California as a Frontier of Unfree Labor in the Nineteenth Century

Freedom's FrontierOur understanding of nineteenth century United States history is primarily shaped by a focus on historical events that took place in two ill-defined regions: “the North” and “the South.” Embedded in this narrative are depictions of various political ideologies that supposedly illuminate the divisive conflicts between Northerners and Southerners during the Antebellum period. The general thrust of this narrative is that disagreements with seemingly clear distinctions–slavery versus freedom, black versus white, and North versus South–precipitated the outbreak of the American Civil War from 1861-1865.

While popular and intriguing, this narrative is woefully inadequate for understanding the complexities of the Civil War Era. For one, the Confederacy is not equivalent to “the South.” Many residents who lived within the Confederate states and considered themselves “Southerners” rejected calls for secession in 1860 and 1861. Nearly 100,000 white males from the Confederate states signed up to fight for the United States military (often incorrectly labeled as “the North”), while an additional 180,000 or so African Americans (most of which came from Southern slave states) also joined the U.S. military. These numbers don’t include the men who joined the Union from border slave states that never formally seceded, including Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware. These people–whether black or white–were just as “Southern” as those who supported the Confederacy. Moreover, it was never the goal of the U.S. military to destroy the entire South in the first place. Rather, the U.S. military’s end-goal was to destroy the Confederacy and all secessionist sentiment within the United States. This goal is not the same as wanting to destroy the entire South.

These semantic differences, however, do not provide the chance for a more inclusive understanding of the Civil War that incorporates the role of “the West” in shaping the country’s prewar disagreements, nor do they hint at the difficult tensions underlying concepts like “slavery” and “free labor.” Stacy L. Smith’s 2013 publication Freedom’s Frontier: California and the Struggle over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and Reconstruction complicates our understanding of the Civil War Era, demonstrating the complex ways freedom and enslavement entangled themselves within a larger debate about the future of the United States.

Smith argues in the introduction of her book that scholars can benefit from “recast[ing] the narrative of the sectional crisis, emancipation, and Reconstruction in the United States by geographically recentering it in the Far West.” California presents itself as a particularly appropriate case study because “California’s struggle over slavery did not end with its entrance into the Union as a free state . . . instead . . . California’s free soil was far less solid, its contests over human bondage far more complicated, contentious, and protracted, than historians have usually imagined” (2).

What were these “contests over human bondage” that emerged in California after achieving statehood in 1850? Smith analyzes the experiences of several different racial and ethnic groups throughout Freedom’s Frontier.

Indian Enslavement: As more men emigrated to California following the Gold Rush of the late 1840s, the need for domestic laborers increased. Many single males and families sought servants that they could bind into long-term contracts. The California legislature responded to demands for more domestic labor by passing the 1850 Act for the Government and Protection of Indians, which allowed white householders to claim Indian children as long-term wards. As long as white householders could justify that these Indian children were orphans or living with impoverished, “unsuitable” parents, state courts could convey legal guardianship of these Indian children to white “parents” until the age of eighteen, even if the children had been stolen from their parents and tribes. This act perpetuated a thriving trade in Indian children in the years before the Civil War, even though California was a “free state” according to the provisions of the Compromise of 1850 and its 1850 state constitution.

African Enslavement: Despite California’s status as a free state, many California residents originally from slave states hoped to carry their slaves with them to the gold mines. According to Smith, 36 percent of California’s U.S.-born residents in 1850 were from a slaveholding state (8), and they were vastly overrepresented in the California state legislature. Arguing that they had had the right to bring their slaves into California when it was still a federal territory, proslavery forces in the state legislature helped facilitate the passage of a fugitive slave law in 1852 that allowed masters to claim slaves that they brought to California before statehood. Another provision of this fugitive law stipulated that the state would capture runaway slaves (who arrived before and after statehood) and return them to the South, despite the arguments of anti-slavery Californians who argued that black slaves were free immediately upon arrival in the state. Nevertheless, the 1850 census shows that there were at least 203 slaves in California, although Smith suggests that the incompleteness of these records could mean that there may be “a substantial undercount of masters and slaves in my study” (238-239).

