Commentary: California's first attempt to pass anti-immigrant laws dates back to the gold rush

Commentary: California's first attempt to pass anti-immigrant laws dates back to the gold rush


California was not always the progressive state we know today, where political leaders praise diversity and file lawsuits defending immigrants. Its history is filled with clashes over race and identity, including a little-known episode just after its birth.

On Sept. 14, 1850, five days after California gained statehood, John Charles Fremont introduced a bill in Congress. Fremont, one of California's first two U.S. senators, wanted to regulate the gold rush. His proposal required the thousands of prospectors who had been swarming California for the previous two years to buy federal mining permits. But the permits would be available only to citizens.

A shockingly frank Senate debate revealed the true purpose of this clause: denying people of certain races and nationalities their chance to strike it rich.

Fremont was one of the most famous men of his time. In the 1840s he was a U.S. Army officer assigned to map the American West - and entice Americans to settle it, which he did by writing popular reports of his perilous adventures. In 1846 and 1847 he participated in capturing California from Mexico.

In those early days, the visionary idea Fremont presented of California's place in the world had few xenophobic overtones. As a mapmaker, he named the mouth of San Francisco Bay the Golden Gate, not because it was a gateway into California, but because he considered it a gateway outward to Asia. He foresaw California's globalized trade "commingling together the European, American and Asiatic races."

Such "commingling" changed Fremont's life. During the gold rush in 1849, he met a group of Mexican migrants seeking their fortune. He invited them to prospect on land he owned, and they made him rich.

But by the time he reached the Senate in 1850, he had chosen a course at odds with that experience.

He supported the view of many white prospectors, who looked suspiciously at Mexicans, Asians and others. Chinese miners were being attacked, and a growing number of citizen miners supported a tax that applied only to foreigners. Fremont's fellow California senator, William M. Gwin, said of Mexicans: "We do not want them at all." On the Senate floor, Fremont agreed, saying the gold rush was drawing "civilized Indians and inferior castes" out of Mexico, which "brought into California a class of population of very doubtful character."

What changed? As an individual in 1849, Fremont saw his interests clearly and employed people with skills he needed. As a legislator in 1850, he was part of a system, whose leaders thought in the abstract about people unlike them. Knowing he faced reelection, he all too easily reflected the views of those who would decide his fate: the white men who had come to dominate California. Determined to control the newly conquered land, where they initially were outnumbered, white Californians not only discriminated against foreigners but also denied the vote to nearly all Indians and came close to banning black people from entering the state at all.

When the Senate debated his bill limiting gold prospecting to citizens, the arguments eerily resembled our debates over immigration 170 years later.

One senator said it would be unfair for foreigners to benefit from the gold rush, because Americans had fought and died to conquer California. Sen. William Henry Seward of New York, however, noted that many immigrants joined the Army, with its perils and low pay, and that "more than half" of the 1,700 American lives lost in the war against Mexico "were the lives of men born aliens."

Seward, whose constituents included European immigrants, proposed selling permits to prospectors who "declared their intention to become" citizens. Noncitizens and citizens together, he said, would bring up more of the wealth than citizens alone.

Senators from the recently formed states of Iowa and Wisconsin also rose to defend the foreign-born: Immigrants from Europe were settling the prairies, and many were not yet citizens. Isaac Walker of Wisconsin said "they were voters in Wisconsin," which was true; numerous states then allowed noncitizen residents to vote. Walker added that "they worked on our roads; they paid taxes; they performed all the duties of citizens." He could not "blast all their hopes" by blocking those who were moving to California.

Augustus Dodge of Iowa proposed a compromise: The bill should allow European immigrants to mine for California gold. They were the kind of immigrants who voted in Iowa. Dodge cared less about Mexicans: "I think Mexicans are a miserable people, who should be excluded from the mines."

After the debate, the bill was amended to allow mining by U.S. citizens and "persons from Europe who produce testimonials of good character."

But when Fremont next returned to California, he discovered it was backfiring in his home state. The proposal had not only alienated longtime Mexican residents of California; it had also failed to appease white nativists.

Since mining permits would mainly go to citizens, citizens would be the ones paying the requisite fees, something opponents cast as a discriminatory tax targeting citizens. Fremont was merely dabbling in nativism, and more cynical politicos ran circles around him. He wrote an open letter distancing himself from his own bill, but failed to win reelection in 1851; and the bill he had intended to promote that reelection did not pass.

Years later, when he ran for president as the first-ever nominee of the new Republican Party, Fremont made a point of not mentioning the episode. When a draft campaign biography included a passage on the citizenship clause in the mining bill, his influential wife, Jessie Benton Fremont, wrote instructions to the biographer: "Decidedly, this ought to be struck out." It was.

The bill nevertheless set the pattern for future decades, when California, like the nation as a whole, both gained from and discriminated against immigrant labor. One lesson of the episode is plain: Immigrants who won and exercised the right to vote were respected in the government. Those unable to vote were not. It is the same in 2020: While America declares that "all men are created equal," only those who secure the vote and use it have power to defend their equality.

Today we can also see that Fremont's initial vision for California prevailed. Despite his flirtation with nativism, modern California did become a global marketplace of people and ideas, "commingling together the European, American and Asiatic races." Cynical political maneuvers did enormous damage, but could not stop progress - a perspective worth remembering in our own turbulent times.



Steve Inskeep is co-host of NPR's "Morning Edition" and the author of "Imperfect Union: How Jessie and John Fremont Mapped the West, Invented Celebrity, and Helped Cause the Civil War."

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