The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1974, Volume 20, Number 1

Chile, Peru, and the California Gold Rush of 1849. By Jay Monaghan. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. 312 pages. $11.95.

Reviewed by Otis E. Young, Jr., Professor of History, Arizona State University, and author of The West of Philip St. George Cooke (1955) and Western Mining (1970).

This volume, a companion piece to the author’s Australians and the Gold Rush, depicts the economic and human interchange between Gold Rush California and those Pacific coast Latin American nations which were its immediate neighbors in terms of oceanic travel time. Viewed in this light, Chile and Peru were the first “outside” nations to get news of the gold discovery, and although their reaction was strangely delayed, their geographical setting made them staging areas as important to the Cape Horn oceanic route as was Independence, Missouri, to the Overland Trail. There appears no satisfactory quantitative way of assessing South American contributions to California. The gold rushers were too busy to keep accurate statistics, and by the time of the Census of 1860, most of the South Americans seem either to have left California or to have merged into the general population. In addition, since there was no very obvious way for the AngloEuropean majority to distinguish them, the tendency in the popular mind was to lump Chileans and Peruvians with the large numbers of Mexicans present.

Relying heavily upon local newspapers and memoirs, the author deals with Valparaiso and Lima in 1849, describing port and mercantile activity there and the impact, or strange lack of impact, of the gold discovery news upon them and upon the various resident economic-political factions. Another major section reviews these ports during the height of the gold rush activity. When various individuals decided to move to California, their adventures at sea are depicted from selected cases. Reading between the lines, it is difficult not to conclude that some of these entrepreneurs laid up future trouble by their decision to carry along gangs of “roto” laborers to work the placers they hoped to find. However logical this decision from the Latin viewpoint, the Anglo-European gold seekers fiercely resented the importation of any labor force that was less than free, individualistic, and competitive with the general mean.

Some attention is devoted to the “Anti-Chilean Riot” of 1849 in San Francisco. Although remembered and regarded to this day in Chile as wanton Yanqui persecution of inoffensive Latins on racist and capitalistic grounds, the facts as presented appear to suggest another interpretation. This “riot” seems to have been the work of a gang of thugs, the “Hounds,” who hoped for easy pickings among the Chilean merchants; in brief, it was a forerunner of the later and better-known depredations of the Sydney Ducks. The Anglo-European mercantile community led by Sam Brannan at once rallied to the side of public order and secured prosecution of the more notorious “Hounds,” who, as is customary in such cases, attempted to excuse themselves on patriotic grounds. Chilean sensitivity nonetheless was so bruised that, the author implies, this “riot” and the subsequent “Anti-Chilean War” still remain factors to reckon with in Chilean domestic politics.

The “Anti-Chilean War” of 1849 on the Middle Fork of the Stanislaus River would also serve as an historical precursor to the problems of American mineral corporations in foreign lands. The Chilean placer men unwittingly gave offense to the locals in many ways. These ranged from superior prospecting and extractive technology to an indiscreet raising of the Chilean national flag, hence an inferential declaration of extraterritoriality. In the end, a body of AngloEuropean gold rushers expelled them from their profitable locations and expropriated these on the grounds of national interest and economic democracy. (It might even seem that the late Allende regime in Chile studied this incident with deep attention, drawing many useful conclusions therefrom.) The general conclusion, however, would seem to be that foreign mining interests face much the same problems in any land or age.

The reviewer cannot but suggest that the book contains a disproportionate number of digressions on Latin American politics, society, and contemporary events which, however entertaining and instructive in themselves, do not appear to contribute strongly to the avowed theme. He would note some apparent omissions as well, being personally sensitive to the technological contributions of the Latin Americans to the gold rush, concerning which many generalizations but little, if any, concrete data are delivered. Steam navigation on the Pacific coast is scarcely mentioned despite its importance to the regions involved. The author’s literary style varies as disconcertingly as do his abrupt topical transitions. The reviewer must waive judgment concerning the accuracy and interpretation of the sections dealing with Chile and Peru per se, but does conclude that the material concerning the Peruvians and Chileans in California itself might have been much more economically presented in one journal article of very moderate scope.