As much as some people would like to rewrite California’s history, she was part of Mexico for over 25 years. That’s something to think about this Cinco de Mayo, the 5th of May.
When Europeans first started arriving in California in the 1600s, it was part of the vast Spanish empire. That changed in 1821, when Mexico won its independence from Spain. It changed again in 1848, just months before gold was found near Sutter’s Mill, with cessation of hostilities between Mexico and the United States.
After word got out about all those gold nuggets just waiting to be plucked out of streambeds, people – calling themselves argonauts – came from all over the world to try to sift or dig their fortunes out of California.
Two years later, on Sept. 9, 1850, California became the 31st of these United States.
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Though the Gold Rush is said to have ended by 1855, there was still an enormous amount of mining activity taking place in the Mother Lode through the 1860s and into the 20th century.
The town of Sonora was established by miners who came from Mexico, specifically the state of Sonora, in the 1850s. Columbia was its next door neighbor, and there were many Mexican miners living there, too.
There was a tradition of gold mining in Mexico dating back centuries even then, and these Mexican miners were used to the hardships of mining. They were hardened, tough men. And they were often resented by many of the newly arrived Europeans and Americans – some of whom had fought in the Mexican American War just two years prior. They didn’t like having a vanquished enemy competing with them for the gold.
Starting in 1861, Mexico had been occupied by French forces sent to collect payment on debts owned to European banking interests. During this war against the occupiers, a small Mexican army defeated a larger and more experienced French force at the Battle of Puebla on May 5th, 1862.
This defeat of the French was greeted with much passion and joy in the mining camps – especially Columbia and Sonora.
That’s how the first Cinco de Mayo came to be commemorated in Columbia in May, 1862. But it didn’t happen on the 5th of May.
News traveled slowly back then, at about the speed of a horse. The Mexican miners did not hear of the Battle of Puebla until around May 27, when the news reached Columbia by way of San Francisco newspapers (which were carted across the valley and into the hills by stagecoach).
When the news did reach Columbia and Sonora, the Mexican miners were so elated they immediately shot off their guns, lit fireworks and began drinking and singing. Basically, they had something good to celebrate. Also, like most miners, they were likely always looking for any good excuse to crack open a bottle and make merry. Presumably, others joined in; a victory in Mexico was as good a reason to party as any other.
Today, we celebrate Cinco de Mayo with good spirits and food. This holiday, which remains mostly overlooked in Mexico, gives million of people across America – and especially in California – a reason to celebrate their Mexican heritage or that of their neighbors. We still don’t like wasting an opportunity for a good party.
But as we’re kicking back with the suds and nachos today, we might tip our hats to those dedicated, hard-scrabble Mexican miners who, 154 years ago, stood firm and persevered against amazing odds in the gold fields of the Mother Lode.
John Logan is a former visiting editor and contributing writer who lives in Sonora. Email email@example.com.