The foreign miner laws

Prejudices of the early miners against foreigners soon translated into rules and regulations in some districts. And there were many men of bad character who came to California, particularly from Australia and Mexico. The Australians, known as Sidney Ducks, were for the most part recently released convicts and prone to cause trouble, but because they spoke English they were harder to distinguish than the Spanish speakers. Due to the recent war there was already a lot of hatred of Mexicans and a great many who came from the provinces of Sinola and Sonora were more inclined to gambling and banditry than mining and caused considerably more discord. The antipathy between the Mexicans and the Americans resulted in several outbreaks of violence and was a leading reason for the imposition of a foreign miners tax of twenty dollars per month enacted by the first state legislature on April 13, 1850. This ill-advised law created a great deal of indignation and in a number of incidents the threat of violence and bloodshed was high. This caused many of the white miners to despise all Spanish-speaking miners.

Mexican miner 1862

In some districts, especially in the southern mines, in addition to the foreign miners tax anyone who was not a citizen of the United States, or who had not declared their intention of becoming a citizen, was barred from mining, either for themselves or for others. Then, in 1853, the foreign miners license tax law was re-enacted with a more reasonable four dollar tax, something non-citizens were more inclined to pay, and it also gave statutory rights to foreign miners that no local laws could contravene. After this the Chinese began to flock into the mines in great numbers. By their industry and thrift they reduced the price of labor, and possibly because of this very same thriftiness they were regarded as hoarding gold and not letting it circulate throughout the economy, and so they unwittingly evoked some of the most violent hatred against foreigners. Many claimed the Chinese were all thieves, but in truth these non-English speaking immigrants could not compare to the oily-tongued embezzlers who wormed their way into their victims’ confidence under a cloak of respectability, and in most cases were the likely origin of the anti-Chinese feelings in the first place. If all the thefts by Chinese were added together they would be but a tiny fraction of the larceny and thievery of the white population. Still, as the mines were becoming more dominated by large companies, it was the competition for wages that sat at the heart of the majority of the indignation.

Chinese Gold Miners

The Columbia District in Tuolumne County was one of the first to decree that no Asiatic or South Sea Islander should be allowed to mine either for themselves or others, and further that anyone who sold a claim to such a person would not be allowed to own a claim themselves for six months. As the prejudice against them grew the Chinese were barred from holding claims even by purchase, but in some locations they were allowed to work grounds that had been abandoned by white miners, and where ever they worked the Chinese generally made money, even in places where the whites, with their tendency to waste both time and means, would starve. They were so thorough that once land had passed through their hands everyone knew that all the gold had been found. Without the numbers or the inclination to resist their wretched treatment they were gradually forced from the mines. They took positions as common laborers and later as railroad workers, and because they accepted lower wages they did more damage to white labor than they would have had they been allowed to mine, with full privileges, from the beginning.

Chinese Emigration to America aboard the steamship Alaska



  1. Harold Grice says

    There is evidence that the Sidney Ducks were the main cause of fires in SF. They would set up in place then start a fire. As the residence of business evacuated, the Sidney gang would help themselves to wares and money. It was finally settled when a group of SF ‘ers got together and visited the gangs quarters.

    • Yes, most of the early fires were likely arson and the Sidney Ducks certain took advantage of them but at least one was caused by a cooking fire. The bottom line is that San Francisco in those days, as were most gold rush towns, was a tinderbox full of hastily constructed wooden buildings and the city had no fire department and no organized way to fight fires. If you’ve ever been to the city you probably know that the winds from the Pacific Ocean can be fierce and will blow a fire across town rapidly. The good news is the city began building in brick. The bad news is those brick buildings collapsed in the earthquake. Thanks for your comment, Harold. It is greatly appreciated.

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