Soon after gaining independence from Spain in 1821, Mexico opened its northern coastal region of California to foreign trade. American vessels from the east were soon engaged in lucrative commerce with the Californios, Californians of Spanish or Mexican descent. Offering such necessities as cooking utensils and boots, as well as luxuries such as brandy, the Americans reaped profits of 200 to 300 percent. In exchange, the Californios exported cowhides produced on their vast coastal ranches.
The Americans deemed California ripe for opportunity, but thought the Californios lazy and their pastoral lifestyle primitive. Richard Henry Dana of Boston spent sixteen months in California, living among people he thought lacked "industry, frugality and enterprise." In Two Years Before the Mast, published in 1841, Dana wrote "In the hands of an enterprising people, what a country this might be!"
During the 1840s, an increasing number of Americans ventured west into Texas, Oregon, and California. They possessed the sense that their destiny was to establish a nation that included both coasts and all that lay in between. In 1835 President Andrew Jackson had attempted to buy California for $3.5 million. Mexico had rejected the offer, but the U.S. would not be thwarted. Ten years later, in his inaugural address President James K. Polk provocatively proposed annexing Texas, and he put remote California high on his list of property to acquire.
Treaty on the Eve of the Gold Rush
On May 13, 1846, the U.S. and Mexico went to war. Two years later, Mexico formally delivered California into American hands with the signing of the Treaty of Guadelupe Hidalgo on February 2, 1848. The vision of Manifest Destiny was fulfilled. Neither side realized that nine days earlier flecks of gold had been found in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.
In the fall of 1848, the first wave of Mexican miners traveled overland to California to join the gold rush. They numbered between two and three thousand and often traveled in entire families. By early 1849, there were an estimated 6,000 Mexicans digging for gold. In California, a region that had so recently been their own, the Mexicans found they were considered foreigners by the legions of Anglo miners from the east.
To make matters more difficult, many of the Mexicans were experienced miners which soon made them the target of American animosity and violence. Californio Antonio Franco Coronel wrote, "The reason for most of the antipathy against the Spanish race was that the majority of them were Sonorans who were men used to gold mining and consequently more quickly attained better results."
Foreign Miners Tax
To eliminate competition, in April 1850 California passed a statewide foreign miners' tax, which charged foreign nationals $20 per month to work the placers. The tax was rigidly enforced against Mexicans and Chileans to encourage them to leave the gold region. In some cases, the new law prompted revenge.
Guerrillas and Vigilantes
Enos Christman, a miner from Pennsylvania living in Sonora, California, wrote, "This section of the country has been infested by numerous bands of Mexican guerrillas, and life and property have been very insecure. Within a fortnight every morning's sun brought to light a newly murdered victim. The whole country became alarmed. Public meetings were held, and organized parties raised to ferret out and bring to justice the authors of these horrid crimes."
The Legend of Joaquin Murieta
One young Mexican thought to have turned to banditry was Joaquin Murieta. Whether Murieta was a real person, invented, or a composite of several people is still debated. According to legend, Murieta was attacked by a group of Yankees who tied him up and flogged him. They also raped his wife. Murieta vowed revenge. With an outlaw band, he allegedly began to terrorize the California countryside, killing and stealing. Mexicans identified with Murieta's rage and he soon became their social bandit-hero. As Enos Christman described, the likes of Murieta alarmed the Americans.
As more and more crimes were attributed to Murieta, the state hired a bounty hunter named Harry Love to track him down. Eventually, Love caught a group of Mexicans in a camp. A gunfight broke out and Love killed the leader. He presented the dead Mexican man's head as that of Murieta. The head was pickled in a jar of whiskey and Californians paid five cents for a peek. Many Mexicans claimed that Murieta got away.
By September 1850 about 15,000 Mexicans had left the southern gold region. Enos Christman noted, "Three-fourths of the Mexicans who were here a month ago have left the neighborhood for their old homes in Sonora, Mexico, with a rather bad opinion of Los Yankees. ... When the people of California want to stir up a row, they don't talk long about it but shoulder their rifles, meet in the open field and shoot each other down, and that ends the matter."
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