Gold’s Formative Impact on California
Gold was discovered in California on January 24, 1848. How significant was that discovery to the history and evolution of the state?
Author Robert Cowley has compiled the writings of several prominent historians into a book called What If? in which historical events are re-imagined: What would have become of Christianity if Pontius Pilate had spared Jesus? What would the United States be like if Abraham Lincoln had not issued the Emancipation Proclamation? What if the Chinese had “discovered” the New World rather than the Europeans?
Interesting questions all (with more explored in the book).
Although not a historian, I decided to explore a “What If…” scenario of my own. Because I believe that the advent of the California Gold Rush of 1848 made the state what it is today, I wanted to know: What if gold had never been discovered in California?
Background to the Golden State
With or without gold, it is safe to assume that California was destined to be a possession of the United States and, eventually, a state.
Prior to James Marshall’s discovery of gold in the American River on January 24, 1848, California was a remote outpost belonging to Mexico. But the Mexican-American War (fought for U.S. possession of the territories that include current-day Arizona, Nevada, Utah, California and portions of New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming as well as final confirmation that Texas belonged to the U.S.) had ended months before the gold that triggered the rush was found. California’s value to the U.S. government was not due to precious metal.
Then-President James Polk (and many of his time) believed it was the providence of the United States to expand its reach from the Atlantic to Pacific Oceans (and beyond): a concept called “Manifest Destiny.” Spurred on by Richard Henry Dana Jr.’s accounts of the untapped riches and beauty of California in his non-fiction work Two Years Before the Mast (published in 1840), California was considered a worthy prize well before any gold. Land, in general, was a worthy prize for the young United States.
At the conclusion of the Mexican-American War, California was to be just another territory. Like all other U.S. possessions, California was expected to go through the normal evolution toward statehood: the territory would be opened to homesteaders whose numbers would expand until they reached the critical mass necessary to apply for statehood – a process that could take years, perhaps decades to accomplish. In time, the State of California would be admitted to the Union by a careful and plodding Congress, and all would be well.
But gold changed all of that for California. The discovery of gold triggered the most massive human migration in history and altered the course of thousands of lives, disrupted politics as usual in Washington, D.C., and transformed the complexion of the would-be State of California forever.
Gold rocked California just as surely as any earthquake. It was gold that had a direct influence on California’s Statehood, Society, and, unexpectedly, Slavery.
California was the 31st State admitted to the Union.
The standard progression toward statehood at the time was that the United States government would acquire a territory (like the Louisiana Territory, for example), opening that up to homesteading Americans. Once the population of any given area reached critical mass (60,000 at the time), the territory could apply for statehood and, at the next session of Congress, the application would be accepted or denied.
In the 1800s, reaching a population of 60,000 took time, as is evident from the progress made by the five states admitted to the Union just prior to California:
- 26th – Michigan. Established as a territory in 1803, achieved statehood in 1837: 34 years
- 27th – Florida. Established as a territory in 1822, achieved statehood in 1845: 23 years
- 28th – Texas. Established as a territory in 1836, achieved statehood in 1845: 9 years
- 29th – Iowa. Established as a territory in 1836, achieved statehood in 1846: 10 years
- 30th – Wisconsin. Established as a territory in 1836, achieved statehood in 1848: 12 years
The sleepy territory of California, however, was forever changed after the discovery of gold. Prior to 1848, the estimated population was 14,000, mostly of Mexican descent, and 20,000 indigenous Native Americans. Once gold was discovered, California added nearly 100,000 new immigrants to its population in less than two years.
31st – California. Established as a territory in 1848, achieved statehood in 1850: 2 years
Without a doubt California would have been admitted to the Union as a state sooner or later. However, in California’s case, it was sooner than anyone in their wildest dreams could have expected. No other state in the union was created so quickly.
What if? – Statehood Sans Gold
One of the reasons California was barely populated in 1848 (an estimated 34,000 throughout the entire territory, although the 20,000 indigenous people would not have been counted for statehood) was that it was so hard to get to. Even California’s native population had evolved differently from the Indians that inhabited the rest of the continent: physically they were isolated and, therefore, culturally and linguistically they developed in a different way.
By land the only way to California was over towering mountains or through one of the hottest deserts in North America: the eastern backbone of the territory was delineated by the Sierra Nevada, a formidable mountain range, terminating in the inhospitable Mojave Desert. There was simply no easy way around these obstacles — and that would remain true until after the American Civil War (1861 to 1865) when the Central Pacific Railroad finally broke through the Sierra on its way to meet with the Union Pacific Railroad at (or near) Promontory Summit, Utah in 1869.
By sea, U.S. travelers had to either cross the Isthmus of Panama or sail around Cape Horn. The Panamanian route meant risking life and limb as a result of canoeing through disease-ridden swamps and hiking through narrow mountain passes over plunging ravines. The journey around Cape Horn promised some of the most fickle and dangerous seas on the planet.
