A shameful past

How bloody raids and slave trade led to California’s rise as an ag powerhouse

Judge Cornelius J. Diefendorff administered the Indian indenture system in Colusa County during 1861 and 1862.

Judge Cornelius J. Diefendorff administered the Indian indenture system in Colusa County during 1861 and 1862.

Photograph reproduced from Justus H. Rogers, <i>Colusa County: Its History Retraced</i> (Orland, CA: 1891), p. 378.

About the author:
Michael Magliari is a history professor at Chico State. He (with the late Michael J. Gillis, also a Chico State history professor) is the author of a book on Chico’s founder, John Bidwell and California: The Life and Writings of a Pioneer, 1841-1900 (2003). Last spring, Magliari received the Pacific Historical Review’s Louis Knott Koontz Memorial Award for his article shedding light on the little-known history of Native American slavery in Northern California. He is currently working on a book tentatively titled Free State Slavery: Bound Indian Labor in California, 1850-1867.

This is an abridged version of a much longer article published last year: Michael F. Magliari, “Free State Slavery: Bound Indian Labor and Slave Trafficking in California’s Sacramento Valley, 1850-1864,” Pacific Historical Review, vol. 81 (May 2012), pages 155-192. The Pacific Historical Review is the official journal of the Pacific Coast Branch of the American Historical Association and is published quarterly by the University of California Press.

Opening a dark chapter of his memoirs published in 1897, Colusa County pioneer Henry Clay Bailey casually observed that “Not many of the present generation of Californians know that in the early ’50’s a regular slave trade was carried on in the mountains bordering the upper Sacramento Valley, from Clear Lake to Stony Creek.”

According to Bailey, “Vicious and desperate characters, for the ready gain to be obtained by the trade, would locate a small band of Indians, make a sudden dash upon the camp, revolvers in hand, shoot as many of the men as possible, and sometimes the women, too, and scatter the rest of the band. The raiders would then catch all the boys and girls between eight and fourteen years of age who had remained near the camp. Then they would start out for a market, perhaps to fill orders they had already obtained. These men would stop at nothing in their greed for gain, and in their eyes their captives were legitimate merchandise.”

The 67-year-old Bailey was not telling any western “tall tales.” On the contrary, Bailey accurately portrayed the essentials of the brutal human commerce that flourished in the ostensibly free state of California during the Gold Rush and Civil War eras. As little remembered today as it was in the 1890s, the frontier Indian slave trade recollected in Bailey’s memoirs was the illegal outgrowth of the quite legal system of unfree Native American labor authorized by the notorious Act for the Government and Protection of Indians.

Enacted by the first state legislature in April 1850, five months prior to California’s admission to the Union as a free state, the far-reaching statute was deliberately designed to help white employers cope with the high cost and uncontrollable mobility of free labor during the chaotic years of the Gold Rush. It did so by formalizing the regime of bound Native American labor established earlier under Mexico, a nation that had, like the new American state of California, officially outlawed chattel slavery.

California Sen. John Boggs held at least 13 young male Indian workers as bound “apprentices” on his Sacramento River estate near Princeton.

Photograph reproduced from Justus H. Rogers, <i>Colusa County: Its History Retraced</i> (Orland, CA: 1891), p. 36.

Preserving Mexico’s arrangements in full, the Indian Act of 1850 enabled white employers to procure unfree Indian workers through a system of local government convict-leasing or to ensnare free Indian laborers contractually in what amounted to legalized debt peonage. Meanwhile, labor could be extracted from Indian children taken into private homes as custodial wards under a popular provision that, in 1860, was replaced by an expanded program of indentured servitude or “apprenticeship” applicable to adults as well as children. The illegal slave trade, so vividly recalled by Bailey, quickly emerged to furnish the market for Indian wards and apprentices, who were sought primarily as household domestics or farm workers.

Although the world of unfree Indian labor in California remains a shadowy place, the survival of a small but valuable cache of Indian indentures in Bailey’s Colusa County affords a rare opportunity to examine the Golden State’s “peculiar institution” at unusually close range.

