Bloody Sierra

Two facets of the human history of the Sierra that GG (mostly) left out of his book came together recently. One was the genocide of California Indians during and after the Gold Rush, an outrage now officially apologized for by the governor of California, and the other was the immigration and emigration of Chinese associated with the Transcontinental Railroad, now addressed in Gordon Chang’s recent book, Ghosts of Gold Mountain. Both events and the stories of marginalized peoples are tied to the presence of the Sierra, but neither in such a unique way as to make each story a centerpiece in GG’s book. As this would seem to continue marginalizing these peoples, GG would like to explain a bit why these stories were not more prominent in the book.

When UC Press got reviews of the submitted version of the book, one reviewer, while lauding the book, asked that GG address the genocide of California Indians. His response was to expand a few short passages a bit and provide citations to recent publications addressing this, but the point of the book was to discuss those aspects of Sierran geology that had had a major impact on American life. Given that California Indians were decimated by Spanish and Mexican activities prior to any European incursion into the Sierra, and that Americans had already demonstrated a savagery towards native peoples long before 1848, GG felt that the displacement, murder, and starvation aimed at California Indians was not so much a Sierran story as a continued chapter of American behavior that was well-established prior to the Gold Rush.

Since then, he’s kind of wondered if this really wasn’t more of a watershed than he appreciated.  Something about gold gets Americans misbehaving: the Trail of Tears, where Cherokee and other native peoples were moved off their land, was in part a response to the discovery of gold in Georgia. Most American-Indian interactions at the frontier were more small scale skirmishes, both because settlers were more scattered and because many of the settlers were more experienced in having Indian neighbors. Larger conflicts resulted more in displacement than outright murder.

So what was different in California? Just about everything.  California Indians, while suffering under Spanish missions and Mexican peonage, were at least viewed as a valuable part of the economy under pre-American rule. Americans, in contrast, preferred to displace native peoples. And then there were the people who came west.  Instead of people who maybe had lived their lives not far from the frontier, many–probably most–of the 49ers were from the “civilized” East. Told of the dangers of Indians in popular guidebooks and word of mouth, they were armed to the teeth and deeply worried. Of course, very few died from Indian attacks as they crossed the Plains and the Rockies; most who perished died of disease. And these folks weren’t just potentially trigger-happy, they were numerous and concentrated in relatively small areas; it was easy for retribution to be far out of scale to any perceived or real slight. And then displacement of natives was not so easy: getting pushed out to the east would place them in a truly difficult landscape unlikely to support their numbers. The outcome was probably far more toxic than any pre-Gold Rush encounter and set the stage for the concerted military actions of the last half of the 19th century. In a sense, the semi-urban environment of the gold belt, combined with the backgrounds of many miners, laid the groundwork for a tremendous expansion of white hostility towards Native Americans.

And what of the Chinese? There were, of course, many Chinese who crossed the Pacific to  mine gold, just as Mexicans and Chileans and Frenchmen and Englishmen showed up.  What was profoundly different about the Chinese emigration to California came a bit later, when the Transcontinental Railroad was being built. The Central Pacific, building east from Sacramento, had tremendous difficulty in keeping anglos employed: the latest gold or silver strike would send many off from their jobs. As some of the Chinese already present began to work for the railroad, the Big Four running the operation found them to be superior in reliability and capability for the most brutal parts of railroad building. They, and the Chinese running emigration companies, began to solicit workers to come from China.

Now GG left the Transcontinental Railroad out of his book in part because the main geological story was that there was a practical route across the range, which was directly related to the geology already discussed in a chapter on explorers crossing the range. The immigration of Chinese into California might well have occurred had the first railroad been the Southern Pacific line, which didn’t face quite the extremes the Central Pacific did. But maybe not, for in addition to losing white workers to gold digging, the work required on the Central Pacific line across the Sierra was both very dangerous and extremely difficult. Chang’s book, like many others documenting the creation of the line, goes into substantial detail on the challenges of the Summit Tunnel, a challenge unlike that faced on other early lines. This and related challenges were in fact a direct outcome of the geological history of the range and maybe merited a chapter with a somewhat different focus. Maybe this massive increase in the Chinese population of the West was a response to the difficulty of this railroad alignment and thus a Sierran creation, in which case the subsequent expulsion of Chinese would also have been an outcome.

There is always a danger in writing about history that you lose sight of the “losers” in history, the people who were marginalized then and later.  When talking about the history of geological investigations, it is hard to escape this, as geology was very much a white man’s avocation for quite some time. Did this creep into GG’s approach to writing about-or not writing about-events that did involve other genders and skin colors? GG would like to think not, but self-delusion is always a possibility.

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