In 1848 at the start of the gold rush there were but a handful of African Americans in California. Within two years there were over 1,000 and at the end of four years there were more than 2.000. The first black miners were sailors from Eastern whaling ships who jumped ship to go off and seek their fortune. This was a common problem for all ships who came to San Francisco. So many ships were abandoned they had to haul them out of the bay to make room for the incoming ships. These ships pulled onto land were used as housing, storage and jails.
Reports of their success began to appear in Eastern antislavery journals. Frederick Douglas the famous black abolitionist published accounts of successful black miner's in his paper the North Star. This encouraged many to go to California. Most going to the California gold rush were free men but some were brought as slaves to work for their masters. Many earned their freedom and paid for the freedom of their families.
Stephen Hill a slave from Arkansas came to California with his owner Wood Tucker. Tucker found gold and returned to Arkansas. Hill bought his freedom and stayed in California. He built himself a house, farmed and worked several mining claims. Then one day a man sent by Wood Tucker showed up and ordered Hill to return to his "owner." Even though Hill had papers to show he had bought his freedom, he was arrested. Stephen Hill's white friends were outraged. They secretly sold all his his possessions and helped him escape. He took his money from his friends and headed escaped heading north.
Howard Barnes, a slave of the Boggs family from Missouri, is said to have sold pies at $1.00 each to pay for his freedom on the installment plan.
One of the "laws" in prospecting was that the gold belonged to the man who discovered it. The miners felt that having your slaves find gold for you violated this "law," and often forced slave owners out of the area.
Many Black miners worked along side Chinese, Latin American and European miners, or miners who had come from New England. One of these settlements was Downieville California. William Downie was a Scotsman that had been alternating between mining and store keeping. Albert Callis, Charley Wilkins and several other black miners stopped by his store for a drink and decided to form a partnership. These men along with an Irishman, Indian and a Hawaiian set off for the upper reaches of the Yuba River and found a beautiful spot where they struck gold. This is where the town of Downieville stands today. Callis became a permanent resident of Downieville. He became a barber, married and raised his family there.
Many African Americans and others who were successful during the gold rush were not miners. Someone had to provide supplies and services to the miners, such as tools, haircuts, food items, cooks, rooms, baths, laundry service, and entertainment. African American cooks were know for their skill and talent and much in demand. Supplies and services needed were often sold at very high prices an egg could go as high as a $1.00, bread $1.00 per slice, a blanket $100.00, a butcher knife $30.00, a tin pan for gold washing went as high as $30.00.
In San Francisco a man named James P. Dyer founded a soap factory. Other black businessmen who did well in San Francisco were Henry Cornish who operated a furniture and clothing store on Battery Street and George Washington Dennis had a successful livery business (horse stables). There were great numbers of people pouring into California.
African Ancestry in California - scroll half way down the page and read the section on Black Mining Camps