It’s the height of the 19th-century California Gold Rush. A Chinese man called John John is bent over a wooden tub filled with miners’ filthy clothes. He’s working hard, scrubbing away to get the garments clean before they’re dried and neatly pressed. He does all this for free. The miners think he’s crazy. But he knows something that they don’t. And it will make him a rich man.
We’ll come back to the story of John John. By the way, that’s not his real name, just a nickname habitually handed out to Chinese people by white folks. But before we tell the tale of this immigrant, let’s find out about the extraordinary gold rush that convulsed California in the years following 1848.
It was on January 24, 1848 when a 37-year-old man called James Wilson Marshall sparked the Californian gold rush. Strictly speaking, California was still Mexican territory at that point. It wasn’t until the February 2 signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that year, ending the Mexican-American War, that it became an American possession. But to all intents and purposes California had already been effectively American for some time.
Marshall had fought in the Mexican-American War but when he returned to his farmstead he found that rustlers had taken his livestock. With no money to pay rent, he forfeited his ranch. He needed a new livelihood so he went into business with a man called John Sutter. The two now built a sawmill in Coloma in the foothills of California’s Sierra Nevada range.
The mill was built by a creek which powered a waterwheel. Such a set-up needed a channel to drain the water away after it had turned the wheel. This ditch was known as a tailrace, and it turned out that Marshall had not dug it wide or deep enough for the volume of water that needed to pass through it.
Marshall now set to enlarging the tailrace and that was when he noticed something unusual in the flowing water. He was later to write an account of what happened next. “I went down as usual,” he recalled, “and after shutting off the water from the race I stepped into it, near the lower end, and there, upon the rock, about six inches beneath the surface of the water, I DISCOVERED THE GOLD.”
It was a dramatic moment indeed and one that would have far-reaching consequences. It’s said that Sutter was not pleased by Marshall’s discovery. He wanted to use his land for farming and dreaded a gold rush frenzy. However, there was no way this discovery could be kept quiet. Soon, the news of the gold find had spread far and wide.
According to Hubert Bancroft’s 1888 book History of California, 1848-1859 in March 1848 a trader and newspaperman, one Samuel Brannan, strode through the streets of San Francisco holding a flask of gold aloft. As he did so, he yelled, “Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!” He also took the opportunity to open a store offering all the equipment necessary for prospecting and in time became the first gold-rush millionaire.
In those pre-instant communication days, it wasn’t until August 1848 that the news of the gold find made its way across the country to the East Coast. And in December 1848 the president of the day James Polk announced the gold discovery to Congress. The gold rush was well and truly on.
This turned out to be bad news for John Sutter. Just as he had anticipated, the hordes of people who now descended on the area around his sawmill and farm took over his land and stole his livestock. And his workers deserted him to hunt for gold, just like the many thousands of others yearning to find the precious metal.
At first in 1848 it was mainly Californians, sometimes whole families of them, who came to the gold fields. But soon dreams of glittering wealth drew people from across America and from other countries. Thousands traveled overland on the Siskiyou Trail from Oregon. Others arrived from South American countries such as Chile, Peru and Mexico.
But only around 6,000 arrived in California in 1848. It was in 1849 and 1850 that hordes of gold-hungry fortune-seekers descended on California. Prospectors arrived from Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Italy and Britain. A 1999 study by James Rawls and Richard Orsi noted that San Francisco had a population of around 1,000 in 1848; by 1850, it had swelled to 25,000.
Another nation provided a ready supply of people anxious to benefit from the gold rush: China. And the Chinese did come in great numbers. As 1849 dawned, there was a grand total of 54 Chinese in the whole of California. By 1876, they numbered 116,000. While these immigrants were pulled to California by the promise of wealth, they were also pushed from their own country by the dire political situation there.
The Opium Wars, the first from 1839 to 1842 and the second spanning 1856 to 1860, had caused much death and destruction in China. The East India Company had established a lucrative illicit trade in opium. The British company had smuggled the narcotic from India to China even although the drug was illegal there.
When the Chinese, horrified by the devastation wreaked by opium addiction among its population, tried to stamp the trade out, the British went to war to defend their highly profitable drug dealing. The first Opium War ended with the Treaty of Nanking in 1842. This handed Hong Kong to the British, a territory they retained until 1997.
The Second Opium War also saw victory for the British. The upshot of these two military defeats was a substantial weakening of the Chinese economy. And things were made worse for ordinary Chinese by the Taiping Rebellion. This prolonged and vicious civil war between two rival dynasties, each struggling for control of China, lasted for 14 years from 1850.
Estimates of the number killed in this civil war range from 20 million to a staggering 100 million. And the fighting raged over almost all of mainland China. Both sides in the conflict displayed terrible brutality, massacring civilians, destroying crops and wreaking wholesale devastation. So those Chinese with the means available had every reason to escape their homeland seeking a better life.
However, arriving in America was not an easy path to prosperity or peace for many of the Chinese who traveled by ship to San Francisco. Most of the prospectors, miners and merchants in the gold fields, almost all white, regarded the Chinese with unconcealed animosity and naked racism. The Chinese newcomers faced a distinctly hostile environment.
But the migration of the Chinese to America was encouraged by ship’s captains keen to make money out of transporting this human cargo to San Francisco. Sailors went as far as to distribute cards, leaflets and maps describing in glowing detail the easily gotten wealth to be had in California. The Cantonese name for their American destination became Gam Saan, meaning Gold Mountains.
