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Collection California as I Saw It: First-Person Narratives of California's Early Years, 1849 to 1900

From Gold Rush to Golden State

The first federal census conducted in California in 1860 counted 308,000 residents--population had almost tripled since 1847. While gold mining was still an important factor in the state economy, Californians were finding other ways to earn a living. By the mid 1850s, the state's farms had made California self-sufficient in raising wheat. Cattle ranching flourished, and by 1860, local ranches produced four times as many cows as they had in 1848. Still, everyone in the booming state was painfully aware of the difficulties of bringing goods in and sending them out: there was still no rail link to the eastern United States.

Illustration XVI: In the heart of Chinatown, San Francisco, 1892. Stereo, Underwood & Underwood, 1902. LC-USZ62-70338. #47088

There were other, more ominous signs of the transition from the Gold Rush boom to the problems of a permanent society. Even in the 1850s, as the limits of the gold bonanza for single, independent miners became apparent, white "American" miners were resentful of the other national groups represented in the camps. While they usually accepted non-English-speaking Europeans, they had less tolerance for Latin American miners and none at all for Chinese. In 1850, the new California legislature adopted a Foreign Miners License Law, charging all non-U.S. citizens $20 per month. This fee proved unreasonably high, and the law was repealed the next year. Before the law was repealed, however, many Chinese left the mining camps, moving to San Francisco, where they soon established themselves in the city's business community and created America's first "Chinatown." But many more came to the "Mountain of Gold." The height of Gold Rush immigration came in 1852: of the 67,000 people who came to California that year, 20,000 were from China. Chinese miners who continued their search for gold found increasingly harsh treatment at the hands of their fellow miners. The legislature adopted a new foreign miners' tax of $4 per month, and anti-Chinese feeling surfaced in many mining camps.

At last the railroads came, and the end of California's physical isolation from the rest of the United States not only changed the economy but altered anti-Chinese attitudes. Debate on the route of a transcontinental railroad was unable to overcome disagreement over whether the railway should follow a northern or a southern path, until the coming of the Civil War in 1861. With the slave states part of the Confederacy, this sectional stumbling block vanished. Indeed, the construction of the railroad may have been the most important immediate effect of that war on California. Although a California battalion served in Virginia and other California troops were sent to New Mexico, most volunteers who enlisted never left the state and spent their military service guarding federal installations. California wheat and wool from California sheep did their part for the Union effort as well.

In January 1863 work began on the Central Pacific line that was to run east from Sacramento and link California with the East. On May 10, 1869, at Promontory Point, Utah, it joined its sister road extending from the East, the Union Pacific. But completion of the Central Pacific rested on the use of Chinese laborers. At one time, more than 10,000 Chinese worked on the line. White workers proved unreliable, unwilling to face the dangers and grueling work when rumors of new gold and silver strikes promised easier alternatives. The Chinese, on the other hand, demonstrated physical courage and intellectual resourcefulness in meeting the challenges of laying track and handling the high explosives needed to blast routes through the Sierras. Many also helped build the Northwest Pacific and Southern Pacific lines. In 1870, there were 63,000 Chinese in the United States, almost all in California.

The railroads the Chinese built, however, contributed to a situation in which racial bias became still more ugly. As railroads spread throughout the state, California's economy and population patterns quickly changed. Easy access to rail lines made citrus growing and other large scale agricultural pursuits an important element in the state economy.

Illustration XVII: Orange Pickers, Los Angeles, ca. 1895. Stereo, Kilburn. LC-USZ62-78372. #25467

Farming in California never resembled the model seen in the Midwest or the Plains, where homesteaders could acquire cheap government land for family farms. Once it became clear that the United States would control California in 1846, the Mexican governor Pío Pico hurriedly signed 800 land grants, giving them fraudulent dates so that they would appear to precede the American takeover. Even earlier land grants tended to be vague and contradictory in wording, no matter what other claims they had to validity, and this meant that much of the best land for farming and ranching lay with old grants that were to be challenged in the courts over decades. Only the well-to-do could afford to spend this much time and money, and would-be small farmers usually had to content themselves with being squatters or giving up their dreams. This pattern was strengthened with the coming of the major rail lines: much of the remaining public land went to the railroads as subsidies for constructing their lines.

Farming in California was therefore always commercial farming, the patterns of land ownership reinforced by the need to invest substantial money in irrigation and reclamation. Irrigation, in turn, did not become feasible during the boom of canals and stream diversion in mining. Thus it was not until the 1860s that large scale, irrigated farming became common. When major rail construction ended in the early 1870s, Chinese laborers moved easily into agriculture, proving themselves skilled farm workers and enterprising operators of small garden farms of their own. The expansion of irrigation canals in Southern California also drew the Chinese to these farms, making this group of immigrants a statewide phenomenon.

Accordingly, hostility to the Chinese spread from the northern mining camps to farming regions and factory sites throughout the state. Anti-Chinese sentiment was exacerbated by the fact that the transcontinental railroad had ended California's comparative insulation from economic cycles in the rest of the United States. A national depression in the mid 1870s struck California, where labor leaders like Denis Kearney fired anti-Chinese feeling. In 1882, Congress passed the first Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred further Chinese immigration for ten years.