Some of the Best to Ever Come Down the Pike

 (Chinese placer miners next to a long tom back in the day.)

I'm interspersing a post or two in between my seven-part series on finding workable gold ground to break things up a bit and throw some spice into the works. In this post I'll be talking about Chinese miners during the California Gold Rush. Whether you realize it or not, mining history is an important part of your small-scale mining knowledge and, believe it or not, everything you learn improves your chances of finding more gold.

Lurid Tales of Gold

Not long after James Marshall's discovery of placer gold in a millrace at Coloma, California in 1848 there were only around 50 or so Chinese in the land of the Bear Flag Republic. By 1849 as new gold discoveries were found and more gold ground was opened up in the Sierra Nevada foothills east of Sacramento, their numbers had increased by the thousands and eventually into the tens and hundreds of thousands. Although population figures are hard to pin down, it's estimated that by 1876 (the year Custer finally got his comeuppance from the Plains Indians) there were over 150,000 Chinese scattered throughout mining camps in the West and Southwest. At least 115,000 of these Celestials (as they were once known) remained in California.

It's little wonder that erstwhile Chinese placer gold miners headed to California in droves once the news of the massive amounts of gold there reached the poverty stricken Chinese who had long suffered under various warlords and royal families. The recent Taiping Rebellion had been particularly hard on those eking out a living in southeastern China, where the bulk of Chinese Argonauts hailed least in the early stages of the Gold Rush. In California it was said that the beds of entire rivers were golden and that an individual armed only with a jackknife could pry and dig thousands of dollars a day of pure gold simply by prying the yellow metal free from between rocks or uprooting it from cracks and crevices. Other tales that Chinese labor contractors and shipping agents spread were just as lurid, if not more so. But lurid or not, there was a element of truth in the stories that were told...the California goldfields were the richest ever found on earth at that time (and perhaps beyond).

Industrious and Law Abiding

It didn't take long for Chinese placer miners to excel at mining the rivers, creeks, bars, gullies, hillsides, and washes of the California Motherlode Region. If nothing else the Celestials were industrious, meticulous, and imminently capable when it came to the business of getting the gold and soon earned a reputation as shrewd businessmen (and women) as well. Early on during the Gold Rush the Chinese were welcomed with open arms as were men and women from nearly every part of the globe. There was still plenty of good gold ground available and as far as the Chinese were concerned, the Anglo or white miners appreciated the fact that the Celestials also provided much needed services as cooks, laborers, launders, shopkeepers, servants, and of course, prostitutes. The Chinese were also considered "colorful" characters with quaint customs and dress by the grizzled placer miners from the East, Australia, and Europe. As the Alta California, a San Francisco newspaper of the day reported, "The China boys will soon vote at the same polls, study at the same schools, and bow at the same altar of our own countrymen." The general consensus of the day was that the Chinese in the goldfields (and elsewhere for that matter) were industrious, law abiding, clean and neat, and most of all...they were unobtrusive and tended toward being deferential when it came to other races.

"Avaricious and Ignorant..."

But all was not well in the goldfields as time went by. As the easy to get or surface placer gold deposits in the Motherlode played out and more and more white miners flocked to the California mines these newcomers found the going difficult at best. The gold-laden fantasies they'd carried with them from all points east of the Missouri River were not panning out as expected and as their "get-rich-quick" schemes died out one after another, they looked for scapegoats. Since the Native Americans in the Motherlode Region were already on the verge of extinction, bad intentions were turned upon French and Spanish miners first, then those from Central and South America, and finally the Mexicans. Once these miners were effectively run out of the goldfields, the whites turned their attentions to the Celestials who were quietly and industriously teasing the gold from claims considered borderline or even complete "humbugs." Bitter disappointment, race hatred, and plain old ignorance were the drivers and what transpired was not a pretty scene.

 (Chinese miners working alongside whites before things went south.)

In most instances Chinese miners were driven off their claims either through direct violence or the threat of the same. It was a "Might makes right," sort of thing and with gold at the core of the matter, little sympathy was shown to the Celestials or the fruits of their labors. Beatings, rapes, and murders occurred more frequently than some historians care to admit and the Chinese, long-suffering as a race, suffered even more. Now, in a complete about face, some California politicians colored them as "Nothing more than coolie contract laborers who are avaricious, ignorant of moral obligations, incapable of being assimilated, and dangerous to the public welfare." What followed hard on the heels of this verbal indignity was the institution of a foreign miner's tax that was so prohibitive in cost that the majority of foreign miners (including the Chinese) found themselves unable to work the goldfields at all in most instances. It was a hard time to be a foreigner in the American West.

Eventually time and attitudes changed least temporarily. Chinese miners took over gold ground that had been abandoned by white miners as "played out" and through concentrated effort turned these bust-out claims into moderately profitable ventures. As newer gold strikes were located elsewhere in the western and southwestern United States, Celestial miners and businessmen and women were right there on hand to patiently wait their turn at the gold. This scene was repeated over and over again countless times right up until 1877 when the bottom fell out of the European and American business world. Chinese miners were once again forced out of the goldfields and back into their more familiar and acceptable roles as cooks, laborers, and laundrymen. What sprung from this new suppression was the emergence of "Chinatowns" throughout the West and Southwest (although San Francisco had long had a booming version of this). Here white miners could bathe, eat, get a haircut and shave, gamble, "dream" in an opium parlor, or have their physical lusts satisfied. Much has been made of "Chinatowns" in movies and in TV programs and although partially true, this stereotype doesn't do justice to the Chinese miners and their compatriots who came to the West to find their own "gold."

Sparse Indeed

I know I passed this bit of info along to you before, but take heed once again, OK? Placer mines worked by the Chinese are scattered throughout the American West and Southwest and they're typically noted by their huge stacks of neatly placed cobbled rock from gold-bearing streams or washes. These cobbled stacks or tailings mean that Chinese miners worked the area and all those rocks were moved and lifted from that wash or streambed by hand and then stacked neatly in those towering piles. The Chinese did this to get every last fleck or bit of gold they could out of that location and they were, again, meticulous in this regard. If you think I'm BSing you here, trying working one of the placer areas that the Chinese once worked and see what transpires. The only gold you'll find is whatever has accumulated over the course of 160 years or so AFTER Chinese miners finished up at that spot and even the gold you DO find will be sparse indeed.

(Hand-stacked placer tailings...these are in Montana.)

The Chinese were some of the best placer gold miners to ever come down the pike. Take that to the bank with you...

(c) Jim Rocha (J.R.) 2015

Questions? E-mail me at


  1. Hello JR, Here in the Salmon, Idaho area there are lots of Chinese walls along the creeks where you can tell they mined. And no, they were not well liked here either. China springs was named that for 3 Chinese miners murdered for their gold. There are lots of stories about them being robbed in and around Leesburg.Leesburg was the main town then, Salmon was only a supply camp. Leesburg is only a ghost town today. One story about why dump creek washed out so badly is that the dam above was blown up purposely to wipe out a china camp below. Salmon City, as it was called then, had it's own china town. A guy I know, has a very high dollar metal detector and anytime a building is torn down or ground work is done he finds a few Chinese coins. Funny, we only have one family of Chinese here now. Anyway, as always, thank you for this artical. This kind of thing fascinates me to no end. Gary


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