Slavery: California’s hidden sin
California’s image as the enlightened edge of the country doesn’t include the dark chapter on slavery. That’s a story being uncovered by a team of intrepid Sacramento historians.
Californians have long believed themselves innocent of one great American sin. Our ancestors may have participated in the destruction of American Indian tribes and entered the union as a group of rabble-rousing, gold-grubbing pleasure seekers, but at least young California could say it joined the United States in 1850 under a constitution that banned the worst of human inventions—slavery, the belief that one person could own another, profit solely from his labor, demand full obedience, even break up his family at will.
We may like to believe the Golden State was born free, but one local expert in black history and his team of research assistants can prove that early Californians were guilty of all these sins, and more.
The state’s first constitution begins, “All men are by nature free and independent …” and states more explicitly: “Neither slavery, nor involuntary servitude, unless for the punishment of crimes, shall ever be tolerated in this State.” And yet old newspaper accounts, documented court cases and bills of sale indicating slaves had to buy their freedom are now being unearthed in library and museum collections across the state.
For instance, the following advertisement can be found on microfilm in the California History Room at the California State Library on N Street. It was printed in the Sacramento Transcript newspaper on April 1, 1850, after California’s first constitution was finalized: “For sale: A valuable Negro girl aged 18 bound by indentures for two years. Said girl is of amiable disposition, a good washer, ironer and cook. For particulars, apply to the Vanderbilt Hotel of J.R. Harper.”
According to another ad printed in the San Francisco Daily Herald in 1852, slaveholders not only brought slaves into California illegally and against the wishes of anti-slavery activists, they also tried to sell them on Sacramento’s J Street.
“On Saturday, the 26th, I will sell at public auction a Negro man, he having agreed to said sale in preference of being sent home. I value him at $300, but if any or all of his abolition brethren wish to show that they have the first honorable principle about them, they can have the opportunity of releasing said Negro from bondage by calling on the subscriber at the Southern House previous to that time and paying $100. I make this great sacrifice in value of the property to satisfy myself whether they prefer paying a small sum to release him or play their old game and steal him. If not redeemed, the sale will take place in front of the Southern House, 87 J Street, at 10:00 of said day.”
Another ad from the same year and the same paper advertised a $100 reward for the return of a black girl who’d run away and changed her name.
If there were no slaves in a free California, how could there be news of their sale and their escape? The reference to abolitionists’ “old game” even implies that an Underground Railroad-type network of safe houses might have regularly helped such men and women to freedom.
Gold was discovered in California in 1848, and all manner of Americans swarmed over land and sea to the gold fields. Some were free black men, and some were white slaveholders bringing their “property” to help with the digging, facts that receive little attention in the history books.
“Even historians with a background in California history,” said local researcher Joe Moore, “are surprised when you start talking about slavery in California.”
Moore photographed scientific projects for Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory before he retired and began researching the history of black Americans during the Gold Rush. One of many black researchers dedicated to adding black experiences back into the story of early California, Moore has since launched a number of educational projects, including Folsom’s annual Juneteenth celebration to commemorate the end of slavery.
Sitting in his bright, comfortable office in the library of California State University, Sacramento, Moore, who usually maintains a calm, quiet demeanor, spoke with some excitement about his research. On his worktable were examples, copies of advertisements like the ones mentioned above and sepia-toned portraits of a black family from Coloma, the women dressed in layers of dark Victorian silk.
These materials and others—including photos, books, newspaper accounts, and even the original contracts between slaveholders and the men and women who bought their freedom—will form the basis of Moore’s newest project: the first comprehensive online archive documenting the history of black people during the Gold Rush.
When it’s completed, visitors to the online archive will be able to view original records documenting everything from the evolution of slavery law in California to the functioning of the Underground Railroad—a term usually referring to a loose collection of abolitionists who helped slaves escape to freedom in the so-called free states of the North. Moore’s research suggests that the Underground Railroad functioned in the West as well, where famous Eastern abolitionists resettled and aided California’s escaping slaves.
Though California was a “free state,” the federal Fugitive Slave Act required citizens even in free states to return fugitive slaves to their holders. And in 1852, California, against the tone of its own constitution, passed its own fugitive slave law.
Other exceptions to the constitution were granted to slaveholders as well.
“The law said that if you were passing through California, then you could bring slave property into California,” Moore explained, “but if you were going to set up residence in California, then it was illegal to own slave property. … So you had people bringing small numbers of slaves into California and then taking them to the outer reaches of the law into the gold fields.”
National Park Service documents claim that “at any time there were between 200-300 enslaved African Americans in mining areas.”
