Slavery In The West

Abandoned Indian Boarding School at Fort Bidwell. Photo: Bob Dawson/ Farewell, Promised Land Project, 1995.

"It may seem to some a singular statement but it is nevertheless true that slavery exists in California in precisely the same condition that is did until lately in the Southern states. There the blacks were slaves; here in almost every county Indians are unlawfully held as chattels ... many of them have fallen into cruel hands and the barbarities inflicted upon them by inhuman masters would put to blush the most unfeeling wretch that ever lorded it over a gang on a southern plantation"

... California Police Gazette, September 26, 1865.

In the early days, before the massive influx of settlers, white male miners wanted cheap labor to help with the back-breaking job of panning for gold and women to satisfy their lust so they first hired then raided local villages to supply their demands. The influx of white settlers soon put an end to the use of native labor in the mines.

But the capture, trade, exploitation, rape and often murder of Native children continued. This was not exclusive to the gold miners, but it grew out of the Spanish and Mexican mission system and the views of the new American settlers - both miners and ranchers - who viewed the diggers as less than human.

Trafficking in Native American labor - especially young women and Children - was carried on as a legal business enterprise well after slavery was abolished throughout the United States. This practice, according to historians, was unknown in any other part of the United States except briefly in the New England and the South.

An estimated 4,000 children were bought and sold. Newspaper accounts of the time noted that while young boys sold for 60 dollars or so, young women could sell for as much as 200 dollars.

The initial basis of this slavery was an April 1850 law, drafted by John Bidwell and passed before the state was even fully incorporated as part of the United States, that allowed settlers to continue to use Native peoples as bonded workers, a practice begun under the Spanish occupation. The 1850 law was strengthened in 1860 but eventually repealed in 1863 following a public outcry.

Act for the government and protection of Indians

April 22, 1850

Article Three: "Any person having or hereafter obtaining a minor Indian, male or female, from the parents or relations of such Indian minor and wishing to keep it, such a person shall go before a Justice of the Peace in his Township, with the parents or friends of the child and if the Justice of the Peace becomes satisfied that no compulsory means have been used to obtain the child from its parents or friends, shall enter on the record, in a book kept for that purpose, the sex and probable age of the child and shall give to such a person a certificate, authorizing him or her to have the care, custody, control and earnings of such a minor, until he or she obtains the age of majority. Every male Indian shall be deemed to have attained his majority at age eighteen, and the female at fifteen years."
Article Fourteen: "When an Indian is convicted of an offense before a Justice of the Peace, punishable by fine, any white may, by consent of the Justice, give bond for said Indian, conditioned for the payment of said fine and costs, and in such case the Indian shall be compelled to work for the person so bailing, until he has discharged or cancelled the fine assessed against him ..."


"I have undoubted evidence that hundreds of Indians have been stolen and carried into the settlements and sold; in some instances entire tribes were taken in en masse," wrote Thomas J Henley, superintendent of Indian affairs in California in 1856.

"The most disgusting phase of this species of slavery is the concubinage of creatures calling themselves white men with squaws throughout various portions of the state. The details of this 'apprenticeship' system are unfit to commit to paper," wrote the editors of the Sacramento Union in 1860.

Two years later a correspondent to the same newspaper submitted the following comment: "You may hear them talk of the operation of cutting to pieces an Indian squaw in their indiscriminate raids for babies as 'like slicing old cheese' ... The baby hunters sneak up to a Rancheria, kill the bucks, pick out the best looking squaws, ravish them and make off with their young ones."

Federal investigators found evidence of wide slavery in 1866 well after the practice had been made illegal under the 13th amendment to the United States constitution.

Only sheer racism and desire for domination through brute force can account for the fact that Californians could condone the Native plight for some two decades while paying lip service to the federal policies that banned slavery. As we shall see in the next section, those Native peoples who were fortunate to escape the widespread exploitation, ended up in reservations that hardly offered a better future.

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