An Irish ancestor in California may have spent time in Australia first. This migration began in January 1849 after gold was discovered in California. They came from New South Wales, Tasmania and Victoria colonies. Aside from the miners, the gold rush opened up commerce by sea from Sydney to San Francisco, which was quicker than getting supplies from the eastern United States to San Francisco.
The Type of Australians Bound for California
From Tasmania, came many ex-convict Irish who had already served their terms or who had escaped. For escaped convicts, they would take small boats and when a larger ship was cleared to leave, they would then row out and board the leaving vessel. The Tasmanian penal colony in particular was brutal, which made any form of escape preferable.
Australians leaving for California upset the balance of power as people who could have stayed and helped build the colonies left. The lure of gold and commerce brought competition among the shipping firms to quickly gather passengers and cargo. Both common people and well established families headed off to California. It is estimated that between 1849 and 1851 alone some 6,000 left for San Francisco. From that number 900 were from the Hunter River area between Newcastle and Maitland, New South Wales, north of Sydney.
What the Australians Found in California
What these immigrants found upon arriving was much different than what they left behind. They learned about frontier justice and lynching; encountered Mormons for the first time; discovered Spanish speaking Mexicans and Chileans. They witnessed the plight of African Americans. They also met Americans arriving from the East. Some Australians had encountered American whalers before, but that was their exposure. On this frontier, they saw women auctioned off because they couldn’t pay their passage into San Francisco and indentured Chinese sold on the auction block as servants. They also drew parallels between the American Indians and the Aborigines back home.
When the Australian Gold Rush opened up in 1851, some Australians returned from California. However, many also chose to remain in California.
Evaluating the Australia to California Migration
When evaluating a migration such as this, it’s important to remember that Australia was a huge piece of real estate with a rather small population. The government kept records of both the convict population and free settlers. The chances of finding an Irish birth place, including the townland, preserved in an Australian records is far better than in a California record.
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