Native American Bondage in the American Gold Rush - Carrie Nollstadt

On the nineteenth of June in 2019, California Governor Gavin Newsom met with Native American tribal leaders from across the state to offer a long overdue apology. The historic meeting of over 100 tribal leaders took place in West Sacramento at the location site of the future California Indian Heritage Center.[1] On that June day, Governor Newsom issued an executive order to formally apologize on behalf of the state to Native Americans who suffered horrifying atrocities in the state’s past.[2] While it is an undeniable fact that Native Americans suffered immensely throughout the United States’ history, the system of legal bondage and genocide against indigenous peoples that occurred in California during the American Gold Rush is seldom remembered or discussed today. Governor Newsom’s apology and executive order have marked important advancements for the people of California to reflect upon those moments from their history and begin to heal.

            Beginning in 1846, as many as 20,000 Native Americans in the state were forced into unfree labor. This term of “unfree labor” is defined by historian Benjamin Madley as “work without the freedom to quit”[3]. Before the population boom of white settlers in 1848, the foundations upon which this system of unfree Native American labor was based upon existed under the U.S. military rule in the area starting in the early to mid 1840’s.[4] After the discovery of Gold in northern California in 1848, the settler population within the state soared from 15,000 that year to 100,000 in 1850 and eventually to 380,000 by 1860.[5] This rapid growth among white settlers meant a severe impact upon Native American populations in the forms of deadly diseases, genocide, and bondage. It is also notable that a majority of these white settlers originated from southern states such as Mississippi and Kentucky where systems of African American slavery were of standard practice.[6]  The settlers formed villages based on agricultural economies, but the cost of white laborers was extremely high and unaffordable to many of those farmers. At the same time, there was a notable lack of white women and children in these villages. These two facts led to the widespread bondage of Native American laborers, specifically within domestic roles and farm labor positions by 1851.[7]

            In 1850, the first state legislature of California passed a law that officially sanctioned Native American bondage. The 1850 "Act for the Government and Protection of Indians" was certainly not intended to protect Californian natives as the name seems to imply. The law effectively allowed for any Native American who was unemployed to be charged as a “vagrant” and brought before a Justice of the Peace. There, white men would have the opportunity to pay their legal fees, which most Native people were unable to pay themselves, effectively binding that native person into labor for the white man. Provision number 20 of the act stated that any native person “who shall be found loitering and strolling about, or frequenting public places where liquors are sold, begging, or leading an immoral or profligate course of life, shall be liable to be arrested on the complaint of any reasonable citizen of the county, brought before the Justice of the Peace.”[8] The convicted person would have their bail price put up for auction where the highest bidder would force them into indentured servitude until the debt was paid off. An even more disturbing clause of the act was the ability for white settlers to “obtain” a Native American minor and apply for custody of said child before the Justice of the Peace. If the child was an orphan or the white person claimed to have the permission of the child’s parents or guardians, the white person would be allowed custody of them as well as have control of their care and earnings. Generally, the courts were not concerned with the means by which the child was obtained. Girls could be kept in bondage until they were fifteen and boys until they were eighteen.[9] Eventually, amendments to the act allowed those seeking to take custody of minors to not even have to prove that the minor’s parents were consenting to the arrangement. The age limits to which minors could be kept were later raised so that white settlers could keep them as “apprentices” for even longer periods of time.[10]

            The passage of the “Act for the Government and Protection of Indians” meant that Native Americans could be forced into indentured servitude quite easily. Almost any Native American who walked about or drank alcohol could be arrested and forced into unfree labor by whomever paid the price of their bail to the Justice of the Peace. Additionally, any orphaned child could be put in the custody of a white family (or even just a white man). Since there was a lack of white women and children who would typically perform domestic labors, the child would typically be required to fill those roles within the home. Even though California declared itself to be a free state just months after this law was passed, many Native Americans were forced into what was essentially slave labor due to the provisions of these laws.[11] Mistreatment of bound indigenous people in the “care” of white settlers was punishable by only a small fine and sometimes the transfer of the bound person to another white person.[12] This system of bound labor was effectively disguised as the custody of children and punishment for criminals until the end of the Civil War, when such systems were made illegal at the federal level.

            Not only were Californian Native Americans in the Gold Rush era subject to forced labor, they were also impacted by diseases, raids, and genocides by the settlers. White militia groups would raid Native tribes and villages in order to kidnap orphaned children as well as adults who were deemed prisoners of war in order to bind them under the provisions of the 1850 Act. The Native American tribes of northern California were dispersed and separated from one another. They also did not possess firearms or adequate weaponry to fight the settlers. Both of these factors together meant that they were unable to properly unify and defend themselves against raids.[13] Furthermore, historian John Rawls describes how these militia groups would form for the purpose of essentially exterminating the Native tribes.[14] Additionally, many settler communities in Gold Rush society offered money rewards for the killing of native people, so raiders could present heads and other body parts of murdered Native Americans for financial compensation. As a result of what can only be described as a genocide and enslavement of Native Americans, the total population Native Americans in California fell to only 30,000 in 1879 from approximately 150,000 in 1846.[15]

            The atrocities that indigenous people in California suffered through during the Gold Rush society are not widely studied or written about. Primary accounts of Native American slavery are quite scarce and very few historians have written much on the subject as a result. It is difficult to pinpoint the exact scope of these bondage systems. However, Native Americans in California today continue to feel the impacts of their horrific treatment at the hands of white people throughout history. Native American people have called upon the government of California to formally recognize the atrocities against their ancestors so that the people of the state can reflect, recover, and educate each other on the subject.[16] This is what makes Governor Newsom’s executive order so significant. The government has now officially recognized the state-sanctioned atrocities, apologized to the native people of the state, and commended them for maintaining their cultures and traditions despite the gruesome events throughout their history.[17] With more publicity towards the executive order and construction of the California Indian Heritage Center, hopefully more Americans will be made aware of the dark history of the Gold Rush and the state-sanctioned violence that occurred against Native Americans.







[1] Taryn Luna, “Newsom Apologizes for California’s History of Violence Against Native Americans” Los Angeles Times, (June 18, 2019).

[2] Executive Department State of California, “Executive Order N-15-19” (June 18, 2019).

[3] Benjamin Madley, “Unholy Traffic in Human Blood and Souls: Systems of California Indian Servitude under U.S. Rule” Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 83 (Nov. 2014), 627.

[4] Madley, 628.

[5] Michael F. Magliari, “Free State Slavery: Bound Indian Labor and Slave Trafficking in California's Sacramento Valley, 1850–1864” Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 81  (May 2012), 157.

[6] Magliari, 162

[7] Magliari, 158.

[8] “An Act for the Government and Protection of Indians” (April 22, 1850),

[9] “An Act for the Government and Protection of Indians”

[10] Magliari, 169

[11] Magliari, 157

[12] “An Act for the Government and Protection of Indians”

[13] Magliari, 164

[14] American Experience, “Act for the Government and Protection of Indians”

[15] Luna, Los Angeles Times

[16] Luna, Los Angeles Times

[17] Executive Department State of California

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