It Happened Here: A History of Slavery in California

In the early statehood era, the "free state" of California allowed multiple forms of slavery, posing difficult questions for how to honor that history.

In the 1850s, Los Angeles was a dusty outpost in the sparsely settled southern half of the young state of California. Amidst all of the typical trappings of the old West — a familiar litany thanks to the motion picture industry that would emerge there more than half a century later — something peculiar was going on, something few contemporary Californians know about.

“Los Angeles had its slave mart,” the lawyer Horace Bell wrote in his memoirs. “Only the slave at Los Angeles was sold fifty two times a year as long as he lived, which did not generally exceed one, two, or three years.” 

Bell is describing California’s system of Indian “apprenticeship,” which legalized the de-facto enslavement of Indigenous children and adults convicted of a crime from 1850 to 1863. As Bell’s account suggests, it was a huge factor in the genocide of California’s Indigenous people, whose population declined from about 150,000 in 1845 to 30,000 in 1870. 

The apprenticeship system is just one form of unfree labor, either involuntary or without pay, that helped build California in the early days of its statehood. Despite being admitted to the Union as a free state, in the 1850s California was home to enslaved Black people toiling in bondage. Chinese, Sonoran, Chilean, and Hawaiian laborers were brought over under the auspices of debt peonage; and a significant number of Chinese women were enslaved in the sex trade. 

This history does not easily fit with California’s self conception as one of “the freest places in America,” says Stacey Smith, a professor of history at Oregon State University and author of Freedom’s Frontier: California and the Struggle Over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and Reconstruction. Not only does an honest reckoning with this history begin to honor and speak truth about the people who were brutally victimized as part of California’s development, it also provides a more accurate understanding of the forces that shaped the state and the nation during one of its most challenging moments.  

The unfree labor landscape of early American California helps illustrate California’s complex role in the lead-up to the Civil War, blurring overly-simplistic North/South, free/slave binaries. It’s key to understanding how and why California lawmakers spearheaded the Chinese Exclusion Act, America’s first immigration restriction targeting a specific nationality, and its most baldly racist. Starting from these historical episodes, it becomes easier to make sense of explicitly racist state-level policies on housing, immigration, and other issues from the more recent past.

“There is a tendency to really underplay and ignore that broader history of labor exploitation, racism and exclusion,” Smith says. “It’s important to think of California as less exceptional and more like the rest of the nation than we have heretofore understood.”

Enslaved 49ers 

California’s status as a free state was by no means a foregone conclusion. During the Gold Rush, white Southerners made up 36 percent of California’s American-born population. This group was a formidable voting bloc at the state’s 1849 Constitutional Convention and beyond. 

Delegates at the Constitutional Convention “wanted California to receive statehood by any means,” says Taylor Bythewood-Porter, a curator at the California African American Museum who worked on the 2018 exhibition, “California Bound: Slavery on the New Frontier, 1848-1865.” Delegates were thinking, “We need everything that comes with being a state. We need military help. We need money. If we say that we want to be a slave state, that would provoke controversy, and it would delay statehood.”

At the convention, after a contentious debate, delegates also decided not to give Indigenous people the right to vote, a move that would pave the way for their enslavement. A proposal to ban Black people from the state, inspired by the one Oregon Country adopted in 1844, was also considered but did not pass. In fact, the mastermind behind that law, Peter Burnett, was California’s first civilian American governor. 

Once statehood was granted in September 1850, California lawmakers had a problem. While only a small group of Southerners had brought their slaves with them to the gold fields (approximately 500 enslaved Black people were brought here, Smith estimates), they were supported by a larger community of pro-slavery voters, legislators, and jurists who were willing to fight for their fellows’ “property rights.” Some judges and elected officials argued that the state constitution was a “declaration of principle,” and did not actually free enslaved people. 

It was in this climate that California enacted a fugitive slave law in 1852, which was continuously extended until 1855. It stated that enslaved Black people who were brought to California before it was a state remained the rightful property of their slaver, and could be returned if they escaped.

