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Courtesy the Idaho State Historical Society, via the Mountain West Digital Library.

People came from all over the world to mine for gold in the American West. The migration from the east coast out to California in 1849 was one of the largest mass migrations in American history in which American migrants were joined by hopeful miners from Asia, Europe, Africa, and South America as word of gold spread. The location of gold deposits on the west coast particularly spurred large waves of Asian immigration, especially from China and the Philippines. Multiple communities based on shared national origin and culture developed around gold strikes.

But the west coast’s huge variety of ethnicities did not mean it was free of the prejudices that dictated life in the rest of the country. Immigrants were second-class citizens at best—and that was a status reserved for those who looked and spoke as much like white American-born citizens as possible. Asian and South American immigrants, as well as those Spanish-speaking Californios who had lived in the area since before California belonged to the United States, were relegated to the lowest classes of society. White men often superseded claims they made upon gold deposits, for even if the immigrant had discovered the gold first the white man had the weight of the law behind him. Violence was endemic to the mining communities, and more often than not was directed at racial minorities by white men, and assault was seen as completely within the legal rights of the white assailants. Early on, taxes were enacted that specifically targeted immigrants, and white miners often took advantage of new residents who spoke little English to con them out of more money than they already owed. Although mining towns allowed for more interaction between ethnic and racial groups than was usually possible in America’s more “civilized” areas, the mores and thinking of the times continued to allow white miners and those who could pass as white to maintain higher social standing than immigrants of color, and these traditions were generally enforced by an unchallenged, racist legal system.