George Washington Dennis — African-American Forty-Niner

I’ve been reading Delilah Beasley’s classic work on African-Americans in California, The Negro Trail Blazers of California, published in 1919. Ms. Beasley spent years researching the stories of blacks in California. I got the book from the public library, but it is also available at Google Books and the Internet Archive.

Southern slave owners who came to California for the Gold Rush often brought at least one slave with them. Although California was admitted to the Union as a free state in 1850, slavery continued in the state before the Civil War.

One such slave was George Washington Dennis. Here is his story, as told by his son Edward Dennis.

George Washington Dennis came to California September 17, 1849, with the gambling party that opened the ‘Eldorado Hotel’ in San Francisco. This party of gamblers was from New Orleans and was composed of the following persons: Green Dennis, a slave trader, from Mobile, Alabama; Joe and Jim Johnson, from Ohio, and Andy McCabe. . . While en route from Panama to San Francisco, the gamblers lost and re-won Mr. Dennis three different times. He was their slave and therefore chattel property.

The Negro Trail Blazers of California. p. 119

Those Louisiana gamblers knew a money-making opportunity when they heard about it. They were doing their own version of a gold rush.

Upon reaching California, the gamblers set up a tent, which they had brought with them, as a hotel and gambling den. The gambling went on night and day. Green Dennis, George W. Dennis’s owner, told him that “that if he would save his money he could purchase his freedom.”

George W. Dennis was given the position of porter of this hotel at a salary of $250 per month. Mr. Dennis, very anxious to secure his freedom and at the same time to start life with a little money, saved the sweepings from the gambling tables and at the end of three month he paid, in five and ten cent pieces, the sum of $1000, and received a bill for himself from Green Dennis, who was his father and also his master.

It staggers the mind that a man would keep his own son as a slave or sell him. But that was slavery in the United States, all legal and customary at the time.

$250 a month seems like a high salary, when you consider that in the States a man might work all year for that amount. But everything was different in California, and that included prices and wages. And those gamblers must have been raking it in. Gambling was the most popular entertainment in gold rush San Francisco.

Notice too that Dennis carefully sifted through the straw and trash that he swept up each day and saved any coins or bits of gold he found. He soon had the price of his freedom.

George W. Dennis had another person whose freedom he wished to buy, and that was his mother. He paid his father $950 for her. Two of the gamblers, Joe and Jim Johnson, went back to the States to get cattle and while there, found his mother and returned with her.

Upon the arrival of his mother in San Francisco, Mr. Dennis rented one of the gambling tables at $40 per day for the privilege of his mother serving hot meals in the gambling house on it. Eggs were selling at $12 per dozen, apples 25 cents apiece, and a loaf of bread $1. While her expenses were heavy, she averaged $225 a day.

That must have been a good business. She lived a long life in California with her son. George W. Dennis did quite well for himself. He bought and sold land in San Francisco, ran a livery stable, and later was a coal merchant, and prospered.

This advertisement appeared in the newspaper The Elevator, running for several issues in 1868. The Elevator was an African-American paper begun in 1865 which aimed at the progress and uplift of the black race in California.

Dennis married and had a large family of children, and made sure that they each got a good education. When he died in 1916 the San Francisco Call said he was widely known and “probably the oldest negro in California.”

About nancyleek

Nancy is a retired librarian who lives in Chico, California. She is the author of John Bidwell: The Adventurous Life of a California Pioneer.
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