Vicente Perez Rosales was born in 1807 into a landowning family in Santiago, Chile, and came of age during Chile's independence movement. As a young man, his parents sent Perez Rosales to Paris to study, but the family experienced financial trouble in 1830 and lost their estate. As a newly impoverished intellectual, Perez Rosales tried his hand at small business, digging gold in Chile, and even smuggling cattle from Argentina.
In the fall of 1848, the brig J.R.S. sailed into Valparaiso carrying California gold. She was followed by the Adelaide and the Correro de Talcahuano, which carried 130 pounds of gold dust. The sight of California's riches captivated Chileans. Perez Rosales began to make plans to recoup the family fortune.
Bound for California
Perez Rosales was 41 years old when he sailed for California on December 28, 1848, in the company of three half brothers, a brother-in-law, two paid laborers and three servants. On board their ship were Chileans of all sorts, including a prostitute named Rosario Amestica. She paid her $125 passage (about $3000 in 2005 dollars) and pleaded her good character to a port official, with the intention of recouping the cost of the voyage once on board.
During the fall of 1848 and the spring of 1849, Chile issued about 3,000 passports to California-bound emigrants. Many more Chileans departed the country without formal documentation, prompting the government to give up enforcing the passport law. The journey to California took six weeks. After nearly wrecking off the coast of California, Perez Rosales sailed into San Francisco on February 18, 1849. A Chilean who was already in the country soon gave good news about the prospects for mining.
Paved with Gold
"He said that the reports in Chile were not a shadow of the reality; that the most no-account hayseed squandered gold like a Croesus, since to acquire that much-sought metal it was only necessary to bend down and pick it up," wrote Rosales.
To the Mines
Optimistic, Perez Rosales and his party set off for Sacramento on a boat owned by the entrepreneur Sam Brannan. From Sacramento, Perez Rosales headed to Coloma, where he began the hard work of digging for gold. Using a device called a cradle, he and his party had moderate success, taking in between ten and 20 ounces a day. While there, white miners recruited him to join them in attacking some Native Americans. Perez Rosales begged off and was horrified when the Anglos returned with 114 captives, 15 of whom they executed as an example to the others.
Chileans were also targeted by American miners determined that non-Americans would get no part of California's riches. The anti-Chilean sentiment swept San Francisco when a gang of whites attacked Chilean businesses. In the mines, Yankees raided Chileans' claims and drove them off. The Chileans retaliated and several people were killed. Perez Rosales thought the Americans cowards, but for his own protection he often posed as a Frenchman.
Mining the Miners
In April 1849 Perez Rosales left his brothers in camp and traveled down to San Francisco to pick up mail. He found the city had grown tremendously since his arrival. New buildings and businesses sprouted on every available patch of ground. He realized that those getting rich in California were not the miners, but those who served the gold seekers.
Atrocities Against Chileans
In San Francisco an acquaintance told Perez Rosales a wild story of atrocities perpetrated against Chileans in the area where he had left his brothers. Desperate with worry, Perez Rosales paid $200 for a boat to take him back to Sacramento. There he found his brothers -- robbed blind, but unharmed. Despite the experience, they agreed not to return to Chile, but did give up mining. Thousands of other Chileans simply packed up and went home.
The City Burns
Recognizing the prospects for making money in the gold rush economy, the brothers tried their hand at trading goods, digging graves, and carrying freight. Finally, they scraped together enough capital to open the Citizen's Restaurant in San Francisco, and hired a famous French chef. Business was steady, but then trouble came in an all too frequent form. An arsonist set fire to a nearby house of prostitution. At first, Perez Rosales was gleeful, thinking that his property would only become more valuable. Then, the flames spread. His restaurant and much of the city were engulfed. It was one of seven major fires in eighteen months.
A Return Home
Perez Rosales and his brothers found a boat bound for Chile. So many sailors had abandoned ship to dig gold that the Chileans spent the trip home hauling and furling the sails themselves. Back home, Perez Rosales became a writer and a politician and was eventually elected to the Chilean Senate.
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