Those who are proponents of the state all seem to believe that without the state, it would be ‘anarchy’, with the meaning they use being ‘chaos’. While, by definition, it WOULD be anarchy without the state, history tells us that it would not be chaos. In fact, the historical examples we have of anarchy in practice show that most anarchic societies were extremely peaceful. More peaceful, in many cases, than our own society today.

Case in point is the very beginnings of California, in between the time when it was taken over by the United States from Mexico, but before it became a state. During this unique time period in California history, settlers quite literally poured into the state to make their wealth in the rivers of California around the Sacramento area.

The Beginnings of California

California was occupied by the Americans in 1846, having kicked out the Mexican government, but war continued with Mexico until a peace treaty was signed on February 2, 1848. While California did not become a state until September 1850,  gold was found at Sutter’s Fort in the Sacramento area of California on January 24, 1848 and the Gold Rush was in full force in 1849 with the Mexican government having left, but the American government not yet having stepped in.

While there was ‘some’ amount of government presence in California in the form of a military governor, California is a large territory, and San Francisco had barely landed on the map at that time. It was the far ends of the Earth, even when it was part of Mexico. While San Francisco was a far-flung wilderness outpost, the Sacramento area was considered incredibly remote, and was left completely ungoverned, unpoliced, and literally lawless; leaving the people to live in… dare we say it… almost complete anarchy!

And what anarchy it was! Really, it couldn’t be any better of a test of anarchy then rough men from all ends of the earth coming to a place they have no care in the world for except to extract its riches from the ground before heading back home to their families. I can just sense the statists having a conniption fit just thinking about the masses of temporary sqatters, many of them probably criminals, no register of any of them, all possessing various quantities of gold, all owning several forms of weapons, and many imbibing large quantities of alcohol, and no churches for hundreds of miles- with no government to watch over them and keep the peace.

Was it chaos, as statists would expect? Surprisingly, or not so surprisingly to anarchists, it was incredibly peaceful according to first-hand eye-witness reports writing in their diaries or writing letters to home. The book ‘The World Rushed In: The California Gold Rush Experience’ was written because a diary and letters from a New York resident, William Swain, were presented to the author by a book dealer who purchased them from Swain’s elderly daughter in 1938, having promised her he’d turn the works into a book.  The diary and letters chronicled, in great detail, Swain’s overland journey to California and subsequent work in the rivers (most often called ‘mines’) during the Gold Rush. Incidentally, along the way, Swain and his adventuring partners used a Joint Stock Company to Mitigate Risk, a free-market solution used liberally on overland travels to the Gold Rush and, upon their arrival to California, to protect partners sharing a mining claim in the gold fields.

It’s first-hand accounts by a well-written and literate man, along with some of the writings from his collegues and friends, as well as snippets from other diaries and letters of the time, gives us a unique view of a short anarchic period in American history. What did Swain, a churchgoing family man from New York looking to improve his family’s station in life, have to say about this incredible situation of no law?

Enter The Miners’ Code

When Swain arrived in California to work the mines, he wrote back to his wife stating,

“We found the most extraordinary state of morals in the mines. Everything in this country is left where the owner wished to leave it, in any place no matter where, as such a thing as stealing is not known. The security we enjoy here would astonish dwellers in what are called well-organized societies where bolts and bars secure every door and safe, vigilant watchmen are about. We leave our tents containing our gold and chattels with none to guard them, to be absent all day, without a thought.”

“Miners’ rights are well-protected. Disputes seldom arise and are settled by referees, as they would be at home… All difficulties arising about claims made previously are to be setttled by arbitration.”

He later goes on to tell his wife,

“I think there is less of what is ordinarily called stealing here than any place I was ever in; and yet there can be little difficult in stealing to almost any extent. A vast amount of property, easily movable, is daily and nightly exposed without a watch, or even a lock.”

James Pratt, a lawyer who came overland from the East Coast in Swain’s company, had intended on making his fortune finding gold, but ended up putting out his shingle as a lawyer in San Francisco instead. Writing back to his family, he stated,

“There is a world of legal business doing and to be done here. This is one of the most splendid cities for the legal profession in the world. Rights of property are respected, for the interests of all effects this. But for tender sympathies, you must look in other lands…”.

What made it so safe that property rights were respected and gold could be left unguarded in tents next to a riverbed where dozens of others were working?

The Miners’ Code.Anarchy in the California gold rush

The Miners’ Code was a set of rules created by the miners during the Gold Rush that, as Swain put it “is looked to and spoken of along the river with as much deference and respect as if it was the law of the land.” He even went on stating his admiration for the Miner’s Code in that it was better than any laws could be,  “Indeed, as things are now situated in the mines (the rivers), any action of Congress or of our own legislature is wholly unnecessary; and if either undertakes to erect a Miners’ Code without any practical experience, then look for difficulties, which will not occur so long as the miners are left to themselves.”

This safety occurred while, in Swain’s words, “Very little attention is paid to morals”. By lack of morals, he meant that gambling, whoring, drinking, fighting and other unsavory activities were occurring regularly, and churchgoing was non-existent. The miners inherently understood the difference between ‘poor morals’ that did not harm others, and poor morals that harmed other people. They regularly practiced the former, but the latter was sacrosanct and the line was virtually never crossed.

Crime Was Due to the State

Yes, there was crime, but interestingly, most of the crime that did exist was a result of the state. Many Mexicans, Peruvians, Chileans, and other ‘foreigners’ came to the goldfields for riches too. But the American miners felt that these foreigners had no rights to work ‘their’ rivers, and so much of the crime was directed at people who crossed an invisible border by people who felt entitled to the land within that invisible line. And the government was there to support their efforts of marginalizing foreigners.

As one of the first acts of the California legislature, in response to so much strife against these foreigners coming into California, the new state government sought to extract money from the newcomers by forcing them to get a permit to work the rivers for gold and passed the Foreign Miners Tax, charging foreigners a princely sum of $20 a month, the equivalent of about $600 in today’s dollars.  Stabbings, shootings, and robberies became common in the areas where many foreigners were mining. But it was not the simple presense of the foreigners causing the strife, it was the laws that were to blame, according to those present. In newspapers, letters, and diaries of the time, it was argued that the crime would almost certainly have ended had the tax been abolished or reduced to a more reasonable $5, which eventually occurred.

From the 1850’s on, once the government stepped in to ‘police’ the areas, crime became rampant. As the newspaper, the Alta California wrote in September of 1850, with state authority replacing the local justice of the miners, criminals “… find some means of justifying their conduct or escaping conviction”. But this criminal element occurred only AFTER the state began creating and enforcing laws. In absense of the state, the Miners’ Code was law, and lasted 18 years from 1848-1866, with subsequent laws based entirely on the pre-existing Miners’ Code. In fact, over $1 billion in gold was taken from the rivers of California without a single law to protect property rights or to ensure the sale or transfer of land or mineral rights.  The anarchic Miners’ Code provided unusual peace in some of the most questionable and dangerous circumstances a statist could dream up.

Kerri Knox is a registered nurse, hobby Austrian economist, world traveler and vociferous proponent of freedom who, when not writing about health on her websites, Easy Immune Health,  Side Effects Site, and Anemia Central , and managing the community advocacy site, she is advocating for individual rights, liberty, and common sense.