Dollypot, Greenhide and Spindrift:

a journal of bush history

Vol 1. No. 9
I have endeavoured to record many of the incidents of Australian goldrushes from the 1850s onwards and to give some idea of the character of the participants of those rushes. The metal detector business created a great interest in such rushes worldwide and in Australia and N America tens of thousands followed in the footsteps of the pioneers to recover substantial quantities of nuggets, and continue to do so to this day.
Little known to the West are the huge gold rushes taking place in South America, Asia and Africa. Africa is not recommended for the white man and most of Asia has its problems as does S America, but there is great potential for adventurers in these latter areas. For this reason, and for the interest many have in the history of alluvial goldfields, as well as the details of this  fascinating attempt to create a civilized society in an area generally inimical to such endeavours, I have made available the following description, first written in the late 1890s, of a fascinating rush in Manchuria in the 1880s. It is from the rare, A Russian Comedy of Errors by George Kennan, 1912, The Century Co., New York.    PJB
In the extreme northern part of the Chinese Empire, about one thousand miles from the city of Pekin and an equal distance from the coast of the Pacific, there is a wild, mountainous, densely wooded, and almost trackless region, known to Chinese geographers as Khelun‑tsan. It forms a part of the great frontier province of Manchuria, and lies, somewhat in the shape of an equilateral triangle, between the rivers Argun and Amur, which separate it from eastern Siberia on the north, and the rivers Ur‑son, Khalga‑gol, and Sungari, which bound it on the south. A post‑road leads along its southern frontier from Khailar to the capital town of Tsitsikhar, and there is a fringe of Cossack stations and Manchu pickets on the rivers Argun and Amur, which form the other two sides of the triangle; but the vast region bounded by these thin lines of settlement is a wilderness of forests and mountains traversed only by Tungus or Manchu hunters, and as little known to the Chinese who own it as to the Russians whose territory it adjoins. Near the apex of this triangle, between two lateral spurs of the Great Khingan Mountains, there is a deep, wooded valley called the Zhelta, through which flows a shallow tributary of the small Manchurian river Albazikha. It is an insignificant ravine, only ten or fifteen miles in length, and, from a topographical point of view, it does not differ in any essential respect from thousands of other nameless ravines which lie among the wooded mountains of Manchuria and the Trans‑Baikal; but it has a distinction not based upon topography and not dependent, upon geographical situation, – a distinction arising out of its relation to human interests and human institutions. In this wild, lonely valley was born, a little more than twelve years ago, the first and only true republic that ever existed on the continent of Asia, and its birthplace was a Tungus grave.
In the year 1883 a Tungus hunter and trapper called Vanka, who spent most of his life roaming through the forests and over the mountains of Manchuria and Transbaikalia, came, with a bundle of furs, to the shop of a merchant named Seredkin, in the little Cossack post of Ignashina on the upper Amur, and reported that while digging a grave in the valley of the Zhelta for his mother, who had died during a temporary stay there, he had found, at a depth of three or four feet in the gravelly soil, a number of small flakes and nuggets of yellow metal which had the appearance of gold. He wished the merchant to examine them and tell him what they were worth. Seredkin looked at the specimens, subjected them to a few simple tests, and soon satisfied himself that gold they were. He purchased them at a good price, promised Vanka a suitable reward if he would act as guide to the place where they were found, and immediately made preparations to equip and send into Manchuria a small prospecting party, under the direction of a trusted and experienced clerk named Lebedkin. Two or three days later this party crossed the Amur, marched eighteen or twenty miles through the forest to the valley of the Zhelta, and began digging a short distance from the grave in which the Tungus had buried his mother and out of which he had taken the gold. From the very first panful of earth washed they obtained a quarter of a teaspoonful or more of the precious dust, and the deeper they sank their prospecting pits the richer the gravel became. In a dozen or more places, and at various depths ranging from ten to fourteen feet, they found gold in amazing quantities; and Lebedkin, the chief of the party, became so excited – not to say crazed – by the vision of sudden wealth that he drank himself to the verge of delirium tremens, and was finally carried back to Ignashina in a state of alcoholic coma and complete physical collapse. The laborers who had been digging under his direction thereupon threw off their allegiance to their employer, formed themselves into an artel, (An artel is a Russian form of labor union, In which from six to fifty or more men unite to do a particular piece of work, or to labor together for a certain specified time. It is virtually a small joint stock company, whose members share equally in the work, expenses, and profits of the enterprise in which they are engaged.) and proceeded to prospect and mine on their own joint account and for their own common benefit.
