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(en) France, UCL AL #313 - History, 1850: The gold rush and the forty-eight Frenchmen in exile (ca, de, it, fr, pt)[machine translation]

Date Tue, 9 Mar 2021 10:07:18 +0200

At the beginning of 1848, gold was found in California. From all over Europe, fresh out of the People's Spring, thousands of people are leaving, driven by the desire to build their socialist ideal there, and in doing so ... will participate in American colonialism which will destroy the Indian nations. ---- In May 1848, a Mormon named Sam Brannan galloped into San Francisco shouting "Gold has been found in the American River!"" This declaration will trigger "the largest movement of people from Crusades"[1]. The future California state, occupied since 1846 by the United States and sold on February 2, 1848 by Mexico, will be completely transformed. People flock to the placers[2].
During the year, up to 40,000 dollars are wrenched every day from the sands of rivers. We rush first from the entire west coast and then from as far as Chile, Australia, China, even Kanaky! As of December 5, tens of thousands of people are selling everything they have and are leaving from the east coast.

The dream of an Icaria in California
But 1848 is also the Spring of the Peoples in Europe. After two years of economic crises, Europe is set on fire. Restoration of the Republic in France, civil war in Switzerland, insurrection in Sicily and Milan, revolt in Glasgow, Young Ireland movement in Dublin, barricades in Prague, Vienna, Berlin, Madrid, nationalist movements, social Catholics, utopian socialists (Fourierists, Saint-Simonians) ... Europe is in turmoil and demands more freedom and social equality. But in Paris, everything stops in June, failure is everywhere, repression is brutal.

Among the gold diggers, a good number of ex-European revolutionaries in exile.
In such a context of disappointment and disillusion, the announcement of the discovery of gold has an extraordinary impact. "For all defeated, persecuted, desperate, banished revolutionaries, gold seems the promise of a new possible world"[3].

In Paris, we no longer swear by California. Its newspapers echo the tremendous discoveries: "Not a meter of land that does not contain gold" assures La Presse of June 8, 1849. Private emigration companies are assembled by the dozen. Some are commercial but others are created in the form of workers' mutual societies: La Californie, La Ruche d'or, La Bretonne, L'Union fraternelle, etc. All this maintained, amplified by hundreds of brochures.

The government will support the creation of a Gold Bullion Company to organize a lottery to finance the transport of 5,000 immigrants too poor to make the crossing. The prefect of police Carlier, who decides on departures, takes the opportunity to get rid of troublesome young people enrolled in the national guard, and who will leave alongside the socialist militants they had repressed a few months before.

Advertisement for the crossing of the planet in the direction of the Californian El Dorado.
Karl Marx will deplore then that "dreams of gold[have]replaced socialist dreams in the Parisian proletariat" . But socialist dreams are also part of the journey. The Icarian movement initiated by the utopian socialist Etienne Cabet, author in 1840 of Voyage en Icarie , formed the project of creating ideal cities. On October 10, 1847, around 150 people gathered in the premises of the newspaper Le Populaire voted on the Act of constitution of Icaria and established an Icarian Immigration Office.

Several attempts will be made by the French in Texas, Iowa, Illinois, most of whom fail or deviate from their goal. But if the Icaries only motivate a few hundred departures, the gold fever is causing tens of thousands of people to leave. "Those who then rushed from all over Europe were not simply greedy 'adventurers', but for the most part the forty-eight, among the most radical and nostalgic, who were suffocating on the old continent, or had to flee the repression[...]California where the revolution of 48 succeeds!"[4].

We debate in the camps
From a village of 500 inhabitants, San Francisco will become a flourishing city. The gold diggers arrive in a muddy environment where they lack everything and where violence, prostitution and alcoholism are omnipresent. Of the 20,000 French gold diggers present in 1851, 5,000 remained in San Francisco, or one fifth of the city's population. They will bring Parisian prostitutes, we will talk about the "little Paris of the Pacific" which will not survive several fires ... The city is trying to organize itself, for fear, according to Sam Brannan, that it "perishes like a modern one. Sodom". He created a committee called Les Vigilantes, armed and mobilizable. This term will be passed on to posterity to describe the private American militias bent on taking justice into their own hands.

Europeans, Indians, Chinese: California in the 1850s.
The Sierra Nevada is gutted 70 tons of gold in 1851, there are 100,000 gold seekers in 1852. At first, the placers make dreams and cultures telescope when the descendants of the first Quaker pilgrims meet there. , Anabaptists, Presbyterians, in search of a new Jerusalem, and the forty-eight Europeans, utopian socialists all in their social experiments. And all to debate in the camps "the world that will be born tomorrow" . "There are no pirates on one side, mystics and socialists on the other," writes historian Michel Le Bris, "they were all both enlightened and outlawed."[5]

But from 1850, land became scarce, the relative good understanding of the first two years was over. The camps are grouped together by nationality, religion, even Masonic lodge, or by socialist utopia, and distrust each other. The first American gold diggers can no longer support the competition of this variegated cohort from all over the Earth, while reproaching the Indians and Mexicans for having been the first owners of California: already in 1849 near Clear Lake, in reaction to the murder of two whites by Pomos and Wappos Indians, self-proclaimed militias and the army engage in indiscriminate massacres: the authorities turn a blind eye. Anti-Indian operations were financed and, in California, Indian slavery continued until 1850.

