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Early Accounts of Indians in the California Gold Rush

Newspaper reports, letters, and guidebooks from the early days of the Gold Rush clearly indicate the presence of Native Americans working as miners. Reports from 1848 and early 1849 estimate there were about twice as many Indian miners as white miners. From the reports it is not always clear whether Indians were free or unfree, though most were probably working as indentured servants for white miners, continuing a pattern of labor long established under the Spanish and Mexican governments. White observers’ descriptions of Native Americans often are full of stereotypes about savage, childish, or lazy Indians.

New York Journal of Commerce, 29 August 1848 

[The people of California] make the most who employ the wild Indians to hunt it for them. There is one man who has sixty Indians in his employ; his profits are a dollar a minute. The wild Indians know nothing of its value, and wonder what the pale faces want to do with it; they will give an ounce of it for the same weight of coined silver, or a thimbleful of glass beads, or a glass of [alcohol]. 

Emigrant’s Guide to California, 1849 (published in Europe) 

[Emigrants should hurry to California] to enrich themselves by the gold, which they may gather themselves, or to make the Indians work for them. …[California Indians], being most of them docile, can be made to be of great service, after they are once trained into submission. 

Bayard Taylor, Eldorado, Or Adventures in the Path of Empire, 1850 (describing a conversation with a long-time white resident of California) 

[She expressed] her resentment against the said emigrants [from the eastern United States], on account of their treatment of the Indians… “Afore these here emigrants come,” said she, “the Injuns were as well-behaved and bidable as could be; I liked ‘em more ‘n the whites. When we begun to find gold on the Yuber [River], we could git ‘em to work for us day in and day out fur next to nothin’. We told ‘em the gold was stuff to whitewash houses with, and give ‘em a [handkerchief] for a tin-cup full; but after the emigrants begun to come along and put all sorts of notions into their heads, there was no gettin’ them to do nothin’.” 

San Francisco Alta California, 1850 (quoting major general of the California militia who criticzed white miners for paying Indians in food and clothing only) 

This is not only wrong, but highly disgraceful, when [Indians] would be content with the pay of one-fourth of the wages of a white man. 

E. Gould Buffum, Six Months in the Gold Mines, 1850 (describing independent Indian miners) 

When the gold was first discovered, they had little conception of its value, and would readily exchange handfuls of it for any article of food they might desire, or any old garment gaudy enough to tickle their fancy. Latterly, however, they have become more careful, and exhibit a profounder appreciation of the worth of the precious metal.

Source | Excerpts quoted in James J. Rawls, Indians of California: The Changing Image, (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1984). Quote from Bayard Taylor, Eldorado, or Adventures in the Path of Empire (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1850), 202.
Creator | Various
Item Type | Newspaper/Magazine
Cite This document | Various, “Early Accounts of Indians in the California Gold Rush,” HERB: Resources for Teachers, accessed November 22, 2019, https://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/1731.

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