Encyclopedia of Immigration and Migration in the American West


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California's remoteness remained a major impediment to Mexican immigration throughout the period. Nearly impossible to reach overland because of deserts and hostile Indians, California was tied to the Mexican mainland by the annual visits of a single ship, carrying news, supplies, soldier's pay, and occasional new recruits. Spanish land use and mercantile policies exacerbated the problem of isolation. Trade with foreign vessels was prohibited while virtually all of the productive land was held by the missions.

With nothing more than soldiering or subsistence farming to attract them, immigrants arrived rarely and left almost as frequently. When the United States seized the area in there were fewer than 8, Mexican Californians. Dating the end of the Mexican period and the start of Americanization is not easy.

Formally California became part of the United States in , but the American presence began long before then, and well before the flags changed California had become economically dependent on American ships and American goods. The whaling ships and trading vessels that began to appear off the California coast in the s represented yet another stage of global reorganization, the start of a great age of transportation improvements that would bring vast new areas into the trading and colonial system of the North Atlantic economies. Over the course of the nineteenth century the far corners of the Pacific region would gradually lose their remoteness.

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Still an island in every sense but the literal one at the start of this period, California would by century's end be firmly bound to the American mainland by blood, outlook, and economy. Paradoxically Mexico's independence from Spain in opened California to American economic penetration. Abandoning the restrictive policies that had strangled economic activity in the province, the new government in Mexico city allowed free access to the ports, began the redistribution of mission lands, and liberalized immigration procedures.

This was good news to the shoe and candle manufacturers of New England who now provided a market for the great herds of cattle that grazed the California hills.


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The trade brought new wealth to the province and also new people, most notably Americans. A steady trickle of merchants and former sailors took advantage of lax immigration rules and settled in the coastal pueblos, sometimes becoming ranchers, more often providing commercial and artisanal services that were in short supply. More ominous from the Mexican point of view was the growing presence of Americans in the inland valleys. Coming overland or drifting down from Oregon, these newcomers stayed clear of the Mexican settlements and Mexican law and built their own base of operations in the Sacramento Valley, some of them intending to "play the Texas game.

American trade and immigration after foretold the eventual takeover of California. But the official statements of the American government were no less clear. Even as Mexico was securing its independence from Spain, American ambassadors were offering to buy California, either alone or with other parts of what eventually became the American Southwest. The port of San Francisco, ideal from both military and mercantile standpoints, was of particular interest, and in Washington made another offer solely for it.

These negotiations reveal an important aspect of America's geographic ambitions. The purpose was not necessarily trans-continental completion. Washington was seeking a Pacific outpost. Cognitively and geo-politically, California remained an island, reachable only by sea, every bit as remote as the Sandwich Islands which shared the same trade route. America's first off-shore acquisition came about not through negotiation but war.

California was one of the prizes of America's first full-scale expansionist war, fought on Mexican soil in and It was in itself not a brutal experience for the residents of California, who resisted valiantly but without great loss of life. But that was merely the prelude.


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  • Signatures had not yet been affixed to the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo when the real act of conquest began. The discovery of gold in early did for California in five extraordinary years what generations could not do in New Mexico and some other parts of the Southwest, completely Americanize it. The gold rush was, as John Caughey put it some years ago, "the cornerstone," the seminal event in the creation of American California, indeed in the whole later history of the far west. As an economic event, it transformed the meaning and purpose of the frontier West. The old West, the Mississippi Valley, had been a frontier of trappers and farmers whose slowly developing commerce with the rest of the nation depending on river towns and river boats.

    The new West that gold-rush California introduced was not really a frontier at all. It was a ready-made enterprise zone of miners and ranchers followed almost immediately by cities and railroads. There was nothing gradual about it. As Carey McWilliams put it, for California "the lights went on all at once.

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    Two years later, with a hundred thousand new residents and one of the busiest ports in the world, California had become the newest state in the United States--the only one west of Missouri. That was just the beginning.


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    This instant state also claimed a sophisticated economy based not just on mining but on a dynamic urban sector that ultimately provided the financial and commercial services to begin the development of the rest of the west. And it started off with political muscle too: within ten years Congress would be talking about building a transcontinental railroad.

    The key to all this was the state's instant population, the real fortune that California earned in the gold fever years. A quarter of a million newcomers poured into California between , all but obliterating the existing inhabitants. The tiny Mexican population was numerically overwhelmed and quickly put at an economic and cultural disadvantage.

    Outnumbered twenty to one, unaccustomed to the laws, language, and business culture that now governed their lives, they struggled to hold onto the land and the way of life that were guaranteed them by treaty. Within a a generation both had been lost as courts, lawyers, bankers, squatters, drought, and recession forced the sale of most of the original ranchos, and as the usual manifestations of Yankee racism and religious prejudice undermined their cultural authority. By the s, many of the "Californios," as the pre-conquest Mexicans called themselves, were eeking out a shabby life in the barrios of Southern California.

    Poor and forgotten, they had become strangers in their own land.

