'Contrary to popular belief ... California was not a free state'
By Monica Vaughan
Prominent historic figure John Boggs engaged in state-sanctioned slavery, according to the guest speaker at the 64th annual Colusi County Historical Society meeting on Saturday.
In fact, one of the county's original supervisors may have had at least 13 slaves.
"Contrary to popular belief and contrary to what fourth-grade teachers have taught us when we take California history in the fourth grade, California was not a free state. Our fourth-grade teachers didn't lie to us, they just didn't give us the whole truth, which is so often the case," said Michael F. Magliari, a history professor at California State University, Chico.
"The topic I'm talking about today is definitely a grim subject, the subject of Indian slavery during the Gold Rush and Civil War era, 1850-65."
About 70 people attended the meeting held in the Friendship Hall at the Trinity Methodist Church in Colusa.
When speaking about Colusa County, Magliari is referring to the entire region of the initial county lines of 1850, which included what is now Glenn County and parts of Tehama County.
It was originally known as Colusi.
According to Magliari, although California was a Union state, there was a system of race-based slavery in Colusa County and throughout California.
"California developed its own system of racially based slavery, but instead of enslaving African Americans, it enslaved Native Americans," said Magliari.
The speaker explained that through the misleadingly title, "An Act for the Government and Protection of Indians, April 22, 1850," the first California government created a system in which white employers could obtain Native American children and adults for labor.
For example, any white person could pay bond money for an Indian who cannot pay his fine after being convicted for a variety of offenses.
"In such (a) case, the Indian shall be compelled to work for the person," reads the document.
The document also states that any Indian found loitering or leading an immoral life shall could be arrested on the complaint of any citizen, and then hired out to the highest bidder.
Magliari pointed out that the system of white employers leasing convicted people as slaves was later replicated in the South after the Civil War in an effort to continue a system of race-based slavery.
Using the Colusa County records in the county archives, Magliari provided a chart listing the names, ages and state of origin of white employers and the names and estimated ages of Native American "apprentices."
Titled, "Colusa County Indian Indentures of Apprenticeship," the data provides a small glimpse into the practice of slave labor in the Sacramento Valley.
Boggs, who was a member of the first members of the Board of Supervisors and later became a state senator, used the court system to enslave 13 individuals through the apprenticeship program in March 1861, according to the records Magliari noted. Other employers acquired one or two individuals.
Magliari points out that the unpaid labor force acquired through the state-sponsored indentured slave program was most likely acquired to create an agricultural work force, which was reflective of African-American slave labor practices in Boggs' home state of Missouri.
"Colusa was providing 1 percent of American wheat. But a lot of that success was due to indentured slavery," said Magliari.
The speaker commented that many in the room might recognize the names of employers and in fact could be related to the slave owners.
"These people here on the list are all dead. There's no judgment on anyone here," said Magliari.
Billiejean Durst, recording secretary for the Historical Society, recognized her last name on the list of "employers" and pointed it out to her husband's niece.
"They are no relation. My husband is from Wisconsin and this Durst is from Pennsylvania," she said.
The Historical Society's president, Charles Yerxa found the fact about Boggs interesting and could relate the story to his own family.
"My great-grandfather bought a portion of John Boggs' property in 1904. He (Boggs) had been a state senator and a longtime leader of the Democratic Party and was a good friend of Stanford, and was on the Stanford board of directors. He also apparently owned slaves," said Yerxa.
No information about the enslaved individual's birth name or tribe of origin is provided in the court records. Rather, the only information recorded are the names given by their "employers" and an estimated age.
The names given include Abraham Lincoln, Bob, Charley, and two individuals named Brigham Young, which Magliari suggests is an example of the negative feelings Californians had toward Mormons at that time.
The chart came from a small collection of indenture records at the Colusa County courthouse. He said such records are rare in the state.
Magliari said Colusa County records are the largest surviving record in California.
"Kathi has been a real strong supporter of historical research. You guys have it all," said Magliari, referring to county Clerk-Recorder Kathleen Moran.