Seredkin tried to keep the matter a secret while he organized and equipped a second party; but the news of the discovery of a wonderfully rich gold placer on Chinese territory, only fifteen or twenty miles from the Amur, was too important and too exciting to be either suppressed or concealed. From the village of Ignashina it was carried to the neighboring Cossack post of Pokrofka, from there to Albazin, from Albazin to Blagoveshchinsk, and thence to all parts of eastern Siberia. Before the end of the spring of 1884 gold‑seekers bound for the new Eldorado were pouring into Ignashina, at the rate of one hundred and fifty a day, and the little Cossack settlement was suddenly transformed into a pandemonium of noise, tumult, drunkenness, fighting, and wild, feverish excitement. In vain the Russian authorities at Chita and Blagoveshchinsk tried to stop the frenzied rush of miners and prospectors into Manchuria, first by threatening them with arrest, and then by forbidding station‑masters on the government post‑roads to furnish them with transportation. The tide of migration could no more be stopped in this way than the current of the Amur could be arrested or diverted by means of a paper dam. The excited gold‑seekers paid no attention whatever to official proclamations or warnings, and if they could not obtain horses and vehicles at the post-stations, they hired telegas (Small, springless, four‑wheeled carts, drawn usually by a single horse.) from the muzhiks, or canoes from the Amur Cossacks, and came into Ignashina, by land and by water, in ever increaging numbers. As fast as they could obtain food and equipment they crossed the Amur in skiffs, shouldered their picks, shovels, and bread‑bags, and plunged on foot into the wild, gloomy forests of Manchuria. Before the 1st of September, 1884, the Tungus grave in the valley of the Zhelta was surrounded by the tents and log huts of at least three thousand miners; and a more motley, heterogeneous and lawless horde of vagabonds and adventurers never invaded the Chinese Empire. There were wandering Tungus from the mountains of Transbaikalia; runaway Russian laborers from the east‑Siberian mines of Butin Brothers, Niemann, and the Zea Company; Buriats and Mongols from the province of Irkutsk; discharged government clerks and retired ispravniks (Local officials who act as chiefs of police and magistrates in a Russian district.) from Nerchinsk, Stetinsk, Verkhni Udinsk, and Chita; exiled Polish Jews from the Russian Pale of Settlement; Chinese laborers and teamsters from Kiakhta and Maimachin; a few nondescript Koreans, Tatars, and Manchus from the lower Amur; and finally, more than one thousand escaped convicts – thieves, burglars, highwaymen, and murderers – from the silver‑mines of Nerchinsk and the gold‑mines of Kara.
As the valley of the Zhelta lies outside the limits and beyond the jurisdiction of Russia, and is separated by hundreds of miles of trackless wil­derness from the nearest administrative center in China, its invaders were not subject to any authority nor bound by any law; and its history, for a time, was little more than a record of quar­reling, claim‑jumping, fighting, robbery, and murder. Gradually, however, the better class of Russian miners, impelled by the instinct of asso­ciation and cooperation which is so marked a characteristic of the Slavonic race, began to or­ganize themselves into artels, whose members contributed equally to the common treasury, worked together for the common weal, shared alike in the product of their industry, and defended as a body their individual and corporate rights. As these little groups or associations, united by the bond of a common interest, began to grow stronger and more coherent, they took counsel together and drew up a series of regulations for the uniform government of the artels and for the better protection of their members. These regulations, however, did not have the force of a constitution, binding upon all citizens of the camp, nor were they intended to take the place of a civil or criminal code. They re­sembled rather, in form and effect, the by‑laws of a chartered corporation; and they had no recog­nized or enforceable validity, outside the limits of the artels that adopted and sanctioned them. In the camp at large, every man who was not a member of an artel defended himself and his property as best he could, without regard to law or authority. For some months after the estab­lishment of the camp there was no law except the law of might, and no recognized authority other than the will of the strongest; but as the feeling of solidarity, fostered by the artels, gradually permeated the whole mass of the population, an attempt was made to establish something like a general government. The logic of events had convinced both honest men and criminals that unless they secured life and property within the limits of the camp, they were all likely to starve to death in the course of the winter. Traders would not come there with food, and merchants would not open shops there, unless they could be assured of protection for themselves and safety for their goods. Such assurance could be given them only by an organized government, willing and able to enforce the provisions of a penal code. At the suggestion, therefore, of some of the artels, the whole body of miners was invited to assemble in what is known to the Russian peasants as a skhod, a Slavonic variety of the New England town‑meeting. At this skhod, which was largely attended, the situation was fully and noisily discussed. Robbery and murder were declared to be crimes of which the camp, as a community, must take cognizance; a penal code was adopted, providing that robbers should be flogged and murderers put to death; and a committee of safety, consisting of one representative from the artels, one from the escaped convicts, and one from the unattached miners, was appointed to govern the camp, enforce the law, and act generally as the executive arm of theskhod.
The effect of this action was to diminish, for a time, the frequency of robbery and murder, and greatly to increase the population and promote the prosperity of the camp. The news that a government had been organized and three sta­rosts elected to maintain order and punish crime in the “Chinese California” soon spread throughout eastern Siberia, and gave a fresh impetus to the tide of migration across the Manchurian frontier. Russian peasant farmers from Transbaikalia – a much better and stead­ier class than the runaway mining laborers­ – caught the gold fever, and started for the camp; merchants from Nerchinsk, Stretinsk, and Chita sent thither caravans of horses and camels laden with bales of dry goods, hardware, and provisions; actors, jugglers, gamblers, musicians, and amusement‑purveyors of all sorts from the east‑Siberian towns, joined in the universal rush, and before midwinter the gold‑placer of Zheltuga, as it was then called, had grown into a rough, noisy, turbulent mining‑town of, more than five thousand inhabitants.
