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California Cultures

African Americans: Gold Rush Era to 1900

Questions to Consider

Why did African Americans come to California in the 19th century?

What sorts of jobs were available for African Americans in the 1800s?


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.

California Content Standards

English-Language Arts

Grade 4:

1.0 Writing Strategies: Research and Technology

2.0 Writing Applications
2.3 Write information reports.

2.0 Speaking Applications
2.2 Make informational presentations.

Grade 5:

2.0 Writing Applications
2.3 Write research reports about important ideas, issues, or events.

2.0 Speaking Applications
2.2 Deliver informative presentations about an important idea, issue, or event.

Grade 8:

1.0 Writing Strategies: Research and Technology

2.0 Writing Applications
2.3 Write research reports.

2.0 Speaking Applications
2.3 Deliver research presentations.

1.0 Writing Strategies: Research and Technology

2.0 Writing Applications
2.4 Write historical investigation reports.

2.0 Speaking Applications
2.2 Deliver oral reports on historical investigations.
2.4 Delivery multimedia presentations.

History-Social Science

Grade 4:

4.3 Students explain the economic, social, and political life in California from the establishment of the Bear Flag Republic through the Mexican-American War, the Gold Rush, and the granting of statehood. (4.3.2, 4.3.3)

4.4 Students explain how California became an agricultural and industrial power, tracing the transformation of the California economy and its political and cultural development since the 1850s. (4.4.3)

Grade 5:

5.8 Students trace the colonization, immigration, and settlement patterns of the American people from 1789 to the mid-1800s, with emphasis on the role of economic incentives, effects of the physical and political geography, and transportation systems.

Grade 8:

8.8 Students analyze the divergent paths of the American people in the West from 1800 to the mid-1800s and the challenges they faced.

8.11 Students analyze the character and lasting consequences of Reconstruction. (8.11.2)

Visual Arts

3.0 Historical and Cultural Context Understanding the Historical Contributions and Cultural Dimensions of the Visual Arts. Students analyze the role and development of the visual arts in past and present cultures throughout the world, noting human diversity as it relates to the visual arts and artists.

William Leidesdorff [ca. 1845?] Two bearded men selecting fruit from African American female street vendor, 1849 Miners at Spanish Flat, 1852
Difficult Problems Solving Themselves African American Civil War soldier in Union uniform, ca. 1860-1865 The reconstruction policy of Congress, as illustrated in California, 1867?
24th Mounted Infantry, Yosemite, Buffalo Soldiers, 1899 Unidentified African American couple, ca. 1876 no photograph

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.

Calisphere Themed Collections

Diversity in the Changing State

Lesson Plan

"How Do Men Like You Become Great?": The Early Years of Dr. Ralph J. Bunche

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.

Analysis Tools

6C's of Primary Source Analysis (PDF) (Source: UCI History Project)
Photographs (PDF) (Source: Library of Congress)
Posters/Visuals (PDF) (Source: Bringing History Home)
Primary Source Activity (PDF) (Source: Library of Congress)