Scholars in Cornwall are asking family historians at home and in California to help track the links between Cornish immigrants, known for hardrock mining, and the Nisenan people, ancient and current inhabitants of the land now called the Gold Country.

Like others from around the world, Cornish miners flocked to the Sierra Nevada foothills with the 1849 gold rush. Most of them arrived a decade or more later and after industrialisation had begun. In the interim roughly 90% of the Nisenan had disappeared as the result of disease, relocation and genocide. 

Before the 19th century closed, the Cornish became a sizeable majority in Grass Valley and established themselves in Nevada City and other nearby settlements. They made better lives for their families and eventually became prominent among the merchants and professionals of the two towns.

Scholars hope to understand what impact Cornish immigrants may have had on the Nisenan and what connections were forged between a Celtic people from across the sea and the Indigenous people of the Sierra foothills. 

To launch the research effort, the Institute of Cornish Studies at the University of Exeter will host an online forum on Wednesday, July 10 at 6.30pm to 8pm. Everyone is invited to join in learning about the tribal community and its Cornish connections. 

The event is part of the California Heritage: Indigenous Research Project's mission to preserve, protect and perpetuate Nisenan Culture. 

Researchers hope to encourage people to find records, correspondence and memorabilia from their ancestors who went to the Grass Valley – Nevada City area in the late 19th century. They are seeking any references to the Indigenous community, as such evidence may aid the Nisenan not only in restoring important fragments of erased Culture, but also in their campaign to restore federal recognition of their Tribe.

Dr Joanie Willett, from the University of Exeter’s Institute of Cornish Studies, said: “People who moved to Grass Valley may have sent letters and pictures back home which talked about their life and new surroundings. We’d love for their descendants to search for them and allow us to see. We’d like people to join our online event so they can learn more about this fascinating part of Cornish and America history.”

“I was lucky enough to meet representatives from the Nisenan Tribe when I spent time in the area last year,” she said. “It would be wonderful to create new links between Cornwall and California.”

As part of the online event members of the Nevada City Rancheria Nisenan Tribe will describe their history, their known Cornish connections, and their efforts to regain recognition. The discussion will include ideas for collaboration with the Royal Cornwall Museum and other institutions around the world.

Participants in the forum will include Shelly Covert, Spokesperson for the Nevada City Rancheria Nisenan Tribe, and Gage McKinney, former president of the California Cornish Cousins.