People assume that because California was a free state, there were no enslaved people and slaveholders didn’t bring enslaved people into the state. So there’s just assumptions that are wrong.
But the other piece of it is that academic historians still haven’t really shifted their attention to the West as deeply or as broadly as they have paid attention to things like the 13 colonies or the South. If the West is an underdog in our historical understanding, then certainly Black history in the West, and in California, has been overlooked for a long time.
On this perception that there weren’t enslaved people here, what was the reality?
Even though California came into the United States with a Constitution that said slavery would not be tolerated, there were a lot of slaveholders who still saw this as a territory where they could expand slavery. They didn’t give up the idea, even once California was in the Union. And there were plenty of those who brought enslaved people with them.
California’s first Legislature was made up mostly of people who were enslavers, and who were in favor of the enslavement of African Americans. William Gwin, the first U.S. senator from California, had been a Mississippi plantation owner and slave holder. So they comprised the majority of the people who ran the government, the Legislature, the courts, the schools, and they created laws that especially disenfranchised African Americans and Indigenous people.
Where were some of the earliest Black settlements in California?
Actually, Black settlements were fairly rare. In the early history of the state, people lived anywhere they wanted. It was a largely unsettled place. Of course, cities like San Francisco and Sacramento were being built, but a vast majority of the people lived in Gold Country and they lived in wilderness. In places like Marysville, which was a huge gold mining center, it was very evident that African Americans lived among the mostly white and Asian residents.