Consulado General de Chile
San Francisco, California
This narrative is an excerpt taken from Chilenos in California by
Carlos U. López, Palo Alto: R & E Publications, 1973. The original diaries of Chileno
pioneers have been published by Edwin Beilharz and Carlos U. López We Were
Forty-Niners, Pasadena: Ward Ritchie Press, 1976.
The Chili Mill
News of the Gold Rush reach Chile
News of the California gold discovery arrived in Chile on August 19, 1848, when The
brig JRS anchored in Valparaiso. This ship, consigned to G. L. Hobson, a
Valparaiso merchant, came from California with a load of hides and tallow. The captain
reported a difficult trip, for he had lost half his crew. All the young men had deserted
to go into gold fields, which were reportedly so abundant that to acquire the metal, one
had only to bend over and pick it up. California was "all gold.
" Strangely enough few people paid attention to the news, but when ten days later the
schooner Adelaida arrived with $2. 500 worth of gold dust, the news
spread all along the coast of Chile.
The first ones to react to the news were the foreign merchants. There was a large
colony of American and English storekeepers in Chile who immediately realized the profits
available in California. Barely two weeks after the arrival of the Adelaida,
the frigate Virginian departed from Valparaiso, bringing to California
forty-five English-speaking businessmen. Names such as O'neill, Hubbard, Armstrong, Ellis
and Poett would make large fortunes in California that would eventually rival those of
James Lick, Patrick Livermore and Faxon Atherton, all former residents of Chile who had
established business interests in California. Most of these men were married to Chilean
women and brought their families with them. Although few were born in Chile, a large
percentage of them declared their adopted country as their motherland when questioned by
the census taker. This first group carried with them most of the stock from their
Valparaiso stores and set up shop as soon as they landed in San Francisco. The merchants
continued to receive supplies from the port of Valparaiso which had extensive warehouse
facilities where European and American merchandise was stored, awaiting the best prices in
the area. The California gold rush was a great bonanza: shovels, picks, pans, cloth,
gunpowder, liquor, shoes, etc., came to San Francisco directly from the Valparaiso
The departure of the English-speaking "gringos" was the signal for the
Chilenos themselves to join in the adventure. 1 First the professional miners,
experienced tunnel and shaft diggers, collected their funds to buy tickets for California,
whether on deck or in a cabin. When they could not gather enough funds, they would hire
themselves out to rich entrepreneurs who were willing to pay for their passage. There were
also those who became temporary sailors, stewards, and even musicians, so they could
obtain passage in exchange for their services. A third group were the Chileno adventurers,
people from all walks of life who wanted to make a fast buck. Among them were the
prostitutes from Valparaiso and Talcahuano, most of whom would eventually marry and start
families with long ramifications in California
If the gringos, who were thought to be intelligent, hard-working and wise, had gone to
California, why should the Chilenos stay home? After all, the country was
in an economic crisis, opportunities were few, and as Perez Rosales, the most prominent of
the Chileno 48'ers would say, "How can a rich man in Chile be a jackass?"2
Each ship that prepared to leave for California was filled to capacity as soon as its
departure date was announced. In the first six months of 1849, the Chilean Foreign Office
issued six thousand passports. After that, in view of the fact that half of the passengers
did not even bother to get a passport, the Chilean Congress passed a law authorizing
citizens to travel to California without passports.
Chilean shipowners, desiring to cash in on the windfall, spread all kinds of rumors
about the fabulous wealth of California. Many a half rotted hulk was put back in service
to go to California. The frigate Carmen, for example, a veteran of twenty
years in the Pacific trade, was re-rigged and sent to California loaded not only with
passengers and the usual merchandise from the storehouses but also with beef jerky, dried
fruits, beans and even prefabricated houses. Soon the Chilean Merchant Marine fleet was
laid up in California. By the end of 1849, ninety-two of 119 ships registered in Chilean
ports were rotting in the waters behind the Golden Gate.
The first wave of Chilean emigration to California was ahead of all other nationalities
except the Mexicans from Sonora, who came by land. Their arrival caused great surprise in
San Francisco, and the local newspaper, the Alta California, explaining their
presence by stating: "great excitement exists along the whole western coast of South
America in relation to the gold mines in California. Great numbers of people are preparing
to move here. "3
But the migratory fever had started to slow down in the first few months of 1849.
