Los Chilenos en California depicts social events that took place during the gold rush in California. An examination of the historical period of the Californian gold rush provides insight on the motivations underlying the savage and cruel treatment of the group of Chileans who had found a gulch full of gold on a riverbank. Just as the Chileans were settling in this area in order to begin mining the gold, they were ordered to surrender the land and leave the area with immediate effect. The Chileans refused to obey the order, which prompted a trial and subsequent conviction before a self-appointed judge and jury. A fundamental question that emerges regarding the cruel fate of the Chileans is; what was in it for the Chileans tormentors once their victims vacated the Chile Gulch?
The mention of golds discovery in California by the President in a speech as well as newspaper reports sparked the interest of students, farmers and clerks. Many people stopped their engagements and embarked on the journey to California. The fact that most people travelled for at least six months before arriving at the gold fields shows the lengths they were willing to go in order to get a piece of the newfound fortune. It therefore does not surprise that the self-appointed jury saw no problem subjecting the Chileans to a dehumanizing experience as a way of expelling them from the gold-rich land they occupied.
The miners found that there were no adequate laws and the social infrastructure was poorly developed, which prompted them to advocate for the enhancement of communication with other territories within the United States. Ultimately, there was an increase in shipping; a new railway line was completed and the number of steam-ships carrying mail, supplies and passengers to the miners increased. The gold rush came hot on the heels of the end of the American war with Mexico, after which there was no consensus in Congress on how to treat the newly admitted state of California. Specifically, there was a division over whether California ought to be admitted into the Union as a free or slave state (Star and Orsi 109).
The discovery of gold and an immediate influx of an enormous population inevitably made California a free state. The US militarys failure to reach the mountains and Californias gold fields when the gold rush began, and after the signing of the treaty that ended the Mexican war, meant that laws and a stable government were non-existent. Without a credible authority, the miners operated under personal volitions and whims. The ensuing prejudices had a profound influence on the majority, and many places in California saw the reign of chaos and total lawlessness. After arriving at the gold fields, makeshift tents became the miners residences; they were shelters built from a crude combination of boards, and/or sticks, and the miners had to endure the dynamic climate that fluctuated from storms, cold and heat.
There were hardly any laws providing the definition of what constituted a claim, and countless disputes ended up in conflicts and deaths (Chan 56). The existing laws were those that the miners themselves had made up. The mining camps devised their own measures for law enforcement, which resulted in a high prevalence of mob and vigilante conduct. The typical miner in a gold camp faced hostile Indians, malnutrition, thieves and death on a daily basis. The increasing population of miners in the gold fields led to an exponential increase in the disputes resulting from mining claims. The increasing pressure for claims caused the forceful removal of Indians from the villages in which they resided; an unprecedented murder of the native men by the miners; and the capture of women and children into slavery.
The existence of the gold camps implied that Native Americans constantly faced the risk of death, slavery and debauchery. If a native did not hide or flee, he /she faced unending violence and persecution. The Indians were dispossessed of their native land, after which it was impossible for them to access fish, berries, corn and game. As the miners hunted to satisfy personal needs, the scarcity of game increased; the pollution of streams with cyanide, silt and mercury led to the death of fish (Owens 103). The increased influx of miners into the gold fields escalated the pressure for mining claims and exposed foreigners to open discrimination.
White people strived hard to push people of other races and foreign languages off the areas where they staked a claim. Ultimately, as large mining corporations started operating on a large scale and mining hard rocks, discriminatory decrees were ratified and legitimized under statutes. If a non-European immigrant minor was not murdered or pushed off his/her claims, they had to pay monthly fees to exercise their mining claims. The gold rush thus created a context in which serious atrocities were visited upon native tribes. The rich environment supporting subsistence in California created different tribes and a proliferation of numerous bands of disparate villages. Some villages were populous, with the number of members reaching one thousand.
The miners came scouring for gold and took whatever they could lay their hands on. After arriving in their thousands, it became apparent to the miners that the resources for food and other critical supplies were severely limited, and it did not help that prices were on a rapid rise. With the rules for mining claims being non-existent except the agreements that the miners had made among themselves, the stage was set for immense pressure that could ultimately lower the size of the claims. There miners faced limited options but to turn to the land belonging to Indians for claims and exploration.
The cruel fate of the Chilean tribesmen exemplifies the state of lawlessness that was precipitated by the gold rush. It seems no person could have dared to stage a rescue because violence was the norm rather than the exception. Few people could speak up against violent gangs that dotted the entire landscape. The groups that tortured and killed the Chileans seemed undisturbed by the prospects of legal sanctions for their inhuman actions; contextualizing this incident in history provides a fresh understanding of all the prevailing circumstances.
Chan, Sucheng. "A people of exceptional character: Ethnic diversity, nativism, and racism in the California gold rush." California History 79.2 (2000): 44-85.
Owens, Kenneth N., ed. Riches for all: the California Gold Rush and the world. U of Nebraska Press, 2002.Starr, Kevin, and Richard J. Orsi. Rooted in barbarous soil: people, culture, and community in gold rush California. Vol. 3. Taylor & Francis US, 2000.
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