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AfriGeneas Western Frontier Forum

Black Gold Miners

JAN. 2006
"In 1828 a negro slave found some grains of gold in the sands of Bear Creek in what is now White County. The amount was so insignificant that little attention was paid to the discovery until the same negro found in the sands of the Nacoochee River, a nugget worth several hundred dollars.”

Thus began the Georgia gold rush and the wave of immigrants that some historians assert was the actual cause of the forced relocation of native Americans known as the Trail of Tears. Connecting the cultural lines of the acclaimed Black California Forty-niners, from Africa to the American West and beyond, is an interesting exploration into the primal soul of the human nomad.
If the centuries were known by their mineral usage, we would call the 20th century the “fossil fuel century,” and the 19th century would be known as the “gold rush century.” Gold rushes produced global cults of people who had little regard for nationalism, and even less regard for indigenous peoples. As unjust as the forced relocation of Native Americans from their homelands in the Eastern U.S. was, the California Gold Rush resulted in a state facilitated program of extermination and extinction of tribes as documented by Kroeber and the Ishi study in the early twentieth century, read for a good perspective. When Governor Swarzeneger made the campaign statement that the California Indians weren’t paying their fair share from the Casinos, I had to take a deep breath. Similar results occurred against aboriginal Australians after their gold rush began in the 1850’s. Some of the better documented gold rushes of the nineteenth century were: North Carolina 1803, Georgia 1828, California 1849, Australia 1851, Frazer Valley, Canada 1858, Black Hills, Dakota Territory 1874, New Zealand 1878, South Africa 1884, and Klondike, Alaska 1898. In almost all of these gold rushes people of African descent are chronicled as being part of the events.

Africa is a continent with a myriad of cultures in its history. One Yoruba culture has a creation story that says that a god came down from heaven on a gold chain, and where his foot touched the water, land began. The Mali people of West Africa in the fourteenth century based their economy on gold and its relationship to salt that they acquired from North Africans. 1300 years before Negro Bar in California an early Ghana culture known as the Soninke formed an empire with gold trade in the 5th century. By the time the Iberians begin the slave trade in the 15th and 16th century, Europeans already acquired gold from North Africans that was mined by sub-Saharan Africans and traded by Camel routes across the desert.

In the 1750’s Brazil, one of the last countries to end slavery in the Americas in 1888 is noted as having one of the hemisphere’s earliest Gold Rushes. African Slaves were re-assigned from sugar production and imported from Africa to mine gold. About thirty years later gold was re-discovered by North American colonists in the Carolinas in 1799, Native Americans and Spanish explorers already knew of it. The Carolina Rush actually began in 1803 after a slave found a large specimen, the following excerpt explains:
“…A number of nuggets and a good quantity of dust were recovered in the auriferous sands along the stream. In 1803 there was wild excitement when a slave recovered a lump of gold weighing 28 pounds from a place on the northwest side of the "lake" (a wide place in the Little Meadow Creek)…At first the miners (often slaves belonging to the partners) had roved the bottoms digging up "stones, clay, &c. and picked up what they could find."

Both the North Carolina and Georgia gold rushes document the involvement of American slaves, and this point should not be lost as we move west to the California gold rush of 1849. The most prevalent photos of African-Americans in Gold Rush California comes from the California State Library Photographic collection depicting a Black and White miner working together at a sluice in Spanish Flats and a Black miner at the Auburn ravine. These two photos show up in three books in my library, “The Black West” ( Katz, W.L.) “The Black Book” (Harris/Levitt/Furman/Smith) and “In Search Of The Racial Frontier” ( Taylor, Quintard.). New research about the subjects in these photos infers that they possibly depict slaves working the mines for their masters. Slavery and the enfranchisement of free Black citizens was one of the greatest debates in the first California Constitutional Convention. While many Blacks persevered and prospered under a politically hostile government, some decided to leave. A cause other than disaffection for their departure though was the heralding of new gold strikes in Canada and Australia.

Canada’s Gold Rush in the Fraser Valley east of Vancouver, B.C had significant race/politics overtones. With the 54’40’ or fight campaign by the U.S. to take all of British Canada up to the Russian Alaskan border still fresh in their minds, Canadian politicians were sensitive to what types of people arrived with gold fever. Their Governor, Sir James Douglas, the child of a Scottish father and a free Negro mother from the West Indies, is reported as learning of the troubles of Blacks in California and inviting them into British territories to enjoy the protection from slavery provided by Queen Victoria. As with other gold rushes, the collapse was harsh and several Black miners returned to their families in the U.S. Their was even talk among some that they should petition to annex with the U.S., the following excerpt addresses this point:

“…1871 At the end of the gold rush and in debt, British Columbians considered their options, including annexation to the US, and chose confederation with the Dominion of Canada. Canada agreed to take over BC's debt and to complete a railway to Victoria within 10 years.”