To a traveller ascending the Zhelta River from the Amur, in the autumn of 1884, the site of the town presented itself as a nearly level valley­ bottom about a quarter of a mile in width, strewn with water‑worn boulders and heaps of gravel from the pits and trenches of the gold‑diggers, and bounded on its northwestern and southeast­ern sides by high hills covered with forests of spruce, pine, and silver birch. In the foreground was a flat, grassy plain, known to the miners as “Pitch‑Penny Field,” where the underlying gravel was not rich enough to pay for working and where the surface, consequently, had not been much disturbed. From this field stretched away, on the right‑hand side of the valley, under the shadow of the mountain, a double line of tents, yurts, (Quadrangular log huts, shaped like deeply truncated pyramids, and banked and roofed with sods or earth.) bologans, (Conical structures of logs, roughly resembling wigwams or tepees, and sometimes mounted on four high posts and reached by a ladder.) and log houses, to which the miners had given the name Millionaire Street, for the reason that it adjoined the richest part of the placer. This street was a mile and a half or more in length and along it, at short intervals, were scattered the principal shops of the town, each surmounted by a flag; twenty or thirty drinking saloons with evergreen boughs nailed over their doors; and about a dozen hotels and “houses for arrivers,” whose rudely painted signboards bore such names as The Assembly, The Marseilles, The Zheltuga, The California, and The Wilderness Hotel. Filling the spaces between the semi‑public buildings, on both sides of the narrow, muddy street, stood the shedlike barracks of the artels, the flat‑roofed, earth‑banked yurts of the convicts, and the more carefully built houses of the well‑to‑do Russian peasants, all made of unhewn logs chinked with moss, and provided with windows of cheap cotton sheeting. But Millionaire Street, although it was the business and aristocratic quarter of the town, did not by any means comprise the whole of it.
On the opposite or southeastern side of the valley there was a straggling encampment of skin tents, birchbark lodges, and wretched hovels, tenanted by poor Chinese, Tungus, and Buriats, who were employed as day laborers by the artels; and from the southeastern end of Millionaire Street there was a thin, broken line of detached huts and cabins, extending up the Zhelta almost to its source. The camp, as a whole, therefore, occupied an area about a quarter of a mile wide and four miles long, with the head of the ravine at one end, Pitch‑Penny Field at the other, and a desert of stones, gravel, ditches, flumes, and sluices between.
At the beginning of the winter of 1884‑85, there had been staked out, within the productive limits of the placer, about four hundred claims, more than two‑thirds of which were being worked. The stratum of gravel and sand from which the gold was obtained probably formed at one time the bed of the Zhelta River. It lay at an average depth of about twelve feet, under a covering of alluvial soil known to the miners as torf, which, doubtless, in the course of ages, had been gradually washed down into the valley from the circumjacent hills. This thick superficial layer of torf had to be removed, of course, before the auriferous sand could be reached; and as the labor of taking it away was very great, all the individual miners, and nearly all the artels, had adopted what was then known in Siberia as the orta or subterranean method of working a deep placer. By this method, the torf, instead of being removed, was undermined. The digger sunk a shaft to the bottom of the auriferous stratum, and then drove tunnels through the pay­ gravel in every direction to the boundary lines of his claim, leaving the torf intact above as a roof, and supporting it, if necessary, with timbers. The gravel taken out of these subterranean tun­nels and chambers was hoisted to the surface through the shaft by means of a large wooden bucket attached either to a windlass or to an old­ fashioned well‑sweep, and the gold was then sep­arated from the sand by agitation with water in shallow pans, troughs, or cradles. The pay­ gravel of Zheltuga yielded, on an average, about four ounces of gold per ton; and the precious metal was worth on the spot from twelve to sixteen dollars an ounce. In many cases the yield was much greater than this. One fortunate dig­ger unearthed a mass of virgin gold weighing five pounds; and lucky finds of nuggets varying in weight from one ounce to ten ounces were of fre­quent occurrence. Even in parts of the placer that were comparatively barren isolated “pockets” were sometimes found that yielded gold at the rate of twelve ounces to the Russian pood, or more than fifty‑five pounds to the ton. In the early part of 1885 it was estimated that the Zheltuga placer, as a whole, was yielding about thirty‑five pounds of gold per day, and the accumulated stock on hand weighed 3600 pounds and represented a cash value of nearly $1,000,000.
The currency of the camp, for the most part, was gold‑dust, which when transferred from hand to hand, was weighed in improvised balances with ordinary playing‑cards. An amount of dust that would just balance four cards, of standard size and make, was everywhere accepted as a zolotnik, (One ninety‑sixth part of a pound troy.)  and the zolotnik was valued at about $1.75. One card of dust, therefore, represented forty‑four cents. This was practically the unit of the Zheltuga monetary system; but if a buyer or seller wished to give or receive a smaller sum than this, the card used as a weight was cut into halves or quarters, – a method that suggests the “bit” of the American miners on the Pacific Coast. A pound of sugar, for example, was valued in the Zheltuga currency at “two bits” of a quartered playing‑card; that is, at one eighth of a zolotnik in dust. Russian paper money circulated to some extent, but the supply was insufficient, and gold‑dust was the ordinary medium of exchange.
Once a week, on Saturday, the lower part of the valley, near Pitch‑Penny Field, was turned into a great market or bazaar, where traders and Cossacks from the neighboring settlements sold meat, flour, hard‑bread, tea, sugar, soap, candles, clothing, and hardware, and where thousands of miners, from all parts of the placer, assembled to purchase supplies. In no other place and at no other time could the population and life of the great mining‑camp be studied to better advantage. The field was dotted with white cotton tents and rude temporary booths, erected to shelter the goods of the traders; scores of telegas, filled with produce and provisions, were drawn up in long parallel lines, with shaggy Cossack ponies tethered to their muddy wheels; the strident music of hand‑organs and concertinas called the attention of the idle and the curious to yurts and bologans where popular amusement was furnished in the form of singing, juggling, or tumbling; and in and out among these tents, booths, wagons, and bologans surged a great horde of rough, dirty, unshaven miners: some munching bread or cold meat as they elbowed their way from one booth to another; some crowding around a wagon loaded with apples and dried Chinese fruits from the valley of the Ussuri; some stuffing their multifarious purchases into big gray bags of coarse Siberian linen; and all shouting, wrangling, or bargaining in half a dozen Asiatic languages.