According to the PBS website, in 1851, only 2,716 Chinese arrived in San Francisco. But during the following 12 months, which had seen a large-scale crop failure in the south of China, 20,026 came to the state. The response of the authorities was to introduce a foreign miners’ tax. This was specifically aimed at the Chinese who now had to pay $3 each month for the privilege of mining.
And this $3 tax was a real burden on the Chinese miners, representing as it did a large chunk of their incomes. When it was imposed, the average Chinese mine worker was making around $6 per month. Tax collectors had the power to seize the belongings of anyone who refused to pay this onerous levy. The collectors would also resort to violence. And the tribulations of the Chinese were increased by the existence of fake collectors.
But it wasn’t just the state authorities who persecuted the Chinese. A story in the Alta California newspaper described how robbers had attacked 200 Chinese miners, killing four of them at a place called Rich Gulch. And discrimination against the Chinese was even enshrined in the justice system.
It was already the case in California that African Americans and Native Americans were barred from giving evidence in court. Now, in 1854, this discriminatory law was extended to include Chinese people as well. This meant that when Chinese were victims of crime, they could not testify about their experience in the state courts.
Although the Chinese had initially been attracted by the promise of easy pickings in the gold fields, in fact they worked in a variety of different jobs. Some gravitated towards working as laborers in railroad construction while others entered domestic service. Few Chinese women came to California at this time and many of those that did were sold into prostitution.
Nonetheless many Chinese did work in the gold mines of the Sierra Nevada with as many as 15,000 working there towards the end of the 1850s. It was a tough and often lawless life characterized by extreme racism. As we’ve seen, from 1852 the Chinese could not even testify in court when crimes were committed against them.
And the prejudice against the Chinese was vicious. According to an article published in a 2011 edition of Justice Quarterly, “Chinese immigrants were stereotyped as degraded, exotic, dangerous, and perpetual foreigners who could not assimilate into civilized western culture, regardless of citizenship or duration of residency in the USA.”
Faced with this prejudice, the Chinese were forced to adopt tactics to protect themselves. Where the Europeans mostly worked in small groups or even singly, the Chinese miners tended to form large work parties. This had two advantages. Firstly, these larger groups were less likely to be attacked. And secondly working together in cooperation could lead to better results from their labors.
But as we’ve already touched on, working as a miner in the gold fields wasn’t the only way to make money in mid-19th century California. And one of the trades that many Chinese adopted was laundry. Working in the mines was dirty as well as arduous, so there was always a demand for laundry services.
And John John, the Chinese man we met at the beginning of this story, chose laundry as his trade. The story goes that he set up his laundry in the Californian town of Weaverville. A typical settlement of the gold rush era, it was founded in 1850. At one time there were as many as 2,000 Asiatics living there, and there was an established Chinatown.
But, the tale goes, John John operated his laundry in a highly unconventional way. He would clean miners’ clothes free of charge. On the face of it, this does not look like a very astute business plan. How could John John possibly make a living if he did not charge a cent for his services?
The white miners certainly though that John John must be soft in the head, an easy touch. So they flocked to him with their clothes, made filthy in the mines of the gold fields. And the more washing they brought to John John, the happier he was. Or so this story relates. But after months of washing, John John disappeared.
The next time anyone saw him a year had passed. A prospector called John Hoffman, a man with 30 years’ experience of searching for gold in the Sierra Nevada region, spotted John John in Sacramento. And far from being poverty-stricken, his dress and appearance made it obvious that he was very prosperous indeed.
How could this have happened? How could a man have ended up wealthy after all those months of working without payment of any kind? Well, it turns out that John John was a lot smarter than the miners who had believed they were taking advantage of his naivety in working for nothing.
For John John had spotted something that had eluded the miners. He knew that the very material of their clothes could act as a repository for gold dust. The story runs that when John John washed their filthy shirts and trousers he was careful to filter the water he used. In that way he was able to collect a substantial amount of gold, enough to make himself a wealthy man.
It’s difficult to verify the facts of John John’s story, and indeed it might be something of an urban myth. But what’s certainly true is that those who work with gold can unknowingly leave traces of the precious metals in fabrics and other items. Just ask Gary Williams, a director of a firm called Mastermelt based in London’s famous jewelry district, Hatton Garden.
Williams is an expert when it comes to extracting precious metals from unlikely nooks and crannies. The high-temperature furnace at the Mastermelt workshop is fed with all kinds of unlikely items from jeweler’s workshops. These can include everything from used vacuum cleaner bags to carpets and discarded cleaning cloths.
Speaking to the Financial Times newspaper in 2017, Phillips said, “We always tell people, don’t throw anything away.” And he went on to relate the story of a jeweler who had recently brought in a load of waste and rubbish from his workshop. Once the stuff had been burnt in the furnace at around 3,600°F, it left behind more than $22,000 worth of precious metals.
So it’s entirely plausible that John John was able to extract a gold residue from the clothes of the miners when he washed them. But it seems that this legendary character may have had some other smart scams on the go. There’s another story about how John John managed to outwit the Westerners in California.
It seems that he took on a contract to provide labor for a construction project near Coulterville, another Californian settlement founded in 1850. The contract John John signed stipulated that he would provide 18 laborers. But, although he was paid for 18 men, he only actually employed ten. Somehow he kept those ten so busy that no one noticed that there were eight men short. John John pocketed the surplus wages.
Some 170 years after the legendary exploits of John John, it’s probably impossible to separate fact from fiction. But it’s easy to understand that Chinese people, so appallingly treated by the American gold miners and the state authorities and courts of California, would have relished tales where they got the upper hand over their oppressors.