With the advantage of a natural harbor, it’s interesting that some of the most notable immigration to San Francisco came overland. In 1776, Juan Bautista de Anza led an expedition of settlers to the first presidio in San Francisco, via an overland route from Sonora, Mexico. Trappers and hunters began arriving in the 1820s, also overland, but the most significant wave of immigrants into San Francisco via overland routes began with the discovery of gold.
In 1848, the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in California triggered a migration of more than 300,000 people to the gold fields. While a few made their fortunes through side ventures, most worked very hard for very little. Those who went faced dangers from disease, accidents, and violence.
With so many people flocking to California in search of gold, every available means of transportation was employed. For those coming from the east coast of the U.S. or Europe, some chose to make the trip by sea, rather than face the long trek across the United States. But the voyage by sea had its perils as well. The sea voyage could mean a trip around Cape Horn, where ships were tossed in turbulent, windy, and iceberg-filled waters, and were often blown near Antarctica.
Skilled captains might be able to shorten the trip by traveling the Straits of Magellan, a sea passage around the tip of South America, but this, too, was considered a dangerous trip. The narrowness of the passage at certain points made it a difficult route to navigate.
The trip could take up to eight months and onboard conditions were horrid. Food spoiled quickly in the equatorial heat, and worms and rodents got into supplies.
A shorter trip took passengers to Panama where they embarked on canoes to navigate the Chagres River. From there things were more difficult as the remainder of the passage to the Pacific meant a 50-mile hike through the Panamanian jungle where gold seekers were at risk of contracting cholera, malaria, and yellow fever. Those who survived this leg of the journey often arrived in Panama City to find a shortage of ships. This meant that they would have to wait, sometimes for weeks, to obtain passage on a northbound ship to California.
The Gold Rush came at the tail end of the Irish potato famine, which had caused a mass exodus of poor Irish, many of whom arrived on American shores and made their way west. By the 1880s, the Irish made up a third of the population of San Francisco.
The Revolutions of 1848 also prompted emigration from France, the German and Italian states, the Austrian empire, and Poland. In France, a lottery was held to help California-bound emigrants. In the years between 1846 and 1851, more French citizens left for the U.S. than at any other period during the 19th century, and it’s estimated that around 30,000 French immigrants found their way to California.
Some northern Italians were among the argonauts who arrived in San Francisco for the Gold Rush, and by the 1890s a larger wave of southern Italians, Sicilians in particular, had made their way to San Francisco, where many of them worked in the fishing industry, establishing Fisherman’s Wharf.
The large waves of migration stirred up of nativism, despite the fact that some of the “natives” had been there for only a few years and were immigrants themselves. But despite prejudice against some European immigrants, it didn’t come close to the backlash that the Chinese faced.
The first influx of immigrants into California from China came around the time of the Gold Rush. By 1852 the Chinese population in California was estimated to be at around 25,000, but the Chinese weren’t welcomed in a land where the gold fields weren’t producing the riches expected and where the industrious Chinese were seen as a threat to those competing for jobs.
By 1880, the Chinese community, centered in Chinatown, represented 10 percent of the population of San Francisco. Fed by the economic depression of the 1870s, anti-Chinese sentiment reached a fever pitch. In 1882, the United States passed several new laws regarding immigration, the first of which was the Chinese Exclusion Act. The legislation blocked the immigration of Chinese “skilled and unskilled laborers and Chinese employed in mining” and allowed entry only to non-laborers who could be certified by the Chinese government qualified to immigrate. It also required Chinese immigrants who left the U.S. to obtain certification in order to reenter.
An immigration station on Angel Island opened its doors in January 1910 in an effort to enforce the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. It is estimated that more than 1 million persons coming to and leaving the U.S. were processed through Angel Island, including 175,000 Chinese immigrants and 150,000 Japanese immigrants, with some being held there for weeks or even months in terrible conditions.
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