Chileans in California

Samuel Brannan's famous announcement in San Francisco that gold had been discovered on the American River took place on May 12, 1848. One of the ships in San Francisco harbor at the time was the J.R.S., a brig out of Valparaiso, Chile, Alfredo Andrews, captain. At the time gold was being purchased in San Francisco for $8 to $10 cash per ounce ($14 to $16 per ounce in trade for merchandise). The supercargo on the J.R.S. had just sold his cargo of merchandise for $4,000 and he offered to purchase all of the gold brought to him for $12 per ounce cash. How much gold he was able to buy is unknown, but the ship remained in port for six weeks and it is thought that he probably accumulated a great deal. In Valparaiso gold was worth $17 an ounce and in Europe $18 an ounce. By the time that the J.R.S. sailed for home on June 14, 1848, the younger members of its crew and most of San Francisco had left for the gold fields.

The J.R.S. reached Valparaiso on August 19, 1848. Andrews and his crew were the first to bring news of the discovery to Valparaiso. Rumors spread rapidly through the city, but the news did not gain wide credibility until other ships and newspapers confirmed the rumors. By September, however, a flow of eager gold seekers began boarding ship in Valparaiso for California. By the end of the year it was difficult to find a berth of any kind on any kind of vessel. All elements of society joined the flow of people to California. Those who could afford the expense of the trip went as individuals, partnerships were formed, and wealthy entrepreneurs financed parties of laborers who agreed to work for wages. Gold had been mined in Chile for centuries and many of the Chilean argonauts were experienced gold miners.

The flow of Chileans began arriving in San Francisco before the end of 1848 and consequently they were well ahead of the wave of 49ers who were just beginning to leave the eastern part of the United States. By in large the Chileans were young, single, uneducated, and did not speak English. The majority of them headed for the gold fields as soon as they could. Because many of them knew what they were doing they managed to occupy some of the better placer claims and began extracting respectable amounts of gold. Some of the luckier miners took their profits and returned to Chile, but the majority stayed well into 1849. Anglo-European miners arriving in 1849 were racially prejudiced against Hispanic people and resented their success in the mines. Little difference was made between people from Mexico, Peru or Chile. As the newcomers saw it, they were all inferior people and had no right to mine American gold.

Not all Chileans made it to the gold fields. Some remained in San Francisco, Sacramento and Stockton where they frequently worked as bricklayers, bakers, or seamen. Some with capital established themselves in various businesses, particularly the importation of flour and mining equipment from Chile. In the cities most tended to congregate and live in specific areas in the poorer sections of town. In the gold fields they lived in separate camp sites. In the summer of 1849 Chileans constituted the major element in the population of Sonora. Chileans frequently worked their mines as group efforts. When the placer gold ran out around Sonora the Chileans were some of the first miners in California to extract gold from quartz. Estimates are that Chileans took some $15 million out of the Sierras by the fall of 1849. The more successful they were and the more crowded the gold fields became the more resentment built up against them in the Anglo-European community.

At first, violence was sporadic and isolated between individual miners. One on one the Chileans gave as good as they got, but the wave of Anglo-Europeans that arrived in California in 1849 eventually overwhelmed them. The antagonisms inherent in the recently concluded war with Mexico colored relationships between Hispanics and the Anglo-European community. By the middle of 1849 an increasing number of Chilean miners were being driven off of their claims and many were congregating in San Francisco. Many hundreds of displaced Chileans arrived in the city in June. By July more Chileans were leaving California than were arriving.

On July 15, 1849, San Francisco exploded in violence. The riot was touched off late at night by an argument over a Chilean courtesan named Felice Alvarez. Felice had been entertaining a German gentleman by the name of Leopold Bleckschmidt when Sam Roberts discovered them together. Roberts dragged Bleckschmidt into the street and beat him severely. Following the fight, Roberts and a group of friends visited several saloons and began drinking heavily. Violence quickly erupted and a great deal of property was destroyed. Other groups joined in and a full scale riot resulted. Most of the gangs were Anglo-European in composition and their targets were Hispanic, particularly Chileans.

The next morning a meeting was held in the center of San Francisco and the first Vigilante Group was formed to deal with the riot. Sam Brannan spoke favorably of the contribution that the Chileans made to San Francisco and deplored the night of rioting. He identified the perpetrators of the violence as being a group known as the "Hounds" and named Sam Roberts as being their leader. The Vigilante Judge, William Gwin, sentenced Roberts to ten years hard labor, but the Chilean community was not reassured. As word got back to Chile about the riot considerable anti-American feeling was aroused in that country, but it was offset by the stimulative effects of the gold rush on the economy. Millions of dollars in gold had already flowed into the country and the American 49ers who had chosen to travel around Cape Horn were just arriving in Valparaiso on their way to California. The economy in Chile was booming.

After the July anti-Chilean riots in San Francisco, violence between Anglo-Europeans and Chileans continued at a lower level. One of the more important instances of conflict occurred in December 1849 when Anglo-European miners in Calaveras County drew up a local mining code that called for all foreign miners to leave the country within 15 days. The so-called "Chilean War" resulted in several deaths and the expulsion of Chilean miners from their claims. Accounts vary widely about the details. Some include mention of Joaquin Murieta's involvement on the side of the Chileans. The events in Calaveras County projected the Murieta legend into the politics of Chile where anti-American politicians used it to garner votes. In California, as the placer mines began to give out, Chileans remaining in California blended into the greater Hispanic community. Racial prejudice did not disappear in the state, but for Anglo-Europeans it gradually lost its nationalistic focus.