A Young Man Named ‘Frank’

This is the story of the case that led to the enactment of the California Fugitive Slave Law.

In 1850 a man named John Calloway brought an enslaved man named Frank from Missouri to California. Frank was eighteen years old. He worked at mining for several months and then ran away in January 1851. He found his way to San Francisco where for the next two months he mingled with the free black population and enjoyed his freedom.

Daily Alta California 31 March 1851 Note that Frank is always described as a “boy.”

Calloway tracked him down and had Frank held prisoner on a ship at Long Wharf, planning to take him immediately back to the South.

Long Wharf, San Francisco

It seems that Frank had friends who knew what had happened to him, because an affidavit was prepared on his behalf and delivered to Judge Morrison, who issued a writ of habeas corpus to have Frank brought before him.

Frank claimed he was being held against his will prior to being taken back to Missouri. Frank’s free black friends found him a defense attorney, Samuel W. Holladay. Mr. Calloway claimed that Frank was his property, but had no papers to prove it. At some point Frank admitted that he had been a slave in Missouri, but since blacks were not allowed to testify in court, the judge ruled that his testimony was inadmissible under state law.

Was Frank a runaway as defined by the federal Fugitive Slave Act? Judge Morrison ruled that Frank could not be considered a fugitive because he had not crossed state lines to escape. Calloway had freely brought him to California; Frank had not escaped to California, but only in California, therefore the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law did not apply to his case.

Daily Alta California 02 April 1851

Such an outcome was anathema to Southerners in California. It meant that enslaved persons brought to California would now consider themselves free. Nothing could prevent them from running away. It endangered the slaveholder’s right to his “property.” It was not to be tolerated.

A bill was introduced in the legislature by Henry A. Crabb, originally from Tennessee. It stipulated that any persons “held to labor or service” who had been brought to California before it became a state, and who refused to return to their former state upon the demand of their owner, would be “deemed fugitives from labor” and could be forcibly made to return. It put no time limit on how long a slaveowner could stay in California with his “property.”

The editor of the Daily Alta California saw in this law a direct conflict with the state constitution.

Daily Alta California 18 February 1852

The pro-slavery faction was strong in Sacramento, and the bill passed the state Senate by a fourteen to nine vote. It had a twelve-month limit, but this would be renewed twice, so that the law was in force for three years.

Not all future fugitive slave cases would have the happy outcome of Frank’s case, and we do not know what happened to him after he was freed, but we can still rejoice in his freedom.

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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