After a brief stay in the Islands, in 1839, John Augustus Sutter, a Swiss seeking his fortune in America, brought a small group of native Hawaiians with him to California.
They worked for him and eventually intermarried with local native American families. They settled in the area of Vernon, which is now called Verona, where the Feather River flows into the Sacramento River in South Sutter County. (co-sutter-ca-us)
In order to qualify for a land grant, Sutter became a Mexican citizen in 1840; the following year, he received title to about 49,000-acres and named his settlement New Helvetia, or “New Switzerland.” He called his compound Sutter’s Fort.
In his memoirs, Sutter recalled the Hawaiians, using a name then-common to describe Hawaiian workers, “I could not have settled the country without the aid of these Kanakas.” They built the first settlers’ homes in Sacramento – hale pili (grass shacks) made with California willow and bamboo.
At the time of Sutter’s arrival in California, the territory had a population of only 1,000 Europeans, in contrast with 30,000 Native Americans. At the time, it was part of Mexico and the governor, Juan Bautista Alvarado, granted him permission to settle.
John Sutter ordered a sawmill to be built. On the morning of January 24, 1848, James Marshall made his customary inspection of the sawmill he was building for Sutter.
During the previous night, Marshall had diverted water through the mill’s tailrace to wash away loose dirt and gravel, and on that fateful day, he noticed some shining flecks of metal left behind by the running water.
He picked them up and showed them to his crew; a young Virginian named Henry William Bigler recorded in his diary: “This day some kind of mettle was found in the tail race that looks like gold first discovered by James Martial, the boss of the Mill.” (csun)
Word of Marshall’s discovery leaked out and immediately set off a “rush to the mines.” By the spring of 1849, the largest gold rush in American history was under way. At the time of Marshall’s discovery, the state’s non-Indian population numbered about 14,000. By the end of 1849, it had risen to nearly 100,000, and it continued to swell to some 250,000 by 1852.
Gold was both plentiful and – by happy geologic accident- easy to extract, making the gold-bearing gravels of California’s rivers into what has been described as “the finest opportunity that, has ever been offered on any mining frontier.”
A contemporary newspaper put it slightly differently: “The whole country, from San Francisco to Los Angeles, and from the sea shore to the base of the Sierra Nevadas, resounds with the cry of ‘gold, GOLD, GOLD!’ while the field is left half planted, the house half built, and everything neglected but the manufacture of shovels and pickaxes.” (California Parks)
“Forty-Niner” has become the collective label for those who participated in the famous California Gold Rush. Quite a few people arrived in 1848, and many came after 1849; however, it was the year 1849 which witnessed the large wave of gold-seekers. (Hinckley)
Place names like Kanaka Creek in Sierra County and Kanaka Bar in Trinity County tell us of the growing presence of Hawaiians in gold country. “Hawaiians also migrated to Yolo County, California to participate in the Gold Rush and created their own Kanaka Village.”
In the Islands …
The California Gold Rush drawing Hawaiians to the continent was not its only effect on the Islands; the Hawaiian economy was affected in several ways – good and not-so-good.
Prior to the Gold Rush, supporting the Pacific whaling and trading fleets and trade between the West Coast and Hawaiʻi was the scale of the Hawaiʻi participation. The scale of that significantly changed with the Gold Rush.
Hawaiʻi was only three to five weeks away, and with the growing population drawn to the gold fields, in addition to provisioning ships, Hawaiʻi farmers were feeding the gold seekers on the continent.
There were some down sides; this also brought a marked increase in the prices of consumer goods, especially food, caused by the great increase in agricultural exports to California, which offered very profitable new markets. (Rawls)
Likewise, the exodus to the continent created a critical labor shortage in Hawaiʻi, where a sizeable number of sugar plantation workers migrated to the California gold fields.
The parting of workers from the plantations between 1848 and 1853 was so large, Hawaiʻi sugar producers began to seek Chinese immigrants to fill the gap. (Rawls)
Great Māhele – 1848
At the time of Captain Cook’s contact with the Hawaiian Islands the land was divided into several independent Kingdoms. By right of conquest, each King was owner of all the lands within his jurisdiction.
After selecting lands for himself, the King allotted the remaining to the warrior Chiefs who rendered assistance in his conquest. These warrior Chiefs, after retaining a portion for themselves, reallotted the remaining lands to their followers and supporters.
The distribution of lands was all on a revocable basis. What the superior gave, he was able to take away at his pleasure. This ancient tenure was in nature feudal, although the tenants were not serfs tied to the soil – they were allowed to move freely from the land of one Chief to that of another.
Under King Kamehameha III, the most important event in the reformation of the land system in Hawaii was the separation of the rights of the King, the Chiefs and the Konohiki (land agents.)
The King retained all of his private lands as his individual property; one third of the remaining land was to be for the Hawaiian Government; one third for the Chiefs and Konohiki; and one third to be set aside for the tenants, the actual possessors and cultivators of the soil.
More than 240 of the highest ranking Chiefs and Konohiki in the Kingdom joined Kamehameha III in this task. The first māhele, or division, of lands was signed on January 27, 1848; the last māhele was signed on March 7, 1848.
Each māhele was in effect a quitclaim agreement between the King and a Chief or Konohiki with reference to the lands in which they both claimed interests.
The lands identified and separated in 1848 as Crown lands, Government lands and Konohiki lands were all “subject to the rights of native tenants” on their respective kuleana. The Land Commission was authorized to award fee simple titles to native tenants who occupied and improved the land (and proved they actually cultivated those lands for a living.)
The awarding of these completed the māhele of the lands into the Crown lands, Government lands, Konohiki lands and Kuleana lands and brought to an end the ancient system of land tenure in the Hawaiian Kingdom.
Epidemics of 1848 – 1849
The earliest published reference to the epidemics occurred in The Polynesian, the government newspaper, on October 14, 1848: “SICKNESS.—Much sickness prevails here at the present time.”
“The measles and whooping cough have at length made their appearance here. The whooping cough made its appearance a few weeks since, and during the last week several cases of the measles have occurred in town.”
“By an arrival from Hilo, we learn that the measles prevail extensively among the native population of Hilo. Both the measles and whooping cough are comparatively light, and no fears need be entertained if proper care be taken. Among the native population some cases have proved fatal, owing to exposure and improper treatment.”
“The mumps prevailed here some years since, and we understand several cases have lately occurred. Pleurisy and bilious fever prevail to some extent among the native population. Several cases of influenza similar to that which occurred here in 1845 have lately occurred.”
On March 1, 1849, toward the end of the epidemics (which, incidentally, no one has precisely dated), The Friend ran a brief article titled “Decrease of Polynesian Races.”
This article stated, “By the epidemics (whooping cough, measles, and influenza), which have raged among the Hawaiians, during the last 12 months, it is estimated that not less than 10,000 have been swept away or about one-tenth of the population.”