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[Detail] "Sing Fat Co., Inc.": From San Francisco Chinatown (post-1910)

The Gold Rush and Antebellum Chinese Immigration

Trading vessels carried the news of the discovery of gold in California across the Pacific in the spring and summer of 1848. From the docks of the British colony, Hong Kong, word spread quickly throughout China. By 1851, 25,000 Chinese had left their homes for California, the land of gum saan, or "gold mountain." Most of these emigrants were part of a larger exodus of people who left China's southeast Guangdong, or Canton, Province in search of better economic opportunities and political freedom.

Trade relations brought the Chinese to California as early as the sixteenth century. The fledgling United States joined the China trade with the voyage of the Empress of China in 1784, and as trade between the two countries expanded, Chinese immigrants trickled into the United States. Use the Subject Index heading, Chinese and Westward Expansion, to access materials relating to Chinese immigration, including a biographical sketch of Captain Stephen Splivalo, who worked in Chinese trade and immigration in the nineteenth century. The author, Joseph Splivalo, uses his great-uncle's records to describe what the earliest Chinese immigrants' voyage across the Pacific must have been like:

"Some Chinese emigrants had come to California in sailing ships even before the discovery of gold. American brig 'Eagle' was the first vessel to bring Chinese settlers to California. Even at its best the trip from China to California in sailing ships must have been miserable. The poor people were herded in the hold of the ship like a flock of sheep, with no sanitation; their food consisted of a rice cooked in water with some pork fat. Water was very scarce as the ship did not have huge water tanks; on long trips they depended on rain after the initial supply of water ran out. The Chinese were permitted to come on deck in small numbers when the weather was good, but during heavy wind and waves they remained in the hold of the ship with almost no light, save the little that came through the openings for air. In storms even those openings were tightly closed and the people in the hold remained in utter darkness till the storm abated. In the darkness, with ship rolling, the Chinese were thrown against the side of the ship and on top of each other. Even during a trip with fair weather, many Chinese emigrants died and were thrown into the sea. If the ship sank during the storm everyone in the hold was drowned. How many died and drowned will never be known."

Captain Stephen Splivalo: typescript, page 5

In his El Campo de los Sonoraenses or: Three years residence in California, William Perkins describes the later voyage of Chinese immigrants during the gold rush. Aboard the steamer, New World, Perkins observed "two hundred arrivals from the Celestial Empire, on their way to the Northern gold diggings":

"They were mostly dressed in the national costume, peticoat trousers reaching to the knees, big jackets lined with sheep or dog-skin, and quilted, and huge basket hats made of split bamboo. The lower part of their legs encased in blue cotton stockings, made of cloth and not knit, and are attached to shoes also made of thick cotton cloth, and with soles fully an inch in depth.

These people form a peaceable and hardworking class of our population, but are of very little service or benefit to commerce or to the state, as they consume little of the food or merchandise of the country. Rice, their great staple, they generally bring over with them in vast quantities, and when a Chinaman amasses a small amount of cash, he immediately returns home to the 'flowery land.' This determination seems to be in almost all the cases premeditated, for none have brought their wives and children Some time ago it was calculated that there were no less than fifteen thousand Chinamen in California, and at the same time there were only three Chinese women. Within the last six months however, Celestials of the softer sex have been speculating in the California mania. Some three or four scores of girls have come over. Their means of livelihood is uniform, and they help to add a darker shade to the profligacy of San Francisco."

From El Campo de los Sonoraenses or: Three years residence in California

  • How would you characterize Perkins's attitude towards the Chinese immigrants?
  • According to Perkins, why wasn't the population of Chinese immigrants a benefit to the state of California?
  • Why didn't many Chinese women immigrate to California?

Some of the first Chinese prospectors to arrive in California staked claims along the American River north of Sacramento. Search on miner for materials, including a number of sketches, lithographs, and photographs portraying Chinese prospectors at work. Read letters and journals by Americans such as Timothy Coffin Osborn, who encountered a group of Chinese miners in the vicinity of his party's claim. An entry in his journal for December 26, 1850, includes a sample of Chinese characters that Osborn requested from one of his new neighbors:

"A company of Chinese have been building a log cabin near us for several days past. They are mostly young men apparently of good 'blood' and very polite towards us. I like to talk with them, and ask them hundreds of questions about their native land, for they are intelligent and one of them speaks good English. Most of them wear long cues, neatly braided, and hung in little knots at the end. I asked one of them the reason of his wearing his hair short. 'In America me wear 'em cut — in China all sem oder Chinaman.' Here is a specimen of his writing which he gave me at my request."

From Timothy Coffin Osborn journal

Osborn's friendly curiosity was not necessarily the rule among American prospectors. Robert Pitkin wrote a letter to his parents from the North Fork of the American River mentioning the influx of Chinese miners and the hostility they faced in 1852:

"Dear Parents Brothers and sisters . . . I am now in the same place I was in last summer I am onely making small wages a great many are hardly making board there is a great difference between the times now and this time last year I am getting tiard of mineing and think this winter will about finish my mineing . . . The emigrants that are coming in this fall will be apt to have a hard time of it People will learn after while that evry man that comes to Cal does not make a fortune. This country is fast getting filled up with Chinamen They are coming by thousands all the time The miners in a great many plases will not let them work The miners hear drove off about 200 Chinamen about two weeks ago but they have com back about as thick as ever (I would not help drive them off as I thought they had no rite to drive them)"

From Robert W. Pitkin letter to his parents: Jones' Bar, California

When Chinese miners were not driven away, they were often forced to work older claims or to assist other miners. Legislation also created obstacles to Chinese immigrants. In the 1850s, the Constitution reserved the right of naturalization for white immigrants, making it impossible for Chinese immigrants to own land or file mining claims. At the same time, California passed a law taxing all foreign miners, but through 1870 it was enforced mainly against Mexicans and Chinese.

  • What can you infer from Pitkin's letter about the reasons for American hostility towards the Chinese?
  • What sentiments are reflected in these illustrations of Chinese miners and gamblers? How does the artist convey these sentiments?
  • Why do you think Pitkin objected to the action taken by other miners?
  • How successful were most prospectors in California during the gold rush?
  • How did the gold rush experience impact the Chinese immigrant experience?

For more on these topics, see the Teachers page Presentation, Immigration.