This meant that through the first half of the 1850s, enslaved Black people from the South continued to labor in bondage on California’s free soil. Some of these enslaved people lived and worked in small, isolated, self-policed enclaves of Southerners. In other cases, slavers  would lease enslaved people to work in mines or hotels, collecting the profits back home in Dixie. 

The fiercest opposition to these arrangements often came not from committed abolitionists, but from white miners who resented the unfair competition. “Some of the biggest challenges to the slaveholding enclaves come from these white miners who say, ‘We’re not here to free the slaves, we just don’t want them competing with us,’” Smith says. 

Gradually, communities of free Black people began forming, which would pool resources to buy the freedom of enslaved people, or fight legal battles on their behalf. Free Black people in San Francisco helped support Archy Lee, whose enslaver Charles Stovall argued that federal fugitive slave laws supported his right to claim his “property” in California in 1858. The California Supreme Court, which included Peter Burnett, concurred with Stovall, and ordered Lee returned to him, in a decision historians would call “California’s Dred Scott case.” 

Eventually, Lee won his freedom on an appeal and moved to Canada with a community of free Black people in the wake of an unsuccessful law that once again proposed banning Black people from moving to the state. Still, the public outrage generated by Lee’s case helped turn state politics in an affirmatively abolitionist direction — nearly a decade after California was admitted to the Union as a free state. 

The California African American Museum’s 2018 Exhibition, “California Bound,” told the story of slavery in the Golden State. (Photo: Brian Forest)

‘Apprenticeship’ & Genocide 

Meanwhile, a different form of slavery was being practiced with the full legal backing of California’s government. 

One of the state legislature’s first orders of business upon formation was the passage of the 1850 Act for the Government Protection of Indians. This little-known “apprenticeship” law is one of California’s most shameful. It allowed white people to take custody of Indigenous minors as well as adults convicted of a crime, and put them to work without pay. For many whites, it was an attractive business proposition in a state where farm labor was four times more expensive than in Pennsylvania or New York. 

The law institutionalized more efficient forms of existing labor relations from pre-American California. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Spanish missions were sustained by the forced labor of California’s Indigenous people. During Mexican rule, Mission Indians, whose communities and food sources were no longer intact, were swept into a quasi-feudal labor system in the state’s vast land-grant ranchos. 

While mission and rancho labor systems dominated the central and southern coastal parts of the state, in the foothills and far north, some communities of Indigenous people remained relatively undisturbed by colonists. That all changed during the Gold Rush, as prospectors and settlers fanned out across the remotest parts of the new state.

Thanks to other laws passed in the early 1850s, which barred Indigenous people not only from voting but from serving as jurors, judges, or witnesses in criminal cases, white people were free to push the boundaries of the state’s apprenticeship laws to the cruelest possible outcomes. These anti-Indian laws “amounted to a virtual grant of impunity to those who would attack them or commit crimes against them or grossly exploit them,” says Benjamin Madley, a professor of history at UCLA and the author of An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846-1873

Groups of slave raiders marauded through Indian villages, taking children from the arms of their parents and killing adults who resisted, according to Smith. These children would then be sold off to white households for “adoption,” in other words, to become domestic slaves. The second mayor of Los Angeles, Benjamin Davis Wilson, took advantage of this system to “adopt” two enslaved Black girls, Emily and Maria, from his wife’s family in St. Louis. 

The criminal justice system forced adults into cycles of criminalization that kept them available as slave labor. In Los Angeles, eye-witness observer Horace Bell described how Indigenous men would be leased to farmers by the week. Their pay came in the form aguardiente, a kind of unrefined rum, which often provided a pretext to arrest them once again for public drunkenness or vagrancy, starting the process anew. “Thousands of honest, useful people were absolutely destroyed this way,” Bell wrote. 

