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Okay, so we just started a section on slavery and the civil war in my American history class. One thing that always irritates me here, or maybe it just amuses me, I don’t know… Anyway, I think about it whenever I cover this subject. Every textbook I have ever used on American history explains that California was admitted as a free state under the terms of the Compromise of 1850.

So, what’s the problem?

The problem is a little known law passed in California that very year, ostensibly for the protection of Indians. The law imposes a $50.00 fine on anyone forcing an Indian to work against his will. So, that should be good, right?

Actually, no.

The law also contains the following provisions:

When an Indian is convicted of an offence before a Justice of the Peace punishable by a fine, any white person 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…


Any Indian able to work and support himself in some honest calling, not having wherewithal to maintain himself, who shall be found loitering and strolling about, or frequenting public places where liquors are sold, begging, or leading an immoral and profligate course of life, shall be liable to be arrested on the complaint of any resident citizen of the county, and brought before any Justice of the Peace of the proper county, Mayor or Recorder of any incorporated town or city, who shall examine said accused Indian, and hear the testimony in relation thereto, and if said Justice, Mayor or Recorder shall be satisfied that he is a vagrant, as above set forth, he shall make out a warrant under his hand and seal, authorizing and requiring the officer having him in charge or custody, to hire out such vagrant within twenty four hours to the best bidder, by public notice given as he shall direct, for the highest price that can be had, for any term not exceeding four months; and such vagrant shall be subject to and governed by the provisions of this Act, regulating guardians and minors, during the time for which he has been so hired.

Oh there is a lot more to the act, and plenty of reassuring clauses that appear to keep people from exploiting natives, but it should not take a lot of imagination to read between the lines here and see how this story actually went down. To say that this law opened up the native labor-market to exploitation would be putting it mildly. …too mildly.

In essence, the law made it illegal to enslave an Indian, at least on one’s own initiative, but if someone was caught being an Indian on a city street, the city could bond him over to you for a price. Oh yes, folks would have to go through the trouble of slighting the moral integrity of the Indian first, but how difficult do you think it would be to find a white guy willing to do that?

Not very.

It’s not the most efficient form of slavery one could devise, but it is slavery non-the-less, and that is why it always bugs me to see textbook after textbook announce that California was admitted to the Union as a free state under the terms of the compromise of 1850.

…in the very year they created a legal procedure for enslaving Indians.

Oh I get it; this kind of issue simply falls outside the scope of the narrative in question. It was not even on the horizons of those debating the major issues of the day in Congress. So, if one is recounting the events leading up to the Civil War, then this piece of information does not really change that story much. Neither does the existence of a viable slave-trade in the interior Southwest. If one is focused on the question of slavery as it was framed in the national politics of the day, then yes, California was certainly admitted as a free state.

Or is that the problem, the terms of that debate?

The bottom line is that ‘slavery’ is just a word, and you can choose to use it or not as easily as you can any other term regardless of the realities of the labor conditions in question. So, historians can skate right past these instances of captive labor (much as the great figures of the era did in their own approach to the issue) while focusing on the institutional forms of slavery that were the main issues of the day. But of course that same sleight of hand is necessary to cap off the story of the Civil War in the standard way, describing it as bringing about the end of slavery in America.

To give closure to the issue of slavery in our national storyline, one has to ignore the use of debt-peonage in conjunction with Jim Crow Laws, or at least classify them as a whole new kind of problem. Using the word “slavery” in the chapters leading up the Civil War and dropping it afterwards creates the illusion that the new social problems are significantly different than the old ones. This approach suggests that the problems associated with slavery were somehow resolved with the closing chapters of Reconstruction, perhaps not to the satisfaction of all concerned, but resolved nonetheless. And Jim Crow then becomes a whole different kind of problem, as do a host of similar practices.

Just like the California Law for the protection of the Indian.


Note: The law can be found in the California Statutes from 1850. It is also included in the primary documents for the following textbook:

Albert L. Hurtado, Peter Iverson. Major Problems in American Indian History: Documents and Essays. Second Edition. (Houghton Mifflin, 2001).