No American mining‑camp, probably, ever pre­sented such an extraordinary diversity of types, costumes, and nationalities as might have been seen any pleasant Saturday afternoon in that Manchurian market. Thin‑faced, keen‑eyed Pol­ish Jews, in skull‑caps and loose black gabardines, stood here and there in little stalls exchanging Russian paper money for gold‑dust, which they weighed carefully with dirty playing­ cards in apothecaries’ balances; sallow, beardless Tungus hunters, whose fur hoods, buckskin tunics, and tight leather leggings showed that they had just come from the mountain fastnesses of Transbaikalia, offered gloves, mittens, and squirrel‑skin blankets to red‑shirted Russian peasants in flat caps and high‑topped boots; wrinkle‑eyed Mongol horsemen, dressed in flap­ping orange gowns and queer dishpan‑shaped felt hats, rode through the crowded market‑place on wiry ponies, leading long files of solemn, swaying camels laden with goods from Verkhni Udinsk or Nerchinski Zavod; uniformed Siberian Cossacks, standing at the tail‑boards of the small fourwheeled wagons in which they had brought rye flour and fresh fish from the Amur, exchanged loud greetings or rough jokes with the runaway convicts who strolled past, smoking home‑made cigarettes of acrid Circassian tobacco rolled in bits of old newspaper; and now and then, strangely conspicuous in black frock coat and civil service cap, might be seen a retired ispravnik, or a government clerk from Chita, buying tea and white loaf sugar at the stall of a Chinese trader.
On the outskirts of the bazaar amusements and diversions of all kinds were provided in abundance, and from half a dozen different directions came the discordant music of hand‑organs and balalaikas (A Russian variety of guitar, with three or four strings and a triangular sounding‑board of thin seasoned wood.) calling attention to lotteries, peepshows, exhibitions of trained Chinese monkeys, and large circular tents in which acrobats and tumblers performed feats of strength or agility before crowds of shouting and applauding spectators. In one place, a huge tiger, caught in a trap on the lower Amur and confined in an iron cage, was an object of wonder and admiration to a throng of swarthy, bullet‑headed Buriats; in another, a professional equestrian in dirty spangled tights exhibited the horsemanship of the haute eole to a circle of hard‑featured ruffians in gray overcoats, who were easily recognizable as escaped convicts from the Siberian mines, and who still wore on their backs, in the shape of two yellow diamonds, the badge of penal servitude.
Taken as a whole, the great bazaar, with its unpainted booths, its white cotton tents, its long lines of loaded wagons, its piles of merchandise, its horses, cattle, and double‑humped Bactrian camels, its music its vari‑colored flags, and its diversified population of traders, miners, Cossacks, Russian peasants, runaway convicts, and Asiatic nomads, formed a picture hardly to be paralleled in all the Chinese Empire, and a picture strangely out of harmony with the solemn mountains and primeval forests of the lonely Manchurian wilderness in which it was framed.
The government of so heterogeneous and lawless a population as that assembled in the valley of the Zhelta presented, of course, a problem of extraordinary difficulty; and it is not at all sur­prising, that the first attempt of the artels to pro­vide the camp with a civil administration proved to be a failure. The three starosts elected by the skhod were not men of much education or character; their authority was not backed, as it should have been, by an adequate police force; and even when their intentions were good and their orders judicious, they were virtually power­less to carry them into effect. The runaway con­victs from the mines    in east Siberia, who com­posed at least a third of the whole population, soon discovered that the starosts had neither the nerve nor the power to enforce order and hon­esty in the only way in which they could be enforced, – with the hangman’s rope and the lash,­ –  and therefore they promptly resumed their criminal activity. Theft, claim‑jumping, fighting, and robbery with violence soon became as com­mon as ever; the influence and authority of the administration steadily declined as one board of starosts after another was discharged for cow­ardice or inefficiency; men of good character from the artels refused to take positions which no longer had even the semblance of dignity or power; and finally the government itself became criminal, the latest board of starosts partici­pated in a crime and fled across the Siberian frontier with their plunder, and the camp relapsed again into virtual anarchy.
The government of so heterogeneous and lawless a population as that assembled in the valley of the Zhelta presented, of course, a problem of extraordinary difficulty; and it is not at all sur­prising, that the first attempt of the artels to pro­vide the camp with a civil administration proved to be a failure. The three starosts elected by the skhod were not men of much education or character; their authority was not backed, as it should have been, by an adequate police force; and even when their intentions were good and their orders judicious, they were virtually power­less to carry them into effect. The runaway con­victs from the mines    in east Siberia, who com­posed at least a third of the whole population, soon discovered that the starosts had neither the nerve nor the power to enforce order and hon­esty in the only way in which they could be enforced, – with the hangman’s rope and the lash,­ –  and therefore they promptly resumed their criminal activity. Theft, claim‑jumping, fighting, and robbery with violence soon became as com­mon as ever; the influence and authority of the administration steadily declined as one board of starosts after another was discharged for cow­ardice or inefficiency; men of good character from the artels refused to take positions which no longer had even the semblance of dignity or power; and finally the government itself became criminal, the latest board of starosts partici­pated in a crime and fled across the Siberian frontier with their plunder, and the camp relapsed again into virtual anarchy.
