History of slavery in California

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For modern-day trafficking, see Human trafficking in California.

Slavery in colonial California began with the systematic enslavement of indigenous Californians. The arrival of the Spanish colonists introduced chattel slavery and involuntary servitude to the area. White settlers from the Southern and Eastern United States brought their systems of organized 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 slave named Edmond Edward Wysinger (1816–1891). After arriving in the Northern mine area of the California Mother Lode with his owner 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] It took him about a year to buy his freedom for $1,000.

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 settlement by White Americans, 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. Many miners expressed concern that slaveholders accompanied by slaves had an unfair advantage in the mining camps and that slavery's inherent inequality violated "the independent entrepreneurial sprit of the mines."[4]

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.[5] While some Southerners who had come to California were staunchly in favor of giving official sanction to slavery in California, Northern abolitionists and White-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 1856, Benjamin Ignatius Hayes freed 14 slaves, including Biddy Mason, who had been held in slavery in a Mormon settlement in San Bernardino for five years, saying the slaves had been kept ignorant of the laws and their rights.[6]
  • 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.[7]

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.

Unpaid labor by indigenous peoples[edit]

The Spanish first began to settle in California in 1769, founding the first Spanish mission, Misión San Diego de Alcalá. They also established four military installations throughout California, el Presidio Real de San Carlos de Monterey, el Presidio Real de San Diego, el Presidio Real de San Francisco, and el Presidio Real de Santa Bárbara. The padres would often baptize Native Californian villages en masse and relocate them to the missions, where they would work either voluntarily or by force from location to location. To the padres, the Native Californians were newly baptized members of the Catholic Church and were treated with varying amounts of respect, depending on the priest in question. Many of the soldiers, however, saw them solely as manpower to be exploited. The soldiers would force the Native Californians to perform most of the manual labor needed in their fortresses, and often raped the women of their villages.[8] There was multiple recorded uprising by the Native Californians, both violent and nonviolent. Disease became a major cause of death for the Native Californians due to the ignorance of the padres to the state of the natives' immune systems, which were unaccustomed to most of the diseases the settlers brought with them.

Mexico gained its independence from Spain and from 1821-1846 California was under Mexican rule. The Mexican National Congress passed the Colonization Act of 1824 in which large sections of unoccupied land were granted to individuals and in 1833 the government secularized missions and consequently many civil authorities at the time confiscated the land from the missions for themselves.[8] These two acts aided in the creation of a ranchos system that required a large labor force to maintain. Essentially the entire economy shifted from work on the missions to work on large land estates of wealthy Mexicans. A system was devised where it was virtually cost free to utilize indigenous labor; workers were exchanged between ranchos and essentially became indentured servants.

In 1848 Mexico ceded California to the United States and 1845-1855 marked the years of the gold rush, bringing in white immigrants to California. Indians became the major and immediate source of labor for mining. In those 10 years the Indian population decreased by two-thirds and in order to craft California's own code of labor, An Act for the Government and Protection of Indians was passed in 1850 which “legally” curtailed the rights of Indians.[9] Within this Act, Indian children could be obtained for indenture, convicted Indians could be hired out of jail and Indians could not testify for or against whites. Between 1851 and 1852, three Indian commissioners negotiated treaties with the Indians and eventually eighteen were written, allocating 7.5% of the state as Indian reservations. The United States Senate rejected these treaties and about a year later in 1853, the government designed its own five reservations. These reservations had very poor living conditions and displaced many of the Indians from their native lands. This led many Indians to abandon reservations and resort to raiding California towns. Multiple massacres occurred during these years, white immigrants typically viewed Indians as people to be exterminated off the land that they wanted to use.[8]


  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. ^ Janet Neary and Hollis Robbins, "African American Literature of the Gold Rush," Mapping Region in Early American Writing. Eds. Edward Watts, Keri Holt, and John Funchion. Athens: University of Georgia Press (2015), p. 232
  5. ^ California Constitutional Convention 1849
  6. ^ Benjamin Hayes. "Mason v. Smith". none of the said persons of color can read and write, and are almost entirely ignorant of the laws of the state of California as well as those of the State of Texas, and of their rights 
  7. ^ Archy Lee's historical documents
  8. ^ a b c Trafzer, Clifford E.; Hyer, Joel R. (1999). Exterminate Them : Written Accounts of the Murder, Rape and Enslavement of Native Americans During the California Gold Rush, 1848-1868. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press. pp. 1–30. ISBN 9780870139611. 
  9. ^ Magliari, M (August 2004). "FREE SOIL, UNFREE LABOR". Pacific Historical Review. 

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