With statehood, California did not grant the right to vote or to testify in court to black Americans. In the mid-1850s, free black leaders began to rely on the help of the young Republican Party, historian Rudolph M. Lapp explained in his book, Afro-Americans in California, to help them gain equality in education and representation.
At the same time, California’s fugitive slave law was allowed to lapse in 1856, and yet fugitive slave cases were still emerging. Moore and his team of researchers have unearthed articles and books that explain how Sacramento and San Francisco became the hot spots for these cases, with the Archy Lee case among the most famous.
On January 8, 1858, the Sacramento Daily Union ran the following story: “A colored boy, aged about 18 years, who was claimed as a slave by a man named Stovall, a citizen of Mississippi, was arrested as a fugitive by Officer Coons at the Hackett House. From what we can learn of the case, Arch [better known as Archy] left Mississippi against his will and accompanied his young master Stovall to the state as a body servant. … Stovall started for the Bay on Monday last with the view of returning to the East, but discovered en route that Arch had given him the slip. Arch contends that he did not wish to leave him, having always been well treated by him, but not finding him on the boat, left in search of him, and was unable to return in time to rejoin him. He also alleges that he does not wish to return to Mississippi. Whether or not he will be compelled to do so is to be decided probably today by Judge Robinson. This, we believe, is the first case of this kind ever broached in California.”
“Though the article doesn’t say it,” Moore said, referring to a Xeroxed copy with blocky, 150-year-old news type, “after you’d read enough, you would know that the Hackett family was one of the first African-American families in Sacramento that owned a hotel in Sacramento and were also abolitionists.”
Lapp, who insisted that this was not California’s first fugitive slave case, documented the multiple court trials of Archy Lee in a book decorated with a fine woodcut of a young black man, stooped with a tiny bundle over his shoulder. Produced in limited edition, Archy Lee can be found in the Sacramento Room at the Sacramento Public Library’s central branch. There, researchers must wear white gloves to handle the book.
Currently, interested researchers are limited to visiting the Sacramento Room during business hours, only viewing the book at a table set right before the librarians’ desk and using only pencils to keep notes—no pens are allowed in the room. Moore’s team envisions an archive where such books are available online, page by page, for 24-hour access. Researchers are now, according to team member Francisco Martinez, investigating the copyright laws pertaining to various materials.
If Lapp’s book can be uploaded, it will give countless readers an entertaining and disturbing 70-page account of the Archy Lee dramas played out before the Sacramento, San Francisco and Stockton courts, as well as the California Supreme Court and U.S. Commissioner George Pen Johnston.
Attorney Edwin B. Crocker, brother of the famous railroad magnate Charles Crocker, was one of the first to attempt to free Lee. “Crocker concluded that Archy was not a fugitive slave because he had not run away from Mississippi,” wrote Lapp.
When asked by a judge whether or not he wanted to be set free, Lee reportedly replied, “I don’t understand what you are speaking of, but I want it to come out right. I don’t want to go back to Mississippi.”
In subsequent hearings, Stovall’s attorneys sought to crush Lee’s humanity, claiming, “Archy is property and nothing more, and he has no more right to be heard in this proceeding than has a bale of goods or a horse.”
Even in California, where “neither slavery, nor involuntary servitude … shall ever be tolerated,” the state’s own Supreme Court decided that Lee should be returned to Stovall as an act of kindness because the young master was so inexperienced as to bring his slave to a free state.
In spite of this decision, Lee’s case was heard yet again, and he was eventually given his freedom, partly, Lapp claims, due to the constant support of free black people who raised money for his defense and attended his court cases in force. Afterward, they even paid for Lee’s passage to Canada, where a number of black people were exploring yet another mineral strike.
The last chapter of Lee’s struggle was also reported in the Sacramento Daily Union in November 1873: “Archy Lee was found buried in the sand, with only his head exposed, in the marsh-lands of Sacramento. He was ill and claimed to have buried himself thus to keep warm. He was taken to the hospital where he died.”
Stories like Lee’s that caused such uproar almost 150 years ago can be pieced together out of documents archived in any number of repositories, but other stories, less famous and more personal, have to be teased out of collections scattered across California. Abolitionists hiding fugitive slaves, for instance, didn’t necessarily record their actions.
The Hackett House was supposedly an abolitionist’s safe house, but there are few references to the Hacketts in Sacramento’s collections: no line drawings of the hotel in the picture books of the late 19th century, no references to “Hackett” in the card catalogs. But Rick Moss, chief curator of the African American Museum and Library in Oakland, said that his museum received a donation from the East Bay Negro Historical Society that includes personal papers from the Hackett family. They’ve yet to be coded and entered into the main collection.