This state of affairs continued for several weeks, in the course of which time no attempt was made either to re-establish the ineffective and discredited administration of the starosts, or to substitute for it a form of government better adapted to the circumstances of the case. Petty crimes of various sorts were committed almost daily in all parts of the placer; but as the sufferers from them were, for the most part, the weaker and less influential members of the community, public feeling was not roused to the point of renewed action until the latter part of December, 1884, when a brutal murder, in the very heart of the camp, brought everybody to a sudden realization of the dangers of the situation. One of the members of an artel of escaped convicts, who was known to have had in his possession a considerable quantity of gold‑dust, was found one morning in his tent, dead and cold, with his head and face beaten into an almost unrecognizable mass of blood, hair, brains, and shattered bones. From the position and appearance of the body, it was evident that the murderer had crept into the tent at a late hour of the night and killed his victim, while asleep, with repeated blows of a heavy sledge‑hammer, which was found, lying in a pool of half‑frozen blood, beside the bed. The dead man’s gold‑dust had disappeared, and there was no clue to the identity of the assassin.
The news of this murder spread in a few hours to all parts of the placer; and thousands of miners, attracted either by morbid curiosity or by a desire to verify the statements they had heard  came to look at the disfigured corpse, and to discuss with one another means of preventing such crimes. In the absence of an authorized and responsible government, no one ventured to remove or bury the body, and for nearly a week it remained untouched, just where it had been found, as a ghastly and impressive object‑lesson to the citizens of the camp. Meanwhile, the need of a strong and effective government, to maintain order, protect life, and punish crime, was earnestly and noisily discussed in hundreds of tents and cabins throughout the valley; and the outcome of the discussion was the calling of another skhod, composed of delegates representing the four great classes into which the population of the camp was divided, – the artels, the convicts, the unattached miners, and the Asiatics. At this skhod it was decided to organize a republican form of government, with a single chief or presi­dent, who should be authorized to draft a code of laws, and who should be supported in the rigorous enforcement of them by the full armed strength of the camp. As the starosts elected under the previous regime had been common peasants, wholly without administrative experi­ence or training and almost wholly without edu­cation, and as the result of their efforts to main­tain order had been general dissatisfaction and disappointment, it was resolved that the president to be chosen in the second experiment should be a man of character and ability from the culti­vated class, and, if possible, a man who had had some experience as an administrative or executive officer. The number of such men in the com­munity was extremely small; but among them there happened to, be a retired government official – a clerk from one of the provincial departments of Siberia – named Fasse, whose personal bearing, dignity, and upright character had attracted general attention, and who had the respect and confidence of all the best men in the camp. Upon Passe the choice of the skhod fell; and a deputation, bearing a plate of bread and a small cup of salt on a wooden tray, was sent to apprise him of the assembly’s action, and to congratu­late him upon his unanimous election as “first President of the Zheltuga Republic.”
Fasse, who was not ambitious of distinction in this field, and who fully appreciated the serious nature of the responsibilities that would devolve upon the “first President,” was disposed to decline the honor; but when the skhod agreed in advance to sanction any laws that he might suggest, to recognize and obey any assistants whom he might appoint, and to give him the fullest possible cooperation and support, he decided that it was his duty, as a good citizen, to waive personal feeling, accept the position, and give the community the benefit of all the knowledge and experience he had. His first official act was to divide the territory which constituted the placer into five districts (subsequently known as “states”), and to invite the residents of each district to elect two starshinas, whose duty it should be to act in their respective localities as justices of the peace, and who should together constitute the President’s Council.
In the course of three or four days, starshinas were elected in all of the districts (two of them Chinese from the Asiatic quarter of the camp), certificates of election were duly signed and returned to the President, and the Council was summoned to draw up a code of laws and regulations for the government of the republic. The result of their deliberations was the following constitution, which was submitted to the skhod at a special meeting, and adopted without dissent:–
On this ­––day of ––, in the year of our Lord 188––, we, the Artels and Free Adventurers of the Zheltuga Command, imploring the blessing of Almighty God upon our undertaking, do hereby promise and swear implicit obedience to the authorities elected by us at this skhod, and to the rules and regulations drawn up by them for the government of the camp, as follows: ––
1. The territory belonging to the Zheltuga Command shall be known as the “Amur California,” and shall be divided into five districts or states.
2. The officers of the republic shall be a President and ten starshinas, who shall be elected by the skhod, and who shall hold office for a period of four months, or until the skhod relieves them from duty. Executive and judicial authority, in each one of the five districts, shall be vested in two starshinas,, and the ten starshinas together shall constitute the President’s Council. These officers of the government shall wear on their left arms, as evidence of their official authority, brass badges bearing in incised letters the words “Starshina, of the Amur California, ––th District.” The President shall receive a salary of four hundred rubles, and each starshina a salary of two hundred rubles, per month.
3. Every artel and every miner in the camp shall come to the assistance of the starshinas at the first call, by night or day, and shall aid them in enforcing the law and maintaining order. Cooperation in the infliction of punishment for crime, under direction and by order of the President, the Council, or the starshinas., shall be an imperative obligation of every citizen.
