Return to Silver and Gold - Cased Images Silver & Gold: Cased Images of the Gold Rush

Gold Fever! The Lure and Legacy of the California Gold Rush

Art of the Gold Rush: Painters and Prospectors

Natives & Immigrants


Native Californian

Native Californian
Isaac Wallace Baker (1818-c.1862), Native Californian, Sixth plate daguerreotype. Collection of the Oakland Museum of California, gift of Anonymous Donor
    This Maidu Indian boy represents the American Indian world that existed in California for hundreds of years before the discovery of gold. The Maidu were disproportionately hurt by the onslaught of settlers and gold seekers in 1848 and after. Located primarily in the Sierra foothills -- the areas with the highest concentration of gold -- the Maidu and other tribes (including the Nisenan, Koukow, Miwok, Pomo, and Yokuts) had their river salmon runs ruined by placer mining, and their homelands destroyed by harsh mining practices.

From the earliest stages, Indians were heavily involved in the Gold Rush. One early government report in 1848 estimated that half of the gold diggers in the state were Indians. As time went on, however, these same Indians came to be seen more as a source of cheap and exploitable labor, and they increasingly came under the control of white miners. Historians have argued that the Anglo-American settlers who came to California after 1846 continued the system of exploitation of Indian labor that had been started in the period of Hispanic rule. Indians continued to be an involuntary source of cheap labor, and existed in a peonage system similar to that of the Mexican ranchos. Indian children were also notoriously taken from their parents and "apprenticed" -- made virtual slaves for their white masters.

The effect of the Gold Rush and its aftermath is impossible to ignore: the state's Indian population declined from an estimated 150,000 in 1845 to less than 30,000 in 1870. Historians estimate that as much as 60 percent of this decline was due to syphilis, cholera, measles, smallpox, and other acute and epidemic diseases.

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