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Gold Rush Era to 1900

The Gold Rush Era marked the real beginning of African American migration into California.
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A small number of Afro-Latinos and other Africans arrived in California before the Gold Rush. A few were a part of the early explorations. A few others, like entrepreneur Williams Leidesdorrf, came to seek their fortunes. The biracial Leidesdorff came to California from the Virgin Islands in 1841. By 1844, he was a major San Francisco (then called Yerba Buena) landowner and later became the city's US Vice Consul.

The Gold Rush Era

The Gold Rush Era marked the real beginning of African American migration into California. About 200 to 300 slaves came to work the gold fields, followed by free African Americans. As the Daguerreotype of miners at Spanish Flat illustrates, black and white miners worked side by side.

In 1850, when California joined the United States as a free state, the census showed California with 962 black residents. Many former slaves gained their freedom, but lack of government oversight allowed slavery to flourish in certain regions. In 1852, a fugitive slave law made it illegal for slaves to flee their masters within California's supposedly free borders. All African Americans in California — born free or formerly enslaved — lived under a constant threat of arrest.

Nonetheless, as indicated by the political cartoon "Difficult Problems Solving Themselves," African Americans continued to move West. They came not only from the Deep South, but from Virginia, New York, and Massachusetts. By 1852, they numbered 2,000 — about 1 percent of California's population.

Struggling for Rights

During the mid-19th century, even "free" African Americans in California were barred from testifying in court or sending their children to public schools. In 1855, Mifflin Wistar Gibbs, an African American abolitionist who had spent years lecturing with Frederick Douglass, helped organize the First State Convention of Colored Citizens of California to fight for suffrage and equal rights.

Despite their lack of equal rights, African Americans served in the military during and after the Civil War. Included here is an image of an African American in a Union uniform during the early 1860s; an 1899 photograph shows Buffalo Soldiers from the 24th Mounted Infantry in Yosemite.

African Americans won the right to testify in California in 1863; but the right to vote came only with the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870. The 1867 lithograph "The Reconstruction Policy of Congress, As Illustrated in California," shows the struggle African Americans faced in being taken seriously as voters: they are reduced to a caricature in this political cartoon, along with Chinese Americans and Native Americans.

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Note about picture captions

The original captions on some of the historical photographs may include racial terms that were commonplace at the time, but considered to be derogatory today.

Definition: daguerreotypes and cased photographs

Daguerreotypes are one-of-a-kind images created on silver-plated copper. Daguerreotypes are named for their creator, the French commercial artist Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre, who discovered the process in 1837. Some Daguerreotypes were called "cased photographs" because they were presented in miniature framed cases.


"African Americans: Gold Rush Era to 1900" was curated and written by the University of California in 2005 as part of the California Cultures project.

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The text of this exhibition is available under a Creative Commons CC-BY license. You are free to share and adapt it however you like, provided you provide attribution as follows:

African Americans: Gold Rush Era to 1900 curated by University of California staff, available under a CC BY 4.0 license. © 2005, Regents of the University of California.