4. The lightest punishment that shall be in­ flicted for an offense committed within the terri­torial limits of the Amur California shall be ban­ishment from the camp without right of return. More serious crimes shall be punished by flogging, with whip or rods, the number of blows to be proportioned to the criminal’s health or strength, but not to exceed in any case five hundred. Murder shall be punished in accordance with the Mosaic law of “an eye for an eye,” and the murderer shall be put to death in the same manner and with the same weapon that he em­ployed in killing his victim. Every sentence of the authorities shall be executed, if possible, forthwith, and in no case shall punishment be delayed more than twenty‑four hours.
5. Starshinas in their respective districts, shall have the right to punish, up to one hundred blows, at their own discretion and without consulting either the President or the Council; but they shall make to the President, at a fixed hour every day, a report of all such cases, and an official statement of the condition of affairs in their districts.
6. The authorities shall have the right to put any person suspected of criminal conduct under the surveillance of any artel or individual, paying the latter for such supervision at the rate of one ruble per day; and the artel or individual shall be held responsible for such suspect’s safeguard and good behavior.
7. The selling of spurious and manufactured gold, and also the wearing of a starshina’s badge without authority, as a means of intimidating or extorting money from any person, shall be punished with five hundred blows of a blackthorn rod.
8. In gambling with cards, the wagering of clothing, tools, implements, or other like objects of absolute necessity is strictly prohibited, upon penalty of severe punishment, as is also the pledging or pawning of such objects for a loan or debt.
9. The firing of a gun or pistol at any hour of the day or night, without sufficient and legal cause, and the carrying of deadly weapons while in a state of intoxication, are strictly forbidden.
10. Among those who have recently come to the Amur California, ostensibly to work, are a large number of persons who have no regular occupation, and who hang about restaurants and saloons, living a drunken and disorderly life or maintaining themselves by dishonest card‑playing. Their evil example exerts a demoralizing influence upon the great mass of honest and industrious miners, and the citizens of the camp are requested, in their own interest and for the sake of public tranquillity, to point out such persons to the authorities, in order that they may be banished from the placer.
11. Every artel or individual miner who employs, or ostensibly employ laborers shall personally see that such laborers are actually at work, or shall make a report of them to the district starshinas, so that the latter may either set them at work or expel them from the settlement.
12. In view of the fact that many persons who have come here are unable, for various reasons, to acquire mining territory or find work, and are therefore in a suffering condition, and in view of the further fact that certain artels are nominally in possession of much more territory than they are able to develop, it has been decided to regard all unoccupied and unworked claims as public lands, and to distribute them among honest and sober citizens who have not been able to find either work or unclaimed ground. Such distribution will begin in seven days from the date hereof. Henceforth the number of claims that artels will be permitted to hold in reserve without development shall be limited to two for an artel of nine men, four for an artel of eighteen men, and six for an artel of twenty‑seven men. Relying upon the generosity and humanity of all Russians, the government hereby gives notice that undeveloped and unworked claims held by artels in excess of the numbers above set forth will hereafter be treated as public lands, and will be distributed in accordance with the best interests of the community among the poorer members thereof.
13. A fund to defray the expenses of the government shall be raised by means of taxes imposed at the discretion of theskhod upon all liquor‑sellers, restaurant‑keepers, traders, and merchants.
14. Every person who has a store, shop, or trading‑place within the limits of the placer shall cause a flag to be displayed on the building in which such business is carried on. Failure to do so within three days from the date hereof shall be punished with a fine of from twenty‑five to one hundred rubles.
15. Every merchant or trader who pays a tax or license fee for the right to carry on his business shall obtain from the person authorized to collect the tax a duly executed receipt for the same, bearing the seal of the government and the signature of the President, and shall post this receipt in a prominent place in his shop, store, restaurant, or saloon.
18. Every artel or individual coming hereafter within the territorial limits of the Amur California shall appear within three days at the headquarters of the government to read and sign these laws. Those who fail to make such appearance within three days from the time they cross the Amur will be proceeded against as persons unwilling to submit to the authority and obey the laws of the Zheltuga Command of Free Adventurers of the Amur California.
19. As evidence that the President and starshinas referred to herein have been chosen by us of our own free will, we append hereto our signatures, and we hereby promise to treat them with honor and respect. Those of us who fail to do so shall be severely punished as disturbers of the peace and insulters of the officers whom the Command has trusted as honest and impartial guardians of its safety and tranquillity.
Five copies of the constitution, or code of laws, were prepared in manuscript, and delivered to the starshinas of the five districts, who called local meetings and read the documents aloud to the electors. They were then signed by representatives of the latter and returned to the President, who affixed to them the seal of the Amur California, and deposited them in a place of security as the organic law of the Chinese republic.
With the beginning of the year 1885 the new government entered upon the discharge of its duties, and the inevitable conflict arose between law and authority on one side and lawlessness and crime on the other. If there were any doubt of the ability of the new administration to maintain its existence and enforce its decrees, such doubt was speedily removed by the boldness, promptness, and energy with which the new officials acted. Supported by a majority of the citizens backed by a strong posse comitatus, and accompanied by an adequate force of zealous executioners, the starshinaspatrolled their districts from morning to night, listening to complaints, settling disputes, punishing crimes, and administering justice generally in accordance with the summary processes of a drum-head court-martial. Evil-doers who thought they could deal with the starshinas as they had dealt with their predecessors, the starosts, soon discovered their mistake. The new officials enforced order and justice, by means of the lash, without fear, favor, or mercy, and punishment followed crime with as much certainty as if the sequence were a fixed law of nature.