“[There] may be hidden treasures,” he said.
Moss and Moore both believe that the story of the West’s Underground Railroad will emerge once documents around California are accessible together in one place.
“I’m convinced there was a network here,” said Moss, “but as historians, we have to prove it.”
On a recent morning, in a small conference room in the CSUS Library, Moore and his wife, Sac State history professor Shirley Ann Wilson Moore, explained to a couple of new researchers the importance of what the small team of students and library administrators were all doing together.
“This is the tip of the iceberg,” Joe Moore said quietly, looking pointedly at his new team members. He held up a manuscript-sized catalog of reference numbers for all the relevant materials archived in California. Over the summer, research assistants had visited online collections and some local repositories to expand on the work of a previous bibliographer. The next phase would mean bringing original materials to CSUS, scanning them and returning them. The team had approximately a year and a half to get everything uploaded. Six months ago, they weren’t even sure there was enough material to make the project feasible.
“Not only is it feasible,” Shirley Moore said in her strong, professorial voice, “but it cries out to be done.”
Joe Moore’s interest in an online archive came partly from research he and his wife collected while visiting various Gold Rush towns.
Historians had generally agreed that black miners settled in perhaps six to 10 Gold Rush sites. In his research, Moore found the number to be more like 65, leading the National Park Service to publish a map of his findings.
From there, Moore started working with the Sacramento African-American Historical/Cultural Society to tell the history of African-Americans during the Gold Rush.
His first goal, said Moore, had been to establish an interpretive center at Negro Bar, a site up in Folsom first mined by free black miners. His second was to develop the online archive. When state Librarian Kevin Starr convened a discussion group on the Underground Railroad with various historical societies, Moore proposed the digital archive. With the help of a Library Technology and Services Act grant, he was able to assemble his team.
“The material was overwhelming,” said Moore, whose enormous catalog wasn’t even complete yet. He was still waiting for results from two researchers who’d traveled to Canada for proof of Southern slaves who’d escaped north over the Canadian-American border, crossed into Canada and then came back down into the Western United States.
When finished, the online archive will become part of the National Park Service’s National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom project, a countrywide effort to preserve and promote sites and travel routes.
Though Moore’s research footprint stretches all across California, much was discovered in local collections. One of the most exciting finds was something of a gift from the California Legislature.
In 2001, under California’s Slavery Era Insurance Policies statute, insurance companies doing business in California had to report to the state on any slaveholder insurance policies that they or their predecessor companies had written in the past. The state library has so far collected three archive boxes worth of documents. Though these papers aren’t directly related to California—most policies were written for Southern slaveholders—they provide California researchers with some details of how contemporary corporations profited off slavery, even if indirectly.
Though most insurance companies had no history with slave policies, New York Life filled two of the three boxes with documents, including copied pages from 19th-century record books. In elegant script, among the first and last names of insured people, were lines that only included first names. A small, lowercase “s” at the end of these lines apparently denoted slave status. According to an accompanying computerized list, claims were paid for Godfrey, who “burned to death”; Abraham, who died of a “fit of apoplexy”; Peter, who was “killed on board of steamboat”; Isham, who died of a “disease of the lungs”; Jim, who died of an “inflammation of the stomach”; and Anthony, who died of a “swelling of the neck.”
Penn Mutual submitted a list from one of its predecessors showing that the going rate to insure an 8-year-old slave was $1.28 a year; it cost $5.83 a year for a 61-year-old. The rate card also listed extra costs for men who, like some of those above, worked at greater risk in the coal pits, on steamboats or in the mines.
Further details of these men’s lives may be lost, but some of the details of the lives of slaves brought to California to work are visible through the documents they left behind.
The Thomas Gilman collection at the State Library’s California History Room includes years of receipts and official papers that hint at the life of a freed slave. Gilman’s “Bill of Sale,” which documents that he bought his freedom, currently hangs in the state Capitol’s museum.
Inside boxes of Gilman’s personal papers are contracts for property he rented, contracts for water rights he bought, bills for his annual taxes, and one receipt for the sale of hundreds of pounds of plums, suggesting he might have farmed for a living. There are no references to a wife or children.
The most personal items are a couple of small account books from his market, one stitched together with heavy, uneven black thread with his purchases listed in pencil. In 1904, Gilman regularly stocked up on beans, sugar, flour, bacon, soap, salt, “potater” and, almost always, a certain amount of candy.
