Stephen Hill and Slavery in the Golden State

California was admitted to the Union in 1850 as a free state. Nevertheless, slaves were brought to California by slave-owning southerners both before and after statehood, and the slave owners usually got away with it. Slaves made the effort to escape or free themselves, but just as often the courts would return them to their owners.

Stephen Spencer Hill

The experience of Stephen Spencer Hill is a case in point.

Hill was brought to California as a slave in 1849 from Arkansas by a man named Wood Tucker. When Tucker returned to Arkansas in 1853, he went back without Hill. Stephen Hill claimed that he had purchased his freedom from Tucker, but he doesn’t seem to have had the papers to prove it. That would cause him no end of trouble.

Hill remained on land near Sonora that either he or Tucker had purchased. He made improvements on it, clearing trees and planting crops. He also mined for gold, and the discovery of a nine-ounce gold nugget gave him the funds to buy farming equipment. His prosperity did not last.

A white man named Own R. Rozier claimed that Hill was still a slave and that he, Rozier. was an agent for Wood Tucker. He had Hill arrested.

As a black man, Hill could not testify in court. He was not without friends though. He was popular and well-liked among miners in the area, and they hired an attorney for him and harvested his crops. The court contacted Wood Tucker in Arkansas, who claimed by return letter that Hill was his slave. The magistrate handed him over to Rozier.

San Joaquin Republican 25 Sept 1854

All was not lost. The night before Hill was due to leave on a steamer from Stockton for the return trip to Arkansas, Hill’s friends got Rozier drunk and Hill escaped. Rozier placed the above ad in the San Joaquin Republican, claiming that Stephen Hill was both an escaped slave and a thief. Rozier never did recapture the fugitive. Stephen Hill remained free in California, but he lost his land claim.

What happened to him after his escape? I wish I knew. This is all the information I have. I hope he was successful in maintaining his freedom, a precious and elusive right for a black man in 19th century California.

Two places where you can read about Stephen Hill on the web are:

PBS: African Americans in the Gold Rush and Five Views: A History of Black Americans 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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2 Responses to Stephen Hill and Slavery in the Golden State

  1. Jodie says:

    Nancy,
    Please check the two links that you have posted. Neither of them seem to work.
    Btw, I love your writing!
    Jodie Dillman

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