Islanders in the Gold Rush
By Richard H. Dillon
This article tells of a little-known facet of Hawaiiana—the emigration of Hawaiians to California with Captain John Sutter, at the outset of the Gold Rush.
For some 20 years, small Hawaiian and Polyesian communities dotted the Mother Lode area east of Sacramento.
Today, no trace remains—except place-names like Kanaka Bar and Kanaka Glade . . . and even historians know little of their story.
IT WAS IN 1839 when Captain John Sutter reached California and was soon engaged in building his dream-empire of New Helvetia where California’s Capitol now stands. With Sutter were 10 Kanakas—as all Hawaiians and Polynesians were then called—and a bulldog from Honolulu.
For another 20 years, Hawaiians came to California to settle in small colonies, lured by the hope of great riches from the gold mines. When the returns from the Mother Lode mines began to thin out, the Hawaiians stopped emigrating to the Golden State and those already there began to disperse throughout the state or returned to the Hawaiian Islands.
For a brief two decaes, small Kanaka communities were an interesting part of the California scene. Today, not race remains of their stay except for a few place-names on the map— like Kanaka Bar and Kanaka Galde—and even historians know little about their story.
THE AMAZING thing about these Hawaiian groups is that they were actively Christians in a most irreligious time and place. Not only did they hold services themselves and try to lead good lives but they also took upon their shoulders the burden of the conversion of the heathen Indians of California, the Diggers.
The California tribes were all lumped together by the uneducated miners as Diggers. (They should have been dubbed Gleaners, for they were seed and acorn gatherers rather than root diggers as the American’s derisive term would indicate.) These poor, often stark naked folk were treated far worse by the miners than were the dogs or pack mules.
For some reason, perhaps the scantiness in numbers of the clergy, no one among the whites tried to help the natives, left to starve or drink themselves to death. They were truly “lost souls.”
It was the Hawaiian people in California—themselves the object of discrimination—who took them in hand.
A CORRESPONDENT for an Eastern paper was most lavish in his praise of the missionary work of the Kanakas among the California Indians.
“In various parts of the State are thronged the lowest class of American Indians, upon whom the whites, aided by the largesses of the State and the general Government, have made frequent wars (they might as well talk of wars with rabbis) while churches have done absolutely nothing for their salvation. Yet is the good work done by certain Kanakas, who came over here from the Sandwich Islands in 1849–1850, have settled near them, intermarried with them,and taught them the way of life.”
When the Reverend Samuel C. Damon of Honolulu visited the Sierra mines in 1949 , he found a little mining community on the American River, 20 miles above Sacramento. He was delighted to find Christian Hawaiians there who gathered about him in a way he vowed he’d never forget, pressing bags of gold dust on him for relatives and friends in the “Sandwich Islands.”
When a trader came to the camp, laden with liquor to tempt the hardworking Kanakas and to relieve them of their gold, Damon became very indignant and wrote: “Yes, the rum seller was an educated man, and American! It is not often that we tell such a man to his face what we think of his trade, but we did on that occasion. The idea that a man educated in Christian America should descend so low as to peddle rum to Kanakas was one degree of degradation lower than we had imagined a man could go.”
He added, in a bit of doggerol—
“I’d sooner black by visage o’er,
And put de shine on boot and shoe
Than stand within a rum-shop door
And tempt Kanakas to my store”
ONE OF several Hawaiians sent to the American Board of Foreign Missions School in Cornwall, Connecticut, was William Kanui. He and his friend Thomas Hopu had been trained as missionaries there and had returned to the Islands in 1820. When the gold fever hit Honolulu they started for the California mines and were eventually successful. Samuel Damon met Kanui on his 1849 visit when the latter was temporarily keeping a small restaurant at Sutter’s Fort. Hopu also lived in Sacramento.
The Reverend Albert WIlliams, founder of the First Presbyterian Church of San Francisco, and the Reverend Joseph Rowell discovered Kanui in 1861, living in San Francisco. The two ministers rescued him from a down-hill plunge his life was beginning to take after the $6,000 he had made in the mines was wiped out by a bank failure.
Men like Hopu and Kanui were the exception to the rule in living in the large centers of population: most of the Hawaiian emigres preferred the country life. Damon described a happy little settlement he visited, at Irish Creek, El Dorado County, where he found 24 Kanaka men, mostly Hawaiians, with two Hawaiian women, three Digger women, and four half-Indian children.
