Four Sparrows, Chapter 1, Scene 3

The phenotype of California was changing fast. Small businesses rallied against the foreign miner’s tax because many Californios couldn’t afford $20 per month and relocated to Mexico. Fewer miners meant less demand for products in the various commercial corridors. A subsequent rash of murders continued to poison the mood. The foreign tax was modified in August 1850 to $20 for four months of mining rights. The tax remained so Americans would have access to American resources. Yet in practice it could included the foreign whites in this plan of prosperity. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy as whites gained the upper hand economically and others struggled.

The tranquil times of California had ended. The first recorded hanging had occurred in January of 1849 in Hangtown, formerly known as Dry Diggings. Two Frenchmen and a Chilean were accused of robbing and trying to kill a Mexican. None of them knew English so all three of them were hung. Neither Kan nor Jungdo knew of these facts, but news of their own success began to spread beyond the Mokelumne River and into the town’s gambling halls.

To any decent American, it was questionable why any outsider would come to their country and take their resources. That was the type of thing Europeans did to oppress the Thirteen Colonies. Yankees wouldn’t tolerate that type of oppression and thievery from anyone, not from Europeans, Mexicans, Chinese, even Pacific Islanders; hence the tax.

Ed Smith and Abe Harley, two of these Americans, wanted to oust all foreigners. They traveled the camps to sway others to their cause. They joined forces with one Jeb Belial. As an ex-soldier, Jeb had some legitimacy. He had completed the one-year of service required of a volunteer. Ed and Abe seemed to have lots of information about who was what, and what was wrong from camp to camp. This made the job easier. Gold deposits were on the decline while the population continued to grow.

They entered a saloon, sprinkling their speech with slurs. These three men were racist, always had been. They defined their race very narrowly; skin color was only part of it. If they had faith they weren’t true to it.

“We heard of a few who didn’t pay their miner’s tax.”

“Well is it a tax per claim or per person now?”

“If it’s one man per claim then it’s per man, if that’s what you would call them.” They twisted the truth for their own agenda.

Others complained, encouraged by drink, “They drag their feet, trying to be coy.”

“So?”

“Well, they wear their slave clothes and pigtails –“

“Indebted to their coolie masters!”

“They work seven days a week!”

“That’s not allowed!”

“We can’t let these celestials take what should be ours!” Ed shouted.

Then Abe added his two bits, “California’s for free labor, for the American!” They stumbled out of the Hotel de France into the dark street.

“For Yankees not the Frank or the Chink!” A swarm of them gathered on the street. They headed up past Chili Junction to China Camp.

As men gathered by the saloons, Jungdo and Kan rested from a long day, too far to hear the rumble in town. They gazed into their campfire. Things were going their way and Jungdo wondered if serendipity was the currency in California. For example, they had just bought a mule from a Yosemite Indian for two hats, which they happened to find in the chaparral. The Yosemite had bought the mule from the Comanche for a beaded necklace. The Comanche stole the mule from a Mexican rancher further south. The rancher got it from the Catholic Church to help him carry supplies.

Jungdo glanced over and saw sparrows flitting about, stealing crumbs from their dinner. He didn’t mind; they had eaten bread that night instead of rice and he wasn’t going to have any more of it. Kan didn’t mind the sparrows either, but some of the miners thought sparrows were a nuisance.

“I’m glad we’re finding gold in this barbarian land after these followers of the dead god invaded our land, forcing their ways on us.” He said this despite the fact that the American presence in China was minimal compared to European nations. Jungdo didn’t quite know the difference.

“We’re still gambling by their rules.”

“Yes, and yet it becomes obvious whose culture is supreme.” Jungdo stared into the fire. He heard the sparrows fly away. It warned him, he turned.

Henry Chan, a miner in their camp who had converted to Christianity, heard the swarm of men first. He ran to alert his fellow miners.

“Ai-yah! Get up. Get up!” Henry shouted. The swarm was advancing, at least a dozen whites and a couple of Californios, most with tools or a knife, yelling epithets. A quick surge of adrenaline made time slow down. It was clear what was about to happen. He glanced at Kan. At least he will learn the truth of this barbarian culture, he thought, unlike Henry. Then time sped up. They jumped to their feet.

One of the ghosts ignited a torch from the campfire and lit their rickety tent. Another kicked the fire, spreading flames. They surrounded the camp.

“Get’em!”

“Please stop. God asks you,” Henry pleaded. A white man pushed him down and ran over him. “Gau meng ah!” he yelled for help.

“Get over here coolie Chinks!” Ed hit Jungdo with a stick and he stumbled to the ground. Jungdo crashed onto some supplies. He swung around and slapped Ed with a broken piece of pottery, leaving a deep cut in his face. Kan was nearby. They took flight. Abe grabbed one of the Chinese by his braid and cut his throat. Abe was soaked in the blood of his victim. Jungdo thought to turn around, but instincts took over. They flew off into the darkness.

The mob didn’t pursue them. He sensed death as he ran, the spirits wafting out of beaten bodies, trapped in the barbarian country. His soul can’t be trapped on this side of the ocean. That was the fear that drove him. As he fled, he saw someone taking off with their mule.

Henry, Jungdo and Kan found each other as they hid in the dirt. Watching the flames consume their tents, they waited in silence until the men were gone. Jungdo could taste the earth as he lay there. He had to savor the dirt to avoid coughing; he didn’t want them to find him again. He let his drool moisten the dirt in his mouth and then spit it out quietly. They kept their heads down.

They woke the next morning and found two other Chinese miners from their camp. They viewed the remains, but there was nothing left to salvage. Fellow miners had been killed and burned in the fire. They buried what pieces remained.

They knew it would be futile, even detrimental, to avenge themselves against a miscellaneous mob of outsiders. Justice would be painful. They took a back road out of Mokelumne Hill.

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About Daniel Roddick

Daniel has a B.A. in American History with minors in both Ethnic Studies and Sociology. He also has an M.Ed. in College Administration and Counseling. Daniel has worked in the financial aid industry for over a decade. He has presented all over the country on financial aid issues related to equity, inclusion, and access to education. He is also a writer of poetry, fiction, and this blog, all of which touch on identity.
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