Native people reduced to semi-slavery took part in the search for gold.
The Vigilantes and the Mokelumne Hill Rebellion
Lynching and "popular justice" are ruthless, as in the case of Juanita, a young Mexican hanged by the crowd for having stabbed her rapist ... To regain control, the Vigilantes militias leave San Francisco to officiate at the placers . They first try to drive out the Chinese. Then a real murderous war is unleashed against Chilean researchers. The California assembly passed a tax in 1850 for all foreign miners: a license of $ 20 per month to prospect.

The French utopians of San Joaquin take up arms against the tax, decreeing "thatthey had not brought down the monarchy in Paris to comply with the orders of a few Yankees"[6]. It is the revolt of Mokelumne Hill: 2,000 French retreat to the heights, organize themselves militarily and clash with the Vigilantes. They will give up their project and will not be prosecuted, they will even be rearmed, while in 1852 the tax passes to three dollars, reduction which will not apply to the Chinese gold diggers ...[7]

Raousset-Boulbon's odyssey
The irreducible Gauls of Sierra Nevada decide to leave California but keep their dream of a new republic: they go to settle in Mexico in the region of Sonora where gold will be in abundance. Deciding to set up a settlement there, these former forty-eighters then put themselves under the authority of the Count of Raousset-Boulbon, a colonialist who took part in the Kabylia campaign alongside Bugeaud.

Landed in California in 1850 and failing as a prospector and trader, he founded a mining company in Mexico, the Compañia Restaudora del Mineral de Arizona, with Mexican capital and the support of the French ambassador. The Mexican government authorizes him to explore Sonora and establish mines there, in exchange he must provide men to protect them from Indian attacks. French diplomats in Mexico do not take a dim view of the prospect of a colony, because France already has views on Mexico which it will invade ten years later.

European women in front of a tavern run by locals.
The local authorities, unhappy to see armed men disembark instead of simple prospectors, unleash hostilities. The French beat the Mexican army and marched on the town of Hermosillo but, ill, had to be repatriated to California. Raousset-Boulbon assembles a second army and sets out again to conquer Sonora in 1854. Failure, he is shot on August 12.

So the dreams of a new world of the French gold-seeking utopians abruptly ended ... The myth of California endured throughout the century: in 1881, a Fourierist and Saint-Simonian Icaria settled in Saint-Louis, attracted by rumor from a popularity of socialist ideas in San Francisco, tries a new experience by relocating to Sonoma County. Founded by Pierre Leroux (brother of Jules Leroux, inventor of the word "socialism") and financed by Georges Sand, it will be baptized Icaria Speranza, then will be dissolved on August 3, 1886 by the county court of justice.

The destruction of indigenous peoples
The Gold Rush is a disaster for Native American nations. In 1846, about 150,000 natives populated California. They were no more than 35,000 in 1860: the staggering number of new arrivals chased them from their usual hunting and fishing areas. They respond by attacking the minors who take revenge with murderous reprisals on their villages "culminating in a genocidal program which claimed thousands of lives"[8]. Those who survive without access to their natural resources die starving. " Against a backdrop of Rousseauism and romanticism[...]man fights against nature, that is to say against the Indian, without worrying about the economic and political implications of this future "farmers' paradise""[9].

In 1846, about 150,000 natives populated California. They numbered 35,000 in 1860. Immigrants drove them from their hunting and fishing grounds.
The political turmoil in California led to the development of a constitution and the creation of a state that accelerated the colonization and destruction of indigenous peoples, including the construction of the railroad from Sacramento to the east.

This is not the only time in history that socialist utopias have reinforced colonial processes: the kibbutz in Palestine, the creation of workers' cooperatives to populate European colonial territories ... The lesson to be learned is to be wary. , even today, the possible instrumentalisation of self-management experiences, in reality motivating colonialist and imperialist companies.

Nicolas Pasadena (UCL Montreuil)


[1] Michel Le Bris, The Gold Fever , La Découverte, 1988.

[2] Gold present in alluvium, as opposed to gold found in a rock vein

[3] Michel Le Bris, op. cit .

[4] Michel Le Bris, La Porte d'or , Grasset, 1986.

[5] Michel Le Bris, When California Was French , Le Pré aux Clercs, 1999.

[6] "Gold rush: when the French blow a wind of revolution on" Moke Hill "", Le Monde , July 24, 2020.

[7] Ibidem

[8] James J. Rawls, Richard J. Orsi, A golden state: mining and economic development in Gold Rush California , UC Press, 1999.

[9] Philippe Jacquin, Le Mythe de l'Ouest , Autrement, 1993.

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