John Steele and Slavery in California

In Camp and Cabin with John Steele — part 9

John Steele, young man from a small town in Wisconsin, enjoyed the diversity of people that he met in California. He encountered Mexicans and Chileans, native California Indians, Chinese, and black Americans. He is never disparaging about any of these people on account of their race or origin. His criticisms are only aimed at those who harmed or took advantage of their neighbors.

The saddest story he relates concerns a man brought to California as a slave. At Downing’s Ravine, on the American River, he meets a man named Elijah Barker, “a colored man about forty years old, a slave, whose owner, James Barker, had brought him from Georgia.”

James (aka “Jeems”) Barker was an “unsteady” character. Having wasted his money, he wanted to return to Georgia where living was cheaper. In order to get the money he needed, he hired out Elijah and used his earnings to pay for his passage. When James Barker departed from California, he left Elijah to work on his own and return to Georgia later.

But he discovered a mine, and working on his own account, was soon in possession of considerable gold. Very industrious, he worked in his mine during the day and often in the evenings washed clothes for the miners. . . He was intelligent and sociable, and related many incidents, some humorous, others exceedingly sad, all of which gave me an inside view of slavery. (p. 261)

Spanish Flat, 1852. California History Room, California State Library

John Steele assisted Elijah by reading and writing his letters for him and helping him in business matters. He learned that Elijah had a wife and two children back in Georgia, who were owned by another slaveholder named Grove.

Hearing that Mr. Grove wanted to sell his slaves to finance a trip to California, Steele encouraged Elijah to buy his wife and children himself and have Grove bring them to California along with him. Whatever it cost, Steele would assist him to get his family to California, where they could all be free together. To do so was the greatest wish of Elijah’s heart, and yet he said that, “it can’t be done.”

At last he received a letter from James Barker, ordering him to return to Georgia with some other white men who were planning to go back.

When they were ready to start, he came to bid me good-bye; and I made my final appeal, urging him to rescue his wife and children, and showing how happy they could all live together in California. It was evidently his greatest desire; but instead of acquiescence he utterly broke down and wept for a long time.

At last, with great effort, overcoming his emotion, he wiped away his tears and rising up, said with deep solemnity, “Massa John, de Lord heard me promise Massa Jeems dat I’d come back, an ob cose I will.”

He had given his word, and nothing could tempt him to change his mind. He could see no honorable way out of the promise he had made.

From that time he seemed to me like one of the saints or martyrs. All his life a slave, and yet so near to God. . . In the presence of such faithfulness I felt humbled.

With an earnest prayer for my salvation, prosperity, and happiness, bidding me good-bye he started for Georgia and slavery. But he died on the way; Massa Jeems obtained his earnings, and his wife and children were sold with the Grove estate; and yet it is possible that they are all together in a better home than all the wealth in California could furnish. (p. 263)

It is both heart-breaking and infuriating. Having never lived in the South, Steele could scarcely conceive of the horrors of slavery: the back-breaking toil, the whippings, the tearing apart of families. But he saw first-hand how slave owners used religion and family feeling to trap men like Elijah.

Elijah Barker’s story is the counterpart to that of Alvin A. Coffey, the negative to his positive. Both men were brought to California as slaves, both left wives and children behind in the South, and both were described as intelligent, industrious, and honest. How many enslaved persons succeeded in winning their freedom, as Alvin did, and how many were defeated like Elijah? We like to think of California as a free state, one that never endorsed slavery, but the histories of men like Alvin and Elijah tell a different story.

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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