As one of California’s original 27 counties, Colusa County initially comprised all of present-day Glenn and Colusa counties, along with portions of Tehama County. Consequently, early Colusa County covered most of the western half of the flat and fertile Sacramento Valley. Although lacking in precious metals, the county grew up with the Gold Rush as a flourishing commercial supplier of grain, wool and beef.

Significantly for the shaping of local antebellum politics and debates over secession and slavery, a disproportionately large percentage of Colusa County’s pioneer settlers were southern Democrats who hailed from Missouri, Kentucky, and other slave states. For many of its white denizens, much of Indian servitude’s appeal undoubtedly lay in the opportunity it afforded them to replicate, on free soil, the small-scale slaveholding culture that typified the upcountry counties of the Upper South and Border states, and particularly those of Missouri’s Little Dixie region.

Access to bound Indian labor proved critical given Gold Rush California’s costly wage labor market. Even after the initial wave of gold fever subsided, farm wages remained remarkably high throughout the rest of the 1850s and on into the 1860s, hovering around $35 per month until each harvest season, when they jumped to anywhere from $40 to $75, and when daily rates ranged from $2 to $2.50 or more. Such prohibitive costs fueled Colusa County’s demand for bound Indian workers and drove the brutal slave trafficking that Bailey later described in his memoirs.

A Wintun man and his two children in early Glenn County, formerly part of Colusa County.

Photo courtesy of colusa county library

Considering the roles they were cast to fill, it is no surprise that most of the Indians bound to labor in Colusa County were captive women and children who were legally confined under the child custody and apprenticeship provisions contained in Section 3 of the 1850 Indian Act. Between 1850 and 1860, Section 3 enabled employers to gain hold of Native American children and keep them until they reached the age of majority, which the law defined as 18 years for males and 15 for females.

The code required employers to secure the consent of a child’s “parents or friends” and to appear with them before a justice of the peace, who would then issue a certificate of custody. In 1860, the legislature amended Section 3 and expanded its scope by transforming the custodial arrangement for Indian minors into a system of indentured servitude that, under the guise of “apprenticeship,” included not only Native American children but also adult Indians “held as prisoners of war” or determined by the courts to be vagrants. Transferring supervision from justices of the peace to county and district court judges, the revised statute required that employers train their Indian charges as apprentices “to trades, husbandry, or other employments.”

In the case of apprenticed minors, indentures could now be obtained by employers without the actual presence of “the parents or friends of the child” in court. The amended statute also permitted employers to retain Indian minors beyond the age of majority and well into adulthood.

The actual functioning of Section 3 is revealed quite clearly by the Indian indentures preserved at the Colusa County courthouse. These obscure and obsolete government records permit a fascinating, albeit incomplete, snapshot of bound Indian labor as it existed in the Sacramento Valley.

Documenting the names of 19 white employers and 32 Indian “apprentices,” the 18 extant indentures, recorded between March 1861 and May 1862, strongly suggest some larger patterns. Most striking, perhaps, is the fact that just one of the indentures involved more than one or two Indians.

The original records of Indian indentures in the mid-19th century are preserved at the historic Colusa County Courthouse (pictured circa 1908) in the city of Colusa.

Photo courtesy of U.S. Library of Congress

On March 18, 1861, John Boggs appeared before County Judge Cornelius J. Diefendorff and secured an indenture apprenticing 13 young Indian males ranging from 4 to 20 years of age. This appears to have been the only attempt made in the county to use indenture for the purpose of binding a substantial agricultural work force to personal service, and it is not surprising that the initiative came from Boggs.

A native of Missouri and the son of a wealthy slave owner, the shrewd and ambitious Boggs had only recently begun what proved to be a spectacularly successful career in local agriculture, finance, real estate and politics. A Forty-Niner who first made it big trading horses and mules, Boggs came to Colusa County in 1855 and purchased 6,000 acres along the west bank of the Sacramento River surrounding the home site he located near Princeton. By 1860, the 31-year-old rancher owned over $25,000 worth of real and personal property consisting mostly of land, cattle and horses. He was also in the midst of a nine-year stint on the county Board of Supervisors, the first stop in a distinguished public career that would include three terms in the California state Senate and a prestigious seat on the Stanford University Board of Trustees.

