Slavery in the Golden State
Chico State professor documents a little known, shameful period in California’s history
Did slavery once exist in California? Most Californians, remembering their fourth-grade history classes, would say it did not, and history buffs might point out that California entered the union in 1850 as a “free state,” not a “slave state.”
Technically they’re correct, says Michael Magliari, a professor of history at Chico State University. The kind of slavery practiced in the South prior to the Civil War never existed in California. But in the same year California became a state, its Legislature also passed the first of several laws that effectively allowed slavery for the next 17 years.
The slaves were not African Americans, but rather California Indians. And they weren’t held in chattel but rather “bound” to their Anglo masters by a net of insidious laws designed to keep them in place, beginning with the so-called Act for the Government and Protection of Indians of 1850, otherwise known as the Indian Act.
As Magliari says, “The practical effect of [these laws] was that the Indians entangled by them had no control over their lives.” They were, in a word, slaves. If they tried to run away, they could be hunted down, brought back and whipped for their transgression.
Magliari, who is the author (with the late Michael J. Gillis, also a Chico State history teacher) of the definitive modern book on Chico’s founder, John Bidwell and California: The Life and Writings of a Pioneer, 1841-1900 (2004), is working on a book about Indian slavery in California, a subject he has been researching for years.
The subject has been ignored for too long, expecially in the schools, he says: “It never makes it into textbooks. Only a few specialists know about it. I find almost no one’s heard of it when it comes up as a subject.”
Magliari has already published a lengthy (40 pages) article on Indian slavery: “Free Soil, Unfree Labor: Cave Johnson Couts and the Binding of Indian Workers in California, 1850-1867,” in the August 2004 issue of the Pacific Historical Review. The review is the journal of the Pacific Coast Branch of the American Historical Association.
The article’s subject, Cave Johnson Couts, was a transplanted Tennessean and slave owner—Magliari describes him as “a violent, racist Southerner"—who came to California in 1849 as an officer in the U.S. Army. A graduate of West Point, where he was 37th in a class of 39, he was among the occupying forces in California following the defeat of Mexico in the War of 1848. He left the Army, settled in the San Diego area, married the daughter of a wealthy ranchero, and began buying property and developing political influence in the area.
As the owner of the 23,000-acre Rancho Guajome in sparsely populated north San Diego County, Couts needed workers to maintain his sprawling cattle ranch. The only people available, however, were either Mexican or Indian, specifically members of the local Luiseño tribe of Mission Indians. The latter had become skilled farmers and pastoralists under the tutelage of the Spanish missionaries and were highly prized as workers.
Of the 32 permanent employees Couts had on his ranch, more than half were Luiseño, with women and children serving as domestic servants and men working as gardeners, shepherds and vaqueros. The remaining jobs were filled by Anglos and Hispanics, but they were often quick to quit and given to leaving without paying their bills run up at the ranch store, or tienda.
The Indian laborers also ran up debts at the store and then ran off, but unlike the others they didn’t go far and didn’t have to be sued for Couts to get his money back. More important, under terms of the 1850 Indian Act, they were subject to arrest by Couts, who could then bring them before a local justice, who would then compel them to return to work—a system known as debt peonage.
In addition, following passage of an amendment to the Indian Act in 1860, Couts was able to obtain a judge’s order binding several Indian workers to him as indentured servants. He also made use of Indian convicts—many arrested on vague charges of “vagrancy"—who were bound over to him as laborers.
Couts had yet another way of obtaining Indian workers. In September 1853, he was elected justice of the peace for San Luis Rey township, which position he used to purchase several Indian children and bind them to his service by granting legal custody to his wife.
“Ultimately,” Magliari writes, “whether bound by debt, indenture, or criminal conviction, all Indian workers were held in place by the constant threat of legally sanctioned violence, a threat made real by Couts’s frequent resort to the lash.”
The system that enabled Couts to force Indians to work for him lasted until Congress passed the Anti-Peonage Act of 1867. Designed to benefit primarily African-American laborers in the South, it was used by reform-minded Indian agents in California to counter employers like Couts.
By then, however, demographic changes were making the use of Indian workers less feasible. As Magliari writes, “The ravages of disease, expropriation, and war unleased by the Gold Rush had a devastating impact on the state’s indigenous peoples. While California’s non-Indian population leapt from an estimated 15,000 in 1845 to over 530,000 by 1870, the number of Native Americans plummeted from 150,000 to a mere 30,000.”
By 1870, there were far more farms and ranches, nearly 24,000, than ever before, and they required a new labor force, one composed of white Americans, many of them former miners, and European immigrants, augmented by Chinese immigrants.
By 1874, when he died of a ruptured aneurysm, Magliari writes, Cave Johnson Couts “was little more than an angry anachronism whose death marked the end of a compulsory labor system that was no longer needed, nor tolerated.”
During a recent interview in his small, book-packed campus office, Magliari noted that Couts was far from alone in enslaving Indians. Other ranchers up and down the state followed similar practices, and the kidnapping of Indian women and children to be sold into indenture wasn’t uncommon, either.
He’s finished his research and is ready to begin writing the book, which he described as “Couts writ large.” The reason he started with Couts, he explained, was because “the lord of Guajome” kept meticulous accounts of his financial dealings. “He was a terrible guy, but a terrific record keeper,” which made it easy to document his treatment of Indians.
The timing is right. “A whole movement recently is starting to recast slavery in America,” he explained, by calling attention to its widespread existence. A good example is Alan Gallay’s book The Indian Slave Trade, which won the Bancroft Prize in 2003. Indians were enslaved in New Mexico, Magliari pointed out, as well as by early Mormon settlers in the Great Basin.
“Eventually all of this will be reflected in the textbooks,” he continued. “In 10 or 20 years the history texts will tell a triangular story of whites, blacks and Indians [involved in slavery], and it won’t be just in the Southern states, either.”
Magliari said his studies have proven a fact of economic life to him: “When people need cheap labor, they’ll do anything to get it.”