The Myth of California Exposed

Dianne Feeley

California, A Slave State
By Jean Pfaelzer
New Haven: Yale University Press, 2023, 520 pages, $35 paper.

Indian Boarding Schools trained Indigenous children for low-wage jobs and striped them of their cultural identity.

EDUCATED IN SAN Francisco schools, I was brought up on the romantic vision of Father Junipero Sierra and his work with the Indigenous population. (He was canonized by the Catholic Church in 2015 over the strenuous objections of Native People.)

For six years I attended school directly across from Mission Dolores, often exploring its small cemetery. On our family vacations from San Francisco to Santa Monica, we stopped at various missions. Our favorites were Mission San Juan Capistrano, where we fed the birds, and Mission Santa Barbara.

While I eagerly studied California history and looked forward to becoming, like a friend of my mother’s, active in the Native Daughters of the Golden West.

In reviewing my childhood understanding of California’s history, the only story that contradicted my rosy view was my mother’s explaining that Fumi, her co-worker, owned the family farm — because her parents, born in Japan, were forbidden by California law from owning land.

My mother thought this was a ridiculous law, but she never mentioned that during World War II the Japanese community, including Fumi, were viewed as potential terrorists, and forcibly deported to a concentration camp.

Drawn to liberation theology in the early 1960s and then radicalized by the Vietnam war, I’d long ago concluded the mission system was a colonial institution. So when I saw an ad for Jean Pfaelzer’s recently published California A Slave State I knew I had to read it.

She has previously authored Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans and Rebecca Harding Davis: Origins of Social Realism. She is a professor of American Studies at the University of Delaware.

Pfaelzer’s 500-page book is a series of indictments that outline how various invaders — Spanish, Russian and American — exploited the population. As the author summarizes, “Each empire imposed a distinct system of human bondage for its role in a global economy.” (19)

Pfaelzer notes that the estimated population at the time the first Franciscan mission was set up in 1769 was 310,000. Within a century it was reduced to 18,000.

The prologue sets the stage with the story of T’tc-tsa, a Wailaki who witnessed a massacre of 100 men including her father and brother by U.S. soldiers in 1861. First sold at the age of 10 to a hog farmer, she escaped, trekking 80 miles back to her mother.

Over the years T’tc-tsa was sold from one farmer to another as a domestic servant and sexual slave. She suffered several miscarriages but kept escaping and returning to her mother. At the end of her life, she worked as an ethnographic informant, interviewing other Native Americans.

Her oral history is part of the WPA archive of Native Americans but her language, along with most other Indigenous California languages, is no longer considered a living language.

T’tc-tsa’s testimony of her people’s genocide, and her many years enslaved in a state that declared it would never “tolerate” slavery, is not only the book’s prologue, but also its conclusion:

“I hear people tell ‘bout what Indian do early days to white man. Nobody ever tell it what white man do to Indian: That’s [the] reason I tell it. That’s history. That’s true. I seen it myself.” (15)

The Stories in Several Acts

Over 16 chapters, a prologue, introduction and epilogue, the author maintains that not only was California a slave state but that it condones vicious forms of involuntary servitude today.

She weaves together the story of what Kevin Bales labels the “old slavery” that was based on legal ownership of other human beings with the “new slavery” of “brutal mechanism of control — debt, threats of violence, and human trafficking.” (19)

The first four chapters take up the colonialism of the Spanish and Russians, then outline the birth of California as a “free” state. The following chapters discuss the existence of slavery in the Indigenous, Black and Chinese communities between statehood and the 1880s.

Chapter 13 is a transitional chapter, beginning with the development of the carceral state from its beginnings and followed by a 20th century look at the same institution. Chapter 15 summarizes the role that California’s 12 Indian boarding schools played in kidnapping Indian children to “Kill the Indian…and save the man.” (341)

The final chapter and brief epilogue discuss the cases of bondage that exist today and challenge the reader to insist on an end to slavery. Detailed notes take up another hundred pages, acknowledging current historians such as Bales, Andrés Reséndez and Marisa Fuentes.

Missions and Settler Plunder

Jean Pfaelzer starts her story by describing the Spanish mission system over its 65 years of existence, when it held about 200,000 Native People in bondage. The chain of missions paired with military presidios served the dual purpose of blocking the Russian and British empires, and transforming the landscape into agricultural land.

This regime had been perfected by Spanish explorers had in areas from Peru to Mexico. It forced the Indigenous people to leave their settlements, food sources and spiritual practices.

