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¡§When the Okies left Oklahoma and moved to California, it raised the I

The Gift of Gold                                                      Johnny Wu


Born on September 3, 1940, Kevin Starr is an American historian who is best-known for his multi-volume series on the history of California. He received his B.A. from the University of San Francisco in 1962 and a doctorate from Harvard University in 1969 in American Literature, and he has served as California State Librarian from 1994 to 2004. Currently, Starr is a Professor of History at the University of Southern California.



On the crisp morning of January 24, 1848, John Marshall, an employee at Sutter¡¦s Mill, discovered tiny specks of metal as he was inspecting the channel surrounding the sawmill. Instinctively believing that his discovery had some hidden value, Marshall immediately presented it to the other mill workers and insisted on assaying its origins. After performing a ¡§lye test and malleability¡¨ assessment, he and his fellow carpenters concluded that the specks could be of no other metal than gold, and they quickly spread news of their jackpot to nearby towns.1  Though seemingly insignificant compared to the political turmoil at the time, this first discovery of gold would later hallmark a decade of mass migration and societal growth, prompting the rapid development of the newly founded state of California. More importantly, however, was the international attention it garnered, which led not only to the settlement of diverse groups of people but also to the growing status of California as a new global front. These changes, tracked in Kevin Starr and Richard Orsi¡¦s Rooted in Barbarous Soil, faced initial trepidation and backlash but inevitably shaped modern-day California as a diverse and cultured community.

Initially, the authors describe the first waves of migration during the fledgling years of the Gold Rush. At first, the arrival of news about the gold discoveries in the eastern half of America had been greeted with much skepticism. However, the truth of the stories mounted nevertheless, and the discoveries achieved universal acceptance when President James K. Polk publicly confirmed the gold in California. Soon after, almost every citizen was afflicted by wild, uninhibited enthusiasm, and the news spread to every corner of the American continent. Immediately, settlers left their families back East and began to pour into California, spurred by a wide range of motives. For most, wealth was the primary factor. However, the allure of treasure also offered young people escape from what they thought of as the limited horizons of Eastern prospects, and it opened seemingly infinite opportunities to the restless youth. By 1849, the news of Californian gold had spread throughout the world; just as American citizens were seduced by the enormous wealth obtainable through gold, so too were the Europeans and Asians. As the Gold Rush continued in full force, immigrant settlement skyrocketed, with some ethnic minorities gradually turning into majorities; for instance, the Chinese numbered only 660 in 1850, but in only two decades, they were 48,790 strong and ¡§the second largest foreign-born group in California.¡¨2 Though initially a boon to California¡¦s development, the immense settlement of the newly-acquired territory eventually led to unprecedented competition and hostility, shattering many immigrants¡¦ dreams of prosperity and success.

            Starr and Orsi investigate the causes and effects of California nativism, which appears in history almost simultaneously as the initial migration. In the year following the discovery of gold, the first group of immigrants to settle in California was the Latin Americans, comprised of mainly Mexicans and also South Americans, such as Chileans and Peruvians. These immigrants easily traveled to the Gold Rush sites since they not only lived in close proximity to them, but they also traded and regularly interacted with people already there. After the Latin Americans came the Chinese, who had also traded with the United States at Hong Kong. But, because of their relatively late arrival in approximately 1852, their story belongs to the latter period of the Gold Rush. Even though they were valued for their ingenuity at first, the immigrants in California eventually faced persecution as land and supplies dwindled and competition surged. Ironically, many of the natives continued to use foreign innovations well into the Gold Rush despite their continuous attacks on other ethnicities. To counter the rising competition, American miners used two methods to drive the foreigners out¡Xphysical intimidation and discriminatory rules and laws. At first, these practices applied to all non-natives, but as more ethnic settlers arrived in California, nearly all whites, including immigrants, cooperated together to expel the migrants. However, one group of whites¡Xthe French¡Xwere not accepted as honorary Americans due to their refusal to adopt Anglo-American language and culture as well as their close affiliations with Latin American miners. As a result, the French and Latin American settlers often worked with each other to repel nativist policies and practices and even formed joint commissions to oversee this process. Less well known victims of racism were the gold seekers of African ancestry from places outside the United States. By the time gold was discovered in California, blacks had been in the Americas for more than three centuries. Yet, since they were so small in number, ¡§no organized campaign developed to drive them out of the mines,¡¨ though they still faced the pandemic racism from the rest of the country.3 Unlike African Americans, who could speak English and were familiar with American laws, the Chinese who came later during the Gold Rush had no prior experience as oppressed minorities. To exploit their lack of cultural knowledge, native miners and politicians levied complicated taxes and fees to economically force them out, and when they felt that too many Chinese were settling in gold sites, they passed laws that prevented any of them from working in mines. Yet, the Chinese managed to earn a living outside of the mines as cooks, wood gatherers, laundrymen, or farmers, and soon after their expulsion from the mines, they hired white attorneys to combat the unlawful policies set by the natives.4 Despite these measures, they faced the same violence and hostility as the rest of the foreigners and endured racism in both the workplace and their homes. Though rejected by native settlers due to competition and greed, ethnic immigrants still managed to leave a cultural imprint on the fledgling state of California. 