Prices for agricultural commodities had risen to never suspected levels. Everything was
being sold for shipment to California. It was precisely in those months that shipload
after shipload of Forty-niners from the East coast of the United States, started arriving
in Chilean ports after rounding the Horn. Talcahuano, the port of Concepcion, went through
a flourishing period. In each house rum was sold, and the prostitutes had more clients
than they could satisfy. Valparaiso shared a similar fate. If Talcahuano could count a
dozen ships in its spacious harbor, Valparaiso accommodated over a hundred. A German
captain tells of having counted 300 ships there in one day, including at least a dozen
from Hamburg, his home port. Even the almost deserted islands of Juan Fernandez
experienced a bonanza of commerce and trade, to the point that some Americans thought that
the archipelago should be annexed to the Union.
If the enthusiasm of the 49'ers of every nationality wasn't enough, every ship that
returned to Chile to pick up flour was greeted from the distance with the cry, "News
from California" and answered, "Gold, much gold, gold in abundance. " These
facts removed any doubts from the minds of the few remaining skeptics. Every Chilean who
was able, took passage in the available ships. Chilean ship owners, who at first had been
so enthusiastic, now faced bankruptcy for the ships did not return. No sooner did they
anchor in Francisco than even the captain deserted, looking for gold . The brig Orión,
for example, was abandoned while her captain, León Aguirre went on to become Nevada's
pioneer cattle grower.
Perez Rosales, in his diary, and a few Chilenos, in their letters home, have left a
picture of San Francisco much like the one painted by the English-speaking 49'ers: mud,
lack of housing, gambling, few women, etc. Samuel Price, one of the early arrivals, became
the self-appointed consul of the colony. Soon most Chilenos settled in a ravine by
Telegraph Hill, in a square that today is limited by Montgomery, Pacific, Jackson and
Kearny Streets. The place was known as "Chilecito, " or Little Chile, and
Bancroft gives this description:
The space bounded by Montgomery, Pacific, Jackson, and Kearny streets was, in the
spring of 1851, a hollow filled with little wooden huts planted promiscuously with
numberless recesses and fastnesses filled with Chilians?men, women, and children. The place was called Little Chile. The women
appeared to be always washing, but the vocation of the men was a puzzle to the passers-by.
Neither the scenery of the place nor its surroundings were very pleasant, particularly in
hot weather. On one side was a slimy bog, and on the other rubbish heaps and sinks of
offal. Notwithstanding, it was home to them, and from their filthy quarters they might be
seen emerging on Sundays, the men washed, and clean-shirted, and the women arrayed in
smiling faces and bright-colored apparel. They could work and wallow patiently through the
week provided they could enjoy a little recreation and fresh air on Sunday. Whenever a
vessel arrived from a home port, the camping ground presented a lively appearance. Round
the chief hut or tienda lounged dirty men in parti colored serapes and
round-crowned straw hats, smoking, drinking, and betting at monte. Most of these were
either on their way to, or had lately returned from, the mines.4
The settlement was sacked and robbed by the Hounds on July 15, 1849. These
"Hounds" or "Regulators" as they called themselves, were a self
appointed para-military group who had already tried to remove the mayor of the city. They
were mostly malcontents and delinquents who had come to California with Steven's Regiment
in 1847. In the spring of 1849 they were joined by the "Sidney Ducks" a group of
Australians of similar backgrounds. They established their own headquarters in the corner
of Dupont and Pacific and went out to drill. They also asked for "dues" from
commercial establishments to finance their operations.
They asked Pedro Cueto, a Chilean merchant, to pay an overdue bill. Cueto claimed that
it was not his bill and when threatened, he pulled out his gun and fired a few shots,
missing the hounds but wounding a passerby. This was the spark that lit up the fires.
After parading and stopping at every bar that would welcome them, the Hounds went to
Little Chile ready to "cleanse the town of Chilenos."
"Down with the Chileans! Death to all of them!" was their war cry. Bullets
went flying. Many people were wounded, almost all robbed of all their possessions. The
place was sacked, the tents destroyed and fires set to everything that would burn. Many of
the residents ran up the surrounding hills and some even took refuge aboard the ships
anchored in the bay.
