Montana Historical Society

Big Sky ~ Big History

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Disorder, Crime, and Punishment in the California Gold Rush

By Martin Ridge

Download and read the article in PDF format.


Mexican-American War

Law and lawlessness on the frontier


1)    What changes in California territorial laws did Colonel Richard Mason make?

2)    What was the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo?   How did it directly impact California?

3)    Explain what the author meant when he wrote, "federal policy regarding mining became one of acquiescence."

4)    What types of people were immigrating to California to mine for gold?

5)    Explain the author's simile of the miner and the fisherman.

6)    What was shocking about the miner's behavior to foreign and eastern observers? What did the analysis of their behavior show?

7)    Why was the U.S. Army concerned with pacifying California?

8)    What was the significance of order prevailing in the lines at the post offices in mining towns?

9)    If dueling was illegal in the mid-1800s, why did the Justice of the Peace view a resulting homicide as self-defense?

10)    What types of social diversions did the miners have from their isolation and hard work?

11)    Why weren't mining camps considered stable societies?

12)    Why does the author believe that alcohol "contributed largely to disorder and violence"?

13)    How were crimes against persons settled?   How was payback vengeance perceived?

14)    How were the African American miners treated by the European American miners?

15)    How did American xenophobia apply to the Chinese in mining camps?

16)    What was the "lynch law"?

17)    Why were mining camp trials and punishments carried out so quickly?


-    The author quoted a historian as saying that "every man went armed."   The second amendment the United States' Constitution guarantees all Americans the "right keep and bear arms."   Divide the class in two groups: one pro-second amendment and the other against-second amendment rights.   See appendix material.   Have each group research landmark cases that support their side, write new versions of the amendment, and then debate them (ala U.S. Senate).   Have them vote on the proposed amendments.

-    Write a thought paper about the following quote.   "There was no law except the natural law of self preservation."





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