A popular folk tale from the Gold Rush era has it that a Chinese laundryman got rich not from searching for gold in the American River but from washing. He was the laughingstock of all the gold diggers who were staying in Weaverville, when California had become the new Eldorado: he was a little Chinese boy named John John (moniker reserved for all the Chinese immigrants during the gold rush) who for months washed miners’ clothing, never earning a penny for his labors.
Obviously, the cunning seekers took advantage of it abundantly, feeling however much more clever than the stupid Chinese. But John John was not so naive, and made his fortune without too much effort and without risk.
James W. Marshall was the man who started the gold rush, quite randomly. Probably, if he had known what disastrous consequences they would have had for his life, those nuggets found in the American River would have remained in the riverbed. It was January 24, 1848, when Marshall, who oversaw the construction of a sawmill he was a member of, realized that something was shining beneath the water of the adjacent canal. After some verification, he was sure that the sparkling stones were gold nuggets.
Within a year, everything changed in California, which had recently become part of the United States. The Marshall workers quit their jobs to search for gold and the sawmill was abandoned, while a horde of adventurers of all kinds occupied the territory, so much so that Marshall was forced to leave his plot of land: at the end he died in misery, but this is another story!
The gold rush did not bring to California only gold prospectors who came from all over the world to search for fortune: with them came those who tried to exploit the fever that had infected thousands of people. There were those who opened stores to provide the searchers, but also saloons and brothels, and then charlatans, gamblers and adventurers who tried to make money on the earnings of the miners. For many, it was more profitable to offer services to seekers than to try to finding a precious gold nugget. Incidentally, only a few miners became really rich.
Every seeker paid to sleep in a clean bed, eat a hot meal, spend a few hours in the company of a prostitute, and even to wash the muddy clothes worn while he was soaking in the rivers. Wash the miners’ clothes: this was the brilliant intuition of the little Chinese whose true name will never be known. John John, the “laughingstock of Weaverville” cleansed the miners’ clothes not only from the mud, but also from the gold dust trapped in the fabrics, and sometimes even from tiny gold nuggets forgotten in their pockets.
After a year spent in Weaverville, John John was seen around the city of Sacramento, in elegant clothes….at least according to the story of John Hoffman, a seeker who for thirty years moved through the sierras of California to find gold and silver. It seems that the small Chinese washerman then took advantage of the sense of superiority with which the whites treated the Chinese, deceiving them again.
John John was commissioned to build a building in Coulterville, and nominally assumed 18 of his countrymen, for whom he collected the same numbers of wages. In reality the workers were only ten, but the buyers never noticed it, because “all the Chinese seem equal”, and the work proceeded quickly. John John did not take advantage only of the whites, but also of his workers, who had to pay half their wages, as compensation for the privilege of working with an entrepreneur so important.
Perhaps, this is only one of the many legends born around the fires of the seekers, during the long nights under the stars of California, or maybe not, but no one will be able to find out the true story. What is certain, is that the gold rush caused a total upheaval in the life of that lazy and sleepy territory that was California of the time: San Francisco, in two years, between 1848 and 1850, passed by 1,000 to 25,000 inhabitants. And also the Chinese population boomed in California during the mid-1850s. Facing discrimination, many Chinese men took any work they could find. In 1849, when the news came over the ocean that gold had been discovered in California, southeast China was roiled by war, drought, and famine, and of course men were lured by the promise of quick wealth. Within two years, 25,000 Chinese immigrants had left behind their homes for the grueling trip across the ocean to seek their fortunes. Chinese immigrants were not allowed to own property or become citizens, and they faced violent physical attacks and taxes levied specifically against them, like the 1854 Foreign Miner’s Tax.
And when the gold became harder to recover, the miners widened their range of action, hunting the Native Americans, deprived of their hunting and food-gathering territories. Those who were not massacred (a number estimated at between 9,400 and 16,000 people, including women and children) died of disease and hunger because they no longer had any way to get food. The first governor of California supported the extermination: “a war of extermination will continue to be fought between the two races until the exinction of the Indian race” and this was, according to the mentality of the time, the will of God.