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Miners at Spanish Flat, El Dorado County

Miners at Spanish Flat, El Dorado County
Attributed to Joseph Blaney Starkweather (c.1822-?), Miners at Spanish Flat, El Dorado County, Quarter plate daguerreotype. Collection of the California State Library
spacer1.gif (44 bytes) Miners began extracting gold from Spanish Flat, located two miles north of the town of Kelsey in El Dorado County, as early as 1848. The first store was opened a year later, and the town had a post office from 1853 to 1872. The Spanish Flat area was still producing gold from its mines well into the 1940s.

This photograph is important because it shows four miners, two of whom are black, working in what appears to be conditions of equality. Blacks made up a very small percentage of California's population in the 1840s and 1850s, but their presence signifies the early ethnic diversity of the state. Rudolph Lapp, the historian of Gold Rush-era blacks in California, estimates that in the early 1850s, there were between 200 and 300 blacks in the gold fields held as slaves. Most of these were brought to the state before November 1849, when the state's constitution was adopted and California was declared a free (non-slave) state. Many of these slaves were eventually able to purchase their freedom, or their freedom was granted to them by their owners. The census of 1850 reported that there were 962 black persons in California, with 600-700 living in the Gold Rush counties; most of these blacks came from Virginia, New York, and Massachusetts, with others coming from the slave states of the deep south. By 1852, there were more than 2,000 blacks living in California, comprising approximately 1 percent of the state's overall population. Blacks were more highly represented in the mining communities than in the cities of San Francisco, Sacramento, or Los Angeles.

Place names like Negro Hill, Negro Bar, and Negro Flat attest to the presence of blacks in California. One scholar of the California gold mining camps has found more than 30 locations in the state with names including "nigger" or "negro." Many of these black miners formed mutual aid associations, and some of these groups associated themselves with friendly white miners as a matter of protection and preservation.

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