Fortune smiled on many black miners

Gold dust allowed thousands to gain freedom, influence

By Stephen Magagnini
Bee Staff Writer
Published Jan. 18, 1998

Black miner
An African American digs for gold in Auburn Ravine in 1852. Some of the Gold Rush era's most daring pioneers were black.
For thousands of African Americans, California gold was the great equalizer.

Some came as slaves and bought their freedom with gold dust. Others were freemen who used gold to free their families, fight discrimination and start newspapers, schools and churches.

"This is the best place for black folks on the globe," a miner at the Cosumnes diggings wrote to his wife in Missouri. "All a man has to do is work, and he will make money."

African Americans hit plenty of California pay dirt -- by 1863, they were collectively worth about $5 million (the equivalent of $100 million today). But their real gains came outside the gold fields -- some of Gold Rush California's most influential, educated, daring pioneers were African Americans.

"You had African American newspapers and a number of national leaders," said state librarian Kevin Starr.

California's first African American success story was William Leidesdorff, who set the tone for those who followed.

William Tecumseh Sherman
Leidesdorff -- son of a Danish sailor and an unmarried mulatto woman in St. Croix -- came under the wing of a New Orleans cotton planter who made him a rich man. He fell in love with a French girl who broke off the engagement after her parents learned of Leidesdorff's mulatto roots.

The girl died of a broken heart; Leidesdorff ran away to sea and began a new life in Yerba Buena (San Francisco) in 1841.

The ever-resourceful Leidesdorff smuggled coffee into California in biscuit barrels, built the first hotel in San Francisco, helped establish the first public school, launched the state's first steamship and staged the first horse race.

By 1844, he owned waterfront property and the biggest house in San Francisco. Then he became a Mexican citizen, which allowed him to acquire a 35,000-acre land grant on the south bank of the American River encompassing modern Folsom.

Leidesdorff turned "Rancho de los Americanos" into a cattle empire that employed whites, African Americans and Chinese.

But he died of typhus at age 36, a few months after his neighbor and trading partner John Sutter announced the discovery of gold.

A savvy U.S. Army quartermaster, Lt. Joseph Libby Folsom, went to St. Croix and bought all of Leidesdorff's holdings, which included modern-day Folsom, from Leidesdorff's mother for $75,000.

But the property was worth far more than that. In 1849, Samuel Smith, an African American, found gold on the south bank of the American River at Negro Bar (Folsom). Smith and others were soon panning 2 ounces of gold a day, and 700 argonauts of all races came to Negro Bar.

Leidesdorff's mulatto relatives -- realizing they'd been swindled -- filed a lawsuit, but they were foiled by an 1850 law that forbade blacks and other non-whites from testifying against whites in court.

Still, in 1849, California declared itself "free" and an all-black mining company left New York for the Golden State. "The whole country ... is filled with gold (and) there are but three kinds of individuals that can even work these mines, the Negro, Indian and Irish," said a correspondent to an abolitionist newspaper.

"There are no gentlemen here -- labor rules capital," wrote another. "A darkey is just as good as a polished gentleman and can make more money."

'The Emigrants,' New York Herald, 1849
Abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass challenged the separatist American Colonization Society to send blacks to California instead of Liberia.

As early as 1848, white and black abolitionists were staking claims in California. They were joined by black sailors who, like other seamen, deserted en masse and rushed to the gold fields when their ships hit port.

In 1848, a cook named Hector jumped ship in Monterey and returned several weeks later with $4,000 in gold. Another African American made $100,000 in the Tuolumne mines, only to lose it at the gaming tables, one place where blacks were welcome.

In 1851, shortly after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law, the New Bedford, Mass., Mercury urged its black readers to seek refuge in California. Among those who heeded the call was Jeremiah B. Sanderson, a minister from New Bedford. Sanderson came west expressly to teach black children, who had no schools. He opened the first black schools in San Francisco, Oakland, Sacramento and Stockton. In 1855, he opened a school for 30 black children in Sacramento, saying, "They must no longer be neglected, left to grow up in ignorance."

Soon after, the Sacramento school board capitulated and built a school for black children.

Sanderson didn't stop there. Backed by other prominent African Americans, he fought hard for the 1874 California law allowing children of all races to attend the same schools.

Mifflin Wistar Gibbs, a friend of Douglass', arrived in San Francisco in 1850 with 10 cents -- enough to buy a cigar -- and the following credo: "Fortune ... may sometimes smile on the inert, but she seldom fails to surrender to pluck, tenacity and perseverance."

Gibbs helped start the city's first shoe store, established California's first black newspaper in 1855, and became the first black judge in American history. His militant "Mirror of the Times" urged blacks to give up servile jobs and start their own ranches or businesses.

Perhaps the most famous Gold Rush-era freedom fighter was Mary Ellen "Mammy" Pleasant, a Georgia-born slave who arrived in San Francisco in 1849 a free woman and opened a chain of brothels.

In 1858, she went to Canada to give the legendary abolitionist John Brown $30,000 to finance his ill-fated raid on the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry, Va.

She fought tirelessly to gain blacks the right to testify in California courts, finally winning in 1863. The next year she filed a suit against a street car company that mistreated her -- and won.

Many of California's black pioneers arrived as slaves and worked double-time until they had earned the $1,000 necessary to buy their freedom.

George Washington Dennis of Alabama also bought his mother's freedom. She cleared $200 a day selling home-cooked meals to miners in 1849 while her son got rich off San Francisco real estate.

By 1852, more than half of the 338 African Americans in Sacramento were free people.

African Americans operating the Sweet Vengeance mine in Yuba County fought off white claim jumpers, and a delegate to the 1849 statehood convention feared "a black tide over the land -- greater than the locusts of Egypt."

One who struck a blow for justice in California's lawless mining camps was James Pierson Beckwourth -- lover, fighter, singer, trapper, trailblazer, horse thief, Indian chief and bullchip artist.

Beckwourth, a husky 6-footer, was the son of a Revolutionary War officer and his slave mistress. In 1829, the mountain man was captured by Crow Indians in Wyoming, but convinced them he was one of their own who had been stolen as a child by the Cheyennes. By 1833, he had become chief of the Crow nation.

In search of new adventures, Beckwourth arranged the theft of 5,000 horses in Southern California in 1840, then helped overthrow Mexican Gov. Manuel Micheltorena in 1845.

He joined the Gold Rush in 1848 and, in 1851, found a new route over the Sierra far less treacherous than Donner Pass.

Said historian Hubert Howe Bancroft: "No resum can do justice to his adventures (but not) the slightest faith (can) be put in his statements."

The Legislature in 1858 nearly outlawed further black immigration to California. Gibbs and several hundred other African Americans left for a gold strike in British Columbia. There Gibbs was elected to the common council. He later became U.S. consul to Madagascar.

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