Backed by the military, the Franciscans were in charge of teaching Native Californians a work ethic and “spirituality” based on violence and subjugation. Throughout that period, as Chapter 2 recounts, Indigenous Californians resisted colonialism by running away, burning down buildings or boldly attacking fortifications.

When Mexico won freedom from Spain in 1829, it abolished the slave trade and emancipated all slaves including those “held to service” in California.

Four years later when Mexico seized the mission lands, although the Indigenous population sought to reclaim their land, large tracts were snapped up by ex-military officers and large ranchers. Some Indigenous people were able to return to tribal villages, but most became homeless.

While most non-Californians don’t realize there were Russian colonies in northern California, their settlements were mainly to drop off Indigenous hunters from along the Alaskan coast to hunt for valuable sea otter pelts.

Starting in the mid-18th century, Russian merchant ships had organized a massive hunt of sea otters along the Pacific coast. As the supply gave out along the Alaskan coast, Native hunters with their kayaks were forcibly taken as far south as the San Francisco Bay, dropped off on various islands or bluffs and left to fend for themselves while they stockpiled pelts and awaited the ships’ return.

Three to four feet in length, each pelt amazingly sold for $3500 (the equivalent of $70,000 today and in contrast to a beaver pelt that cost four dollars) in China and Russia.

As the sea otter was fished to extinction, and California territory became part of Mexico, the Russians withdrew. In just a century they had brutalized and displaced the Alaskan Native People, decimating 400,000 seals and about 100,000 sea otters and foxes.

Enter the Americans

Although Pfaelzer spends little time on the 1846-48 U.S.-Mexican war, she notes that it ended with Mexico losing one-third of its territory to the United States — areas that we now call Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Texas, Utah, Wyoming.

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that the United States and Mexico signed in 1848 banned slavery, as well as promising citizenship and land rights to the Indigenous population. This, along with the cultural rights outlined in the treaty, were never respected.

Until the discovery of gold later in 1848, settlers were primarily cattle ranchers or merchants. But once gold was discovered, the race was on. Nearly 200,000 arrived over the next two years, including 2000 enslaved Black people, mostly men.

The Constitutional Debate

The 1849 Constitutional Convention that brought California into the United States revoked the short-lived promise of Indian citizenship. The miners’ delegate also convinced the body that enslaved Blacks should not compete with white miners, and therefore slavery should be banned.

Thus slavery was banned, not out of an abolitionist sentiment but the desire to maintain white supremacy, particularly in the mine fields. For those of us who grew up proud that California came into the country as a free state, this comes as a shock.

The author provides not only testimony from delegates and newspapers about the outcome of this debate, but the subsequent struggle of both free and enslaved Blacks to win their rights. Just because the state constitution banned slavery didn’t stop some slaveholders in practice.

When slaveholders were taking their “property” to a place where slavery was forbidden, they forced slaves to sign indenture “contracts” or kept their families hostage back home on the plantation. Many worked for their owners digging for gold, while others were rented out. Pfaelzer even cites one case where the slave was the owner’s son.

With the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act free Black people flocked to California as well, whether opening shops, restaurants and hotels or mining for gold. Pfaelzer describes the communities that grew up:

“Across California, free and enslaved Blacks created their own neighborhoods, schools, and churches, living on the edge of freedom. At first paths for Black women entrepreneurs were limited, with little to invest but their bodies.” (133)

However this community was threatened by passage of California’s 1852 Fugitive Slave Act and limited by the reality that Black people were unable to testify in court against white citizens. One response was the Black community’s effective organization of an underground railroad that ran from San Diego to Vancouver, British Columbia. They also organized several Colored Conventions, published their own newspapers. Once the state ratified the 14th Amendment Black men began to vote.

Although Native people resisted domination from the time of the missions, they were less successful than the Black community in winning some battles. While Indigenous people were composed of many tribes and more than 100 languages, that was no longer the case for the Black community.

Another reason that Pfaelzer doesn’t explicitly mention — although she does quote Frederick Douglass several times — is the existence of the growth of a national abolitionist movement. She does point to the tragedy that the two oppressed communities resisted on their own rather than being able to struggle together to overturn the injustices they experienced.

To maintain white control over the goldfields, California’s first legislature passed a foreign miners’ tax (between $3 to $20 a month). Between 1852 and 1870 Chinese miners paid $18 million into the fund, representing one-quarter to one-half of the state’s revenue.