All of the squaws dressed neatly and were busy sewing, cutting, washing and ironing the family clothes. One of them could read well and was busy with the Hawaiian Bible. An 8-year-old girl could also read the Bible in Hawaiian. The…
That little pit could hold a literal fortune in gold. No wonder the crudely-drawn Chinese miners wildly dispute their respective rights to the claim. California’s Chinese colony got its start during the Gold Rush and the subsequent construction of the Central Pacific (now Southern Pacific) Railroad. Many of the Hawaiians retruned to the Isles. (Drawing by Frank Marryat, 1855, courtesy New York Historical Society, New York City.)
…Digger women took part in all the prayer meetings in the big religious house which was floored and had backless benches for the tiny congregation. At one end was a table for the speaker.
Religious meetings were held early morning and evening every weekday, every Sunday, and a special mid-afternoon meeting on Thursdays. At the time of Damon’s visit, they added an afternoon hymn singing session to their schedule!
THE CHIEF OF the Irish Creek Kanakas was Kenao, perhaps the most important Hawaiian in California. He lived in a neat clapboard house which he had built himself. As the head of the little colony, he had a certain amount of prestige to maintain, and his house was freshly painted inside and out, with two of the rooms papered.
Kenao had put a stop to drunkenness and crime in the community by banishing those who were tempted to drink or steal. The devout little colony, after deliberating, voted to raise $500 to build a new church by the end of the year. They also voted to take up contributions at their concerts for missionary purposes.
T. W. Gulick [L. H. Gulick] of Honolulu stayed in this village at the time of a smallpox epidemic. This dread disease, which was a plague to the Diggers, did not spare their Sandwich Island friends. The wailing of Kenao’s wife made known her grief as first her stepson, and then Kenao himself, died.
The saddened Gulick wrote: “God’s hand is heavy upon us. Four have already died of smallpox ou of this small community within a month.”
THE HAWAIIANS were dealt a blow in 1849 when the State Legislature passed a law requiring all foreigners to pay a license fee of $20 for the right to work in the mines.
When the officer came to collect these fees and grant licenses at Kanaka Dam, on the North Fork of the Yuba River, he came, in reality, to jump the claims of the Kanakas. He swore that it was too late to receive the license money since he had collected a posse. The claims were taken from the Hawaiians and given to the members of the official’s posse, many of whom were foreigners themselves.
Captain Coxe, the head of the colony, told the man that his license ws still good, but he was ignored. Later, the agent tried to cometoan agreement with Coxe but the latter would have none of it since his men had been driven off by this time.
SOME OF THE Hawaiian settlements were fishing villages rather than mining camps. A reporter from the Sacra-…
Richard H. Dillon, author of this article, has done considerable research on the role Hawaiians played in California’s Gold Rush. He is Sutro Branch Librarian of the California State Library in San Francisco.
Illustrations made 100 years ago unfortunately fail to depict the Islanders, who then were known as”Kanakas” to fellow miners.
Dillon’s research indicates that the Hawaiians “would probably wear exactly the same clothes as the mining garb of the Anglo-Saxons depicted in the illustrations. They might be barefoot, perhaps bare-chested and with long straight hair, but half of the white miners looked exactly like this anyway!”
We wonder if any descendants of those Hawaiians who emigrated to California and presumably came back two decades later have any information on which families participated in the Gold Rush. If so, please write to Hawaiian Life Magazine in care of The Star-Bulletin.
(Star-Bulletin, 9/18/1954, “Hawaiian Life,” p. 4)
Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Volume LIX, Number 19349, Hawaiian Life, p. 4. September 18, 1954.
…mento Transcript visited one such camp at about the same time taht the posse was dispossessing the miners of their claims at Kanaka Dam.
On the banks of the American River, only a mile or two from the city of Sacramento, he found a dozen rude huts and some tents, with short fences of willows made into wicker-work. There was a larger central building for meeting and religious services.
Grouped around the fire before the large structure were a group of Sandwich Islanders speaking in animated conversation which he could not understand, not knowing any Hawaiian.
He noticed a tea pot, containing a pint or so of water, hanging over the fire. While one of the natives raised steam in it for tea, another busied himself placing fresh fish in a frying pan.
The reporter claimed the fish “seemed for all the world to be alive and flourishing” as they were popped into the pan, and ended his brief report by saying “we were indebted, doubtless, in a great measure to these folks for the fresh fish which abound in our market, as we observed a large seine hard by, with which they capture the finny tribe.”
A CONGREGATIONAL missionary from Hawaii; the Reverend J. F. Pogue, was touring California in 1868 when he heard of a school for Digger Indians near Colfax. Inquiring further, he found that John Makani was the teacher. Makani was an Indian who had been educated in the Sandwich Islands and sent back to California by the Hawaiian Missionary Board to teach Christianity to his countrymen.
