According to Isenberg’s collection of primary sources from the gold rush era (The California Gold Rush 2018), the imposition of US power and culture on a newly conquered territory in California partially influenced Californian society, prominently shown through Californians’ efforts to prohibit slaves. However, Californian society was unique compared to the other states. In Californian society, vices such as drinking and prostitution along with crime flourished due to the difficulty of regulating the distant state, a condition exacerbated by the large numbers of migrants and size of the state. Women earned more independence, as they were forced to adapt to abundant crime, able to support themselves 9in part through prostitution) and in high demand due to the overall lack of women, which further differentiated Californian society.
Due to limited jobs and a perceived need for self-preservation, California was not welcoming to African migrants. While those who moved to California did not set out to build a new society, they nevertheless created one, as their conceptions of an ideal society where impacted by their experiences and fears, including fear of Africans taking needed jobs, acceptance of violence, vices and crime and women’s unique, independent position in California society.
California joined the Union during the Compromise of 1850, but was not heavily regulated by the US federal government, and so was able to create a unique society. As migration increased, many people sought to claim land. However, land deeds were difficult to maintain because land was largely unregulated and uncharted and “the grants made were not carefully registered” (Document 20). Additionally, the California governor would sometimes “grant the same lands to several persons” (Document 20). Small communities formed, and created a society based on those living on the land near them. For example, Document 4 explains how there are “no state laws upon the subject [therefore] each mining community is permitted to make its own” (Document 4). In 1851 (when Document 4 was written), California was a newly recognized state, and its new communities created their own laws. These communities often emulated US federal laws, which allowed white men to claim land, but not women of Africans although California was purportedly a free state and as such should have included Africans.
Though a free state, California delegates attempted to prevent freed Africans from coming to California because there were more immigrants than jobs. It is likely that the exclusion of Africans from land ownership and discouraging them from migrating were tied to the experiences and fears of the new Californian settlers. This exclusion led to discrimination against Africans based on fears that skilled African laborers would further the job crisis. This fear allowed the nationwide biases against Africans to perpetuate in California. Document 13, detailing the California Constitutional Convention Debates of 1849, describes how the convention believed “that African Americans performed the same work as white laborers” which “was thought to be degrading to white workers”. The delegates’ views of Africans modeled the national government’s laws oppressing Africans. For example, the state convention sought to “pass such laws as will effectually prohibit free persons of color from immigrating to and settling in this state” (Document 13). These laws and attitudes modified the society and culture in California to favor white men.
Many of the local laws and policies were created quickly, and accommodated the many migrants who were attracted by the gold rush. Immigrants often arrived in California “with little or no money in their pockets and as there are now hundreds in this city out of employment” (Document 11). As this crisis continued, migrants would “get discouraged, take to drinking, gambling, and their sister vices” (Document 11). Glad was scarce and the huge influx of unemployed people led many to turn to crime and drinking. These migrants inadvertently created a new society that was familiar with rampant crime and tolerant of people indulging in alcohol and prostitution.
Crime was excessive in Californian society: Document 12 describes how “there were 489 persons killed during the first 10 months of 1856” largely attributed to “the law-less element” (Document 12). Crime was commonplace and became part of the Californian society as Wooley details in Document 12: “the city [San Francisco] was wide open to all sorts of crime from murder, to petty theft” (Document 12). By 1882, travelers to San Francisco were warned of “the need to go armed, and always at least two [people] at a time” (Document 15). Without a large military presence or policing, crime was frequent in California society; in fact “many of the local traders were also armed” (Document 15). Crime became ingrained in Californian society, setting the state apart from the rest of the country.
Another defining factor contributing to this uniqueness in California was the high ratio of males to females. For example, “In 1860, the California population was still 66% male” (Part 1, The Gold Rush). As a result, prostitution was common. Women were generally afforded more rights than in other states because of their scarcity. For example, “California courts liberalized divorce rules to the point that mid-century California women sought divorces at a much higher rate than other Americans” (Part 1, The Gold Rush). Moreover, white women in California had to protect themselves from the high rates of crime, making them more independent from their husbands or fathers. This shift reflected a women’s choice of clothing, whereby “the women seemed to have dressed as men [in San Francisco]” (Document 15). Similarly, women working in prostitution challenged societal notions of womanhood, as they worked instead of relying on male family members for support. The independence and expanded roles of woman further differentiated Californian society.
In conclusion, California’s unique society and culture was forged from many factors. Mass immigration to California during the gold rush era Brough an influx of low-skilled white men. The difficulty with acquiring definitive ownership of real estate forced many Californians to defend their properties and goods, often through violence. Because laws were inconsistently enforced, coupled with poverty and job scarcity, crime became commonplace. These and other factors led to abundant drinking and acceptance of bars and prostitution, which gave women more control of their earnings, and more power and independence. Moreover, anti-black discrimination was imposed based on fear of job competition. This culture differed from other free states, which were generally more tolerant of Africans, less violent, more law abiding and which limited women to more traditional roles. Californians did not actively seek to create this society, however the vast numbers of migrants, the prevalence of crime and vices, and women’s increasing independence redefined previous social constructs and created an entirely new, unique society.
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