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    California's remaining Indian populations fared much worse--indeed worse even than the usual horror that attended American westward expansion. With Congress forsaking all efforts to set up reservations, Indian policy fell to the new settlers, who opted for extermination. A twenty year campaign of slaughter abetted by the spread of disease became a veritable holocaust. Some tribes were completely eliminated, leaving not a single survivor. Altogether in census takers could find only 17, Indians, just six percent of the area's estimated original population of , Thus began the American repopulation of California, a process that would steadily change the demographic mix over the years as California adopted new roles in the global political economy.

    Its first new population reflected its initial role as a place of high adventure, attracting an international assortment of the daring and enterprising, nearly all young males. They came principally from places reached by the rapidly expanding North Atlantic commerce system and accessible to California by water.

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    Ireland, England, Germany, and France supplied most of the rest, but the ports of the Pacific region also contributed: Valparaiso, Sydney, Canton, Honolulu. This population came to hunt gold but stayed to build California, especially the San Francisco Bay Area which stood ready to rechannel the acquisitive energies of the immigrants once the placers and mines began to play out.

    By the Bay Area housed forty percent of the state's population and the city itself had more than a quarter million residents, including, finally, a substantial number of females. These first decades were California's "Boston" period, a time when the commercial and cultural commitments of New England imprinted decisively on the new state. With merchants, lawyers, and other New England entrepreneurs heavily represented in the gold rush generation, California was soon blessed with an elaborate business infrastructure and an impressive array of manufactures to supply the local market with everything from shoes to steamboats.

    Settling the West: Immigration to the Prairies from 1867 to 1914

    In , just six years after that first cry of "gold," a San Francisco firm was hard at work on California's first locomotive. The New England impress had even more to do with culture. In Americans and the California Dream Kevin Starr argues that the creation of a regional culture began with the Yankee preachers and literary lights who set out to civilize gold rush California. Here was born the state's intellectual infrastructure, the networks of churches and newspapers, then schools, colleges, publishers, and literary societies that gave the state its early cosmopolitan aura and flare for self promotion.

    And here too was born California's transcendentalist engagement with divine nature, the key to later reinventions of the state's identity. Boston in the s was shared by Yankees and Irish, and so was San Francisco, which goes a long way to explain the turbulent pattern of California politics of the late nineteenth century. Working-class Catholic Irish and the WASP business class faced off repeatedly in these decades, at times with incendiary results. In a businessman's group calling itself the Committee of Vigilance seized power, hanged several suspected criminals and tried and deported a number of corrupt city officials, mostly Irish.

    Twenty-two years later the revolution came from the opposite quarter. Beaten down by the mids depression and inspired by the great railroad strike of , the city's Irish and laboring population joined Dennis Kearney's Workingman's party and in a climate of violent expectation elected a mayor and various other officials, initiating a long period during which San Francisco's working class would enjoy a measure of political influence unparalleled in any other major American city.

    The overlapping tensions of class and religion were mediated by a third factor, race, that worked to the advantage of the white working class. The Chinese were, as Alexander Saxton put it, "the indispensible enemy. And the Chinese were only the first victims. Later migrations of Japanese, Filipinos, and East Indians would be curtailed by similar explosions of organized hatred.

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    White ethnic and religious tensions were muted and immigrants like the Irish would find greater economic and social opportunities in San Francisco than in Boston in part because of the political dynamics of race hatred. If in its first American generation California was a mining and urban frontier, its second incarnation was as a farming economy, an orientation that became practical after the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in The event marked the end of California's island status.

    Travel to eastern population centers now took days instead of weeks or months. More important, for the first time products could be moved overland. The vast ocean of plains, mountains, and deserts had finally been bridged. The railroad turned the state into a second Midwest, encouraging first the production of wheat, then with the spread of irrigation and the invention of refrigerated cars, a shift to fruits and vegetables.

    While the state remained more urban than rural, by the fastest growing areas were the inland valleys where the Central Pacific and other promoters were steering immigrants, luring them with a campaign of cornucopic advertising conducted extensively in heartland states like Iowa and Illinois. Foreign immigration would continue but at a pace that would not match the other sources of population growth. Once forty percent of the population the foreign-born would account for less than twenty percent by Immigration in this period was almost entirely from Europe and Canada, and mostly from the same European regions that populated the Midwest: Germany, Britain, Ireland, and Scandinavia.

    Meanwhile the role of non-Europeans was much reduced. Latin Americans and Asians had accounted for fifteen percent of the state's population in By they were less than seven percent and remained at about that level through s.

    Encyclopedia of Immigration and Migration in the American West Encyclopedia of Immigration and Migration in the American West
    Encyclopedia of Immigration and Migration in the American West Encyclopedia of Immigration and Migration in the American West
    Encyclopedia of Immigration and Migration in the American West Encyclopedia of Immigration and Migration in the American West
    Encyclopedia of Immigration and Migration in the American West Encyclopedia of Immigration and Migration in the American West
    Encyclopedia of Immigration and Migration in the American West Encyclopedia of Immigration and Migration in the American West
    Encyclopedia of Immigration and Migration in the American West Encyclopedia of Immigration and Migration in the American West
    Encyclopedia of Immigration and Migration in the American West Encyclopedia of Immigration and Migration in the American West
    Encyclopedia of Immigration and Migration in the American West Encyclopedia of Immigration and Migration in the American West

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