Freedom's Frontier: California and the Struggle over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and Reconstruction

Freedom's Frontier: California and the Struggle over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and Reconstruction

Freedom's Frontier: California and the Struggle over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and Reconstruction

Freedom's Frontier: California and the Struggle over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and Reconstruction

Synopsis

Most histories of the Civil War era portray the struggle over slavery as a conflict that exclusively pitted North against South, free labor against slave labor, and black against white. In Freedom's Frontier, Stacey L. Smith examines the battle over slavery as it unfolded on the multiracial Pacific Coast. Despite its antislavery constitution, California was home to a dizzying array of bound and semibound labor systems: African American slavery, American Indian indenture, Latino and Chinese contract labor, and a brutal sex traffic in bound Indian and Chinese women. Using untapped legislative and court records, Smith reconstructs the lives of California's unfree workers and documents the political and legal struggles over their destiny as the nation moved through the Civil War, emancipation, and Reconstruction.
Smith reveals that the state's anti-Chinese movement, forged in its struggle over unfree labor, reached eastward to transform federal Reconstruction policy and national race relations for decades to come. Throughout, she illuminates the startling ways in which the contest over slavery's fate included a western struggle that encompassed diverse labor systems and workers not easily classified as free or slave, black or white.

Excerpt

In December 1856, more than six years after California entered the Union as a free state, an African American woman named Charlotte Sophie Gomez appeared before San Francisco’s Fourth District Court on charges of kidnapping. Gomez’s accuser, a prominent white physician named Oliver Wozencraft, testified that she had taken a nine-year-old girl named Shasta from his home and concealed her for nearly three years. Gomez belonged to a small network of African American abolitionists who aided enslaved people brought to California in violation of the state’s antislavery constitution. Shasta’s “abduction” had all the trappings of a fugitive slave case. After Gomez took Shasta from Wozencraft’s home, she changed the girl’s name and eventually cut her hair so that she could pass as a boy. When Wozencraft caught wind of Shasta’s whereabouts, Gomez spirited her out of the city to live with a free black family in the countryside. To all appearances, Shasta was a fugitive slave on free soil.

But Shasta differed from other California runaways in a critical regard: she was a Yuki Indian child. Wozencraft, a former federal Indian commissioner, had captured her during a punitive campaign against her people in northwestern California in 1851. He then bound her as his ward under the provisions of California’s 1850 Act for the Government and Protection of Indians. This law allowed whites to keep Indian children and profit from their labor until they reached adulthood. Gomez had, in effect, used the same underground networks developed to smuggle African American slaves out of bondage to liberate an Indian child from long-term servitude in a white household. Gomez appeared before the court and, supported by “a large delegation of the colored population, both male and female,” refused to disclose the child’s whereabouts. These efforts to conceal the young girl failed. A private detective finally tracked Shasta to her hiding place. Wozencraft reclaimed the . . .

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