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

Other Californians

If California was an exciting and hospitable place for newcomers, it no longer served the needs of groups that had lived there before the Gold Rush. Every year, illness and armed skirmishes took their toll on the Native Americans in the state. The Spanish, Mexicans, and mission fathers had confined their activities to the coast, and the tribes and clans inland had suffered comparatively little by contact with Europeans. However, the Gold Rush took prospectors and peddlers precisely to the mountains where Native Americans had earlier lived in peace. The Indians now suffered not only from the spread of disease and violence at the hands of prospectors and settlers but also from the white Americans' greed for land. The newcomers seldom honored any legal safeguards for the tribes under Mexican deeds, and the Natives were not even safe on reservations set aside for them by the government. If whites wanted the lands for gold mining or other purposes, the tribes found themselves shunted to even more desolate reservations. And every year, the expanding network of railroads brought more whites closer to the lands of California's native peoples.

Illustration XXII: Going to a Fandango. Wood engraving. From Frost, Pictorial History of California, 1850. LC-USZ62-962. #4757

Californians of Mexican origin did not face exile to reservations or large scale campaigns of extermination, but their place in California society was also irrevocably changed by the Gold Rush and its consequences. In the early 1850s, Hispanic rancheros thrived, as tens of thousands of new residents eagerly bade for the fresh meat their herds of cattle offered. Miners of Hispanic background fared less well. In the minefields, anti-Mexican prejudice often took a violent turn, and many Mexican and Chilean miners left California after the first few years of the Gold Rush.

In the long run, Mexican Californian ranchers did no better. Disputes over the validity of the Mexican and Spanish land grants quickly ate up the fortunes of most of these families. Even when United States courts eventually ruled in their favor, the costs of keeping a case alive over ten or twenty years were devastating. After the Gold Rush, California ceased to be a land of opportunity for further Mexican immigration, and the number of Hispanic Californians remained relatively constant in the face of exploding white immigration. In 1846, some 11,500 of California's 14,000 non-indigenous residents were of Spanish or Mexican descent. By 1850, Spanish-speaking Californians were only 15 percent of the non-Indian population; by 1870, only 4 percent. Still, until the 1870s, Mexican Californians remained a sizable portion of the residents and voters in Southern California. With the coming of railroads and development of that southern region, Hispanics lost even local influence. Californians of Mexican background had simply ceased to matter to those who had taken power. Only when their numbers were reinforced by new Hispanic immigration in the twentieth century would they again be a force in California's politics and culture.

One group fared particularly well in the California society that took shape in the last half of the nineteenth century. Like most Far Western states, California showed a special appreciation for women and their role in creating a new society. In part, this was because there were at first so few women at hand, and male Californians went out of their way to show them deference. But beyond this, male forty-niners could not ignore the courage and physical strength displayed by their sisters, wives, and daughters in dealing with the hardships of early California life. It was impossible to pretend that women were weak or helpless when they proved the opposite every day they spent on the Pacific frontier. California's first constitution of 1849 recognized this special appreciation of women by guaranteeing the right of married women to the control of their own property. The need for women to show self-reliance and economic self-sufficiency did not end with the Gold Rush. Throughout the rest of the nineteenth century, California women remained remarkable for their ability to make their own way.