Had the territory simply been opened to homesteading, as was usual, California’s treacherous remoteness would probably have made it less appealing for most land-hungry American immigrants. Without the promise of great riches, immigrants from other lands would have been less inclined to leave their home countries. California’s path to statehood might have taken as long as Michigan’s had the presence of gold not enhanced its lure.
I was at a party recently where a woman was talking about America as a Melting Pot. She thought that was the wrong way to look at American society. Her opinion was that “Melting Pot” was just a mish-mash of cultures and ideals, but not something America should strive for. Instead, she suggested we would be better off thinking of ourselves as a mixed salad: each ingredient keeping its unique flavor while adding to the taste and variety of the whole. I LOVED the image this conjured — and have adopted it as my own.
The mass migration triggered by the presence of gold in California was not a homogeneous event: fortune hunters from around the globe flocked to the new territory in the hope of quick riches. These early pioneers were of one mind, but not of one culture or one peoples. They came from everywhere.
The early “Argonauts” – those gold hunters that would become California’s first citizens – were primarily from places other than the United States. News of gold reached Mexico and South America first, then spread to the South Pacific and Asia long before word (and the ultimate proof of the gold) had reached the East Coast of the United States. From the eastern States, gold fever spread out to the Plains States and other territories. The progression of news and the ultimate response was global.
Nowhere else on earth up to that point were so many languages and cultures represented in one place. The society of California during the early days of the Gold Rush was the most glorious mixed salad the world had yet seen.
What if? – Society Sans Gold
If California had been allowed to evolve slowly like most of the other states, it most certainly would have had a less cosmopolitan culture.
The eastern half of the United States of the 19th century was heavily influenced by its European cultural history. By contrast, California started as a Spanish (European, yes, but more limited in scope) then Mexican possession. Her immigrants during the Gold Rush were from Asia, the Middle East, Australia, Mexico, Central and South America, and Canada in addition to Europe. Then came the pioneers from the eastern and southern United States and its Mid-West States and Territories. While some immigrants may have ventured from Africa, because slavery was still legal in the United States, the additional “complications” kept the numbers from that continent low.
The Spanish and Mexican heritage is evident even today in the names of the towns and historical sites throughout the State. For years, San Francisco boasted one of the largest Chinese populations outside of Asia.
This is not to paint a rosy picture of the racism that was rampant in early California (as elsewhere), but only to highlight that the diversity of the population was unique for its time.
How, you ask, did California (way out West) have any influence on the slavery issue in the United States?
Surprisingly, a lot.
In November 1849, a meeting of representatives from across the territory convened in Monterey, California (the previous capital of Alta California when it was a Mexican territory) to produce a constitution in preparation for statehood. The intent was to have this document delivered to the U.S. Congress along with California’s bid to become a state. These new Californians wanted to be prepared.
Among the countless laws and resolutions adopted by the representatives at that 1849 convention, California had elected to join the Union as a Free State – no slavery.*
Californians were not prepared, however, for the reception of their new constitution in the Halls of Congress. When the junior senator from California (John C. Fremont) presented the newly crafted “State” constitution of California to the Representatives in early 1850, they summarily dismissed it. It was not the right of California to declare itself a state let alone elect senators and devise a constitution without sanction from Congress. Nor was it up to California to declare itself a Free State: that was to be determined by existing U.S. legislation such as the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and the Compromise of 1833 — legislation directly targeted at the issue of slavery.
California’s audacity reignited Congressional debates that had simmered beneath the surface for almost 20 years. Issues between state’s-rights advocates and those calling for strong centralized government, between pro-slavery and abolitionist factions flared. Additional compromises were introduced and hotly debated, resulting in the passage of legislation, such as The Fugitive Slave Act, that satisfied neither side of the issues and only served to open old wounds and cause new strife. The issue of slavery was never again allowed to rest in Congress, finally escalating to a horrific war.
* Before anybody pats themselves on the back for California’s progressive stance, foresight, and egalitarian approach to slavery, be aware that the 1849 collection of lawmakers barely passed the no-slavery resolution and did so primarily based on finances: free men had refused to work the California mines alongside slaves, and the economics of farming and ranching within California did not lend itself to the “peculiar institution.” Then there was the question of free blacks: a resolution to ban ALL blacks from the State, free or slave, lost at the 1849 convention by only one vote.
What if? – Slavery Sans Gold
The American Civil War was probably an inevitable tragedy. California’s entry into the Union as a self-proclaimed Free State only served to turn up the heat on an already contentious issue.
Had statehood been delayed for California (as would most probably have been the case were it not for the Gold Rush), then California’s “right” to declare itself a Free State would not have come into play at all. If California had been unable to attain critical mass before the advent of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, for example, it would not have become a state until well after The American Civil War had ended…with the conflict resolved in favor of California’s original stance.
How different would California be now? What if there had been no gold?