Born in Mexico City in 1817, Antonio Franco Coronel moved to Los Angeles, California, with his father in 1834. Coronel became immersed in public affairs and acquired a land grant from the Mexican government. When war broke out between the United States and Mexico, Coronel fought for his native country. Not long after Mexico and the U.S. signed a treaty, news that gold had been discovered in northern California trickled into Los Angeles.
On March 2, 1848, Coronel left the pueblo on horseback with about 30 people, including several Native American servants. They rode to San Jose then into the foothills of the Sierras. In August Coronel began to dig. He worked beside miners of Mexican descent, Native Americans, and a few Anglo Americans (whom Coronel considered "foreigners") who had been living in California when gold was discovered. News of the gold was only just reaching the eastern states and the "rush" had not yet begun.
As a landed Mexican living in California, Coronel was considered a "Californio." After gaining independence from Spain in 1821, the Mexican government granted vast tracts to its civil servants and soldiers. By the time gold was discovered, about 800 Californio families ran sprawling cattle ranches, sustaining a tallow-and-hide economy. Some ranches were as large as 200,000 acres and the borders were measured by how far a horse could ride in a day. The gold rush would irrevocably alter this way of life.
Trading and Claiming Gold
Coronel acquired gold in abundance. First, he traded with an Indian -- a single blanket for nine ounces of gold. Coronel's servant, Benito Perez, sold a year-old serape for more than two pounds of gold. Perez then followed the Indians and spied them gathering gold in a nearby ravine. Coronel and his party moved in and took over. The first day, Coronel dug 45 ounces of gold. The next, he got 38 ounces. On the third day, he dug 51 ounces. A man working nearby extracted 52 pounds. Another man gathered gold with a spoon.
In February Coronel ventured down to San Francisco. The port was bursting with people and he caught a glimpse of the rush to come. "One saw a horde of people of all nationalities agitated by the fever of gold, waiting a means of transportation to the mines, and asking people who came from there news of their condition. On disembarking, I was invaded by such numbers of people seeking information that my way was blocked," wrote Coronel in his memoir.
In March the diggings were more crowded than the previous season. Coronel encountered Chileans, Peruvians, Mexicans and an increasing number of Americans, many who had come south from Oregon. Coronel observed that the Mexicans from Sonora were experienced miners and particularly successful, which exacerbated the "gold fever" of the Oregonians. Before long, the Americans posted notices on trees saying that all "foreigners" had 24 hours to leave the mines, or they would be thrown out.
Witness to a Massacre
Coronel packed up and headed for the Stanislaus River. One night, he camped near some miners planning to attack nearby Indians because they believed the Indians had killed two Americans. In the early morning, Coronel followed the miners to the Indian village. "Here there occurred a scene of horror, because the old people, women, children and men -- some with bows and arrows, some without -- fled in different directions, some even diving in the river. But all were stopped and shot," Coronel recalled.
Cured of Gold Fever
On the American River, Coronel and Benito Perez found a rich claim. When strangers came by they pretended there was no gold, but within a week an Irishman working with them got drunk at Sutter's Mill and bragged. One hundred armed Americans invaded the claim and announced the gold was theirs. Coronel decided his life was worth more than gold. He rode home to Los Angeles in the spring of 1849. He was done with the gold rush long before many miners from the East Coast had even reached California.
Miners Take Over Farm Land
The arrival of tens of thousands of people in the 1850s meant the end of the Californio's ranching lifestyle. As the gold petered out, many 49ers turned to farming and moved, often illegally, onto the land granted to Californios by the old Mexican government. Missouri native Luzena Wilson bought farmland from a Californio named Manuel Vaca. Squatters soon surrounded the Wilsons. Senor Vaca couldn't stop the tide.
Return to Public Life
Californios tried to prove the validity of their Mexican grants in U.S. courts. The burden of proof lay with the petitioner and the process was lengthy and costly. Many families lost their property to back taxes and foreclosure before their court cases were settled. Some had their titles confirmed, but were bankrupt by legal expenses. Antonio Franco Coronel resumed public life. In 1853 he was elected mayor of Los Angeles. He also served a four-year term as state treasurer. Coronel died in 1894.
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