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Natives & Immingrants

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Miss Liberty
by Steven Lavoie

Of all the nationalities lured to California by gold fever, only those from Latin America came with any mining experience.

Immigrants from Mexico, Chile and Peru, especially, used their experience to consistently out-produce the rest of polyglot ’49ers: Yankees and African Americans, Europeans, Chinese and American Indians.

An American solution, designed to "level the playing field," so to speak, nearly incited a New World reprise of the French Revolution.

The truce that ended the Mexican War, signed nine days after the discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill in 1848, yielded a highly uneasy peace. The Gold Rush only increased the tensions, by flooding the once pastoral, Spanish-speaking territory of Alta California with English-speaking people from across the continent and throughout the British Empire who helped to fuel the hostilities between the Latinos and the Anglophiles.

"A strong feeling of hostility now exists between the American and Mexican populations," a ’49er reported in a letter of 1850. The term "Mexican" was used to describe all Latinos, regardless of their place of origin. Everyone else was caught in the middle.

The Yankees used the distinct advantage of citizenship as a tool to neutralize their disadvantages as miners. They legislated, in the good-old All-American way.

In April 1850, the newly chartered California state legislature, known as the "Legislature of a Thousand Drinks" for its prolific consumption of booze during the hard-rain winter they first convened, passed the Foreign Miners' Tax Law. The bill assessed a $20 per month levy on all any claim held by a non-citizen. It was, of course, only selectively enforced, first on the Chinese miners, who were nearly defenseless, since they were not trained to use rifles.

Then, the tax collectors swarmed in on the "Mexican" encampments. Random violent protests hampered the efforts of the enforcers, but led only to an increase in violence.

But the French-speaking miners - Quebeckers, Frenchmen, Cajuns and even a few Polynesians - took a Napoleonic approach. They organized a full-scale rebellion, led by two radicals, exiled from France for their role in the Revolution of 1848. On a Sunday, May 19, 1850, the rebels amassed a cavalry of 4,000 French and Spanish-speaking miners in a hollow outside of Sonora.

Fully regaled in the tricolors of the French Revolution, the army marched onto the main streets of Sonora, completing their occupation. An American attempt to squash the rebellion was quickly abandoned after another army of foreigners, mostly German immigrants, arrived to "liberate" the rebels.

The citizens, in this case the Yankees, returned sheepishly to their camps, hopelessly outnumbered.

The Foreign Miners' Tax Law soon would be repealed.

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