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

By Jung, Moon-Ho | The Journal of Southern History, November 2014 | Go to article overview

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


Jung, Moon-Ho, The Journal of Southern History


Freedom's Frontier: California and the Struggle over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and Reconstruction. By Stacey L. Smith. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013. Pp. [xvi], 324 $39 95 ISBN 978-1-4696-0768-9.)

Based on extensive archival research, Freedom's Frontier: California and the Struggle over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and Reconstruction places California at the center of wider struggles over race and slavery in the 1850s and 1860s. Though incorporated into the United States as a "free" state in 1850, author Stacey L. Smith argues, California hardly represented the land of the free to the state's diverse working peoples, many of whom were bound to their owners, guardians, and employers in a variety of labor systems and legal arrangements. Exploring the complex and persistent debates over these labor regimes and working peoples in the Golden State, Smith demonstrates convincingly how they reflected, inflected, and eventually transformed the national politics of emancipation.

The California gold rush drove a growing array of peoples into the orbit of the U.S. empire, beginning with Californio rancheros who held indigenous workers captive through debt and violence. As the gold rush turned global in 1849, a variety of other labor systems took root in California involving diverse peoples from the Americas and across the Pacific world: Sonoran and Chilean peones, native Hawaiian contract laborers, Chinese "coolies" and prostitutes, and enslaved African Americans. Using especially careful and imaginative interpretations of legislative proceedings and legal cases, Smith sets out to reveal the varying modes of coercion undergirding each labor system and the multiple ways white American transplants--employers, workers, political officials, legal justices--targeted and represented working peoples of color to elevate their own social, economic, and political standing. …

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