The Baja California Gold Rush of 1889

By SYLVIA K. FLANIGAN
La Siesta Press La Frontera Award
San Diego Historical Society 1979 Institute of History

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Word got out in February 1889 that gold had been discovered in the Santa Clara mountains about sixty miles southeast of Ensenada in Baja California. This immediately started rampant rumors about the size of the area and its richness. The farther the rumors spread, the more incredible became the stories of the gold discovery. Ultimately men were being informed that the Baja California gold strike was comparable to that of 1849. Old miners who had panned for gold in the Sacramento area came south looking for new excitement. They helped to further exaggerate the claims to gold richness in Baja California. One old miner was reported to have said, "Of course the rumors about this Santa Clara mining excitement are rather vague and unsatisfactory, but this is the year for a big find and I am confident that it has come."1 Providence seemed to play a major role in the minds of men in regard to this discovery.

Many new Southern Californians who had come west encouraged by the California land boom of the 1880s listened attentively to the opinions and philosophies of the seasoned old-timers. With all their naivete and ignorance they told themselves that if experienced miners felt this was the year of the big finds then who could dispute their sentiment?

Man can rationalize almost anything, and Lower California, a mere extension geographically of the North American state that had seen millions of dollars worth of gold extracted from its depths, lent encouragement to the El Dorado legend simply by its proximity.

The mere propagating of gold rush rumors was not the only factor that stimulated an eagerness to go south and seek wealth. Southern California had been submerged economically into a depression that followed the great land boom of 1886-87. Men who came west in response to the boom found that by the latter part of the decade land was still abundant but jobs certainly were not. The population growth of the area had encouraged some industrial growth, but not enough to sustain augmented population and keep most men gainfully employed. Many individuals who had come west to seek their fortune had no recourse but to remain in Southern California in spite of financial troubles. So, when stories of a gold rush penetrated the Southern California region, impoverished men saw this opportunity as a second chance.

In February 1889, the time was auspicious in many ways for another California gold rush. But before turning to the gold discovery and the subsequent rush, it should be noted that the primary sources for this shortlived event are newspaper accounts. All information on the new mother lode was promulgated by Southern California newsmen. Several were sent to the Santa Clara area of Baja California as correspondents in February immediately after the initial gold discovery news. The reporters were in effect the inventors of many of the rumors about the Santa Clara mining area and were responsible for all information dealing with the rush which was published in short pamphlets, newspapers and mining journals. James Edward Friend wrote glowing accounts of the rush for the San Diego Union and Daily Bee which have since been compiled in a book edited by Richard E. Lingenfelter.2 Bascom A. Stephens published a pamphlet on March 8, 1889, based on some of Friend's information coupled with his own subjective journalism which was directed to the miners and settlers of Lower California.3

The journalists sought riches just as much as everyone else and their published products were based primarily on hearsay and not documented fact. Indeed, very little data about the Baja California rush of 1889 is available other than newspaper accounts since the ultimate production of the mines was very small and the rush was quickly over.

This article is based primarily on the publications of the newsmen on the mining scene in 1889 and is an attempt to piece together the events of the rush with special attention given to the economic and political conditions north and south of the Mexican border which exerted influence on this event.

Gold was discovered in the Santa Clara mountain region about sixty miles southeast of Ensenada in December, 1888, by a Mexican, Bacilio Padilla. However, it was not until February of 1889 that an American and old mining prospector, Luman H. Gaskill, got word of the find and publicized it. Coupled with the news of the discovery was Gaskill's respected opinion that the field was "one of the richest placer and quartz prospects ever seen."4

The gold was located primarily in four gulches of the mountainous region about 4500 feet above sea level. Most of the gulches were named according to the ethnic type that worked them such as American, Mexican, and Indian. Another gulch called Alamo bears no such ethnic distinction. The days were generally cool at this time of the year and the nights were cold with snow and ice covering parts of the area. It was speculated that there was room for 1,000 men in the camps but many more than that came.5

With the initial publicity of the gold discovery, steamship lines, stagecoach lines, as well as the relatively newfangled railroad sought to capitalize on the mining throngs. The International Company, a North American concern that in effect owned a great deal of the northernmost third of the Baja California peninsula ran the only two steamers, the Manuel Dublan and the Carlos Pacheco, from San Diego to Ensenada three times a week. They doubled their regular fares to $10, scheduled extra runs, and were literally loaded every time with men, animals, and equipment.6

