By Anthony Belli
Not content with having drunk up our brandy, these scoundrels rifled our saddlebags where we had a bottle of quimagogo. One of the damned gringos drank it all, thinking it was port; the bottle held enough to kill three horses. When we saw they had gulped down this medicine like wine, I assure you we would have been terrified had we not been secretly enjoying a mood of vengeance.
— Vicente Perez Rosales, Chilean 49er
The California Gold Rush has no equal, Herbert Howe Bancroft said of the year 1849 that it was an “era” in time that had passed in a single year. The events which began with James Marshall’s discovery of gold in Coloma induced an aberration of time, space, and humanity tantamount in global history. The western slope of California’s Sierra Nevada range played host to men from nearly every nation of the world, Brits, Mexican, Chinese, Kanaka, Peruvian, Irish, French, Italian, all invaded the lands of the Miwok and Maidu. More came from Nicaragua, Spain, Australia, Yankees from the States – white and black, Argentina and Chile. The California Gold Rush was the largest migration of humanity since the Crusades.
California under American conquest began its history from this mixed bag of race, religion, and culture which has developed into California’s unique society and culture of today. Where else can one celebrate Cinco de Mayo, Christmas, a Native American Pow-Wow and the Chinese New Year without leaving the state? The story of the Gold Rush, therefore, is incomplete as told in textbook form, the true story of California’s Gold Rush is best told in the words of those 49er’s who manned these Sierra foothills as world history unfolded.
Those from Chile certainly left their mark on California, and in a much more profound way than just leaving us with volumes of place names beginning with Chile, or in its typically American version — “Chili.” El Dorado County’s own Chileno history can be found in the mining camps of Chile Bar (inundated by Folsom Lake,) and Chili Bar north of Placerville, Yomet, Pekin, Spanish Flat, Kanaka Town, Johntown, Hangtown, Garden Valley and Chile Hill. Chilenos played an important though unintentional role in how Hangtown acquired its name, also resulting in Hangtown’s Main Street oak joining the ranks of two other famous California hanging trees, one at Jackson the other at Second Garrote.
Likewise, it was Chilean miners who sought justice for the murder of one of their own resulting in the hanging of Richard Crone, aka: “Irish Dick” who swung from Placerville’s lesser-known hanging tree which sat in the vicinity of today’s Coloma and High Streets.
News Of Marshall’s Discovery Reaches Chile
Word of Marshall’s discovery first arrived in Valparaiso, Chile with the arrival of the brig JRS on August 19, 1848. Captain G.L. Hobson, a Valparaiso merchant himself, related the tale of his difficult voyage home since half his crew had jumped ship at San Francisco upon hearing the news. He reported California’s gold fields were so bountiful that all one had to do to earn a fortune was to merely reach down and pick it up off the ground. Folks paid little heed to his fabulous tales from California.
Ten days later with the arrival of the schooner Adelaida which carried $2,500 in California gold Chile’s future was abruptly changed. First to respond were foreign merchants, members of American and British colonies. Less than two weeks after the Adelaida arrived at Valparaiso forty-five English-speaking businessmen boarded the Virginian and sailed for California.
At this point, Chile was suffering an economic decline and many of her young men took note at the sudden departure of the “gringos.” The rush from Chile was on. The Chilean Foreign Office first issued passports for those experienced miners whose passage could be paid, others worked as temporary ships crew and soon each ship was filled to capacity. By June 1849 the Foreign Office had issued more than 6,000 passports.
No longer were Chileans applying for passports, adventurers, prostitutes, and folks from every walk of life departed Chile, all California bound. Those English-speaking gringos who’d first left Chile were now opening shops in San Francisco and importing goods from Chile including foods, mining supplies, explosives, and prefabricated homes. By the end of 1849, 92 of 119 ships of Chilean registry sat in various states of decay rotting in the San Francisco Bay leaving Chile’s Merchant Marine fleet in ruins. However many skeptics remained were soon convinced as every ship returning to Chile’s harbors was greeted by crowds of people yelling for “News from California!” The reply was the same. Gold! Gold in abundance! Nuggets the size of boulders!
By now Chile’s harbors were filling up with ships packed with 49ers, most from the east coast of the United States. One Captain recalled counting 300 ships in a single day, noting that 12 were from his home port of Hamburg. The economy flourished, prices for everything reached unbelievable rates, brothels hadn’t enough employees to handle the sudden influx of young male clientele. Residents of the nearly deserted Juan Fernandez Islands were suddenly besieged by 49ers who’d just rounded the Horn. They found themselves at the center of a Gold Rush boomtown! Chilean businessmen invested in ships to handle the new economic and transportation crisis, caused by the inability to keep with demand. Shortly however what seemed like a sure thing turned sour. The ships’ captains, like the crews, simply abandoned ship in the San Francisco Bay to go seek their wealth and glory in California gold.