The Negro came to California by all the major routes to the gold fields. There are many references to slave owners taking their slaves to California by the most common route, the overland route, and there are references to many wagon trains which included free Negroes in their complements.7 Still we cannot say with absolute certainty that most Negroes came overland to California because there are also references to Southerners bringing large numbers of their slaves to San Francisco by the Panama route.8
These slaves, destined for employment as miners in the valleys of the Mother Lode, worked as cooks, barbers, and servants for their masters and employers while enroute; and there is even one mention of a Negro who served as an overland guide. One forty-niner noted that a Virginia group, camped near him on the trail one night, included a Negro guide who attracted his attention because of his musical ability.9 Many Negroes who came to California came as slaves without any hope of obtaining their freedom, but it is clear that many free Negroes came to California during this period; future research may reveal that more free Negroes than slaves made the long journey West.

The long overland journey was a grueling experience for all travelers, but the sufferings of the Negro may have been greater than those of the white man because of his subordinate status. One account illustrates this possibility. Two men of an Alabama company had a quarrel and later, when one of them was away, the second took out his anger on the slave of the other. Fortunately, the men in the company protected the Negro from further harm.10 It is extremely unlikely that this was a unique occurrence. The presence of the Negro had a special meaning for some gold-seekers. One diarist noted that after leaving the artifacts of civilization his one reminder of his religion was the daily manifestations of faith quietly performed by a slave attached to the company.11 In another case, the evenings of the company were brightened by the singing of a group of Negroes.12

When the Panama route to the gold fields transformed the Isthmus into a boom area, a great number of Jamaican Negroes thronged Panama; most of them hoped to find work on the portages. These Negroes had known slavery in the relatively recent past: the British Emancipation Act had ended slavery in Jamaica in 1838; Colombia abolished it in the Isthmus in 1852. These newly freed men were involved in frequent open clashes with the American immigrants regardless of their color. Attempts were made by these local Negroes to persuade American slaves to escape while they were still on the Isthmus. Some American Negroes were kidnapped for ransom by gangs that thought this might be a lucrative business. There were those who remained in the Isthmus to go into the hotel business.13 However, the average experience of the Negro crossing the Isthmus was perhaps that of the average white man. The case of James Williams, a fugitive slave, who virtually hitch-hiked a good part of the way to California and included the Isthmus in his itinerary is unusual.14

The belief that most California Negroes of this period were slaves gains little support from the manuscript census. The county enumerations show that most Negroes came from Northern states and from those Upper South states that had immense free Negro populations. States like South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi contributed only a very small part of the Negroes who participated in the Gold Rush;15 Thus, there is the probability that many of the Negroes who arrived in California were free men. Many others undoubtedly came with the prospect of freedom. Slavery in the old South had long shown signs of deep decay as an economic institution, and many slave owners saw a last chance for income by permitting trusted slaves to go to the gold fields to earn their freedom.
Black gold miners working along with whites in Spanish Flat, California in 1852. (Courtesy California State Library)
by Rudolph M. Lapp
Professor of History Emeritus
College of San Mateo, California

The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 49, No. 2 (April, 1964), pp. 81-98
© Copyright 1964. All rights reserved.

When Marshall discovered gold on the South Fork of the American River, he initiated a change in the lives of tens of thousands of people of many races and nationalities. The Negroes of the United States, slave and free, were not exempt from this change. Even the Negroes of the West Indies and Latin America were caught up in the sweep of the Gold Rush. The literature of this period frequently mentions the slave and "persons of color," but too often they are merely noted as "someone's cook" or as a member of a passing party of immigrants. Some of the "mug books" of California's history refer to Negroes who "struck it rich," and other books report the fact of slave miners in the gold fields. There are places in the Mother Lode country that bear the name "Negro" or "Nigger" indicating that Negroes were present, but specific accounts of Negroes in California during the Gold Rush are not numerous. The most ambitious book attempting to show the role of the Negro in early California is marred by "mug book" deficiencies.1

From the first days of the conquest by the Americans, Negroes could be found in California,2 but after the discovery of gold was reported in the Eastern states, their number rapidly grew. By 1850, there were nearly a thousand in the state;3 by 1852, over two thousand;4 and by 1860, over four thousand5—or slightly more than one per cent of the total population. After 1860, the Negro population of the state increased slowly; in 1870 it was a little more than four thousand,6 and this slow rate of growth continued until the beginning of World War I.
click on photo to enlarge
1. Delilah Beasley, Negro Trail Blazers of California (Los Angeles, 1919).
2. Alcalde Walter Colton had a San Domingan mulatto cook who came to California with the Fremont party. Walter Colton, Three Years in California (Stanford, 1949), 235.
3. Compendium, Ninth Census (Washington, 1872), 29
4. Governor Bigler's Message and Report of the Secretary of Census of 1852 (published by state printers).
5. Compendium, 29.
6. Ibid.
7. Not definitive, but based on an examination of several dozen accounts.
8. From accounts cited in Lucille Eaves, A History of California Labor Legislation, (Berkeley, 1910), 90, 81.
9. Ralph Bieber (ed.), "Diary of a Journey from Missouri to California," in 1849, Missouri Historical Review XXIII (1928), 35
10. Richard Dillon (ed.), The Gila Trail (Norman, 1960), 83.
11. Ibid, 56.
12. Diary, MHR, 35.
13. Sarah Bixby-Smith, Adobe Days (Cedar Rapids, 1926 Rev.) 52; Amelia B. Neville, The Fantastic City (Boston, 1932), 29; John E. Minter, The Chagres (New York, 1948), 250-1; Elizabeth Martin (ed.), "The Hulbert Walker Letters," California Historical Society Quarterly XXXVI (1957) 142; Panama Herald,
April 28, 1851; footnote, George Tinkham, California Men and Events (Stockton, 1915), 134.
14. James Williams, Life and Adventures of James Williams (San Francisco, 1873), 24-29.
15. Ms. Returns, Population Schedules, Seventh. Census, El Dorado, Sacramento and Tuolomne Counties; Eighth Census,
El Dorado, Sacramento, Tuolomne and San Francisco Counties. (Microfilm, Bancroft Library).
Site Manager Myra Wysinger

Blacks in Gold Rush California
(Yale Western Americana Series)
by Rudolph Lapp

Paperback: 336 pages

"Thoroughly researched, intelligently organized, and effectively presented." - Kenneth Wiggs Porter, American Review

"This study does a great deal to fill a void in a field where so little has been done. It has brought together the author's many years of study and is both well researched and well written . . . It should be on the shelf of anyone interested in black history in the United States." - W. Sherman Savage, Southern California Quarterly

"A solid account of black forty-niners who went West to seek their fortune. Much detail is given to their life in mining communities and their relationships with other minorities and with whites."
The Washington Post

Book first published in 1919:

The Negro Trail Blazers of California
by Delilah Leontium Beasley

A Compilation of Records from the California Archives in the Bancroft Library at the University of California, in Berkeley; and from the Diaries, Old Papers and Conversations of Old Pioneers in the State of California. It is a True Record of Facts, as They pertain to the History of these Black Pioneers.

317 pages

Publisher: Greenwood Press Reprint; Reprint edition (December 31, 1969)

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