The Pacific Coast Steamship Company ran steamers from San Francisco and San Pedro to San Diego filled with old miners attracted by the glowing accounts of the gold rush printed in Southern California newspapers. The Los Angeles Times wrote that many old timers were confident they would witness a placer mining boom comparable to that of 1849.7

In addition, three schooners were chartered offering passage to Ensenada from San Diego for five or six dollars. The Santa Fe railroad felt the pangs of the mining boom and offered tickets to Ensenada including passage on the International Company steamers. The trains during the first week of March, 1889, were packed with amateur miners all hoping to get their shares of Baja California's gold. James Edward Friend of the San Diego Union and Daily Bee claimed that at the height of the rush more than 900 passengers arrived in San Diego within half an hour on two capacity-filled trains from Los Angeles.8

San Diego businessmen capitalized on stage lines to the mines which generally took three days. The cost for this mode of transportation was twenty-five dollars and stages ran daily via Tia Juana, Real del Castillo, and various other ranchos to Santa Clara.

Those without funds to pay for more expensive travel arrangements were forced to rely on a trusty burro or horse for transportation. More than a few men walked to the mines, owning little more than the shirts on their backs. Some men left for the mines in wagons. The Los Angeles Times reported that a party of ten men were traveling to the mines with a single wagon which was loaded. They had no horses and were forced to improvise by taking turns pulling the vehicle with their collective muscle strength.9

The roads were reported in good shape, and camp fires blazed at night all along them from National City to the Santa Clara district.

In addition to transportation companies capitalizing on the gold rush, supply houses and stores also sought to make a quick profit on the anxious miners. Temporarily, San Diego was transformed into a thriving supply point. Men from all over stopped there to outfit for the mines. News had reached them that Ensenada had nothing to offer in this line and the best area for all supplies was San Diego. Prices were high due to the great demand, and complete mining outfitting including equipment and food for the trip, cost about fifty dollars.10

All sorts of stores offered appealing advertisements to get future prospectors to buy. Store owners claimed miners needed picks, shovels, and pans in addition to life sustaining staples such as flour, bacon, and coffee. W.C. Furrey, a small San Diego proprietor, offered genuine Russian iron mining pans for sale. In order to meet demands for this popular product, he was compelled to work his staff both day and night.11

Burros were much in demand also, and because of this, their prices rose from $15 per animal to $35 and even $40.12

Men were advised to take enough money for their five to six dollars per day living expenses. However, most men had severely limited funds and spent every cent available to them north of the border with the hope they would find enough gold down south to sustain them there. Those who did earn enough for daily rations could buy provisions at two stores set up in the camps. Originally there was an adequate amount of water and wild clover and grass for animal grazing purposes. However, the overcrowded mining conditions soon destroyed the grasses, and men were forced to provide alternatives for their animals. It was recommended that men going to the mines take plenty of blankets, not just for themselves during the cold winter nights but for their pack animals as well which had to be staked outside.

In addition to a man's costs for transportation, outfitting, and supplies for the mines in the United States, the Mexican government also demanded its share in the form of customs duties and mining claim costs. Tia Juana was the border community whose customs house checked every living thing that passed from the United States into Mexican territory. The lines waiting to get through were long, and the Mexican customs officials were few in number. Men were excited and anxious for their big chance at the mines and cursed the customs officials that delayed them. Often Americans were forced to spend more than a day just waiting to get their belongings checked. Men became angry when they had to camp out near the border check point. They became infuriated when forced to pay higher customs duties for their belongings than the net worth of such items. Burros and mares were duty free, but horses were taxed $40 each. In addition to the duties for equipment and livestock brought into Baja California, it cost six dollars just to pass through the customs house.13

Claim costs were exhorbitantly expensive for the times. It cost $2.50 to denounce a 20-meter square placer claim and an additional $16.50 was imposed if the claimant decided to take permanent possession of it. Most men could not afford the $19 total cost for exploiting a placer claim. They complained to northern Baja California Governor Torres and begged to have the costs decreased. Finally, in late March 1889, when the enthusiasm for the mines was dying out, Governor Torres reduced total placer mining claim costs to $14.

