The discovery, in 1848, of rich gold mines in California triggers a world-wide movement of population, to which the French contribute significant numbers. They gather together in ‘French quarters’ and participate actively to the economic and cultural development of the region.
California, new hope
Since the end of the eighteenth century, French nationals have explored America’s Western coast. Lapérouse’s and Duflot de Mofras’s travels (1786 and 1841 respectively) resulted in maps and descriptions of the country and its inhabitants. In 1842, the French government establishes a consulate. Yet, little is known about California in 1848. After the discovery, in January 1848, of gold deposits in the mountains, the first French to rush there are those already settled in the region, along the Pacific coast and in the Pacific islands.
In France, the mass media, principally journals founded for the purpose, publicize the news and stir much curiosity among the public, more so since the country was undergoing a triple economic, social and political crisis. The Gold Rush stimulates the imagination of artists, writers, and cartoonists, while compagnies get organized to help transport the prospective gold seekers.
Passengers have in front of them a months-long sea trip around the Horn Cap, eventually shortened by the passageway through the Panama strip. Others join caravans that travel across the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains. 25 to 40,000 French nationals, coming from all corners of France, end up flocking to this new El Dorado.
The French in California
Once arrived in California, the gold seekers make their way towards the hills, where the mines are. They live togther, clustered in francophone quarters. Few women take part to this first stage of the migration.
The landing port of San Francisco is home to people involved in import business, families, and all those not tempted by the prospect of gold digging. They open warehouses, grocery shops, restaurants, general stores, fashion houses, laundry services, theaters. French institutions spring up to meet the needs of this growing population: a consulate, mutual aid societies, a hospital, a church, and journals such as L’Écho du Pacifique. Through the activities of investors like L.A. Pioche and J.B. Bayerque, founders of one of the main banks of the Gold Rush, French capital finances gigantic public works and stimulates economic development in the region.
In Los Angeles and in Southern California, the French work as rancheros, livestock farmers, merchants, bakers. A native of Gironde, Jean-Louis Vignes, earns the nickname of ‘father of California viticulture.’
Nowadays, the participation of the French to this adventure lives on in the names of buildings, streets, and public places. Many return to France with a nice pot of gold; some publish their memoirs. Those who decide to stay bring over their families and persuade others to join them, generating in this way migration chains from the Béarn, Basque Country, High Alps or the Aveyron regions.
Published in july 2021