The Perkins Case

Unidentified black miner at Auburn Ravine, 1852.

The first test of the California Fugitive Slave Act (enacted in April 1852) came shortly after its passage. Three men, Carter Perkins, Robert Perkins, and Sandy Jones, were seized on the night of May 31, 1852, by the sheriff of Placer County and several other white men, including the man who claimed them as his fugitive slaves.

Charles S. Perkins, a white man from Bolivar County, Mississippi, had brought Carter Perkins, an enslaved man, with him to California in 1849. The other two men soon followed, and all three were put to work mining for gold. In the spring of 1851 Charles Perkins desired to return to Mississippi, so he left his three slaves in charge of John Hill, and told them that after another six months of work they would be freed.

Sacramento Daily Union 3 June 1852

In November 1851 John Hill told the three that their time was up. They were free men. But evidently he didn’t give them any deeds of emancipation; they just went off, confident in the assurance that they could now be numbered among the free blacks of California. They continued mining, with good success.

Then Charles Perkins returned.

You can see from this news item that the three men were doing well — they had a wagon, a span of mules, and $400. It also verifies that the men had been promised their freedom in exchange for a certain period of labor. On the other hand, it has their state of origin wrong, and since they worked for Perkins and Hill until November 1851, it can hardly be said that they “sloped soon after they landed.”

Sacramento Daily Union 12 June 1852

Members of the free black community and sympathetic white supporters raised money to engage three prominent attorneys to defend the alleged fugitives — Cornelius Cole, Joseph Zabriskie, and Joseph Winans. The lawyers drew up a writ of habeas corpus to bring the three men before Judge Aldrich. The judge ruled that they were fugitive slaves under the new law and handed them over to Charles Perkins. He took them to San Francisco, intent on getting them on board a steamer and taking them back to Mississippi.

The attorneys and supporters of the three black men were not done yet. They decided to fight the case on the basis that the law was unconstitutional. They rescued the men from the steamship where they were being held. A second writ of habeas corpus was obtained and the men were held in jail until the case could be heard by the California Supreme Court.

Unfortunately for the three former slaves and their attorneys, the case was heard by Justices Murray and Anderson, both of whom were from southern states. Not only did the judges have no sympathy for the plight of the defendants, but their pro-slavery opinions made it a nearly foregone conclusions that no argument against the fugitive slave law would be accepted.

According to Rudolph M. Lapp, author of Blacks in Gold Rush California (1977), the defense:

contended that the state Fugitive Slave Law of 1852 was an ex-post facto law designed to protect slaveowners long after the time intended by the state’s constitution. The court decided that no law could possibly impair the rights to slave property guaranteed by the federal constitution, since to do otherwise would violate the rights of the slave states.

Lapp, p. 146

This was the expected decision from any judge raised in the South. Nothing was going to interfere with Southern property rights. The two Justices found the law constitutional and valid, and they returned the three men to the custody of the man who claimed them as his property.

Mr. Perkins promptly put Carter Perkins, Robert Perkins and Sandy Jones on a ship and started back for Mississippi. But that is not quite the end of the story.

Writing to a friend back East, a Marysville anti-slavery man named W. C. Ellis reported that the three men escaped from custody at Panama. They were never seen again, and one can hope they found freedom in Central America.

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 The Perkins Case

  1. Ray Albin says:

    See Wealth Land and Slaveholding in Mississippi, A Planter Family’s Life of Privilege, Chapters VI and VII for an in-depth rendering of the Perkins case.

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