Unlike the wealthy and influential Boggs, the 13 young Indians bound to his service remained virtually anonymous figures. Neither the petition for indenture filed by Boggs nor the actual indenture granted by Judge Diefendorff gives their Indian names or tribal affiliations. Instead, each simply lists their adopted English or Spanish names and estimated ages. The documents also fail to shed much light on the circumstances surrounding their original acquisition. Boggs merely assured Diefendorff that the seven boys “under the ages of fifteen years … have been placed under my care and control by the parents of said Indians.” As for the rest, Boggs claimed that they “have placed themselves under my care and control at their own instance and request.”

Evidently taking Boggs at his word, Diefendorff approved his petition. In exchange for Boggs’ pledge to “clothe and suitably provide the necessaries of life” for his young servants, and to “instruct said Indians in the various branches of husbandry,” Diefendorff awarded Boggs the full “care, custody, control and earnings” of each one of them “until they shall attain the respective ages as provided” by the law, “according to their supposed ages herein stated.”

While exceptional in terms of the large number of Indians bound, the indenture granted to Boggs was nearly identical in all other respects to those awarded to applicants seeking just one or two Indian servants. These included not only farmers and ranchers but also merchants and professionals living in the county seat town of Colusa where, according to the Colusa Sun, labor remained “a scarce article.”

A Yuki Indian baby on the Round Valley Reservation in early Mendocino County.

Photo courtesy of colusa county library

Wealthy storeowner James Suydam, for instance, bound 7-year-old Lena to labor in his home as a domestic servant until she turned 21. In a similar agreement, former County Judge James Laing gained custody of 3-year-old Ella, who was to be held until age 21 and instructed in the duties of a domestic servant. Laing claimed to have the approval of Ella’s mother, “whose consent to the execution of this Indenture has been freely given.”

Most petitioners offered no such assurances to the court, and judges seemed quite content not to press the matter of parental consent. Declaring that “His parents being unknown,” County Judge John F. Wilkins bound 6-year-old Jack to a 19-year apprenticeship with rancher Maberry Davis. Justice Diefendorff apparently made no inquiries at all regarding parental whereabouts when binding Charley and Billy to the service of local cattlemen James and Simeon P. Willson, observing merely that the Willsons had held the boys in their custody for several years already. He then bound both until the age of 25.

Similarly bound “to household and farm work” was 7-year-old Bob, whom Diefendorff consigned in April 1862 to Agnes Liening, the only white female among Colusa County’s indenture holders. The wife of local farmer and businessman John H. Liening, Agnes Liening had temporarily taken charge of the household after her husband had volunteered for duty in the Union Army. Her indenture of young Bob underscored the important fact that adult white women contributed significantly to the local demand for unfree Indian labor in California.

In fact, standing beside more than half of Colusa County’s male indenture holders, including Suydam, Laing, and Davis, was a recently married wife caring for at least one newborn child, if not several others as well.

Schoolteacher Rosaline Durst had given birth to her first child just a year before her husband, county physician and newly elected state Assemblyman Daniel P. Durst, acquired an Indian servant girl for their home. On Oct. 8, 1861, Dr. Durst took custody of 5-year-old Agnes, who was ordered by Judge Diefendorff to “serve her master faithfully, honestly, and industriously, and all his lawful commands readily and cheerfully obey.” Specifically, Agnes was bound to aid Dr. Durst as a medical nurse, and to serve as a “general household assistant” to his wife.

“Indian fighters” like the notorious Harmon “Hi” Good (left) and his friend Alexander “Sandy” Young hunted down Indians and delivered them into bound servitude to white settlers in California.

Photo Courtesy of Larry V. Richardson Collection and Special Collections Dept., Meriam Library, CSU, Chico

Rosaline Durst undoubtedly encouraged her husband’s indenture of little Agnes since, like most of Colusa County’s pioneer white homemakers, she had much to gain from the compulsory labor of Indian children.

