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  • Vicente Pérez Rosales (1807–1886)
  • California
  • 34

Vicente Pérez Rosales (1807–1886) tries mining in California but ultimately returns to Chile, where he is elected to high office.

When Vicente Pérez Rosales learned of the discovery of gold in California, he knew he wanted to try his luck there. Pérez Rosales was born 1807 in Santiago, Chile, and raised in a prosperous family with vast landholdings and many servants. He even studied in Paris as a young man. By 1830, however, the Pérez Rosales family had lost its land and its social standing. Young Vicente, accustomed to a life of privilege, was now compelled to make his own way in the world.

Reports indicate that Pérez Rosales resorted to a variety of activities to support himself, from small-scale gold mining to smuggling cattle. But learning of gold in California, he quickly organized a small group that included his brothers and a few servants. Pérez Rosales and his party were among the 3,000 or more Chileans who received passports to travel to California in late 1848 and early 1849.

After a near-shipwreck, Pérez Rosales and his party arrived safely in San Francisco in mid-February 1849. The group immediately sought passage to Sutter’s Fort and then to Coloma, where they began mining for gold. Partly because he had experience in mining and partly because he had indentured servants working for him, Pérez Rosales was able to gather as much as 20 ounces of gold a day.

In April 1849 Pérez Rosales departed to San Francisco for mail and supplies, leaving his compatriots at the diggings. While in San Francisco, a group of white miners attacked his party and other foreigners and stole their money. In his memoir, published 30 years later, he mused on the origins of the conflict between Chileans and “Yankees”:

“The ill will of the Yankee rabble against the sons of other nations, and especially Chileans, was rising by that time [ca. 1850]. They offered a simple and conclusive argument: Chileans were descended from Spaniards; Spaniards were of Moorish ancestry; therefore a Chilean was at the best something like a Hottentot, or, to put it more gently, something like the humbled bug dangerous Californio. They could not stomach the fearlessness of the Chilean, who might be submissive in his own country but did not behave that way abroad. A Chilean would face up to a loaded pistol at his chest if he had his hand on the haft of his knife.

For his part, the Chilean detested the Yankee and constantly referred to him as a coward. This mutual bad feeling explains the bloody hostilities and atrocities we witnessed every day in this land of gold and hope.”

Also during his visit to the city, he realized that those making a real fortune were not the miners, but the businessmen who provided goods and services to the miners.

He returned to the diggings only to discover that members of his party had lost their gold and other property to thieves. In response to this, the Chileans regrouped, returned to San Francisco and resolved to establish a business. Within weeks, the group opened the Citizens’ Restaurant, featuring a French chef.

Struggling to make a success of his new endeavor, Pérez Rosales was forced to abandon the hierarchy of his party and work alongside his servants. He wrote, “We were, at one and the same time, the masters and the servants of the restaurant.” The venture did not last long, however, for the restaurant was destroyed in one of the many fires that ripped through the city of San Francisco during 1849 and 1850.

Pérez Rosales then returned to Chile, where he found success as a writer and political leader. After his death, one of his country’s greatest national parks was named in his honor.