State's Latinos lost in the rush

Mexicans stripped of wealth, status in land they once ruled

By Ken Chavez
Bee Capitol Bureau
Published Jan. 18, 1998

Auburn Miners
Miners in Auburn Ravine are joined in 1852 by a rare sight in the gold fields: a woman.

In the California summer of 1846, José de los Reyes Berreyesa, the patriarch of a renowned homestead near San Jose, floated to the shores of Suisun Bay in a rowboat, escorted by his twin nephews.

Upon landing, the trio was greeted by gunfire. It was the early days of the Mexican War, and a patrol headed by John C. Frémont, a U.S. Army captain, had mistaken the unarmed Berreyesa men for Mexican soldiers.

One of the nephews, Ramón de Haro, died almost instantly. When his twin, Francisco, threw himself upon his brother's body, he, too, was killed.

"Is it possible that you kill these young men for no reason at all?" their enraged uncle shouted. "It is better that you kill me, who am old, too!"

Sam Brannan
The Americans didn't wait for an engraved invitation. The old man was dead within seconds.

The Berreyesa clan's fate is a prime example of how the Californios -- the colonists who populated the state under Spanish and Mexican rule -- lost power and prestige to Anglo-American migration, which began as a trickle during the Mexican War and ended as a flood after the discovery of gold in 1848.

Once proud rancheros, the Berreyesas were penniless just 30 years after the shootings at Suisun Bay. Their grand Milpitas estate was overrun by squatters, whose belated claim to the land ultimately was sanctioned by the U.S. Supreme Court.

"The Mexicans went from the owners of wealth, which was the land, to workers who only had their labor to sell," said Gregorio Mora, professor of Mexican American Studies at San Jose State University.

Not only that, the Gold Rush precipitated an era of unprecedented animosity toward Mexican people living in the state, a xenophobia that trained its stare not only on Californios and newer arrivals from Mexico, but on other Latinos, such as the Chileans and Peruvians, as well.

*"The Mexicans went from the owners of wealth, which was the land, to workers who only had their labor to sell."
-- Gregorio Mora, professor at San Jose State University
Most of the trouble began around 1850, in the so-called "southern mines" of Calaveras and Tuolumne counties. Many Mexicans from the rich mining state of Sonora had come to the area east of Stockton -- where the foothill town of Sonora, not coincidentally, now sits -- to try their luck in the mines.

At first, they staked their claims and mined in relative peace alongside all of the other gold-seekers arriving daily in California. They were admired for the well-honed "dry digging" skills they had developed in their native land, techniques that brought them a modicum of early success.

But it wasn't long before Anglo miners and eastern politicians, their own numbers growing in California, launched a campaign to force the Sonorans from the mines.

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican War, had given the United States official possession of California just nine days after James Marshall had discovered gold in Coloma on Jan. 28, 1848.

In a little over two years, Americans came to resent the fact that foreigners -- particularly those from a country the United States had just defeated in war -- were making it rich off land that they now considered exclusively theirs.

The Gold Rush of 1849 brought "a very large contingent of Anglo Americans with no experience in the Mexican Southwest" to California, said Albert Hurtado, a history professor at Arizona State University.

"They bring with them animosities that are related, in part, to the recent war with Mexico. They regard Mexicans as unwanted foreigners and drive them out of the mines as much as possible."

This was done by brute force -- and by force of legislation.

Chinese Panner
A Chinese miner looks for the telltale flash of gold dust in his pan by an Amador County waterway. Mexican miners from Sonora state at first worked peaceably alongside Anglo fortune-seekers, but tensions soon developed.

Anglo miners began posting signs declaring that foreigners had no right to be there. Spanish-speaking "greasers," whether Mexican, Chilean or native Californios who had been granted U.S. citizenship under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, were often victims of violent attacks.

One group of ex-New Yorkers who called themselves the "Hounds" took particular pleasure in assaulting Chileans who had settled in San Francisco after fleeing the increasingly inhospitable Sierra.

In the vigilante system of justice that pervaded the Western frontier, Mexicans also found themselves to be frequent targets of the hangman's noose.

Juanita, a prostitute living in what was once the saloon-rich mining camp of Downieville in Sierra County, was one of them. In 1851, she became the only woman to be lynched in the mines after a kangaroo court convicted her of killing a man who had broken down her door one night and returned to insult her the next.

Leonard Pitt, who gives an account of the story in his book, "The Decline of the Californios," quotes one lyncher as saying, "To shoot these greasers ain't the best way. Give them a fair jury trial and rope 'em up with the majesty of the law -- that's the cure."

State lawmakers found an equally effective cure for ridding the mines of Mexican gold seekers when they adopted the Foreign Miners' Tax Law of 1850.

The statute required non-U.S. citizens to pay $20 a month -- a costly sum at the time -- for the privilege of panning or digging for gold. Many Mexican and some French miners protested the new law, almost to the point of violence, but in the end, most simply left the Sierra.

Their departure left a gaping hole in the economy of the Central Valley, particularly in Stockton, where civic leaders demanded a repeal of the tax, which was adopted in 1851. Still, it was too late. The Mexican miners would not come back.

In that same year, upper-crust Californios came under legislative attack. Eager to help would-be Yankee homesteaders, lawmakers passed the Land Law of 1851, which established a tribunal in San Francisco to rule on the validity of Spanish and Mexican land grants.

Those found to be invalid were declared public property and made available to squatters. While some Californio families succeeded in holding their land, others were forced to appeal a negative ruling by the Land Commission -- a court process that took years and often drained a family of its wealth and, subsequently, the ability to maintain its property.

Mariano Vallejo, the Mexican general and California native who is portrayed by history as an early friend of the Americans, summed up the feelings of many Californios whose land was usurped by squatters when he wrote:

Dancers execute a Spanish fandango in 1848, shortly before the trickle of post-Mexican War Anglo settlers to California became a Gold Rush-fed flood.

"It was our misfortune that these adventurers of evil law were so numerous that it was impossible for us to defend our rights in the courts, since the majority of the judges were squatters, and the same could be said of the sheriffs and the juries. I believe it would be superfluous to say that to all these, justice was only a word used to sanction robbery."

Well into the 1850s, tensions between Anglo Americans and people of Mexican descent grew.

Some Mexicans formed roving bands of robbers and thieves, giving rise to the moustachioed, gun-slinging "bandito" stereotype. In 1885, the lawmakers passed a statute banning bull- and cockfighting, as well as "greaser" law against vagrancy, and they refused to translate new laws into Spanish, as required by the state constitution.

But relations between the two groups weren't always this bad. Before the Gold Rush, even as the Mexican War raged, Californios and Anglo settlers co-existed in relative peace.

The Mexican colonists, who had established a string of small pueblos along the California coast, from San Diego to Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Monterey and San Francisco, were regarded as highly hospitable hosts, fun-loving and eager for the company of visitors.

Anglo settlers, who by and large gravitated to John Sutter's Sacramento encampment, took up residence in the Central Valley and, for the most part, adapted to Mexican rule.

Since both groups were far from the nerve centers of the native lands, at one point or another each took steps toward making California an independent nation, but their efforts never took hold.

"There was always conflict between the two, but chances for cooperation were more likely before 1849," said Michael Gonzalez, a University of California, San Diego, history professor. "After that, things got pretty dicey. That's when the groups start to compete for gold dust and the result is pretty predictable."

Copyright © The Sacramento Bee