California by Kevin Starr – Chapter 4: Striking It Rich

california (1)One of the strange things about California is the sense that no one is really from California.  You don’t have to be here for long before you discover that almost everyone you meet here is from somewhere else.  Some may have moved here as children, others as adults, but California always feels like a collection of first generation immigrants/migrants, like a bunch of people who are here until they can strike it rich and go back home has millionaires.

Athough this feeling is common in many parts of the country, and may actually be an essential part of the American character, it’s something that can be clearly traced to the California Gold Rush.

While James Marshall discovered gold at John Sutter’s Mill on January 24, 1848, it wasn’t until a year later when President James K. Polk formally announced the discovery to the world that the international gold rush began.  Mr. Starr summarizes what happened to California after 1848:

Within the following two years, the Gold Rush fast-forwarded California into what historian Hubert Howe Bancroft would later describe as “a rapid, monstrous maturity.”  Within a year of President Polk’s announcements, the non-Native American population of Califorina was approaching one hundred thousand, up from the less than ten thousand of 1848.  Even more astonishingly, California had organized itsef as a state, bypassing territorial status, had held elections, and was petitioning Congress for admission into the Union.  Whithin three years of President Polk’s announcement, the non-Native American popuation had soared to 255,000, and a new metropolis, San Francisco, had sprung into existence like Atlantis rising from the sea. In just about very way possible–its internationalism, its racism, its heedless damage to the environment, its rapid creation of a political, economic, and technological infrastructure–the Gold Rush established, for better or worse, the founding paterns, the DNA code, of American California. Josiah Royce believed that the Gold Rush offered a case study in American character and hence was of importance to understanding the nation. Like the Revolutionary War, the Great Awakening, the Louisana Purchase, or the Civil War, the Gold Rush, according to many historians, constitutes a defining moment in the development of the United States.

I was struck by two things in this chapter. The first was they way California basically forced the Congress to make it a state.  The military governor of California saw that he would not be able to run the state after so many 49’ers arrived.  (Mr. Starr explains how difficult it was to get to California even in 1849. This was decades before the railroad, remember.) The military governor called for elections to select representatives to draw up a state constitution.  After this was done, he resigned giving the new state government authority to run California even before Congress had granted statehood.  Basically, there was nothing else Congress could do. California was already a state; they simply had to grant it statehood.  Even the question of slavery could not prevent this since statehood had the support of by southern and northern congressmen.

I was already fully aware of the racism that existed in the early days of American California, but I was still struck by it reading this chapter.  How is it that it was not possible to enforce the fugitive slaves laws in California, but it was possible to kidnap and enslave Native Americans?  The Native American population of California was reduced to under 30,000 people during this period through slavery and warfare.  But more than 4,000 former slaves and free blacks found a home in California after a movement to ban blacks from migrating was defeated.

The anti-Chinese laws of early California are well known to me, but I did not know that Spanish was one of California’s two official languages until 1879.  Even the proceedings of the convention that drew up the first state constitution were published in both English and Spanish.  It wasn’t until 1986 with the passage of Proposition 63 that English became the official language of California.  (Arguably the dumbest and most shameful piece of legislation passed by California voters until the passage of Proposition 8.)

And there is the story of Josefa.  Josefa was a Mexican woman, living with her common-law husband, also a Mexican, in the Gold Rush town of Downieville.  One night a drunken miner tried to break into their home.  The next morning, Josefa upbraided the miner who then publicly called her a whore.  She  stabbed him to death on the spot in a fit of rage.  Afterwards some two thousand men forcibly took Josefa to the gallows where she was hung in spite of being clearly pregnant at the time.  In her last words she angrily swore she would do it again if she had the chance.

There’s a plaque in Downieville commemorating the life and death of Josefa, but it’s not easy to find it.  Downieville is a charming town, by the way.  Not exactly easy to get to, but worth the drive.


6 thoughts on “California by Kevin Starr – Chapter 4: Striking It Rich

  1. California does indeed have a colourful history. My mother was one of those people that was actually born in California but never lived there and that was 88 years ago. Her parents were staying there at the time. Interesting history about the Spanish woman. Very sad.

  2. I hadn’t heard the Josefa story before. Ugh, truly beyond horrible! (but of course as you say a lot in the California story is truly beyond horrible!)

    1. Do I say that? Sometimes the way people read my posts is very different from the way I read them. Josefa’s story is awful, for her and for the man she stabbed to death, but I don’t think California’s history is particularly awful at all. Not when viewed in the light of the rest of the U.S.A., and let’s be honest in the light of most of human history.

      Kevin Starr’s book actually makes me kind of proud to be from California. I guess I have not been conveying that. I shall make more of an effort when I write about chapter 5.

      1. I guess I was filling in a bit from my own knowledge of the anti-Chinese actions taken in California and the treatment of Native Americans. (Sundown Towns by James Loewen in particular has some horror stories about what was done to the Chinese there.) Writing a blog post is really like writing a book sometimes in that you’ve got to deal with the Reader in the Text thing! :–)

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