On January 24, 1848, Californian carpenter James Marshall had been standing by his water mill located by the ‘American’ river. A speck of sparkling dust near the shore quickly drew his attention. After collecting a sample, Marshall realized it was gold dust. Exploring around the periphery, the carpenter found massive amounts of gold deposits. In a matter of hours, the impoverished Marshall had become super-wealthy.
Although Marshall was discreet, news of his discovery spread. Growing waves of fortune hunters arrived in San Francisco to seek gold. Originally a settlement of 200 people, San Francisco became a town of 40,000 inhabitants after a few years.
A mythology of impoverished gold seekers quickly growing rich became popular.
The Gold Fever
In 1845, caudillo Ramon Castilla seized the presidency of Peru. Inheriting a nation embedded in anarchy, the military marshal Castilla established order. His government benefited by the exploitation of guano deposits on the Peruvian coast. Guano trade created wealth and amicable foreign relations for Peru. Castilla innovated the country’s infrastructure, built schools, and promoted local businesses.
During this period, Peru had established naval trade routes with the United States. Yet, months after Marshall’s discovery, news of the California gold was still unknown. In August 1848, however, the Peruvian ship Lambayeque sailed from the port of Monterrey, California. The ship traveled south, having the Peruvian port of Paita (Piura) as its destination. The ship Lambayeque carried editions of the San Francisco newspaper ‘Californian’, which described Marshall’s recent discovery.
The ship Lambayeque reached Paita on October 3. Somebody dropped an edition of the ‘Californian’ in Paita. Two weeks later, the Piurano gazette Del Tridente published an account of the gold discovery.
A month later, the news reached Lima. On November 4, the Limeño paper El Comercio announced the California discovery with the heading «Extraordinary News!» Then, El Comercio published daily articles detailing the stories of Marshall and the Californian region. The mythology, at that point, had gone overboard. Stories told that Americans had built their huts out of gold. Furthermore, the «barren country had become a land of wealthy traders»..where anyone could make from 300 to 800 dollars in a day. Even American journalists quit their jobs and became gold hunters.
Undergoing a guano economic boom, this news didn’t impress Limeños. Peruvian ship captains offering to transport gold-hunters to California were ignored. The newspapers kept running fantastic stories, though. They informed that several Chilean citizens were already on their way to San Francisco. The constant publicity finally convinced some Peruvians.
On November 30, 1848, the Ship Susana departed from Callao port. The first nine Peruvians aboard bid farewell and sailed to California.
Premonitions of Trouble
President Ramon Castilla was excited. In a public letter, the entrepreneurial Castilla praised the opportunities Peruvians would have in California. His enthusiasm soon turned to concern. Castilla talked with Juan de Dios Calderón, a shipowner who warned him about the unruly American settlers. Having experienced the Mexican-American war, Calderón assured Castilla that most Yankees were xenophobic, and would surely mistreat Peruvians. At that point, Castilla also ignored that American ship captains had already been warned ‘not to bring South Americans’.
On January 10, 1849, a second ship named California departed from Callao transporting around 60 Peruvians. A third ship, Bello Angelito, carrying another 34 Peruvians aboard, sailed soon after. Both vessels arrived in San Francisco in February. Along with others traveling on other ships, the first Peruvian community in the US was composed of 227 Peruvians.
‘It is worthy of note that Peruvian immigrants were relatively educated. An American printer wrote in his diary that he felt «more respect for South Americans than the coarse and loud Yankees.’
It is worthy of note that Peruvian immigrants were relatively educated. An American printer wrote in his diary that he felt «more respect for South Americans than the coarse and loud Yankees.» Sadly, education was not valued among a mob of gold seekers. At this point, growing racial tensions ensued. Americans complained that South Americans were taking away their gold. Many Peruvians, easy to recognize for wearing Ponchos, were singled out on the streets.
Peruvians and Chileans traveled in horse caravans. Many of them carried guns and rifles, as well. In the Wild West, there was an implicit ‘law of the gun.’ For Peruvians and Chileans, owning guns was a matter of life and death.
President Ramon Castilla, aware of the intimidation, sent the Peruvian ship ‘General Gamarra‘ to California. His purpose was to assist Peruvians in case of danger.
The Riot of July 15, 1849
When Peruvians first settled in California, racial prejudice was not as intense. There were actually more South Americans than gringos at first. But day by day, Americans kept on arriving at the new land. When the amount of Americans surpassed that of Latinos, the racial targeting intensified.
According to historian Jay Monaghan, the work ethic of Peruvians was strong. Having built tents by the American river, Peruvians extracted sufficient gold amounts. Some of them settled in nearby towns. But the intimidation reached greater proportions, with powerful influences behind. A group of bandits known as ‘the Society of the 42‘ threatened Latinos on the streets. It was believed that the bandits had been paid to do so.
On the night of July 15, the Society of the 42 had been drinking at a bar. Somehow, they encouraged the population to rise up against Latinos. Many drunken citizens and bigots joined their group. That same night, the mob wandered around the river and destroyed dozens of tents owned by Peruvians and Chileans. The people with Hispanic facial features were forced to speak. Those who either spoke Spanish or had an accent were beaten.
The next morning, the scenario was devastating. Furniture, clothes and other utensils had been burned. Many people were injured. That evening, the authorities finally intervened. Those who were guilty were brought to trial and sentenced to prison. Unfortunately, the sentence was never enforced. The bandits were set free that same day! Clearly, authorities had been behind the riots all along.
Peruvians understood it was time to leave. Many boarded the Ship General Gamarra and returned to Peru. The ship made two round trips to repatriate all Peruvians. A few brave Peruvians decided to stay.
After such a terrible outcome, President Castilla was disappointed. Castilla also heard stories that Chileans had not been particularly friendly toward Peruvians. Historians assert that, after this experience, Castilla began to distrust Chile and the United States alike.
Around 1850, the United States gained the label of ‘a nation of immigrants’. People from all over the world arrived to seek a new life in ‘the land of opportunity’. There is the perception that Peruvians did not join this massive migration which included people from all nationalities (mainly European). As shown above, Peruvians did participate but xenophobic measures kept them at bay.
If this had not occurred, the United States would have been a far more diverse nation than what it is today.𝔖