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Gold rush race problems began early

Pacific Mail Steamship California
Pacific Mail Steamship California

Race problems in the California gold rush began early. A certain class of men, some vicious and malicious along with others who were ignorant and misguided, started for California as soon as news of the gold strikes reached the east. In January of 1849 a great number of such men, after making their way across the jungles of Panama, were waiting on the Pacific coast for transportation to San Francisco. When the Pacific Mail Steamship California, on its initial voyage, stopped in the port of Panama City these men were angered to learn that about fifty men from Peru had been taken aboard earlier as steerage passengers thus securing the right to reach the gold fields months earlier than the same number of Americans who would be forced to wait for the next northbound ship.

The Americans took the position that since California was United States territory no foreigners should be allowed to mine gold there. Efforts were made to get the Peruvians to leave the steamer, and if they had done so it is doubtful they would have made it to California for quite some time. The Captain finally compromised by erecting temporary quarters for the Peruvians on the upper deck and taking aboard the same number of Americans as would have been given passage if the Peruvians had not been there.

Mainly on account of men of the same mindset as those in Panama, whose stay there was described as one continual scene of fights, rows, drunken yells and all types of confusion, General Persifer F. Smith, then on his way to California to take charge of the Pacific Military Division, made a public declaration to the effect that foreigners would not be allowed to work in the mines. The notorious violence of the “Hounds” against Chilenos, Peruvians and other foreigners in San Francisco in the summer of 1849 were due in part to General Smith’s declaration and the sinister anti-foreigner prejudices it encouraged in portions of the population with an outlook similar to those in Panama.

John Putnam is the author of hard driving historical fiction. See his website at