We don't know if there were many dead. There are no contemporary reports of any. But
the clothes were stolen or burned, the furniture broken, the jewels and the money stolen.
A good quantity of wine was found in a store owned by señor Alegría and the Hounds
retired to celebrate the raid.
But next morning, the outraged population took action. Sam Brannan climbed the roof of
his store and delivered a moving speech to request that decency, order and justice be
restore. Citizens committees were organized and companies of armed men went out to arrest
the Hounds. Twenty-four hours later, a jury convicted five leaders and sentenced them to
jail. Since there was no prison available, they were detained on board a sloop of war
anchored in the Bay. It was the first case of popular justice in San Francisco.
Chileans in the California and Federal Censuses
How many Chileans actually arrived in San Francisco has been impossible to determine.
The 1850 Census did not include San Francisco or Santa Clara Counties, and it wouldn't be
an exaggeration to say that in those two areas resided the bulk of the Chileno population
in 1850. We must remember that in the summer month of 1850 the foreigners, Chilenos and
Mexicans in particular, were expelled from the mines. We are told of "thousands"
of Chileno returning to San Francisco. Still, the 1850 Census shows heavy concentrations
of Chilenos in Calaveras and Tuolomne Counties. If they had been expelled from those
places, wouldn't it be reasonable to suspect that at least double or triple that number
had taken refuge in San Francisco waiting for passage home? The 1852 Census, a bit more
reliable and taken by the state rather than by the Federal Government, shows no less than
1100 Chilenos in San Francisco alone, a figure that must be tripled when we consider the
large number of Chilenos who lived in ships anchored in the bay and were counted as
'sailors' as well as those who refuse to give their names. We believe the Federal Census
of 1860 to be more accurate, because the population had become less movable and because it
seems to reflect in number the descriptions of the numbers of Chilenos by contemporary
The Chileans in the Mines
The Chileno miners went into the mines early. Most of them arrived in the last months
of 1848. There they taught the "anglos" how to dig shafts and pan for gold, and
how to select the most promising places. They also made use of some of the techniques they
had learned in their native country: cracks in the ricks were picked with the long curvy
knife, the "corvo;" sands were tested with the "poruña, " the
hollowed horn of a cow or a steer. When there was not enough water to wash, they used the
"aventamiento" method or "dry washing", and if the ore needed
crushing, they improved the Mexican "arrastre" by providing it with a stone
wheel and giving it a new name: the "Chili Mill. " It is interesting to note
that these enormous stone wheels were hewn out of rock by very experienced stonecutters.
Since a large number of them are still in existence today, we can presume there was a
large number of Chilenos in this trade. However, the 1852 Census only lists two as
"stonecutters . " This would indicate a very poor count among the Chileno
residents of California.
Plaque in memory of Chilenos buried
Chilenos at the mines were concentrated into their own "Little Chiles. "
There was a "Chilicamp" and a "Chilitown" besides the well known
"Chiligulch" near Mokelumne Hill. This last was the scene of some bloody
episodes in December of 1849. A certain Doctor Concha had established a camp in a gulch
South of town. He had registered some of the claims in the names of his Chileno peons.
Envious miners from Iowa, if we are to believe the Chilean account, tried to take over the
diggings by force. The Chilenos retaliated and in the ensuing melee several were made
prisoners. The Iowans executed four of them, whipped another half a dozen and cut the ears
of the rest.
But that was the exception rather than the rule. Towns such as Sonora, Murphys,
Hornitos, Hangtown, had a large contingency of Chilenos, which, in numbers at least, does
not seem to be reflected in the Censuses. After the ill-treatment they had received,
Chilenos were not too eager to be counted or identified. Unfamiliar with census-taking
practices they either refused to give any information or made a joke of it. Of the first
instance we have many examples in the official rolls: "25 Chilenos who refused to
give their names;" "a large house of prostitution with 35 Spanish girls from
Chile;" "357 Chilenos in a ravine;" etc. Of the second instance examples
abound: a Juan Embroma, Too Cattoota, Juano Peona, and F. -Carajo among others, appear in
the censuses. Several listed their professions as "Ell Cabroon" (sic. ) with
Contemporary sources claim that most Chilenos, faced with the unjust treatment, the
Foreign Miner's Tax and the competition of Mexican labor, left the mines. Some took to
violence. Still, the 1852 and 1860 Censuses show large concentrations of Chilenos in the
mining counties such as Tuolomne, Amador and Calaveras. But for the most part it must be
agreed that by 1851 the "roto" had "seen the elephant, " picked up his
pan and shovel and gone home.