Madley doesn’t think Bell was exaggerating. Census records show that the Indian population of Los Angeles declined from 3,693 in 1850 to just 219 in 1870. Slave drivers and baby snatchers played a very direct role in genocide. In addition to the murder that accompanied countless raids of Indian villages, Madley documents instances of Indians being worked or beaten to death. In other cases, enslaved people were abandoned in the wilderness after their labor was complete. Eighteen men starved to death this way after the 1852 harvest at Rancho San Pablo, in present day Richmond. Many Indigenous women, known by the derogatory term, “squaws,” (as in the soon to be re-named Squaw Valley ski resort) were captive in sexual slavery or forced marriages. 

Madley estimates that between 9,000 and 16,000 California Indians were killed by non-Native whites between 1845 and 1873, not including the many who were worked to death or who died while incarcerated. 

“It was in the newspapers, people knew what was going on,” Madley says. “And it seems that a lot of people had California Indian slaves.” 

Multiple agents of the Bureau of Indian Affairs described what was taking place in Calfiornia as “slavery,” with the most brazen instances showing up in the rugged and pro-Confederate North Coast counties. In 1860, as California expanded the scope of its apprenticeship laws, making it easier for slave raiders to kidnap children and adults, reports of Indian slavery in California were made on the floor of the U.S. Senate, but no action was taken as the nation descended into Civil War. 

In 1863, five months after the emancipation proclamation, California, now firmly under the control of pro-Union Republicans, like Gov. Leland Stanford, repealed its Indian apprenticeship laws. These prohibitions were strengthened by the 13th Amendment, which California immediately ratified in 1865 — unlike subsequent Reconstruction-era constitutional amendments.  

These two young Indigenous women, pictured in 1866, may have been functionally enslaved as part of California’s “apprenticeship” system, which was made illegal in 1863 but persisted for years after. (Photo: Library of Congress)

However, there is evidence that slave labor persisted. In 1867, the Indian Affairs Commissioner reported that Indian slavery was “not uncommon” in California. As late as 1869, farmers lined up outside the Los Angeles mayor’s office on Monday mornings to obtain Indian convict labor. It wasn’t until 1873 that Indians could testify in court, a civil right that significantly curtailed forced labor, although convict leasing remained legal until 1937. 

California was among numerous Western States that turned a blind eye to Indian slavery after the emancipation proclamation; the territories of New Mexico and Utah, which encompassed present day Arizona and Nevada were also guilty of the practice. In response, Congress in 1867 passed the Peonage Abolition Act, which technically ended all forms of debt peonage, but specifically targeted forced Indian labor in the West. 

The law was one of the few in American history that targeted Indigenous slavery, a poorly studied historical institution that has seen renewed interest in recent years. Historian Andrés Reséndez of UC Davis, the author of The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America, estimates that between the time of Columbus and the end of the 19th Century, between 2.5 million 5 million Indigenous people across the Americas were enslaved. In the United States, Indigenous slavery has been documented in a diverse variety of locations, from the colonial Northeast to the Antebellum South, Alaska to California.  

Peonage & Indentured Servitude 

The slave labor of Black and Indigenous people were far from the only forms of unfree labor that built early American California.

During the gold rush, a dizzying array of people from around the world came to California under a huge variety of circumstances. “The gold fields are one of the most ethnically and racially diverse places on the globe,” says Smith. “The expectations that people from the Eastern United States have, that there are two kinds of labor, slave and free, collide with all of these regionally distinctive labor systems from other parts of the world.” 

Chilean and Sonoran (people from northern Mexico) peones were brought by patrones, essentially feudal lords, to work in the gold fields. While these laborers came under less than free conditions, it was difficult for patrones to control their subordinates once they arrived in California. There are reports of ships from Latin America sailing through the Golden Gate and passengers jumping ship and swimming ashore to go seek their own fortune. 

Hawaiian laborers were leased to American companies to work in California for three-year periods by their aristocratic ruling class, the Ali’i, who would then get a cut of the workers’ earnings. While their contracts stipulated that the workers must be brought home after their work period, many ended up staying on in California, working in the maritime trades or inter-marrying with California Indians.

