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  • Writer's pictureSteve Bartholomew

The Gold Ingot Lottery

One of the oddest and most forgotten episodes in California history was that of the “Ingot Lottery” of France in 1851. As sources for this story I rely mainly on that excellent book, The Madams of San Francisco by Curt Gentry, © 1964 by Curt Gentry. I also draw upon The Annals of San Francisco, by Frank Soule and others, published in 1854.

Recently I was web surfing and ran across a genealogy site dedicated to French ancestry in California. The author took great pride in the fact her ancestors were from France and had greatly contributed to American culture in early San Francisco. All well and good, but she chose to ignore the facts of how and why they arrived there in the first place.

Gold was discovered in California in 1848. By the following year news had traveled around the world. The French were fascinated by the story, probably because they had dreams of escaping from their current problems. Louis Napoleon, nephew of Bonaparte, had recently made himself dictator of France and was soon to declare himself Emperor. France was having economic problems as the result of mismanagement and war. Poverty and dissent were widespread.

Louis read news of California and had a brilliant idea, a way to distract the public from their problems and at the same time rid himself of some of France’s most difficult citizens. He announced there would be a national lottery. Prizes would consist of gold ingots of different values: first prize would be worth 400,000 francs; there would be a total of 214 prizes, with a sliding scale down to a 1000 franc bar. Best news of all: proceeds from the lottery would be used to ship five thousand poor but honest French citizens to California, where they could begin a new life.

The deal sounded great. A lot of French people saw it as a way to get out of grinding poverty, either by winning a gold ingot or by going to California, where one could scoop up gold from the ground. Many who could not afford to buy tickets, at one franc apiece, volunteered for extradition. The only problem was that the lottery was a complete scam. Thousands of tickets were sold with the same numbers. Louis knew what he was doing: defuse revolutionary zeal by appealing to avarice and greed.

The lottery drawing was held in November 1851, before an audience of 40,000. It was completely rigged; the winners were all cronies of Louis Napoleon. Now, of course, it was time to fulfill his promise of shipping impoverished citizens to California. The lucky emigrants were easy to find: they were “the scum of Paris.” It was a quick way to reduce the prison population, by shipping off the pickpockets, burglars, muggers, pimps and prostitutes. It’s not known for sure just how many were sent out, but it may have been four or five thousand. Thus, San Francisco welcomed her first French immigrants.

Of course there were other French people who, inspired by the lottery, decided to emigrate on their own. It wasn’t long before San Francisco had a large population of French, as well as Germans, Australians, Chinese, Chileans and other ethnic groups. It was said that this city had the largest population of French in the U.S. with the exception of New Orleans.

Reading contemporary authors such as Frank Soule and others, we often find the claim that American men much preferred the French ladies to Americans or other nationalities. French women were said to be more graceful, attractive and friendly. It’s historical fact that many of them were prostitutes or courtesans. It’s also a fact they earned hundreds of times what they were accustomed to back in Paris.

Soule often betrayed in himself a form of cognitive dissonance. He looked down on the French, whom he regarded as less industrious and serious-minded than the Germans. It seems the French quickly assumed a monopoly on fashion and beauty; the men took over the bootblack trade, while women introduced European fashions in clothing, hair dresses and furniture. Soule bemoans the fact that while the Germans regarded themselves as solid American citizens, the typical French person dreamed of one day returning to their homeland. It never seems to occur to Soule that perhaps France, with all her problems, was a nicer place to live than Germany. He did admire the French’s polite manners, “which the unbending American character does not naturally possess.” Thus, the unintended results of Louis Napoleon’s ingot lottery. According to Gentry, for many years thereafter the worst thing you could call a French person was “ingot.” However, the Germans introduced their lager beer, and the French brought their sourdough French bread. San Francisco got the best of both worlds.

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