Sunday, December 28, 2008

The '49rs Didn't Need Gun Control

Among my favorite westerns are the ones about the gold miners in California, the '49ers. There was no law in California in 1848-50 and the small number of US army there found a large percentage deserting to pan for gold. The strike came at a propitious time. The Irish potato famine, the Taiping Rebellion and the European Revolutions in Sicily, France and the rest of Europe all occurred then. Moreover, the Mexican War had just ended and more than a few rowdy young veteran types headed for California. "from a population of about 107,000 near the end of 1849, California grew to more than 260,000 within three years."

There are a number of interesting issues about the emergence of property rights in this lawless bonanza land of ambition, greed and dreams. The absence of property rights and law would seem to have been likely to have encouraged conflict, as would the nature of the miners. Moreover, the number of men was far greater than the number of women, likely adding to the potential for explosive violence.

In their History of the American Economy Gary M. Walton and Hugh Rockoff quote John Umbeck's California Gold Rush: A Study of Emerging Property Rights :

"During 1848,...nearly 10,000 people rushed to mine gold on property to which no one had exclusive rights. Furthermore, although every miner carried a gun, little violence was reported. In July, when Governor Mason visited the mines, he reported that the miners were respecting Sutter's property rights and that 'crime of any kind was very infrequent, and that no thefts or robberies had been committed in the gold district...and it was a matter of surprise, that so peaceful and quiet a state of things should continue to exist."

I guess they didn't need gun control!

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