            When the migrants moved to California in the 1850s, they brought not only their diverse cultures and heritages but also differing treatments of women. Since the majority of settlers during the Gold Rush were young men, women soon became as prized as gold for their domestic as well as sexual services. The few women residing in northern California performed ordinary household chores, such as cleaning and cooking, that would be insignificant in any other circumstance; however, the men who mined for gold desperately needed these services and often paid any price to obtain them. As a result, women often earned equal or greater respect as their male counterparts did; unsurprisingly, this respect was reserved only for white women, as women from external cultures faced the same racism as their men did. When the Chinese brought their women to California, whites procured them not for business and domestic services, but for prostitution. Long-standing Chinese cultural tradition regarded daughters from an economic perspective, and the Gold Rush thrived on economics; thus, many indentured their ¡§daughters as prostitutes¡¨ to financially survive in the competitive world of gold mining.5 Other women found themselves in expanding domestic roles and held an equal share of the religious and cultural responsibilities held by men. For instance, in Jewish communities, women shared ¡§the common problem of providing future generations¡¨ with religious and practical education and were often sent for marriage to Californian men.6 Due to the scarcity of women in the gold fields, they became highly valuable as caretakers and educators, allowing them to find prosperity in subtle yet significant ways.

            The arrival of numerous groups of immigrants, despite being condemned by nativists, ultimately shapes the very nature of religion and pop culture in Gold Rush California. With the ¡§rush of new settlers¡¨ and gold miners, Native American and Hispanic Catholic religious worlds were either pushed aside or forced out of existence, though the latter did live on in some places.7 These religions, despite their former dominance in the West, were overwhelmed by the Jewish and Chinese religious communities that had mobilized to stake out a piece of California for themselves. As a result, foreign religions, such as Judaism and Buddhism, soon swept throughout northern California and permeated through its largest cities, thereby carving out new niches for the immigrants to settle in.

            Though Rooted in Barbarous Soil depicts numerous and diverse aspects of the Gold Rush, the topics discussed actually share a common bond of internationalism, brought to California by the myriad of immigrants and their respective cultures. According to Starr, the mass migration initiated by the Gold Rush eventually ushered in a new age of internationalism and ¡§exposed the entire country to global affairs for the first time.¡¨ 8The different subjects in the book, such as religion and race, may be found in all of America during the 1850s, but only in California do they embody an entirely new meaning¡Xa meaning of assimilation as well as cooperation, of hostility along with acceptance. If religion was confined to Christian Protestantism in the eastern United States, in California, it would consist of no fewer than twenty faiths, all arrivals from foreign lands. If the only races in the East were two grayscale colors, in California, people from every section of a color wheel would be seen. By drawing together people from all four corners of the world, the Gold Rush brought not just their cultures to the West Coast, but ¡§renewed imperatives of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.¡¨ 9

            Instead of downplaying the rampant nativism in Gold Rush California, Starr and Orsi explore it in depth to reveal the racist catalysts that sparked the dawn of internationalism in America. Since California was the ¡§first U.S. territory to experience a wave of global immigrants,¡¨ it unsurprisingly housed the most diverse cultures in the nation, with some of which that had clashed violently and others that had negotiated peacefully.10As such, it was the first international experiment in the U.S., and even though it produced some negative repercussions, overall, it transformed not only California but also all of America into the global fronts that they are today.

            In writing their book, Starr and Orsi take a liberal point of view and attempt to reveal hidden aspects of the Gold Rush era. Though they depict both the positive and negative qualities of the era, they almost focus exclusively on the consequences rather than the causes of certain events. For instance, while they dedicate several chapters just to race relations during the Gold Rush, they barely include any information on how or why these different ethnicities battled each other. Yet, at the same time, this point of view lends to their purpose, which is to shed light on the ¡§nation-transforming results¡¨ of the Gold Rush, not their petty causes.11 From the inclusion of a wide range of topics to the holistic interpretation of the California 1850s, the book clearly upholds a New Left historiography and leaves almost no detail behind.

            Despite its minor flaws, the book is still well respected among the academic community. According to David Farrell, a writer for the Canadian Journal for History, the integration of both the initial racial tension and the ultimate cultural benefits of the Gold Rush render the era as ¡§a success story¡¨¡Xone that includes the undesirable as well as the desirable in its telling.12 By revealing the cruel nativist policies of the white miners, the authors write about topics that were previously unknown to the general public and they redefine the Gold Rush as not an era of prosperity, but one of disenfranchisement and crime.