In the early part of the Gold Rush, Chinese “coolies,” an anachronistic British term describing indentured laborers from Asia, were brought under similar arrangements, with American or Western companies paying for their travel and then forcing them to work off the debt. But after 1851, most Chinese men came by way of their own countrymen, through the credit-ticket system, facilitated by the Chinese Six Companies in San Francisco. These men were in a form of debt bondage, but it was not as vicious or strict as other forms, particularly the coolie labor taking place in Cuba, where conditions in some cases resembled those faced by enslaved Black people. 

Many Chinese men came to California, which they called Jinshan, Gold Mountain, of their own volition, similar to migrants from across the United States and elsewhere in the world. Guangdong (Canton), where most of the early Chinese migrants to California originated from, was in a turbulent moment, suffering from natural disasters, colonialism, and the Opium Wars, leading many able-bodied men to leave the homeland. 

Still, labor conditions for Chinese workers in America were often extremely exploitative and unjust, especially during the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad in the 1860s. Chinese laborers were paid 30 percent less than their white counterparts, and unlike them, had to purchase their own food, according to Stanford’s Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project. While railroad company records didn’t include the names of individual Chinese laborers — a sign of the way they were treated — historians believe anywhere from 150 to 1,000 Chinese men died during construction of the railroad. 

Sex Slavery in San Francisco

Many Chinese women, on the other hand, did not come to California of their own free will, and were not paid at all for their labor once they got here. The majority of Chinese women in California in the first two decades of California’s statehood were listed on census records as prostitutes. The late historian Lucie Cheng Hirata documented their experience, from the early 1850s, when Chinese sex workers were more likely to be highly successful “free agents,” taking advantage of the extreme gender imbalance of the Gold Rush, to the more organized and exploitative forms of sex work that emerged later. 

Starting in the mid-1850s, tong secret societies began to control of the sex trade in San Francisco’s Chinatown and beyond, transforming it into a coercive and violent form of labor. In China, brothel agents would dupe women into believing that they were coming to California to join a pre-arranged marriage or another opportunity. Sometimes, families sold their daughters willingly based on false promises of their circumstances in California, according to Hirata. 

Invariably, upon arriving, these women faced incredibly difficult and dangerous lives. Some did not receive wages; many who did were extorted by the tongs at pain of whipping or torture. Brothel owners would go to extraordinary lengths to prevent escape, using their own “police forces” or going through the American legal system and claiming the escaped woman had stolen property. White San Francisco leaders abetted these systems through the 1850s and ’60s. Prominent members of society owned the brothels and collected rents as high as double the going rate; police officers and politicians received bribes and patronized the brothels. 

Like many Indigenous slave laborers, Chinese sex workers were often treated as disposable, and had little agency over their own circumstances. Hirata documents instances of women being beaten to death by brothel owners. Suicide and opium addiction were rampant. Even the highest-status prostitutes could be bought and sold to other brothels, or to a wealthy man looking for a wife. 

Justifying Chinese Exclusion

The conditions under which Chinese women and men labored were widely cited by anti-Chinese racists looking to stem the tide of Chinese immigration. Despite their different circumstances, Chinese sex workers and coolie laborers were both characterized as slaves so California politicians could enact discriminatory immigration policies while technically sidestepping questions of race. “After slavery is abolished in the United States, people who are opposed to Chinese immigration can grab on to anti-slavery as a way of justifying exclusion,” Smith says. 

Anti-Chinese arguments, masquerading as anti-slavery arguments, were one of the reasons that California was the only former free state to not immediately ratify the 14th and 15th amendments, which enshrined a much more inclusive definition of citizenship. (California symbolically ratified those amendments in 1959 and 1962, respectively.) The Page Law of 1875, a prelude to the broader Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, explicitly banned Chinese sex workers and forced laborers from the U.S. 

