Chinese in the Gold Rush

Of all the diverse peoples that poured into California after the discovery of gold, none stood out more than the Chinese. Radically different in dress, language and culture these new men were first welcomed because of their willingness to work hard for low wages at any task presented them. John McDougall, the 2nd Governor of California, described them as “one of the most worthy of our newly adopted citizens.” At the start of 1849 only 54 Chinese were in California. By 1852 there were nearly 12,000 living here and only seven of them women. Because of turmoil in Canton another 20,000 would arrive that same year.

Chinese Gold Miners

A community of Chinese Americans quickly grew in San Francisco. They marched in Fourth of July parades and rejoiced at California’s statehood, but celebrated their lunar new year in their traditional way. In 1852 a Cantonese opera was performed at the American Theater and in 1854 a Chinese language newspaper began publishing. The Kong Chow Association formed to help the new arrivals adapt to their new home. Then another, the Chew Yick, elected Norman As-sing, an English speaking owner of the Macao and Woosung Restaurant as their leader. Soon there were six associations called tongs that combined to form the Six Companies to better represent Chinese interest.

Chinese camp in the mines, JD Borthwick

In the mines the Chinese were often forced to work sites that others had abandoned as no longer productive and, by hard work, they made these claims pay. As more men arrived in the gold fields and the amount of surface gold dwindled, tensions increased. Thirty-five Chinese showed up at Camp Salvado in 1849 where men from El Salvador had worked and here they found rich placer deposits. White miners soon arrived and pushed the Chinese out, but they were taken in at another nearby site called Camp Washington where still more gold was found. Chinese flocked to a place where they were accepted and Tuolumne County’s Chinese Camp survives to this day.

Chinese man mining along a river

But by 1850 a $20 per month tax on each foreign miner was imposed. By 1852 Chinese were forced from Mormon Island and Horseshoe Bar along the American River, then from Colombia in the southern mines and Yuba City in the northern. In 1856 Chinese paid $70,000 for the right to mine in Mokelumne Hill. By 1868 almost all Chinese had left the mines to work on the transcontinental railroad or in Chinese operated businesses.


  1. Sometimes we forget that the West was built and populated by more than just Cowboys and Robber Barons. Loved this post.

    • People came to America for a new life and when gold was found in California a whole new crop of people came in from all over the world. I think it must have been a extremely exciting time. Thanks for your comment, Doris.

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