The California Gold Rush offered a promise of wealth to many people in search of a better life 150 years ago.
But immigrants who helped define this period in California’s history often had to leave against their will.
Kelly Sisson, historian and scholar of American culture at the University of Michigan, spoke at the Whittsett Room of Sierra Hall on Oct. 24 about the skilled Chilean miners who were contracted to mine gold on territory that would eventually become California.
“I didn’t learn about any Chileans in my fourth grade California history class,” Sisson said. “These laborers were, however, key to the California Gold Rush.”
Sisson said she has uncovered information about the lives of miners who traveled from Chile to California has been preserved in work contracts miners signed with patrones, the expedition directors, before leaving north in search of gold.
Provisions are included in the contract regarding wages, severance pay and penalties for laborers who misbehaved, as well as provisions requiring patrones to provide miners with fare, housing and food.
Sisson said she has studied sophisticated labor contracts, which outline how gold would’ve been split between patrones and miners. The labor contracts also include a provision in regard to who would be responsible for expenses associated with miners becoming ill.
“Up until now, we have talked about slaves in the gold rush, the Chinese laborers and the Americans who came to California with the notions of free labor and unfree labor,” Sisson said. “These notions don’t really do justice to the complicated nature of the Chilean social world.”
News of gold having been discovered in California reached the port city of Valparaiso in 1848, along with a demand for miners who had experience in excavating copper and silver in Chile, Sisson said.
But Anglo-American miners began to arrive to the Western frontier in search of gold, which caused ethnic tension to escalate, so the demand for professional labor was short-lived, Sisson said.
“Because relations between Chilean laborers and their patrones appeared to Anglo-Americans unfree, because the Chileans clustered in certain communities, this made them very foreign,” Sisson said. “Plus, Chileans were good. They were miners and knew how to mine gold successfully. In some cases, they even taught Anglo-Americans how to do it.”
Some miners settled in San Francisco, where they formed a community known as Chilesito. But the number of immigrants who came to California decreased by 1852, when news about violence by white miners against Chileans reached their homeland, Sisson said.
“On one level, this lecture is a good reminder why things are the way they are,” Patrick Devine, who graduates from CSUN with master’s degree in history.
“Today, the same thing is happening, but who is controlling it now? Does the government decide how many green cards to give out?” Devine said.
Devine said that even though patrones weren’t slave holders, they were like mobsters who provided cheap labor for people who profited from gold mined by foreign miners.
Special education major Asuncion Bramos said she enjoyed the lecture because Sisson used the original contracts to study the lives and social interactions of Chilean immigrants.
“I didn’t know anything about the contracts,” Bramos said “Turns out they helped to shape the state in economic ways.”
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