The discovery, in 1848, of rich gold mines in California triggered a world-wide movement of population, to which the French contributed significant numbers. They gathered together in ‘French quarters’ and participated actively in the economic and cultural development of the region.
California, a 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 established a consulate. Yet, little was known about California in 1848. After the discovery, in January 1848, of gold deposits in the mountains, the first French to rush there were 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, publicized the news and stirred much curiosity among the public, more so since the country was undergoing a triple economic, social and political crisis. The Gold Rush stimulated the imagination of artists, writers, and cartoonists, while compagnies organized to help transport the prospective gold seekers.
Passengers had in front of them a months-long sea trip around Cape Horn, eventually shortened by the passageway through Panama. Others joined caravans that traveled across the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains. Twenty-five to 40,000 French nationals, coming from all corners of France, flocked to this new El Dorado.
The French in California
Once arrived in California, the gold seekers made their way towards the hills, where the mines were. They lived togther, clustered in francophone quarters. Few women took part in this first stage of the migration.
The landing port of San Francisco is home to people involved in import business, families, and others not tempted by the prospect of gold digging. They opened warehouses, grocery shops, restaurants, general stores, fashion houses, laundry services and theaters. French institutions sprang 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 financed gigantic public works and stimulated economic development in the region.
In Los Angeles and in Southern California, the French worked as rancheros, livestock farmers, merchants and bakers. A native of Gironde, Jean-Louis Vignes, earned 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 returned to France with a nice pot of gold; some published their memoirs. Those who decided to stay brought over their families and persuaded 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