Chinese Brutalized

Armed white vigilantes rounded up and assaulted Chinese and Latin American miners. According to Pfaelzer, many of the Chileans left but the Chinese, with a more significant debt, could not return home until those were paid off in full.

Many Chinese men and their families, like the Black community, started small businesses. In their case it was restaurants, laundries, brothels, gambling houses. As with the Black and Indigenous communities, they were marked as being dirty and immoral.

Supreme Court Justice Roger Taney (author of the infamous Dred Scott decision) ruled that California could expel Chinese miners because they “were more likely to produce physical or moral evil among its citizens.” (249)

As early as 1866 the state legislature passed the Act for the Suppression of Chinese Houses of Ill-Fame. By 1875 Congress passed the Page Act, the first ban on immigrants — and an act that targeted Chinese women, who could only migrate as spouses.

Chapters 11 and 12 outline the racist and gendered propaganda that politicians used to portray Chinese women as diseased and how, despite the passage of the 14th Amendment, they stood by while the women were confined in caged brothels.

Pfaelzer comments that the existence of Chinese prostitutes was “still a prop for their bachelor lifestyle and fantasies of frontier freedom” (266) between the Gold Rush years through the Chinese anti-immigration laws of the 1880s, only to be displaced by bans on interracial sex and marriage which persisted until the 1960s.

Following the sections on the Chinese community, the author devotes two chapters to the development of the carceral state. From the beginning, convict labor would be a way of generating profit. Convicts built San Quentin and Folsom prisons as well as roads, bridges and dams, worked in a jute mill located within the prison — or just recently dismantled toxic computers.

This historical prison-as-business model has been combined with a policy of deliberate torture and sadism, including flogging, waterboarding and allowing sexual assaults. Inmates have been subjected to sexual and genetic research, including sterilization.

Some of these practices have been stopped, overwhelmingly because of prisoner resistance. The author concludes by pointing out the legal loophole in the 13th Amendment, which bans slavery “except as a punishment for crime.” This sanctioning of a form of human bondage needs to be outlawed

Genocide and Reparations

Three hundred and fifty-seven Indian boarding schools existed throughout the United States, most run by Christian dominations and funded by the government.  Children, some as young as three, were forcibly taken from their families and placed in far-away schools — even across state borders.

 By 1890, over 6000 California Indigenous children were enrolled. This was fully half of all of the state’s Indigenous children. Punishment — for their own good, of course — was frequent.

Their hair was cut, they were issued uniforms if they were boys or frocks if they were girls, punished if they spoke anything other than English, taught a different religion, forbidden to use body paint or dance.

They learned to read and write and were trained in life skills appropriate for low-wage workers. If lighter skinned, they might be programmed into a better job track. Discouraged from talking with their siblings, corrected when they spoke of “we” rather than “I,” children were often malnourished.

But children were in school only an average of 80 days a year. For the most part they were quickly assigned to work as farmworkers and domestics, clocking in something like 84 hours a week. Unsupervised, they were sexually vulnerable; their small wage sent directly to the school.

Interestingly enough, the author not only points to the rebellions that broke out at the schools, but also notes the resilience of children who did not accept their place as menial workers in a white-dominated society.

Although many children lost their own language, some Native Americans have concluded that the schools did unintentionally unite “survivors of many tribes, and like the missions, forged new bases of community, spirituality, and survival. Forced contact between people of different tribes gave rise to a pan-Indian collective voice that honored the food, ritual, language, clothing, spiritual, and family traditions of diverse tribes.” (357)

The final chapter of California, A Slave State summarizes what the author sees as the continuance of slavery today: human trafficking, sex trafficking and the treatment that undocumented immigrants encounter. Many lack legal status and work in illegal or marginal industries. Although the level of surveillance differs, the author regards them as unfree laborers.

Her epilogue then takes up the question of what reparations are owed to all of those who have been direct or indirect victims of slavery. Recognizing that some consequences of slavery and institutionalized racism are easier to rectify than others, she sees that “all forms of reparation depend on witnesses, evidence, and history.” (383)

Thus descendants of enslaved people will not all want the same compensation. While toppling statues and renaming streets may be one element, reparations require “a collective reckoning and valuation of the magnitude of what has been taken.” (385)

California, A Slave State is a monumental book bringing together diverse experiences of slavery to expose what has been hidden in the myth of California, the golden state. The author employs the tool of critical race theory to reveal how colonialism built the road to capitalism, and highlights not only the pain oppressed people endured but their continued resistance to injustice.

September-October 2023, ATC 226

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