California entered the Union as a free state, part of the complicated political jiggering of the Compromise of 1850. But this didn’t mean slavery was absent from California, nor that it disappeared upon statehood. “California’s birth as a free state was neither natural nor unproblematic,” writes scholar Stacey L. Smith, “and free labor, antislavery ideologies never achieved complete hegemony in the antebellum era.”

“In popular mythology, the American West stands as a kind of ultimate free labor landscape,” continues Smith, but the reality of indentured servitude, contract labor, and debt peonage, as well as the persistence of chattel slavery, “fits uneasily within familiar narratives of western history.”

The fact is that southerners who went to the California gold fields brought slaves with them. And there were prominent and powerful proslavery forces, transplants from the South, in the state legislature and judiciary. In 1852, slaveholders from South Carolina and Florida even petitioned the state assembly to establish a permanent slave colony in the new state. James Gadsden was the most notable of these petitioners. A year earlier, Gadsden had been among those proposing that California be divided in two, with the southern half being a slave state. That assemblymen representing a free state didn’t reject this slave colony petition outright, but instead voted to consider it, suggests how tenuous free statehood was.

“Westward-bound masters hoped to incorporate California into the economic and social universe of southern slaveholding,” writes Smith. “They extended familiar practices and relationships that sustained slavery in the American South to the American West. Slavery, however, did not survive the journey to California intact.”

Smith shows that enslaved people made sure of that. They took the opportunity to emancipate themselves whenever they could. When they couldn’t, often because of ties to enslaved family members back in the South, they fought to both transform and weaken their bondage. After all, they were in theory in a free state. The “disruptive, destabilizing potential of California” meant that enslaved men and women could press “against the authority of their masters and renegotiate the terms of their enslavement to reflect their own desires for greater personal liberty, improved working conditions, economic reward, and family stability.”

Even so, in the early 1850s pro-slavery forces in California had real power. The state’s fugitive slave law of 1852 essentially suspended the state constitution’s antislavery clause and was used to re-enslave free Blacks. Writes Smith, the act “promoted slaveholding rights so successfully that one antislavery Californian lamented that ‘this State now is, and forever hereafter must remain, a slave State.’” Craftily, slaveholders attempted to bind slaves via contractual agreements and use the state to enforce such contracts. They were helped in such legal proceedings by courts that didn’t let African Americans testify.

But the state’s demographics were changing rapidly. The fugitive slave law was not renewed in 1855. The last major court challenge to California slavery was in 1858, when a man named Archy Lee finally won legal freedom. After the decision, proslavery assemblymen attempted to restrict African American migration and residence in the state. But they didn’t succeed. On the eve of the war that would break the back of slavery in the United States, California was finally reflecting its founding as a free state.

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Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 80, No. 1 (February 2011), pp. 28-63
University of California Press