The place of execution was a frozen pond in the lower part of the valley, near Pitch-Penny Field, where half a dozen able-bodied Russian peasants, armed with flexible rods and formidable rawhide whips, carried the decrees of thestarshinas into effect. The regular formula of condemnation was, "To the ice with him!" And from this sentence, there was no appeal. The criminal thus condemned was taken forthwith to the frozen pond, and, after having been stripped to the hips, was laid, face downward, on the ice. One executioner then sat on his head, another on his legs, and a third, with a rod or rawhide plet, covered his naked back with the crisscross lacing of swollen crimson stripes which is known to Siberian hard-labor convicts as "the bloody gridiron."
In the sentences of the starshinas no partiality whatever was shown to criminals of any particular class or social rank. For stealing a keg of hard-bread a Russian peasant was given five hundred blows with a birch rod, and was then expelled from the camp; but at the same time a clerk for a well-known firm of Blagoveshchinsk merchants, a gentleman and a man of some education, received two hundred blows for unnecessarily firing a revolver. Doubtless in many cases the punishments inflicted were cruel and excessive, but desperate ills required desperate remedies, and in dealing with a heterogeneous population, composed largely of runaway convicts from the Siberian mines, it was thought better to err on the side of severity than to show a leniency that might be attributed to weakness or fear.
For a period of two weeks or more the dread order: "To the ice with him!" might have been heard almost hourly in every part of the camp, and the snow on the frozen pond was trampled hard by the feet of the executioners and stained red with blood from the lacerated backs of condemned criminals. But the dishonest and disorderly class finally learned its lesson. After three men had been put to death, scores expelled from the settlement, and hundreds mercilessly flogged with rods or the plet, even the boldest and hardiest of the runaway convicts were cowed, and the whole population of the camp was brought for the first time to a realization of the fact that a government resting on the will and consent of the governed, and supported by a posse comitatus of free citizens, may be quite as powerful and formidable in its way, and quite as great a terror to evil-doers, as a government based on the divine right of an anointed Czar, and supported by an armed force of soldiers and police.
Before the 1st of February, 1885, the triumph of the honest and law-abiding class in the Amur California was virtually complete. The petty crimes which had so long harassed and disquieted the camp became less and less frequent; the supremacy of the law was everywhere recognized with respect or fear; the experiment of popular self-government was admitted to be successful; and the skhod and its executive officers, having established order, were at liberty to turn their attention to minor details of civil organization. Adequate revenue for the support of the government was obtained by means of a judiciously framed tariff on imports; a post-office department was organized, and provision made for a daily mail between the camp and the nearest station in Siberia; houses were built or set apart in the several districts for the accommodation of the starshinas and their clerks; a free public hospital was opened, with a staff of two physicians and half a dozen nurses, and was maintained at a cost of nearly thirty thousand rubles a year; the organic law was revised and amended to accord with the results of later experience, and the government of the republic gradually assumed a form which, if not comparable with that of older and more advanced communities, was at least more civilized and modern than that which then prevailed in Siberia. Intelligent and dispassionate Russians, who had just come from the Amur California told me, when I met them at Chita, Nerchinsk, and Stretinsk in 1885, that life and property were absolutely safer in the Chinese republic than in any part of the Russian empire. "Why," said one of them, "you may leave a heap of merchandise unguarded all night in the streets; nobody will touch it!"
The first result of the establishment of a really strong and effective government in the valley of the Zhelta was a remarkable increase in the population and the prosperity of the camp. Miners, prospectors, merchants, mechanics, and "free adventurers" flocked to it from all parts of eastern Siberia. New gold-fields were discovered and developed in neighboring valleys; a large area of new territory was annexed; new administrative districts were organized; and before the 1st of June, 1885, the Chinese republic had a population of more than ten thousand free citizens, including six hundred women and children, and contained fifty hotels, three hundred shops and stores and nearly one thousand inhabited buildings.
The development, of so strong and well organized a community as this in the wildest part of Manchuria, absolutely without advice, assistance, or encouragement from any outside source, is an interesting and noteworthy proof of the capacity of the Russian people for self-government, and it is for this reason, mainly, that the story has seemed to me worth telling. Here was a population as heterogeneous, as uneducated, and as lawless as could be found anywhere in the Russian Empire. Nearly a third of it consisted of actual criminals, of the worst class, from the Siberian mines and penal settlements, and fully a quarter of the non-criminal remainder were ignorant Asiatics, belonging to half a dozen different tribes and nationalities. Never, perhaps, was the experiment of popular self-government tried under more unfavorable conditions. The experimenters had no precedents to guide them, no record of previous success to encourage them, and, at first, no trained or educated men to lead them. Relying solely on the good sense and self-control of the majority, they extended the right of suffrage to criminals and Asiatics as well as to honest men and Russians, summoned a skhod in which every citizen of the camp had a voice and a vote, gave the criminals and aliens their share of official authority by electing two convicts and two Chinese as members of the Council, and then, on the basis of manhood suffrage, free speech, equal rights, and the will of the majority, they established their republic, enacted their laws, and carried to a successful termination their unique experiment. As an evidence of the ability of the Siberian people to govern themselves, and as an indication of the form which their institutions would be likely to take if they could escape from the yoke of the Russian despotism, the history of the Amur California seems to me, to be full of interest and instruction. But be that as it may, it is certainly a curious and significant fact that the first true republic ever established east of the Caspian Sea and the Urals was founded by representatives of the most despotically governed nation in Europe, upon the territory of the least progressive and the least enterprising nation in Asia, and was modeled after the government of the strongest and most successful nation in America.
