The California Gold Rush, between 1848 to 1860, started after gold was found by carpenter and sawmill operator James W. Marshall on January 24, 1848. Once Marshall’s discovery became public, thousands of people came to the goldfields in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains in Northern California. Approx. 4,000 Black Americans were among the people who would arrive in California by 1860 in search of gold, prosperity and freedom.
In 1850, 952 Black Americans resided in California, with the male population being 91 percent of that number. The population doubled to 2,000, mostly men by 1852. A few Black American gold-seekers found wealth during the gold rush. In 1848, one Black man named Hector deserted his naval squadron ship Southampton at Monterey, California, and went to to look for gold. He returned a few weeks later with $4,000 in gold. Peter Brown, formerly of St. Genevieve, Missouri worked about 25 miles from Sacramento in December 1851, he discovered $400 after two months of work.
Black American miners often worked in integrated settings in Chinese, Latin American, and European companies. In 1852, a small Black American community called Little Negro Hill came about around the lucrative claims of two Massachusetts-born African American miners working along the American River.
Other integrated mining settlements emerged including a second Negro Hill near the Mokelumne River, Union Bar along the Yuba River, and Downieville, which was founded in 1849 by William Downie, a Scotsman who led nine miners, including seven African Americans.
Far more Black-Americans were successful providing services to the gold-driven economy. Most newcomers settled in Sacramento and San Francisco. Mifflin Gibbs and Peter Lester, formerly of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, began the Pioneer Boot and Shoe Emporium whose customers stretched from Portland, Oregon Territory, to Baja California. James P. Dyer, formerly of New Bedford, Massachusetts, became the West’s first antebellum Black manufacturer when he began the New England Soap Factory in San Francisco in 1851.
Although nominally a…