Slaves, Coolies, and Peons: Before and after California’s statehood in 1850, Mexican, Chilean, Hawaiian, and Chinese laborers voluntarily and involuntarily emigrated to the state to work as miners in the gold fields. These laborers often entered into voluntary contracts and received wages, but as Smith argues, “contracts were not symbols of freedom but markers of bondage. Foreign employers used these legal instruments to bind otherwise free workers to toil for years on end and to accept nonmonetary compensation–passage, food, clothing, and goods–in lieu of meaningful cash wages,” essentially making them slaves in all but name (10). White free-soil Democrats and Whigs argued that these laborers would degrade the value of free labor, reduce wages, and help drive white male laborers out of the mines. With regards to Chinese labor, the Republican party echoed these concerns about “Coolie” labor well after the Civil War, and it was the Republican party who led the charges in Congress to pass the Page Act of 1875 and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Both of these acts restricted Chinese immigration to the United States on the grounds that Chinese laborers were actually “forced laborers” who devalued free white labor and who violated the 13th amendment to the Constitution, which banned slavery in the United States. Rather than punishing the employers who arranged these contracts with Chinese laborers, Californians chose to punish Chinese laborers through exclusion.

Chinese Prostitution: Chinese women in California often found themselves in an underground sex trade before, during, and after the Civil War. According to Smith, “demand for domestic labor also fueled a market in bound women and children who worked in private households as wards, apprentices, debt-bound servants, and slaves . . . Diverse Californians bought and sold women as domestic servants and as forced sexual partners, prostitutes, concubines, and wives. The struggle over free-state status, then, often moved out of the mines and into the intimate labor and sexual relations of California households” (11).

Stacy L. Smith’s analysis of nineteenth century California was eye-opening and insightful for me. Books like Smith’s challenge us to view the Civil War in new ways that dismantle commonly-held distinctions between slave and free labor and “North versus South.” Freedom’s Frontier is one of the finest publications I’ve read in a long time and I highly recommend it for scholars of the Civil War and the West.



2 thoughts on “California as a Frontier of Unfree Labor in the Nineteenth Century

  1. I found the first few paragraphs slightly biased to the “Northern” perspective of the Civil War. There was no mention of men from Northern States enlisting with the Confederate cause. I thought the comparison of contracts to slavery on point. I would go further to state the Chinese were murdered on occasion and there was often no interest in prosecuting their murderers. Sounds like a very thoughtful book.

    1. Hi Bill,

      Thanks for comments, and yes, I highly recommend Smith’s book for those interested. I’m not quite sure I understand how the first few paragraphs of this essay convey a biased “Northern” perspective. True, some Northern men enlisted in the Confederacy, but those enlistment numbers are nowhere near the number of white and black men from the Confederate states who chose to enlist in the United States military. I don’t believe the fact a few isolated Northerners fought for the Confederacy is worth mentioning here.

      Again, citing Richard N. Current’s numbers from “Lincoln’s Loyalists,” somewhere in the neighborhood of 250,000 to 300,000 white and black men from the Confederacy chose to enlist in the United States military, and that doesn’t even account for the number of men who fled the Confederacy and enlisted in “Northern” regiments in Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, etc. etc. When it comes to Northerners enlisted in the Confederacy, we’re talking between a few hundred and a few thousand soldiers. It’s apples and oranges, honestly. Not even close. Put another way, there were no regiments organized from a free-state for service in the Confederacy (i.e. something like the “1st Massachusetts Regiment, C.S.A.”), but there were Tennessee, South Carolina, and Arkansas regiments in the U.S. military, just to name a few Confederate states. The “North versus South” label doesn’t account for these discrepancies.

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