As Bailey later admitted, “All the early female settlers of California were overworked” and found little respite “from the never-ending household cares and grind of cooking, washing, scouring, milking, churning and all the other tread-wheel attachments of the times.” Indeed, “the women on the ranches were confronted with about twice as much work as they could do, and to get hired help, even Chinese, in that part of the state was well nigh impossible.” As Bailey lamented, “The result was overworked wives and unamiable husbands, for it did not improve the temper of the men to be half rancher and half domestic.”

Consequently, Harriet Bailey was just as eager as her husband to acquire an Indian servant. This they did in the fall of 1855, when they obtained custody of Lopez, an Indian boy “seven or eight years old.” According to Henry Bailey, Lopez was an orphan living in a nearby rancheria on Grand Island under the care of “his guardians, old Lewis and Sue,” who, when asked, “were only too glad” simply to “give him to us.” Thus, that easily, “We went home an Indian richer.”

While it is difficult to fully accept Bailey’s breezy account of how Lopez came into their possession, it is not hard at all to believe that the Baileys now felt richer, since Lopez quickly demonstrated the great value of unfree Indian labor. Indeed, the young couple did not take long to decide that “We were well pleased with him, as he soon learned to wash the dishes and do chores around the house” to Harriet Bailey’s great relief.

And certainly she needed assistance, since by then she already had two children and would go on eventually to bear 10 more. Overall, Lopez’s household utility led Henry Bailey to conclude that, “as a rule, fair success attended the experiment” of binding Indian children to domestic labor. “The young Indians were adept in caring for and amusing children; they were clever in inventing amusements and enjoyed the sport almost as much as their young charges,” although, “when it came to washing dishes or clothes or doing other household drudgery, there were usually protests, particularly from the boys.” Nevertheless, “the young servants materially lightened the burdens of the women of the house.”

Taken captive in 1862 by Harmon Good, young Nellie Weston labored as a domestic servant for Colusa County pioneers Jubal and Sarah Weston until her death in 1875.

Photograph courtesy of Cheryl (Weston) Sanderson

They also provided essential “assistance to the man in the fields,” and Bailey made sure to extract direct personal benefits from Lopez’s toil. “The second winter I put him to plowing” and soon “I was congratulating my self on my acquisition, as he was worth about twenty dollars a month.”

The high cash-value Bailey placed on Lopez’s unpaid labor helps explain the early and swift emergence of Northern California’s illegal but lucrative Indian slave trade. There was, as Bailey recalled, “an almost unlimited demand” for Indian children and young adults seized in murderous raids that primarily targeted the populous mountain tribes inhabiting the Coastal Range, particularly in Lake, Mendocino, and Humboldt counties immediately west of Colusa. Captives “were sold all over Sacramento County, and in some instances were taken as far as San Francisco.” Those distributed to settlers in Colusa and surrounding Sacramento Valley counties usually fetched fifty dollars. That, claimed Bailey, “was the standard price for the young redskins,” and anxious farmers “gladly paid it.”

Such prices proved irresistible to men like Milton Richardson and his brother, who worked a government land claim on Stony Creek while tending a commercial vegetable garden on the Sacramento River three miles from the Bailey farm. Although they “made considerable money,” the Richardsons “wanted to get cash quicker and easier,” so in 1853 they “went into the slave traffic.” With several collaborators, they established a base camp in the Coastal Range about 60 miles from Colusa and went “out on the hunt for small Indians.” At first successful, their plans for easy money went awry the following year when Milton Richardson, left behind at the camp to guard two young captive boys, was overpowered by his prisoners who seized an ax and decapitated him before making their escape.

Despite such risks, however, plenty of others willingly took Richardson’s place in the trade, as Lawrence “Sharkey” Moore related. A native of the Wintu and Salt Pomo rancheria at Stony Ford (now Stonyford) in the Coast Range foothills, Moore, born in 1901, learned from his parents and grandparents that “White men took a lot of Indian children” from the area “and took them away to sell them as slaves.” They “took the young girls and boys someplace in the valley” and “would find some family with [very young] children and have them take a boy to work on the ranch and have a girl help with the housework and take care of the children. They would get the Indian children and sell them. There was money in it.”