California’s Eucalyptus trees have a history as old as the gold rush. The California/Australian gold rush population shifts deserve further study but there is mention of Blacks participating in the Australian gold rush of 1851. These rushes were only two years apart so they occurred as duel events with hard choices for the mining nomads as to which location to choose. The story of a Black outlaw in Australia (the Aussies called them “bushrangers”) is told in the following excerpt.
by Tom Ferguson
…. The one hundred miles from Melbourne to the diggings was a dangerous place. In the first half of 1852 no police were available to police the area and bushrangers took full advantage of their luck. Such characters as "Black Douglas", a Negro who had jumped ship and his band were notorious for their exploits, including a number of murders committed during hold-ups. "Young Bendigo" and his gang worked the area as well.”

I could exercise political correctness and omit this story about a Black criminal in what has become a predominately White country, but after all, Australia was a penal colony and the story seem apropos. Besides, Australia’s contribution to the criminal element in gold rush San Francisco, i.e. the Sydney Ducks gang, more than makes up for Black Douglas.

The Klondike gold rush was the last and largest gold rush of the nineteenth century, surpassing California’s gold rush immigration by several thousand. The Klondike rush is chronicled by great writers like Jack London and Robert Service, but another author of perhaps lesser renown, Rev. A. L. Demond of the Montgomery, Alabama Dexter Ave. Baptist Church, recognized the Black miners of the Klondike in a speech dated 1900 titled “The Negro Element in American Life.” an excerpt follows:

“…Let us consider the Negro element in American life. The world may well ask what the Negro has to say of himself and for himself after … two hundred and eighty years residence on American soil. And the Negro, standing on the threshold of the 20th Century, owes it to himself to say a word as to the part he has played in American history.
…On the bleak hillsides of New England, through the middle states, in far away Texas, on the Pacific slope and by the Rocky mountains--there is not a state or territory without its Negro population. Even on the Youkon, in Alaska, the Negro has been found hunting gold in the Klondike…, ”

Not only were men of African descent present in the Klondike, women of African descent were there as well. The University of Alaska Museum article “Threads Of Gold - Women of The Alaska Gold Rush,” tells of a Black husband and wife team named the Hunters. They named their daughter Teslin, a Tlingit Indian word which meant “long, narrow water.” When the names of prominent African-American women of the west are mentioned like Montana wagon driver Mary Fields and Buffalo Soldier Cathy Williams, Klondike gold miner Lucille Hunter belongs in their company, the following excerpt explains:
Lucille Hunter - 1879-1972
“…Lucille Hunter was 19 and pregnant when she and her husband Charles took the Telegraph Creek route to the Klondike in 1897-98. An African-American woman from the deep South, Lucille later said that she had worked in the fields since she was 13 years old. Lucille and Charles stopped only long enough for her to give birth to a daughter whom they named Teslin to honor the village on Teslin Lake. The Native people had never seen a black person before, and they called the Hunters "Just another kind of white person."
While most travelers camped by the lakes waiting for break-up, Lucille and Charles trekked on through mid-winter sub-zero temperatures by dog team. They reached Bonanza Creek in early spring and staked a claim.
The Hunters continued to mine and stake claims in the Mayo area on the Stewart River. After Charles' death in the 1930's Lucille continued to work her claims. Each year she walked over 150 miles from Dawson to Mayo and back again to do the assessment reports needed on her claims. She died in Whitehorse at the age of 97.”

African Americans continued building a history in Alaska as troops working on the ALCAN (Alaska/Canada) highway during WW11. It’s highly likely that people of African descent made contact with Russian colonials in Alaska via trade between Russian Alaska, British Columbia, and Spanish California prior to the U.S. purchase of Alaska in 1867. African-Americans make their biggest debut in Alaska as Klondike “Stampeders” in 1898.” The inflated prices for goods during the Klondike gold rush made profit difficult, but a few stayed in the north and helped make communities and histories.
Thanks for reading Allen L. Lee

18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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