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1850 NOTICE – Tax Collector’s Office

As many rumors have been industriously circulated throughout the County, to the effect
that the law taxing the labor of Foreign Miners had been repelled, modified, or
suspended, and such reports, by imposing upon the ignorant, have not only retarded
collections, but caused the arrest and punishment of foreigners, who would not otherwise
have attempted to resist the law: I deem it my duty to inform the public, that the law has
not been “repealed, modified or suspended,” and that its provisions will be vigorously
It is for the interest of the Miners, as well as that of the State, that this notice obtain
general publicity.
L.A. Besancon, Tax Collector

Foreign Miners Tax

by Sarah Lunsford

A motley group of individuals formed the population of the Mother Lode during the Gold
Rush filling the air with a multitude of languages, aromas and appearances.
Both U.S. citizens and immigrants headed the call of instant wealth, riches and streets
filled with gold, coming to the area in the thousands to claim their part of the bounty.
Picture yourself traveling hundreds of thousands of miles over water and land to walk
into a largely uncharted area, where the law was fluid and seemingly all you had to do
was find a piece of land and you were on your way to making your dreams come true.
Of course after arriving, you actually find yourself steeped in the land with dirt embedded
in your skin, and, after many months you not only could no longer smell yourself but you
almost couldn’t smell your neighbor either.
Almost every day was the same agonizing routine, bending over breaking your back to
sift gold out of the dirt that held it before heading back to camp to a dinner of thin stew,
where most of the time you could only speak with those who came from the same country
as yourself.
Then one day, months, maybe even a year, after you have worked so hard enduring the
wet, the cold, the heat and eking out a gold nugget here, a little glittering dust there, a
group of official men rode into your mining camp or approached you at your claim. After
a bit of difficulty trying to understand what they were saying, because you still had only
picked up a smattering of English, you understood they were demanding payment from
you so that you could continue mining. And what they were asking for was no small
Welcome to the world of the foreign miner who happened to be from a country other than
those in Europe. Welcome to what was most likely the reality of the Foreign Miners Tax.
The tax of $20 per person per month aimed at non-European immigrants was the amount
that foreign born miners who followed the call to the West were greeted with when the
first version of the Foreign Miners Tax was put into effect on June 1, 1850.
Although California was only annexed to the United States and not yet admitted into the
union, the California State Legislature enacted the tax because of the ever increasing
mindset that as gold became more scarce, foreign miners were taking mining profits away
from legal citizens.
On the surface the tax was to ensure that foreign born miners had the necessary license to
mine in the state, but citizen miners weren’t affected.
“It was pretty much aimed to eliminate foreign competition from the mines,” said
Shannon Van Zant, Calaveras County Archivist.
“(It was) the biggest tax that there ever was,” said a Calaveras County historian, Wally
During the Gold Rush the main currency was gold with services or goods being
purchased for a certain weight of gold that was equal to the going rate. The local sheriff’s
sometimes joined by State tax collectors would take payment in gold nuggets and gold
At that time $20 was equal to about an ounce and half of gold at the official going rate of
$16 and ounce ( bars and grocery stores only gave miners $14 an ounce), Motloch
pointed out.
In today’s market value of about $1,116 an ounce, that would be equal to about $1,674
per month just to have a license to mine which equals to about $20,088 before the foreign
miners even put a hand to the ground to coax the gold out.
That didn’t sit well with the local miners and some sheriff’s did have to quell the threat of
public uprising when miners figured out what was going on.
Tuolumne County Sheriff George Work was one of those sheriffs according to the
“Annuals of Tuolumne County” by Thomas Robertson Stoddart, edited and annotated by
Carlo M. DeFerrari.
Work was the first sheriff in Tuolumne County and according to the Annuals, “despite
the unparalleled reign of lawlessness which existed in 1850-51, he had the reputation of
being an excellent officer.”
Although the tax was supposed to be enacted on the second Monday of May, 1850, the
state appointed tax collector assigned to Tuolumne County, Lorenzo A. Besancon, didn’t
arrive in Sonora until Friday, May 17.
Two days after Besancon came into town, a large group of foreign miners, primarily