What would have been the future of the Chinese republic if the Zheltuga Free Adventurers had been left to their own devices we can only conjecture. They had already demonstrated their ability to deal successfully with internal disorders, and if their growth and progress had not been checked by external forces too strong to be resisted, they might ultimately have conquered and occupied a large part of northern Manchuria; but of course neither Russia nor China could afford to permit the establishment of a free and independent state in the valley of the Amur. China protested against the invasion of her territory as soon as she became aware of it, and called upon the governor-general of the Amur to interfere. The latter simply replied that the invasion was unauthorized; that he had no control over the invaders, who were a mere horde of vagrants and runaway convicts; and that the Chinese authorities were at liberty to treat them as brigands and drive them out of the country. This, however, the Chinese authorities were utterly unable to do: partly because they had no force in northern Manchuria strong enough to cope with the Zheltuga Free Adventurers, and partly because the region occupied by the latter was an almost inaccessible wilderness. All that they could do was to send an officer up the Amur, with a small escort, to find out exactly where the invaders were, to ascertain their strength, and to threaten them with severe punishment if they refused to withdraw.
This was done in the winter of 1884-85, soon after the organization of the republic and the election of Fasse as President. A Chinese official, with an escort of thirty-six soldiers, came up the Amur from Aigun on the ice, visited the camp, and found, to his surprise, that it contained a population of more than seven thousand men fully one-third of whom were armed, Seeing that it would be futile, if not dangerous, to threaten so strong and well organized a community as this, the Chinese envoy had a brief interview with President Fasse, and a few days later, without having accomplished anything, returned to Aigun. The Chinese government thereupon renewed its protest, and insisted that Russia should take adequate measures to compel the withdrawal of the Free Adventurers from Manchurian territory. Protests and complaints were also received from district governors, proprietors of mines, and influential citizens in various parts of eastern Siberia, who alleged that the Manchurian gold fever was exciting and demoralizing the Siberian population; that the export of provisions to the Chinese republic was raising the prices and increasing the scarcity of food products in all the adjacent Siberian provinces; and that if the emigration to Manchuria were not speedily checked, work in many of the Siberian mines would have to be suspended for want of laborers.
At a conference of the territorial governors of Irkutsk, the Amur, and Transbakalia, held at Blagoveshchinsk early in the summer of 1885, these protests and complaints were duly considered, and a decision was reached to break up the Chinese republic by cutting off its supply of provisions. A few weeks later, Captain Sokolofski, – with an adequate force of cavalry, was sent from Chita to Ignashina, with orders to establish a military cordon along the Siberian frontier, from Albazin to the mouth of the river Shilka, to arrest all persons attempting to cross that frontier in either direction, to confiscate the gold or merchandise found in their possession, and to take such other steps as might be necessary to compel the withdrawal of all Russian subjects from Chinese territory. This was a death-blow to the Chinese republic. Its population of more than ten thousand persons, relying upon its ability to procure supplies from the north, had made no attempt to cultivate the soil, and it could not maintain itself in the Manchurian wilderness for a single month after its communications with Siberia had been severed. Fasse, the President of the republic, was ordered by the Russian government to resign his position and return to his country upon pain of penal servitude; the starshinas, deprived suddenly of their chief, and apprehensive of future punishment for themselves, became demoralized and abandoned their posts; while the panic-stricken Free Adventurers, hoping to evade the cordon by crossing the Amur above or below it, packed up hastily their gold-dust, merchandise, and other valuables, and silently vanished in the forests. In less than a week the population of the Amur California had fallen from ten thousand to three thousand, and in less than a month the camp had been virtually abandoned by all except a few hundred desperate runaway convicts, who preferred the chance of starvation in Manchuria to the certainty of arrest and deportation to the mines in Siberia.
The Chinese made no attempt to occupy the almost deserted gold placer until December, 1885, when they sent a force of manegri, or frontier cavalry, up the Amur River on the ice, with orders to drive out the remaining miners and destroy the camp. The soldiers reached their destination, in a temperature of thirty degrees below zero, on the 6th of January, 1886. The only occupants of the place at that time were about three hundred runaway convicts, fifty or sixty Chinese and Manchus, and a few Russian peasants lying ill in the hospital. The convicts, at the approach of the troops, formed in a compact body on Pitch-Penny Field and boldly marched out to meet the enemy, playing a march on three battered clarionets, and carrying high above their heads, on a cross-shaped flagstaff, a sort of ecclesiastical banner made out of a white cotton sheet, upon which they had painted rudely in huge black capital letters the words
The Chinese cavalry, overawed by this extraordinary banner, or perhaps uncertain as to the result of a contest with the desperate ruffians who carried it, allowed the convicts to pass without molestation, and they marched away in the direction of the Amur, keeping step to the music of the clarionets, and relying upon the protection of a flag which combined the majesty of the Czar with the sanctity of an emblem of truce.
When the convicts had disappeared in the forest, the Chinese entered the camp with fire and sword, burned all its buildings to the ground, and put every living occupant to death, not sparing even the sick in the hospital. Some were beheaded, some were stabbed and thrown into the flaming ruins of the burning buildings, and a few were stripped naked, tied to trees, and showered with bucketful after bucketful of cold water from the Zhelta River, until death had put an end to their sufferings, and their stiffened bodies had become white statues of ice. When the sun rose over the wooded Manchurian hills on the following morning, a few hundred piles of smoking ruins and a few ghastly naked bodies tied to trees and incased in shrouds of ice were all that remained of the Chinese republic.