The placers were considered the mines of the people, because the average person could work them without having to use expensive, sophisticated machinery to extract the ore. Quartz ledge claims, on the other hand, while generally more abundant in gold, were more expensive to claim and exploit. It cost around $700 to claim digging rights to a quartz mine. These mines were owned by corporate groups that had enough money to pay for the claim costs and ultimately the equipment costs to extract the gold.14

Next to the ore itself, man was the most important element in the gold rush. He came from many parts and many ethnic backgrounds hoping to "strike it rich." Naturally the areas closest to the mines were depopulated almost immediately after the announcement of the discovery of gold. Nearly all the male population of Ensenada evacuated the town and subsequently most of the stores, barber shops, and saloons were closed. San Diegans with enough money for supplies thronged to the Santa Clara area. In fact, so many San Diegans left for the rush that help became scarce. The Hotel del Coronado had to advertise for workers as far away as San Francisco. Restaurants were hunting for waiters and kitchen employees, and even the Cuyamaca road construction crew had diminished because many felt they would rather gamble on making a fast fortune at the mines than stay and receive their steady, subsistent wages.15

The gold excitement in San Diego influenced most strongly those who were out of work or those who were in low income brackets. These men comprised the largest group going to the mines. They had nothing to lose and potentially much to gain.

With San Diego and Ensenada being the closest population centers to the mines, these two towns furnished most of the miners who came to Santa Clara seeking their fortunes. However, individuals came from other areas as well, but in smaller numbers. The San Diego Union and Daily Bee claimed that experienced miners came from as far away as Colorado, Idaho, and Northern California. Several caravans from Arizona made the trip from Yuma to the mines.16

It was reported that Indians from near the San Xavier Mission in Tucson came. Many Mexicans who came brought their wives and families. A few Chinese entered the camps and they obviously posed enough of an economic threat to Americans that the latter passed an informal resolution against their working mining claims with the express hope of blocking them legally from entering the camps.17

During the peak of the gold rush from late February to mid-March, 1889, an average of 300 argonauts per day were estimated to have passed through San Diego. On March 5, 600 left San Diego for the mines.18

Generally speaking, most of the North American men who penetrated the Santa Clara area were inexperienced miners. They wanted to get rich quickly and believed placer mining offered the easiest way to do it. As is usual in gold rushes, they were sadly fooled. Many of these men were not accustomed to hard, manual labor and few bothered to learn anything of placer mining in advance. They brought rockers and gold pans, but even then most Americans did not know how to get the nuggets and gold dust out of the placers. When water ran short in the gulches, the Americans were even more at a loss, for simple panning would not see them through. The experienced miners, on the other hand, generally did reasonably well, and were reported to be making anywhere from $25 to $100 a day on the average, with gold selling for $18 to $18.50 an ounce.19

The Mexicans, once the outer layer of earth was removed by picks and shovels, scratched boulder crevices underneath with knives and horn spoons to remove gold nuggets. The Mexicans, as opposed to the independent Americans, worked together on their claims, helping each other out, with Mexican women actively participating in the diggings.20

The mining camp on the whole was orderly even though liquor was sold there. Governor Torres, the head of all mining deputations, was considered fair and just. The Americans liked him because he spoke English. In addition to frequent appearances by the Governor, there were twenty soldiers stationed in and around the mining camps, eight rurales or mounted police, and two judges on hand to keep the peace, thus obviating the need for "mining camp justice" and "vigilante" policing common to the Forty-Niner period.

For all the influential rumors and great hopes of the newsmen and old timers, the boom lasted for less than a month. Men in their haste and bliss went off to the mines lacking proper mining training and experience hoping for instant riches. They were disillusioned and soon left. When James Edward Friend wrote that only $20,000 worth of gold was extracted from the placers in February and March of 1889, the puffed up hopes for a great new "rush" began to fade. Even the Julian mines in California yielded between $2 and $4 million in gold, and that rush was by no means the largest California had to offer. Considering that between 4,000 and 5,000 men outfitted for the Santa Clara mines and expended close to a quarter of a million dollars on mining equipment and other supplies, it is obvious that the $20,000 in recovered gold did not make up a tenth of the original expenditures.21 What happened?

There was speculation that the International Company sought to attract colonists by offering the lure of a gold rush. It was said that as soon as the Company, which controlled most of the northern portion of the peninsula, got 5,000 or 6,000 people down there, they would arm them and then take possession of the country.22

It was rumored, too, that the Mexican government suspected a dark plot of some sort and sent troops to the area to quell riots. It further was claimed that with a mixed group of people in the area, trouble would ultimately occur and the United States would be forced to intervene and take over the peninsula. The Los Angeles Times wrote that "One result of this remarkable movement will be to throw light on the lower country, that if handled properly would be a desirable accession to Southern California."23

Newsmen and merchants, especially in San Diego, were accused of spreading false rumors about the richness of the placers. It was thought that their wild tales were created for the benefit of San Diego, as the town was the main stopover for supplies and transportation to the mines. San Diego had felt the economic pinch of depression prior to the gold rush, but for almost a glorious month she relived the prosperity of the real estate boom days.