Among the Chileno adventurers there was a fair proportion of people prone to violence.
When they were expelled from the mines, they took up banditry. Some, like the famous
Narrato Ponce, left a trail of crimes through the mines and the Central Valley. Others
joined the gangs of horse thieves captained by Mexican outlaws like José California, El
Gallo, and El Zorro.
Joaquín Murrieta, the celebrated bandit of California, was not a Chileno but a
Mexican, in spite of the acclaimed drama written by Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda who
erronously gives his birthplace in Chile. The confusion can easily be explained examining
the "pirate" editions of Yellow Bid's original novel.
Confrontation between a Chilean and
Chile supplies the gold miners
The ships, however, kept coming. Even if the stores of Valparaiso had been depleted,
the rich Chilean central valley kept the California population from going hungry. In 1853
Chile was the leading country in exports to California: 127 ships with a total of 37,370
tons. The most important product was flour. Chileans mills in Concepcion province kept
grinding grain twenty-four hours a day. But by then, the emigration was slowing down. From
contemporary sources we must deduce that more than half of the Chileno 48'ers and 49'ers
had returned home by 1855. The rest, at least 2023, if we are to believe the 1860 Census,
remained in California.
Chileno achievements in California
At first, the Chilenos who remained constituted a very closely-knit group. Chileno
newspapers were published in San Francisco from 1863 to 1883 and when Chile was threatened
with aggression from Spain in 1865, "Chileno Patriotic Clubs" mushroomed all
over California to collect funds to help the motherland. During the War of the Pacific,
1879-1882, the Chilenos contributed large amounts of money to the Chilean cause and
actively engaged in propaganda at all levels. However, little by little they became
anglicized. Most Chileno women married "anglos? as did a large percentage of the men. The Chilenos, for the most part,
did not have to contend with the color prejudice of the black or the sharp Indian features
of the Mexicans. Since a chance had been afforded to go home to Chile for those who wanted
to return, only the best fit, the ones that loved California remained. Furthermore,
throughout the turmoil and the abuse in the mines and in the cities, the Chileno
demonstrated himself to be an unusually good fighter who met the "gringo" as an
equal refusing to be pushed around.
The descendants of these Chileno Forty-Niners can not only be proud of the achievements
of their forefathers but of their own: Entrepreneurs, judges, congressmen and other people
who have left their tracks in the History of the State. Many of the San Francisco Streets
carry names of former residents on Chile: Atherton, Ellis, Lick, Larkin and others.
Chileno women also left their names: Mina and Clementina. Manuel Briseño, an early
journalist in the mines was one of the founders of the San Diego Union. Juan Evangelista
Reyes was a Sacramento pioneer as were the Luco brothers. Luis Felipe Ramírez was one of
the City Fathers in Marysville. The Leiva family owned at one time, much of the land in
Marin County, including Fort Ross.
Thus the Chileno achieved a high degree of respect. It is easy then to understand that
unlike other minorities the Chilenos integrated quickly and like their
"Little Chiles," they were soon absorbed by the ever-growing
State of Californian, becoming part of the mainstream of the present population of the
Golden State .
Vicente Pérez Rosales
1 Residents of Chile were known in California as "Chilenos" rather
than "Chileans" or "Chilians". Throughout this work
"Chileno" has been used to denote a Chilean resident of California.
2 Vicente Perez Rosales, Diario de un Viaje a California,
Buenos Aires: Editorial Francisco de Aguirre, 1971, p. 31. This is the only publication of
the actual diary of the famous Chilean adventurer. Part of the diary is condensed in his
Recuerdos del Pasado, first published in 1882.
3 News item in the Alta California, January 25, 1849.
4 Hubert H. Bancroft, California Inter Pocula, San
Francisco: The History Co. S 1881, p. 261.