The California Fugitive Slave Law

As a student of history, I knew about the federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. What I didn’t know about until recently was that California had its own Fugitive Slave Law, enacted in 1852, to deal with the unique circumstances of free and enslaved blacks in California.

Boston poster, April 1851. From Wikipedia.

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was part of the Compromise of 1850. Brokered by Henry Clay, it was part of a parcel of acts that gave the Northern states and the Southern states each something they wanted, in exchange for something they didn’t want, but were reluctantly willing to compromise on. California came into the Union as a free state, but since it was the 31st state, it upset the 15/15 balance between North and South. In exchange the South got a toughened fugitive slave law that required both state officials and ordinary citizens to cooperate in the capture and return of men and women who fled from enslavement.

The Fugitive Slave law required that “when a person held to service or labor in any State or Territory of the United States . . . shall hereafter escape into another State or Territory of the United States, the person or persons to whom such service or labor may be due, . . . may pursue and reclaim such fugitive person . . . ”

And it wasn’t just officers of the law who were required to comply with this law or face a penalty. The law stated that “all good citizens are hereby commanded to aid and assist in the prompt and efficient execution of this law.”

The Fugitive Slave Law was not popular in the Northern states. Many found it cruel and offensive. Even for those citizens who were not anti-slavery, who had no objection to slavery in the Southern states, they still didn’t want to be compelled to participate in the capture of escapees.

How did this law play out in California, far from the Underground Railroad? Slaves were not escaping from Mississippi to California. They were going north to Canada or south to Mexico. So And why would the Golden State need its own version of the law?

The Constitution of California, written in 1849, stated that “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, unless for punishment of a crime, shall ever be tolerated.” Nevertheless, slaveholders were allowed to bring slaves into the state so long as the slaveholders were “sojourners,” not planning to settle permanently.

Many Southerners brought slaves with them, usually only one or two or three, to work in the mines, to serve as domestics, or to be hired out as cooks, or servants, or laborers. No matter whether they stayed in California for one year or five, they didn’t think they were going to settle in California. Nearly everyone who came to the state planned to get rich quick and go home to live an easier life. They considered themselves “transients” or “sojourners” and they regarded the blacks they brought with them as their lawful property. Property they could take back with them to the South and servitude.

Bringing slaves to California, and keeping them enslaved, was largely tolerated in California. What happened when an enslaved person escaped?

Find out next time, when we look at the case of a young enslaved man named Frank.

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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