Fugitive Slave in the Gold Rush: Life and Adventures of James Williams

Fugitive Slave in the Gold Rush: Life and Adventures of James Williams

Fugitive Slave in the Gold Rush: Life and Adventures of James Williams

Fugitive Slave in the Gold Rush: Life and Adventures of James Williams

Synopsis

African American records of the Gold Rush are rare, as are underground railroad accounts from those fleeing to freedom; yet here is the account of a self-taught escaped slave and underground railroad worker who also succumbed to the lure of the California Gold Rush. James Williams was all of these things and more, a fascinating individual who in this memoir manages to cram more life into fewer pages than almost anyone has before or since – a habit of traveling light that served him well. We learn about Williams's birth and escape from the South and his travels and exciting experiences on the West Coast in the mid-nineteenth century. We become privy to his views on the many people he met, including Chinese immigrants, and his observations on notable events of his time, such as the Modoc War in California.

Excerpt

Malcolm J. Rohrbough

With the emergence of the abolition movement in the 1830s came a growing number of first person accounts by African-American refugees from southern slavery. These records of the inhumanity of the slave system, which played an important role in demonizing slavery and in celebrating the Underground Railroad, appeared both in abolition newspapers and in pamphlet form. the best known of these accounts was the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, but there were many others. James Williams's Life and Adventures is one of the most intriguing.

Born a slave in Maryland, at the age of thirteen Williams crossed the line into Pennsylvania and freedom. He was one of many African Americans active in the Underground Railroad who assisted other slaves in their flight to freedom. Williams differed from others in one important respect, however, for he traveled to California to participate in the gold rush. Although he returned to the East Coast on occasion, after the gold rush Williams lived much of the remainder of his life in California. His account of the life of a free African American (that is, an escaped slave) in the gold fields is one of the few such accounts we have. His narrative is an important chronicle of a freed slave making his way in the chaos and confusion of the nations greatest lottery for wealth.

The California that James Williams encountered on landing at San Francisco in May 1851 had already seen several cycles of immigration and economic change. James W Marshall's discovery of gold nuggets . . .

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