Fourth in a series: Concerning Gold Mining License Taxes

The gold rush set up a flood of immigrants to the state of California, along with great numbers of citizens from other states. Among these, the first foreigners to make it to California in 1848 were Mexicans and Chilenos. These, because of their proximity and mining expertise, clearly had an edge in the cutthroat competition of mining.  Their success resulted in the passage by the California legislature of a foreign miners’ license tax in 1850. This was directly aimed at "greasers," as Latin Americans were called. Latin American miners refused to pay the impossibly high tax ($20 per month), which gave white Americans an excuse to drive them out of rich mining areas. In one dramatic confrontation in the mining town of Sonora, Mexicans, Chileans, and Peruvians joined with French and German miners to protest the tax.  They were subdued by a ragtag militia of white Americans.  However, the licensing law and tax were subsequently repealed.

Along with a general acceptance of non-English speaking Europeans and that lesser tolerance for Latin American miners, there was little, if any, love lost for the Chinese.  Before the law was repealed, many Chinese left the mining camps, moving to San Francisco, where they soon established themselves in the city's business community and created America's first "Chinatown."  But many more came to the "Mountain of Gold," as the Sierra was called. The height of Gold Rush immigration came in 1852: of the 67,000 people who came to California that year, 20,000 were from China. A corollary of the prejudice was that Chinese miners who continued their search for gold found increasingly harsh treatment at the hands of their fellow miners.

While in Benicia, on April 12, 1853, the legislature adopted a new foreign miners' tax of $4 per month under the provisions of Chapter XLIV, a law engagingly called “An Act to provide for the protection of foreigners and to define their liabilities and privileges.”(!) This act (again) provided that no person, not being a citizen of the United States, would be allowed to take gold from the mines of the state unless he possessed a license, which was non-transferable. 

An interesting twist on the administration of this law was that “all foreigners residing in the mining districts of this State (underlying mine) shall be considered miners under the provisions of this Act, unless they are directly engaged in some other lawful business avocation.” This was a sort of blanket provision providing that you had better very clearly have another job or be prepared to apply for the license and pay the toll.

The way of living among the Chinese was quite dissimilar from the patterns displayed among the masses of rowdy American gold-seekers surrounding them. Approximately one third of the men attracted by California gold were southern whites, some accompanied by their slaves. Along with desires of wealth, many of those southerners brought along hostile racial attitudes. In the years that followed, those virulent temperaments were felt through laws and attitudes, and Blacks as well as Chinese suffered throughout the mid-century. Miners in the area often used violence to drive the Chinese out of various mines. While impatient gold-seekers would abandon prospective rivers, the Chinese would remain, painstakingly panning through the dust to find bits of gold, displaying the same fortitude that led them to take jobs nobody else wanted or that were considered too dirty.

Another fascinating bit reflecting the realities of communicating expectancies to the latter was contained in Chapter LX, an “Act providing for the translation and lithographing into the Chinese language of the Act to provide for the protection of foreigners and to define their liabilities and privileges.”  (There’s that word “protection” again.) This essentially consisted of clarifying the requirement to pony up that $4.00 monthly tab!