History of slavery in California

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The arrival of the Spanish colonists—participants in the Atlantic slave trade and owners of both Indian and African slaves—introduced such concepts as chattel slavery and involuntary servitude to the area. Anglo settlers from the Southern and Eastern United States brought centuries of experience with slavery to California. Many free and enslaved people of African ancestry were part of the California Gold Rush (1848–55), and many were able to buy their freedom and freedom for their families, primarily in the South, with the gold they found.[1]

There were a number of Gold Rushers of African ancestry, probably fewer than 4,000.[2] One of the miners was an African American named Edmond Edward Wysinger (1816–1891). After arriving in the Northern mine area of the California Mother Lode in 1849, Wysinger and a group of 100 or more African American miners were surface mining in and around Morman, Mokelumne Hill at Placerville, and Grass Valley.[3]

Slavery under Mexican rule[edit]

Mexico inherited much of the Southwest upon independence from Spain in 1821. President Vicente Guerrero, who was of Spanish, African and Native American descent, abolished slavery within Mexico in 1829. This law was intended by its proponents as a counter-measure against the settlement of Anglos, who used slave labor in their Texas cotton plantations.

Slavery under U.S. rule[edit]

With the 1847 defeat of Mexico, California and other Mexican territories were ceded to U.S. rule (the Mexican Cession) under the terms of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War.

However, at the time, the 26-state nation was divided equally between 13 free states and 13 slave states. With the addition of vast new, agriculturally-rich territories, including California, the debate over slavery intensified dramatically. California itself was divided over the issue, as a large number of slave-owning Southerners had travelled to California to seek their fortunes in the 1849 Gold Rush, and many brought their slaves.

In October 1849, the first California Constitution Convention was held. One of the most heated debates of the Convention was on the status of slavery in the new state.[4] While some Southerners who had come to California were staunchly in favor of giving official sanction to slavery in California, Northern abolitionists and Anglo-American miners (who did not want competition from the slave-holders in the gold fields) were well represented within the ranks of the convention. The chairman of the convention, William Gwin, was himself a slaveholder from Tennessee. Gwin, however, was much more interested in gaining control of the California Democratic Party than he was in favoring either side of the debate.[citation needed] To the later chagrin of his fellow Southern members of Congress, he did not write the institution of slavery into the 1849 Constitution. The Compromise of 1850 later permitted California to be admitted to the Union as a free state. Gwin and war hero/abolitionist John C. Frémont became California's first Senators.

Although California entered the Union as a free state, the framers of the state constitution wrote into law the systematic denial of suffrage and other civil rights to non-white citizens. Some authorities went so far as to attempt to deny entry of all African-Americans, free and slave, to California. The Legislature passed a bill that would ban the immigration of free blacks to California. State Senator David C. Broderick, a fierce opponent of slavery and former firefighter from San Francisco, managed to kill the bill through parliamentary maneuver.

Slavery did persist in California even without legal authority. Some slaveowners simply refused to notify their slaves of the prohibition, and continued to trade slaves within the state. Numerous state trials ruled in the favor of emancipation.

  • In 1849, a white man lost a case against a black man who was accused of both being a slave and being in debt to the accuser. At the time, California was not under U.S. rule, and Mexican law, which prohibited slavery, was used in the case. This resulted in the legal precedent of the official non-acknowledgement of slavery in California.
  • In 1851, a fugitive slave named Frank was recaptured by his owner in San Francisco; Frank then sued the owner in court. The judge ruled in favor of Frank because the slave had taken his freedom in California and didn't cross state lines in the process, thus ruling the application of the Fugitive Slave Law, which was passed in Congress the previous year, invalid in this case. Furthermore, a California law passed in 1850 had ruled the testimony of non-whites in court inadmissible; hence, even though Frank had admitted to being the owner's slave, the case had proceeded in his favor because his own admission was invalid.
  • In 1852, a state fugitive slave law was passed in Sacramento, and was unsuccessfully challenged in the Perkins escapee case. However, when the law lapsed in 1855, the Legislature failed to renew it, and the Mitchell case in San Jose resulted in freedom for Mitchell, a runaway slave.
  • In 1858, in one of the most protracted cases over the state-level status of slavery, Archy Lee, a slave who had run away from his owner, Mississippi native Terry Stovall, was arrested four times as his fate - as a slave bound for return to Mississippi with his master, or continued residence in California as a free man - was decided in a flip-flop manner by some three local judges and a United States Commissioner. Archy won the case through the support of the local freed black community in San Francisco. To avoid further legal reprisals by his former owner, he fled to Canada, where he eventually died.[5]

A backlash against these legal wins for the free black community in California whipped up in the State government; the Chinese Exclusion Act was also being debated at that time. Fearful of the hostile maneuvers against them, over 700 African-Americans left California in a mass exodus via steam ship for the women and children and mass cavalcade for the men to Victoria, Canada, and the Fraser Canyon Gold Rush.

Slavery was abolished in all states under the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which took effect on 18 December 1865.


  1. ^ Jason B. Johnson, "Slavery in Gold Rush Days -- New Discoveries Prompt Exhibition, Re-examination of State's Involvement," SFGate, January 27, 2007.
  2. ^ Another estimate is 2,500 forty-niners of African ancestry. Rawls, James, J. and Orsi, Richard (eds.) (1999), p. 5.
  3. ^ Delilah L. Beasley, The Negro Trail Blazers of California, 1919, pp. 105 & 183 (Has been reprinted in 1997 and 2004).
  4. ^ California Constitutional Convention 1849
  5. ^ Archy Lee's historical documents

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