Chinese exclusion was architected by abolitionist California Republicans. In his inaugural address as governor in 1862, Leland Stanford became the first politician to publicly endorse the policy. “It will afford me great pleasure to concur with the Legislature in any constitutional action having for its object the repression of the immigration of the Asiatic races,” he said. Eventually, Stanford would acknowledge that he owed his great wealth as a railroad tycoon to Chinese laborers. 

The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act was framed by its author, California Senator John F. Miller, as the only way to prevent “all the speculators in human labor, all the importers of human muscle, all the traffickers in human flesh, to ply their infamous trade without impediment under the protection of the American flag, and empty the seething, teeming slave pens of China upon the soil of California.”

The law passed, and was continually extended in subsequent decades, significantly curtailing immigration from China for 60 years. It was America’s first broad immigration ban, and the first moment in American politics in which the rhetoric of immigration as invasion was invoked. 

Of course, labor was not the only reason behind these policies and beliefs, it was merely a pretext. California’s politics and newspapers were full of white supremacist views that painted Chinese people as subhuman. Just as with California’s Indigenous people, this rhetoric was translated into policy with deadly consequence. An 1863 state law that barred Chinese people from testifying in court meant that police didn’t think it was worthwhile to intervene in the 1871 massacre and lynching of at least 17 Chinese people in Los Angeles.

“The decisions and actions made by people in the past actively affect our future,” says Bythewood-Porter of the California African American Museum. “I think it’s really important to stay focused on these things, because they repeat themselves.” 

Former President Donald Trump’s draconian rhetoric on “rapist” immigrants and the “Chinese virus” follow in the footsteps of Miller and other supporters of the Chinese Exclusion Act. As recently as 1994, similar views were affirmed by Governor Pete Wilson and a majority of California voters, when they passed Proposition 187, which prevented undocumented immigrants from accessing healthcare, education, and other government services. Most of the law was quickly struck down by a federal judge for being unconstitutional. 

California’s legacy of unfree labor continues to be felt in the state in many other ways; from the inter-generational consequences of the Native American genocide, to the shockingly high number of confederate memorials and honorific names that still exist here, the most outside of the South. 

In California’s self image “of surfers and Disneyland,” Madley says, “there’s still not a lot of room in public consciousness today for this very dark history upon which all of that is actually built. Fortunately, I think that is changing.”

As a member of the state Assembly, California Secretary of State Shirley Weber spearheaded a bill to study reparations for African Americans in California. (Photo courtesy Shirley Weber)

There are efforts underway to add ethnic studies to school curricula, seeking to paint a more accurate picture of California history, and race relations, in the collective memory. In 2019, 156 years after California’s system of Indigenous slavery was abolished, Gov. Gavin Newsom became the first leader in state history to apologize to California’s Indigenous people, and refer to their mistreatment as “genocide.” Newsom also created a Truth and Healing commission, composed of Indigenous leaders to “clarify the record — and provide their historical perspective — on the troubled relationship between tribes and the state.” The commission will produce annual updates on their findings until releasing a final report in 2025.

As a member of the state assembly, Shirley Weber, who last week was sworn in as California’s Secretary of State, spearheaded a bill to study reparations for African Americans. Weber sees California’s effort as a way to jumpstart the goal of reparations at the federal government. “If anybody could really, honestly have a conversation and wrestle with the issue of reparations, it will probably be California,” she says. 

The commission created by the bill will begin to report back its findings and recommendations approximately a year from now. Weber says she expects the commission to focus on correcting systemic issues, rather than simply providing cash payments to Black people. “We have to look at the education system, we have to look at the banking system, home ownership, wealth in California,” she says. “You’ve got all these systems that have been working against this population and very little response to it.” 

California’s early statehood era marks a dark origin point for many of these injustices — when “everything in the [state] government basically supported slavery,” Weber says — that is all too often forgotten. Acknowledging that history, and moving forward in a more just way, will not be simple or easy. But at least those difficult conversations are beginning, Weber says. “It is a massive task to ask ourselves the question of, how do we try to begin the process of repairing this?” 

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