Even with such materials at their fingertips, re-creating the details of pioneers’ lives is challenging for contemporary researchers. But in some cases, some of the work’s been done for them by previous biographers like Delilah L. Beasley, who published The Negro Trail Blazers of California in 1919. In it, Beasley summarized stories she culled from the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley, and augmented them by reading diaries and holding conversations with black pioneers.
“The case of Alvin Coffey was very unjust,” she wrote. “He came to California with his master, a Mr. Duvall, landing in San Francisco September 1, 1849. His master was sick and they did not remain long in this place, but went to Sacramento, October 13, 1849. During the next eight months Alvin worked in the mines and made for his master the sum of $5,000, and by washing and ironing for the miners after his workday ended, earned for himself the neat sum of $700.
“After staying nearly two years in California the master, continuing in poor health, decided to return to his home in Missouri. Alvin had nursed him tenderly and now was to care for him on the return trip. When they reached Kansas City, Missouri, the master sold Alvin Coffey to Nelson Tindle, after first taking from him the money earned for the master by working in the mines and also the money earned by working at night in washing for the miners.”
Luckily, Tindle was almost as greedy as Duvall. He let Coffey return to California to raise enough money to buy his freedom. Beasley estimated that it cost Coffey approximately $7,000 to free his family and relocate with them to California.
When a slave was given his freedom—even if for a price—he often had the fact in writing. The text from a number of these “freedom papers,” or “manumission papers,” are also quoted in Beasley’s book, including one that’s visible at the El Dorado County Historical Museum in Placerville.
“Know all men by these present that I, Samuel A. Granthan … acting for and in behalf of said Oliver Granthan, and in consideration of the sum of four hundred dollars to me in hand paid … have this day liberated, set free and fully and effectually manumitted Aleck Long, heretofore a slave for life, the lawful property of the said Oliver Granthan.”
Such Gold Rush museums often house documents not easily found in other collections. The El Dorado County Historical Museum and the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park in Coloma hold a number of documents relating to a former slave family, the Monroes, who eventually owned many acres in and around the town of Coloma, and even bought the land on which gold was earlier discovered. Their story begins when Nancy and Peter Gooch came to California as slaves.
“My grandmother came out first in 1850,” reads author Betty Yohalem’s story of the Monroes, as told to her by James Monroe, the last known descendent. “She was a slave and came with the people that owned her. They crossed the plains in a wagon train and freed her after they got here.” James Monroe, who passed away in 1988, was, by some accounts, 101 years old.
George W. Palmer, a docent for the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park, researched the family history in detail. The biography he produced is also included in park records, with the following sentence underlined: “Although Nancy became enslaved in Missouri, she was born a free person in Maryland according to Maryland State Archives.”
Slaves were often freed after serving their masters for a number of years in the mines, according to historians like Lapp, and that appears to have been the case with the Gooches.
Palmer’s research claims that Peter and Nancy saved enough money doing everything from laundry to construction work to buy 80 acres in 1858. When Peter passed away, Nancy raised another $700 and bought her son Andrew and his family out of slavery in Missouri. He had been sold at a very young age to a man named Monroe, and was known as Andrew Monroe.
The family was well-respected in Coloma. Andrew’s children attended school, according to old attendance records, and the family made enough money to pose in suits and gowns in what appear to be professional portraits. As miners left the Gold Rush diggings, the Monroes bought more land, eventually purchasing the site of Sutter’s Mill, where gold was discovered years earlier.
“In 1938,” reads Palmer’s report, “the state of California started eminent domain proceeding against Pearly Monroe and several other property owners to acquire the properties along the river as part of a state park. … The Monroe family owned a third of the 285 acres that make up Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park today.”
Currently, a simple “Monroe house” remains preserved for its historical value in Coloma. The family’s graves can be found together at the Pioneer Cemetery, as well. James’ grave is marked by a small slab laid into the ground with the three letters “JIM” stamped upon it. A simple, curved wooden headstone marks Nancy Gooch’s grave, her name painted on it in bright white.
According to Palmer, there are no remaining Monroes to carry on the stories of their early days of California. As with other pioneering families, some of their secrets may still be buried in documents and pictures stored in basement trunks and attics.
In exposing the public to the both the challenges and the triumphs of black Americans in California, researchers like Moore and Moss hope to inspire people to look for those hidden treasures in their own family collections.
As extensive as Moore’s online archive of historical documents may eventually be, it has the potential to grow ever more important if it fills in the pieces of family puzzles and more successfully maps the movement of the West’s Underground Railroad.
To introduce the project, noted experts like Moss and other historians will gather at Sac State on November 13 to hold a panel discussion to put the team’s research into some historical context—because even the people who should know the history of slavery and the Underground Railroad in California, often don’t.