Despite this, Martin Meeker, a visiting lecturer from University of California, Berkeley, believes the writers do not focus exclusively on the negative aspects of the time period but instead, bring in a wealth of positive outcomes of the seemingly bleak events. In fact, the inclusion of both initial chaos and subsequent order strengthens the latter ¡§by providing a point of reference¡¨ for the juxtaposition of the two.13

            In addition to its optimistic tone and attention to detail, the book offers meticulously researched information about relatively unknown topics. For example, though the subject of the third chapter is nativism, it also describes in detail the ¡§unfortunate Chinese women who were forced into prostitution.¡¨14 In addition, almost every chapter begins with an anecdote that propels the focus from the individual to society, and illustrations accompanied by relevant text appear on almost every page, effectively transitioning from one subject to another. Though they deal with scholarly topics and data, these chapters are written such that even laypeople could understand their meaning; this relatively simple style, by excluding esoteric terms and phrases, allows for effortless reading and comprehension.

            By 1850, California had just been admitted to the Union as a non-slave state and was beginning its first years in national turmoil. During this era, fierce debate over state rights and the issue of slavery spread throughout the entire East coast, and as the conflicts waged on, they would eventually incite the separation of the country. At the start of the decade, the Compromise of 1850 had been passed to address the controversies arising from the Mexican American War. While it had quelled some dissent between the slave states in the South and the free states to the North, the compromise was quickly rendered ineffective four years later, when the Kansas-Nebraska Act passed. By advocating popular sovereignty in the disputed territories of Kansas and Nebraska, the act nullified the Missouri Compromise and fiercely divided the North and South. These repercussions, though omnipresent in almost every state along the Atlantic, did not develop in California until years later since ¡§few people had settled there directly from the East at that time.¡¨15 As more ethnic groups arrived, the issue of racism in the Golden State gradually diverged from the same issue in the East because of the rising competition from the foreigners. As a result, racist practices struck anyone, including those of white descent, who competed against the Yankee majority and consisted more of political trickery than violent backlash. Though the conflicts over state rights and slavery seized the rest of the country, they virtually had no impact in California, where citizens were more concerned for their own survival than political issues.

            On a more positive note, California, due to the diverse migrant groups it attracted, became the first state in the U.S. to experience the full spectrum of global cultures that is present today. Its experiences as a multicultural experiment formed the foundations of future racial relations and led the nation to adopt a more international approach to foreign policy. Aside from the political benefits produced by California, the state¡¦s Gold Rush ushered in mass migrations and cheap labor, thereby creating not only important ports and cities on the West coast but also transcontinental railways that ¡§bridged the East to the West.¡¨16 Also, the sheer amount of settlers to the area expanded the national economy and brought new trade to the rest of the country. Finally, the state of California embodied opportunity and prosperity in the eyes of the youth back East, and its allure gave renewed hope to those in pursuit of the American Dream. As the final frontier in America, California became both a philosophical and practical inspiration for the rest of the country.
            From the earliest beginnings of the Gold Rush, California experienced cultures from not just different areas of the American continent, but that of the entire world. It endured both vicious racism and cultural acceptance years later, and it became the first state of its kind to possess an immensely diverse population from all areas of the globe. As such, it also became the ¡§forefront of internationalism,¡¨ with entire cities consisting of ethnic majorities; in this manner, the Gold Rush did to California what fire had done to man¡Xit sparked the immediate development of not only diverse groups of people and their cultures but also the future success of the state, embodied in both philosophy and practice.17


1. Starr, Kevin, and Richard Orsi. Rooted in Barbarous Soil: People, Culture, and Community in Gold Rush California. London: University of California Press, 2000, 7

2. Starr, Kevin, and Richard Orsi, 15-16

3. Starr, Kevin, and Richard Orsi, 35

4. Starr, Kevin, and Richard Orsi, 62

5. Starr, Kevin, and Richard Orsi, 87

6. Starr, Kevin, and Richard Orsi, 134

7. Starr, Kevin, and Richard Orsi, 194-95

8. Starr, Kevin, and Richard Orsi, 10-11

9. Starr, Kevin, and Richard Orsi, 9

10. Starr, Kevin, and Richard Orsi, 16

11. Starr, Kevin, and Richard Orsi, 39

12. Farrell, David. "Rooted in Barbarous Soil: People, Culture, and Community in Gold Rush California." Canadian Journal of History 2002 1 Jun 2008 <http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa3686/is_200212/ai_n9148264/pg_1>, 1

13. Meeker, Martin. "An ecumenical challenge of unprecedented magnitude." H-Net 2 Jun 2008 <http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.cgi?path=6144985882533>, 1

14. Starr, Kevin, and Richard Orsi, 57

15. Starr, Kevin, and Richard Orsi, 17-18

16. Starr, Kevin, and Richard Orsi, 79

17. Starr, Kevin, and Richard Orsi, 92