The Santa Clara gold rush of 1889, while lasting for less than a month, affected all told, perhaps 5,000 mining prospectors. Indirectly, merchants, businessmen, and enterprising individuals profited temporarily from those going to seek their fortunes at the mines. Unfortunately, there were too many suppositions and intangibles involved in regard to the magnitude of the placers and their richness. Journalists were the primary force in publicizing the event and their influence was relatively wide-spread. The gold rush, even though short-lived, seems important more for its impact on depressed Southern California than for its richness. It did not compare by any means to the 1849 rush as predicted, but it did sound a hopeful note in depressed times. It boosted the mercantile business and, in reality, did enrich the pockets of a few patient, experienced miners. The long lasting effects of this boom were practically nil, as most miners, no matter the amount of their findings at the mines, returned to the United States and did not linger in Baja California. The United States made no attempt to procure the peninsula and Southern California, after an exciting month in 1889, returned once again to its economically depressed state. Another "boom" had "busted."

 


NOTES

1. "The Mining Craze," The Los Angeles Times, March 7, 1889, p. 1

2. Richard E. Lingenfelter, The Rush of '89 and Captain James Edward Friend's Letters from the Santa Clara Mines (Los Angeles: Dawson's Book Shop, 1967).

3. Bascom A. Stephens, The Gold Fields of Lower California (Los Angeles: Southern California Publishing Company, 1889). This book originally sold for 25¢ and included all Stephens felt was necessary for migrants to know about the Ensenada area. Stephens compared the Baja California gold rush to that of '49 and foresaw that those going to the mines would ultimately settle in that area.

4. San Diego Union and Daily Bee, February 27, 1889, p. 1, and March 15, 1889, James Edward Friend also described Luman H. Gaskill as a paroled cattle rustler who ran a butcher shop in Ensenada.

5. Mining and Scientific Press, Vol. 58, No. 11 (March 16, 1889). p. 181.

6. Bascom A. Stephens, The Gold Fields of Lower California, p. 49.

7. "The Mining Craze," The Los Angeles Times, March 7, 1889, p. 1.

8. Richard E. Lingenfelter, The Rush of '89 and Captain James Edward Friend's Letters from the Santa Clara Mines, p. 9.

9. "The Gold Fever," The Los Angeles Times, March 8, 1889, p. 3.

10. Ibid, p. 3.

11. Ibid, p. 3.

12. San Diego Union and Daily Bee, March 3, 1889, p. 1.

13. Mining and Scientific Press, p. 181.

14. Richard E. Lingenfelter, The Rush of '89 and Captain James Edward Friend's Letters from the Santa Clara Mines, pp. 25, 38, 51, 55.

15. San Diego Union and Daily Bee, March 6, 1889, p. 1.

16. San Diego Union and Daily Bee, March 3, 1889, p. 1.

17. Richard E. Lingenfelter, The Rush of '89 and Captain James Edward Friend's Letters from the Santa Clara Mines, p. 37.

18. Ibid, p. 12.

19. Bascom A. Stephens, The Gold Fields of Lower California, p. 9.

20. Ibid, p. 23.

21. Richard E. Lingenfelter, The Rush of '89 and Captain James Edward Friend's Letters from the Santa Clara Mines, p. 58.

22. "The Gold Fever," The Los Angeles Times, March 8, 1889, p. 3.

23. "The Golden Idol," The Los Angeles Times, March 10, 1889, p. 2.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Chamberlin, Eugene Keith. "U.S. Interests in Lower California." Ph.D. dissertation, University of California-Berkeley, 1949.

"Confirmed." The Los Angeles Times, March 13, 1889. 'The Craze." The Los Angeles Times, March 9, 1889.

"The Craze." The Los Angeles Times, March 11, 1889.

"The Gold Fever." The Los Angeles Times, March 8, 1889.

"The Golden Idol." The Los Angeles Times, March 10, 1889.

Lingenfelter, Richard E. The Rush of '89 and Captain James Edward Friend's Letters from the Santa Clara Mines. Los Angeles: Dawson's Book Shop, 1967.

"The Mining Craze." The Los Angeles Times, March 7, 1889.

Mining and Scientific Press, Vol. 58, No. 11 (March 16, 1889).

Mining and Scientific Press, Vol. 58, No. 12 (March 23, 1889).

San Diego Union and Daily Bee, February 27, 1889.

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"The True Believers." The Los Angeles Times, March 12, 1889.