Throughout the turbulent 1850s and 1860s, slave raiding was both a major cause and effect of the chronic warfare waged between white settlers and Native Americans along the mining and agricultural frontiers of the Coastal, Cascade, and Sierra Nevada mountain ranges. Many Indian captives thus entered the slave trade as “prisoners of war,” and it often became difficult to distinguish between “slave hunters” like the Richardson brothers and the civilian “Indian fighters” who joined volunteer posses sent out to retaliate against local Indian attacks or, more frequently, alleged livestock thefts.

Colusa County pioneer Jubal Weston acquired the captive Indian girl Nellie from Harmon Good in 1862.

Photograph reproduced from Justus H. Rogers, <i>Colusa County: Its History Retraced</i> (Orland, CA: 1891), p. 386.

Among the best-known Indian fighters who at least occasionally supplied Colusa County and other Sacramento Valley communities with Indian captives was the notorious Harmon “Hi” Good. A homesteader living in eastern Tehama County’s Deer Creek Canyon, Good participated in several punitive expeditions against the Yana and other Indians residing along the western flanks of Mount Lassen, always returning with both scalps and captives.

During the particularly violent summer of 1862, Good led a 16-man posse of settlers on a two-month campaign against the Yana. Hoping to have his expenses reimbursed by the California treasury, Good penned several letters to Adj.-Gen. William Kibbe requesting a commission for his band as an official unit of the state militia. In one missive written on Aug. 8, 1862, Good informed Kibbe that he had recently attacked “a camp of about one hundred” Indians, killing 17 and capturing “six children—3 Boys and three Girls ranging from one to 8 years old.” Testifying bluntly to frontier California’s high demand for bound Indian labor, Good told Kibbe that two of the children, one boy and one girl, had already been delivered to white “families who wish to adopt them.” Good had no doubts about finding homes for the rest since “applicants are numerous who would take all I have or expect to bring in hereafter.”

Two of the settlers to whom Good distributed Indian children were Jubal and Sarah Weston, who had married in 1854 and begun raising a family in Colusa County near Monroeville, where they managed a hotel and ran livestock. Between 1861 and 1863, they relocated to the high Sierra town of Prattville where, according to the memoir later published by their son Frank, “my mother was given a young orphan Deer Creek Indian girl by Hi Good, an Indian fighter. This girl, Nellie, took care of me while I was young.” When the Westons returned to Colusa County and purchased a farm at St. Johns, they brought Nellie with them, and she remained in the Weston household until her death from consumption in 1875.

As long as pro-slavery Southern Democrats dominated local government, efforts to suppress the Indian slave trade remained sporadic and half-hearted. As Bailey conceded, “Few if any arrests were made” of kidnapping traffickers throughout the course of the 1850s. That quickly began to change, however, following the outbreak of the Civil War and the advent of the Republican Party in state and national politics. With the Republicans suddenly ascendant in Sacramento and Washington, anti-slavery state legislators teamed up with reforming federal Indian agents to eradicate California’s illicit human-trafficking. Their efforts culminated in April 1863, when, in the wake of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, the California Legislature abolished Indian indenture and “apprenticeship.”

Although Bailey would eventually acknowledge the critical role that bound Indian labor played in Colusa’s early development, most local whites chose to forget all about it as they entered the final two decades of the 19th century. In the verbose and triumphalist county histories penned by local newspaper editors Will Green and Justus Rogers, not a single mention appeared in regard to Indian indenture or kidnapping.

Instead, prominent white pioneers emerged as hardworking and virtuous men who single-handedly built the farms and towns that transformed a once-wild frontier. Chief among the builders stood Boggs, whose name, according to Green’s compilation, “is a synonyme of energy, enterprise, public-spirit, business integrity, large-hearted generosity, and loyalty to friendship.” Indeed, as Rogers went on to claim, “John Boggs has never been termed a selfish man; far from it; he is generous and obliging to a fault.” Bailey, however, knew better, and so too did Norri, Charley, Pico, and the 10 other Indian boys whose adopted names, though omitted by Rogers and Green, survive nonetheless on the Boggs indenture filed at the Colusa County courthouse.