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Background



"The existence of slavery in California and its importance to the development of the state has often been neglected in historical works. Many today believe that slavery was banned in California by the Compromise of 1850. However, a look at primary source material provides an abundance of proof that shows otherwise. Newspapers describe slave escapes, ads offer slaves for sale, and court records list freedom papers and cases involving enslavement. It is estimated that at any time there were between 200-300 enslaved African Americans in mining areas. In addition, California Indians also were held as slaves during this period. De facto slavery was still practiced for many years after its legal abolition. Some slaveholders tried to hide enslaved people in remote mining and rural areas to avoid possible loss.

Many Southern slave owners saw the Gold Rush as a chance to extend slavery into Western territory. They felt little risk in bringing small numbers of slaves to California because they believed that the National Fugitive Slave Law, passed as part of the compromise of 1850, would support their claims. Some slaves brought to California were given the opportunity to gain freedom through arrangements with slaverholders. Some were allowed to purchase freedom for themselves and family members, while others gained release from bondage by working for a specific period of time. Self-liberation was chosen by the bold, who knew that in the early years no police system existed to keep them in servile roles, and they escaped, heading out for parts unknown."

- Guy Washington, NATIONAL PARK SERVICE

 

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