The history of blacks in the California Gold Rush is well-documented. When gold was discovered in Sutter’s Mill in 1848, 100,000 people went to California to seek their fortunes. Approximately 1,000 of them were black, and by 1860 there were more than 5,000 blacks in search of gold.
One of the most detailed books about this part of black history is “Blacks in Gold Rush California,” written by Rudolph M. Lapp and published in 1977. Lapp wrote that “the men and women who headed to California formed the largest migration of American blacks before the Civil War.” Blacks and whites, often working side by side, took their tools and shovels and came out with sacks of gold dust.
Frederick Douglass wrote about the thirst for gold in his newspaper, the North Star. He reported regularly on the blacks who traveled to California. Some of them traveled with all-black mining companies. The question was not whether to go, but rather, when to make the trip.
White abolitionists tried to discourage blacks from going to California, but Douglass countered that this was a way for blacks to improve their economic situation. Blacks also saw it as an opportunity to gain wealth to secure the freedom of their wives and children, many of whom were still enslaved.
The passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 created an emergency for blacks in the North to find a safer place to live. The law made it illegal for anyone to help escaped slaves and it included a fine and imprisonment for those who hid them. Bounty hunters were also used to capture fugitives and return them to their masters in the South.
In many cases, those who headed West needed the services of a guide. One of the best was a black man named James Pierson Beckwourth. He was a scout, fur trapper, Indian chief and trader who lived from 1798 to 1866. He was adopted by the Crow Indians. Beckwourth discovered a pass through the Sierra Nevada Mountains, called Beckwourth’s Pass, which helped many settlers reach California. Yet Hollywood movies used white actors to portray him.
Lapp also noted that some blacks traveled to California by ship. Many of them were familiar with this means of travel because they had worked in the seafaring trades in the North. One of the individuals who came to California this way was a black man from Buffalo named Abner H. Francis. He had a long career as an anti-slavery activist. He became one of the wealthiest African-Americans in Buffalo and had a successful clothing and dry cleaning business. Dr. Benjamin C. Taylor, the first practicing black physician in Buffalo, also traveled to California and returned a very rich man. He became one of the most prestigious land owners in Buffalo in the 1880s.
William H. Talbert, another black man from Buffalo, also struck it rich in the Gold Rush. Talbert was married to the great civil rights leader Mary B. Talbert, one of the organizers of the Niagara Movement in 1905, which was the forerunner of the NAACP. William Talbert was a wealthy businessman and real estate broker. He was active in political life and became president of Buffalo’s Colored Republican Party. After his death in 1930, a Jan. 23 article in the Buffalo Courier Express gave a summary of his will. The article, “Negro’s Will Disposes of Large Estate,” noted that Talbert left a great deal of property and thousands of dollars to his family in addition to diamond rings and other jewelry. He also owned large amounts of property in Grand Island and in Portland, Ore. Much of his estate went to his daughter, Sarah. His funeral service was held in the historic Michigan Street Baptist Church.
The California Gold Rush was so popular that it attracted blacks from Latin America and Jamaica. Gold Rush maps of the times bore witness to the presence of blacks. Lapp noted that many of the areas where blacks mined for gold were called “Negro Hill, Negro Bar and Negro Flat.” There were some other names that were derogatory.
Traveling to California for blacks was not easy. They met danger, violence and outright racism. Trouble brewed when the resentment of some whites caused confrontations between the two races. However, the blacks kept coming and as a result, their presence more than doubled the size of California’s black population. These men and women made great contributions to the state, but their achievements have not been recognized.
The story of these gold miners is only one part of the black history of the West. For readers who would like to know more, the following books are recommended: “The Black West” and “Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage,” both by William Loren Katz; “The Negro Cowboys,” by Philip Durham; and “Mining for Freedom,” by Sylvia Alden Roberts.
Eva M. Doyle has been a columnist for 35 years for the Buffalo Criterion newspaper, where this article originally appeared. It is the last of four parts.