People of Exceptional Character: Ethnic Diversity, Nativism, and Racism in the California Gold Rush,” California History 2000 79 (2): 44-85.

[4] Brian Roberts, America Alchemy: The California Gold Rush and Middle-Class Culture (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000), Chapter 5, “A Great and Perverse Paradise,” 119-142.