An Indian boy guided Pogue to Makani’s house where he found him in the yard, cultivating his squashes. Outside the yard were a number of Indian women preparing supper from acorns. Makani informe him that he had several schools at different locations and that he held prayer meetings with the Indians, though they were pakiki loa (very difficult). He had hopes of making some of them into good Christians, however.
The earnest teacher told Pogue of a settlement of his countrymen at Fremont, on the Sacramento River at the mouth of the Feather River. Pogue arranged with Makani to meet him in Sacramento later. They met at the appointed time and boarded an upriver steamer. When they arrived, the discovered that the Hawaiians had shifted their village across to the east side of…
In addition to Hawaiians, many Chinese brought to California’s famed Mother Lode country in the boom days of the Gold Rush. Here typical miners and gold town characters barter over a horse at Sonora, not far from Yosemite Valley. Drawing was made in 1855. (Reproduced courtesy of the New York Historical Society, New York City.)
…the Sacramento River at Vernon.
At Vernon, Pogue found only eight Hawaiian men, one women and three children, plus an Indian squaw who was the wife of one of the men. They were relatively well-off, however, from the sale of their fish in Sacramento and Kapuu, the head-man gave him $25 as a contribution toward his travel expenses. The fishermen were overjoyed to see him and gave him a good supper topped off with excellent blackberries.
Staying from Thursday evening through Sunday, Pogue was able to go out with them to see their method of catching fish. He had “a nicer sail in a skiff” while they were catching 125 pike and some sturgeon. He spent much of his time answering their many questions about the Islands.
ON THE SABBATH, Pogue led a Bible class at Kapua’s home, and at 11 o’clock preached in the school house. The colonists were very pleased with his ministrations even though they confessed they had grown palaka (neglectful of their obligations) and were not holding meetings themselves. Pogue was distressed to find them”living just like the haoles, without God and without hope.” One of the men wished to marry the Digger woman and asked Pogue to perform the ceremony but the prospective bridegroom had no marriage license. The minister sent off to the Clerk of the Court for a license and the native promised to marry the Indian woman as soon as it should arrive.
The Vernon Kanaka told Pogue of a larger settlement at La Grange in the Mother Lode. After a long roundabout journey he reached this spot only to find that all the men were gone, digging gold. The women of the town gave him…
This is Kanaka Creek, in California’s Gold Rush country of just a century ago, where a number of Hawaiians sought their fortune, lured by the hope of great riches from the gold mines. (Ancient plate by William Mcllvaine Jr. (1850) is courtesy of the New York Historical Society, New York City.)
…something to eat and he waited under a tree for the return of the miners in the cool of the evening.
Before nightfall, 21 of the 40 or so kanakas in the area had gathered with the missionary. The others were scattered far and wide on gold claims during the Summer and only came to the La Grange colony during the Winter layoff.
These people at La Grange were not so well off as those of Vernon. They were not getting very large returns from their gold placers and when Pogue accompanied them to see their manner of working the gold-bearing sands, they had but few grains to show at the end of the day for all their effort.
Some of the American miners of the area thought that the Hawaiians had money hidden but the Kanakas told Pogue they were poor. However, when he asked them if they did not want to go home to Hawaii, where they would be better off than in the Sierra foothills, they indicated that they did not want to return, though they claimed it was because they had no money for the passage.
The missionary found only one “professor” of religion among them and was disappointed that they did not hold regular meetings. They preferred to live like the Whites, though not drinking to excess as the ’49ers so often did.
THE WHITES spoke well of them, saying they were quiet and inoffensive people whose only fault seemed to be a reluctance to pay their debts on time. Pogue could not conceal his sadness at finding how this colony had wandered away from Christian living: “Gold is their god, as it is the god of many a White man.”
Not all of the Hawaiian colonies had lost their way, however, and the newspaper The Friend quoted the testimony of a reporter from an Eastern newspaper who praised the Kanakas as evangelists and summed it up by saying:
“It tells well for them, but ill for us, that the first (and he might well have said the last, as well) effort for the salvation of our heathen has been made by these foregoing converted heathen.”
During the last decades of the 19th Century, the Hawaiians had become assimilated in the population and the colonies had dispersed. Today, no trace of their interesting stay meets the eye except the interesting place-names still to be found on the maps of rural California.
(Star-Bulletin, “Hawaiian Life,” 9/18/1954, p. 5)
Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Volume LIX, Number 19349, Hawaiian Life, p. 5. September 18, 1954.