Slavery in California

Various forms of involuntary servitude existed in California before Anglo-Europeans arrived. Some Native American tribes practiced slavery. When the Spaniards arrived in the eighteenth century they held slaves and introduced an economic system that included involuntary servitude. Early Anglo-European settlers in California adopted Mexican social and economic practices that treated Indians as chattels. Mexico passed legislation in 1823 that banned slavery. (A primary motivation was to discourage Anglo-European settlement in Texas.) The law did nothing to change the status of the peon in Mexico and the prohibition against slave holding was not vigorously enforced. Very little changed in California. It should be noted that even the status of the Indian neophyte in the California Mission System might be viewed by some as a form of involuntary servitude.

In the late 1840s the issue of slavery was hotly debated in the United States. The twenty-six states then composing the Union were equally divided - thirteen states permitted slave holding and thirteen did not. Following the defeat of Mexico in 1847, vast new areas were added to the United States and a furious debate erupted as to whether or not the new territories were to permit slaveholding or not. In California the gold rush was at its height and many of the new arrivals were southerners favoring slave holding. Not a few brought their slaves with them. In October 1849, in the absence of action by the United States Congress, California held a constitutional convention to determine how it would be governed. One of the questions that needed to be resolved was how the state would deal with the slavery issue.

Public opinion in California was split on the subject but a majority was opposed to slavery being introduced into the state. Northern abolitionists argued against the practice on moral grounds and Anglo-European miners did not want competition from slave-holders in the gold fields. Southerners wanted the right to bring their slaves with them into the gold fields and to establish agricultural enterprises similar to those in the South. The chairman of the committee that drafted the constitution was William Gwin, a slave-holder from Tennessee. Gwin was more interested in gaining control of the Democratic Party than he was in winning any specific political battle in the convention. He made no effort to write slavery into the new constitution. (For which he was later criticized by Southern leaders in Congress.) In 1849 California presented itself to Congress and the world as a "free state" and sent a balanced representation to the U.S. Senate. The Southern slave-holder, Willaim Gwin, and the Northern abolitionist, John Fremont, were the first two senators elected to represent the state.

Although they rejected slavery, the members of the convention reflected the racism that permeated California at the time. Their constitution specifically denied non-white persons many fundamental rights granted to white citizens thus ensuring the continued dominance of the Anglo-European in California. They even considered a provision that would have banned all black persons from entering California - free or slave. (They did not go that far because they feared that it would delay California's entry into the Union.) Less than two months after the constitution was drafted, in December 1849, at the urging of the state's newly elected governor, Peter H. Burnett, the state assembly actually passed a bill that would prohibit the immigration of free blacks into California. When the bill got to the state senate, Senator David C. Broderick managed to kill it through parliamentary maneuver.

Even after the constitution was ratified, slavery continued to exist in California. There were serious loopholes in the new law and the government's ability to enforce it throughout the state was weak. Most slave owners did little to inform their slaves of the new law and continued to treat them as their personal property. Slaves continued to be bought and sold and hired out to work for wages that were paid to the slave-holder. As time passed, however, slave masters found it increasingly difficult to maintain control of their slaves. Many slaves simply stopped being slaves. Some managed to get completely away from their masters. Others were caught and punished. A series of important court trials began to shape the legal status of all blacks in the state.

One of the first of these cases occurred in Sacramento in 1849. A white man sued a black man who he said was a slave. The white man contended that the black man owed him a sum of money. If he did not pay it the white man would sue his owner. American law at the national level condoned slavery. Mexican law did not. California was not yet a state and the judge ruled that Mexican law applied to the case, consequently the black man was not a slave and had to pay the money. The case set the important precedent that legally slavery did not exist in California.

In March 1851, the Frank case opened in San Francisco. Frank had been brought into California by his slave master in 1850 to work in the mines. In 1851 he ran away and was recaptured by his owner in San Francisco. The judge ruled that the federal Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 did not apply in this case because Frank took his freedom in California and did not cross state lines in the process. Furthermore the slave-owner could not prove that Frank was his slave even though Frank had admitted that he had been his slave. Here the judge cited an 1850 California law that made the testimony of non-whites inadmissible in California courts.

In January 1852, California Assemblyman Henry A. Crabb, a Southerner, introduced a Fugitive Slave Law that would make it illegal for slaves to run away from their owners in California. It passed into law in April 1852 and was challenged in the Perkins case later that year. In the Perkins case the state supreme court found that, under the California Fugitive Slave Law, Robert Perkins must be returned to his master. This precedent prevailed until April 1855 when the law failed to be renewed by the state legislature. As soon as it lapsed, a judge in San Jose ruled in the Mitchell case that because the California Fugitive Slave Law no longer was in effect Mitchell, who had escaped bondage inside the state, was not to be returned to his owner.

The last and most famous of these cases took place in Sacramento and San Francisco in 1858. On January 7, 1858, Archy Lee appeared before Judge Robert Robinson in Sacramento. Lee, a black, had been brought into California by Charles Stovall in the fall of 1857 and hired out for wages. Stovall took a position teaching school for several months after which he decided to send Lee back to Mississippi. Lee ran away rather than return. Stovall found him and had him arrested. On January 26 Judge Robinson declared Lee a free man, but he was immediately arrested again on a warrant issued by State Supreme Court Justice David Terry. Terry was a prominent Southerner known to be sympathetic to slave holders. On February 11, 1858, Judge Terry found for Stovall saying that he was young and did not know the laws of California. This produced a howl of protest and ridicule from the black community and it's supporters.

Lee was bound over to Stovall who prepared to take him back to Mississippi by ship. While Lee was being transferred to the ship he was once again arrested - this time by his friends who wanted to see justice done. The venue was the district court in San Francisco, Judge T.W. Freelon presiding. Judge Freelon overturned the Terry decision and declared Lee to be a free man. Once again, however, Lee was arrested before he could leave the court room. This time it was a federal marshal. Stovall brought the case to the attention of the United States Commissioner, William Penn Johnson, claiming that the national Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 applied. On April 14, 1858, Johnson ruled for Lee saying that, because he did not cross state lines to seek his freedom, the 1850 law did not apply. This time Lee did indeed go free.

The backlash against the legal decisions that were viewed by some as unduly favoring blacks came in that same year. In March 1858, Assemblyman J.B. Warfield introduced a new anti-immigration bill in the state legislature. (A similar bill had been narrowly defeated in 1857.) Another bill that would ban Chinese immigration was already being considered. The Sierra placers were running out and many Anglo-European miners were unemployed. Blacks and other minorities were viewed as undercutting their economic well-being. Warfield's bill would ban the entry of blacks into California and require all blacks then in the state to register with the government and carry their registration papers with them at all times. It passed easily in the assembly, but was stopped in the senate by parliamentary maneuvering. Many within the black community were fearful that it would pass in the next session and emigrated to Canada where the Fraser River gold rush was in progress. Events after 1858 were dominated by the run up to the war between the states. The legislature and the courts turned to other more pressing issues than the status of the black slave in California.

During the 1850s and into the 1860s various political stratagems were considered by a few die hard politicians with the aim of somehow introducing slavery into California. One of the more persistent was the hope that California could be divided into two states. Slavery would be prohibited in the north and permitted in the south. During the Civil War some hoped to establish a separate republic that would stand aloof from the war. In that group were a few who argued that the new republic should permit slavery. None of these ideas got off of the ground and slavery was successfully eliminated from the state. Unfortunately racial prejudice has continued long after and successfully denied minorities full access to the rights and privileges that the Anglo-European enjoys in California. Enormous progress has been made, but it is slow going, and there is obviously more that needs to be done.