made up of Mexicans, Chileans and Frenchmen, gathered outside of town and sent a
representative to talk to the powers that were to see if something could be done to stop
the tax. The group was less concerned about the right the state had to collect the tax, and
more concerned about the exorbitant amount.
“The attempt to collect this exorbitant impost, put the immense foreign population, with
whom the county was literally overrun, into a state of intense foment,” wrote Walter
Murray in the Sonora Herald in 1852.
Ultimately the law held, but the streets of Sonora were filled with miners both foreign
and American.
“The messenger averred that the county seat was in the hands of the excited foreign mob,
numbering some two or three thousand all armed; that the safety of the place was
menaced,” wrote Murray.
Although there were some tense hours including an attempt on Sheriff Work’s life, things
ultimately settled down.
“It just kind of fizzled,” said Linda Clark, a historian in Tuolumne County.
Ultimately Sheriff Work escorted Besancon and large group of enforcers around the
camps to find foreigners and collect the tax without incident.
“Not a murmur [sic.] was heard although I expect, like the Irishman’s owl, they ‘kept up
a d~~l of a thinking,” wrote one newspaper correspondent in June, 1850.
The Foreign Miners Tax was so unpopular and outcry was so loud that on March 14,
1851 the tax was repealed.
But that didn’t prevent some officers from continuing to collect the tax from foreign
miners who didn’t know that it had been repealed, or later, had been reenacted but
Sheriff Ben Thorn of Calaveras County was so good at collecting the miners tax that two
years after it had been repealed, he still collected enough that according to the 1856-1857
budget rolls for that year, the tax brought in the highest tax amount of revenue into the
county than any other.
“He just got on his horse and went from one Chinese camp to another and made them
cough it up,” said Motloch. “They didn’t know they weren’t supposed to pay it.”
The tax was a money maker, both for local and sate coffers and on May 4, 1852 the
California Legislature instituted a second Foreign Mining Tax. This time, it required $3 a
month from foreign miners who were ineligible for citizenship.
Later after many revisions, it would be settle in at $4 a month, with both the foreign
miners along with those who employed them paying the tax and became more pointedly
aimed at Chinese immigrants
Initially the Foreign Miners Tax had the greatest impact on the Mexican and Chilean
miners whose numbers in the area dwindled significantly. With each revamp of the law,
and other cooperative laws to further the reach and intent of laws against foreign miners,
they became less and less of a presence in the Mother Lode.
The Chinese stayed in the area in greater numbers after the Foreign Mining Tax revamp
of 1852, and still did well according to Van Zant.
“We think it’s because they were willing to pay the tax and work hard,” Van Zant said.
“They did not venture to assert equal rights so far as to take up any claim which other
miners would think it worth while to work; but in such places as yielded them a dollar or
two a day they were allowed to scratch away unmolested. Had they happened to strike a
rich lead, they would have been driven off their claim immediately,” wrote J.D.
Borthwick, quoted in Lani Ah Tye Farkas’ “Bury My Bones in America”.
The atmosphere of the time soon had an affect on even the Chinese immigrants when the
Federal Government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
This Act excluded Chinese laborers and those employed in mining in their native China
from entering the U.S. as well as prohibiting those already in the U.S. from becoming
citizens. The effects of this lasted for the next ten years barring Chinese immigrants from
coming into the U.S. as well as those who were already residents from becoming citizens.
After this act passed, the Chinese population in the Southern Mines diminished
Although the Foreign Miners Tax was ultimately repealed in 1870, it had an undeniable
affect on the Mother Lode down through time, even to how it looks today.
In 1860 a large group of Latin American and Chinese immigrants were recorded to have
lived in Sonora but only a “remnant” of that population remained in 1880 according to
Andrew Edward Caldwell, author of “The Changing Demographics of the Southern
Mother Lode: Columbia and Sonora After the California Gold Rush 1860 – 1880”.
Because of this dwindling number of foreign born miners of non-European descent to
almost nothing, with those of European descent being able to easily assimilate and settle
in the Mother Lode the whole face of the area changed.
That face is seen not only by what still remains, but also in what is absent, its planes and
shadows that make up the rich history of the area.

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