Black Migration in Relation to Gold Rush

Provincial Freeman Newspaper

Accessible Archives.  African American Newspapers. Provincial Freeman. Reproduced by permission.

Black mobility during this time period was facilitated through Black and anti-slavery newspapers that circulated throughout the United States. In a time when print material was the only true means of mass communication, Black and white abolitionists utilized newspapers to reach society on a grand scale. In this way the mobility and migration that was sparked by the gold rush was truly made possible by the extensive networks of newspapers throughout the country. 

In the latter part of 1848, free Black communities in New England and the mid-Atlantic area found themselves surrounded by news of gold in California. To antebellum free Black men and women, the idea of travel ranging from voluntary movement to forced migration was already part of their personal and family experience.[1] Slaves were continually sold to different parts of the country, moved with their owners, or fled to the unknown while in search of freedom. Many free Black men in the North found work as seamen or worked in northern ports. The desire to migrate westward grew in response to word that in the West, “the merest Negro could make more than our present governor.”[1] Although an exaggeration, this economic promise would have been reason enough for any individual to move. 

As the draw to the West spread throughout the eastern regions of the US, it was sustained in the Black community by the abolitionist press that printed stories about “Black Luck” in the search for gold.[1] Frederick Douglass printed a letter written by a southerner in his North Star which glorified the promise of gold in the west while racializing the labor needed to produce sudden wealth: 

I have just returned from a trip to the gold region, and as the steamer starts within the hour, I have only time to scratch a few lines to you. You would like to hear something authentic and true about the gold. Well, I will tell you what I think, and my opinion is formed from actual observation. The whole country, for a space of five or six hundred miles or more, is filled with gold , take up a spade full of earth any where in the gold region, and you will find more or less of the metal in it. Although it exists in such abundance, it is not to be obtained without great labor and loss of health. Laboring men who can stand the climate and work throughout the day, can average from ten to sixteen dollars a day - to do this they have to work as hard as any negro on a cotton or sugar plantation… - There are but three classes of individuals that can ever work these mines, the Negro, Indian and Irish.[2]

Newspapers not only aided Black movement west, but also fostered the impetus for migration unrelated to the gold rush. The West not only sent reports of gold and economic wealth, but also sent reports of anti-slavery societies being established and flourishing in the new land. While many Blacks were free in the New England and mid-Atlantic area, they still lived under the shadow of slavery that existed relatively near to them, and their “free” status did not exempt them from societal racism. Thus, the western appeal deepened in early 1850, when the Liberator ran a letter written by thirty-seven Black men announcing the organization of a mutual aid society, in which they were earning between one hundred and three hundred dollars a month:

This will inform you that there are colored people in San Francisco—a fact that I have no doubt you are aware of; but what I wish to bring before you and your readers is, that we are doing something for ourselves towards our future welfare. We are making from one to three hundred dollars per month, and have formed a Society of Relief, for our own benefit and that of newcomers. The following reflections will express to you the subject of a late meeting held by us, on the 6th of this month.[3]

By sending this letter to the Liberator, these men signaled to their friends and family where they were living and news of their livelihoods. In addition, their letter told the greater Black community that Black social networks were being established in the California counties surrounding the gold mines. This added a societal and cultural incentive, on top of the already existing economic incentive.

The evolution of the West in the minds of Blacks is one that changed dramatically when California declared itself a free state. Up until 1849, the West to Blacks, both enslaved and free, were free states, de jure, but not de facto. Many of these states contained anti-Negro laws creating a climate that was not conducive to Black residence. Despite California's free state status after 1850, the state barred Blacks from testifying in court. Despite this knowledge, the flow of Blacks to California was steady because of the economic success and material goods that many Black migrants chose to pursue. 


  1. Rudolph M. Lapp, Blacks in Gold Rush California (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977).
  2. Dr. W. J. Brent, "A Southerner's View of Gold Digging. The New Orleans Bulletin," The North Star (Rochester, NY), November 30, 1849.
  3. Samuel I. Davis, "Colored Association in California," The Liberator (Boston), February 15, 1850.

Written by Gabriel Barrett-Jackson. Taught by Sharla Fett, History 213, Occidental College, Spring 2016.