The Foreign Miners' Tax Act of 1850 (official name An Act for the better regulation of the Mines and the government of foreign Miners, nickname the miserable law of 20 piastres):210 was an Act passed by the United States state of California in 1850, imposing a tax of $20/month on foreign miners.:210:468:50 The Act was repealed in 1851,:468 and subsequently replaced by the Foreign Miners' License Tax Act of 1852, that charged $3/month.:469
In 1848, the Mexican-American War concluded and Alta California (that includes the modern U.S. state of California, plus nearby regions) became part of the United States. At around the same time, gold was discovered in California, leading to an influx of miners into California, both from within the United States, and from other regions, primarily China and Latin America (including Mexico, Peru, and Guatemala). This was the beginning of the California Gold Rush.:147
The competition from foreign miners would lead to resentment among the white miners, leading to calls to limit foreign competition in mining.
On December 20, 1849, Peter Hardeman Burnett became the first Governor of the state of California. Burnett was a proponent of the state's exclusionary policies towards foreign miners, and in particular Chinese ones (he would later support the Chinese Exclusion Act, and also pushed for blacks to leave the state of California or face public flogging).
The Act stated that all miners in the state of California who were not citizens of the United States, and who had not become citizens by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo had to pay a monthly fee of $20, equivalent to several hundred dollars in current United States dollars (sources include estimates of $400 and $500).:468:50 Of this, the tax collector would keep $3 and the rest would be remitted to the state. The goal of the Act was to raise $200,000 in revenue for the state.:468:50 A special exemption covered California's Native Americans.
The Act met with protests from Irish, English, Canadian, and German miners, and was rewritten to exempt any miner who was a "free white person" or any miner who could become an American citizen (the "free white person" designation was borrowed from the Naturalization Act of 1790).:50
On Sunday, May 19, 1850, a group of about 4000 mostly Mexican and Peruvian miners, led by two exiled French miners, protested against the tax in the plaza in Sonora, Tuolumne County. They were chased by a volunteer militia comprising about 500 tax collectors and Anglo miners. The protest broke up after some of the Anglos raised their rifles and fired on the rebels.:468:50
The Act had a number of effects:
On January 9, 1851, John McDougall (sometimes spelled John McDougal) succeeded Peter Burnett as California governor. Unlike his predecessor and successor, McDougall had a favorable view of Chinese immigration, and saw it as a way to cope with California's labor shortage, proposing to employ Chinese immigrants in projects to reclaim swamps and flooded lands. Under McDougall's governorship, the Act was repealed in 1851.
A new Foreign Miners' License Tax was introduced in 1852 under Governor John Bigler, who, like Burnett (but unlike McDougal) was not friendly to Chinese immigration. The new tax was $3/month, unlike the original $20/month, and it would rise gradually over the next few years.:469