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Slavery in the Gold Rush

The gold rush occurred prior to the Civil War, during a time when territories entered the Union as either a free or a slave state.

The California territory outlawed slavery during the 1849 Constitutional Convention and petitioned to be admitted as a free state. At this time, the population was exploding as hopeful miners from around the world were arriving and bringing many of their customs and possessions with them. In some cases, this included enslaved humans. The existence of slave labor in the gold fields of an allegedly free state was a contentious issue and leaves behind a complicated history.

On the federal level, in 1850, Kentucky Senator Henry Clay championed a series of resolutions to strike a compromise between the North and South.

Under the compromise, California would be admitted as a free state but the Fugitive Slave Act would be strengthened. The slave trade would be abolished in Washington D.C., a territorial government would be established in New Mexico, and a boundary dispute would be settled between Texas and New Mexico. The compromise initially failed.

Senator Stephen Douglas

Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas took up the Compromise when Clay became ill. All the resolutions passed, and California was admitted as a Free State on September 9, 1850.

Background Image: "The United States Senate, A.D. 1850"

Gold Miner at Auburn Ravine. 1852. California State Library Collection

The prospect of freedom, financial success, and independence brought escaped and formerly enslaved people to the California gold fields and surrounding foothill communities.

Richard Rapier came to California in 1849 for the gold rush. Born to an Alabama slave family but raised free, he was sent to school in New York before moving west. Like countless other hopeful miners, after mining Rapier turned to other financial opportunities including farming in Placer County and Sacramento.

Rapier's Barber Shop and Bath House

Eventually, Rapier established a successful barbershop on East Street in Auburn.

John Bradford also owned his own bathing saloon and barbershop in Auburn. Born in Louisiana, Bradford married and had children in New Orleans. He came to Auburn in the late 1850s and opened a shaving saloon and bathing establishment. He sent money to his wife and children but was unable to bring them west due to the Union blockade during the Civil War. Bradford died in San Francisco in 1862.

Although California was a free state, some southerners brought the men they enslaved to mine for gold. This was not well received by miners and led to conflict.

"Bogue Ejecting the Squatters" by Charles Nahl, 1856.

In 1849, Texan Thomas Jefferson Green settled on the Yuba River with 15 men he enslaved. A nearby group of miners objected. Both sides were well armed, but the Texans were outnumbered, so Green and his party fled.

Henry A. Crabb

In 1852, the Fugitive Slave Bill, introduced by Southerner Henry A. Crabb, was passed in California. It allowed enslavers to “reclaim” free black men and women who could not produce freedom papers. This law was tested twice in Placer County.

Background Image: Miners at Spanish Flat near Auburn. 1852. California State Library Collection.

In 1851, three formerly enslaved men from Mississippi - Carter Perkins, Robert Perkins, and Sandy Jones - settled in Ophir where they started a freight business.

On April 31, 1852 they were kidnapped from their home by a group of armed white men. The leader of the raid was Green Perkins, cousin of Charles Perkins, who had made an informal emancipation bargain with the three men after his mining operation became unprofitable. Charles Perkins returned to Mississippi in the spring of 1851, while the men worked for six months under the supervision of his friend. At the end of the six months, they were released.

Charles Perkins had returned home in 1851, but in the summer of 1852, had them arrested under the Fugitive Slave Law. The men did not have “Freedom Papers” and were ordered to return to bondage. The case went to the State Supreme Court.

The African community in Sacramento rallied to defend the men and hired a white antislavery attorney, but pro-slavery justices dominated the Court, and the men were returned to Perkins. On their return trip to Mississippi all three men escaped and their fate is still unknown.

Placer Herald April 16, 1853

In April 1853, a man attempted to use the Fugitive Slave Act to “reclaim” a young woman named Lucy in Auburn. The woman’s attorney produced her “Freedom Papers” and he was denied. Brown’s father had given Lucy her freedom in 1851.

These are just a few examples of the conflict and identity crisis that played out during California’s early statehood.

Background Image: “Operations of the Fugitive-Slave Law,” c. 1850. Hand-tinted print of a wood engraving by Albert Bobbett

The Fugitive Slave Act expired in 1854, but the challenges faced by black Americans in California and across the country were far from over. However, the persistence of slavery was met by resistance and perseverance by the African community who created their own networks of resources and support.

The first “Colored Convention” was held in 1855 at St. Andrews African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Sacramento, the oldest AME on the West Coast.

By 1856, Placer County had four delegates at the convention, which was organized to promote economic progress, abolitionism, and civil rights.

The issue of slavery in America continued to be highly contentious with Californians on both sides of the issue and which tore the Union apart when the Civil War started seven years later.