In 1852, California legislators passed a harsh fugitive slave law that condemned dozens of African American migrants to deportation and lifelong slavery. Historian Stacey L. Smith examines the legal travails of three accused fugitive slaves to illuminate the social relations of slavery in gold rush California and the consequences of the fugitive slave law for the state’s African American population.
Americans have long imagined gold rush California as a landscape of liberty, a place where individuals could escape the economic and social inequality east of the Rockies and find almost unlimited opportunities for financial independence and upward mobility. Indeed, for Carter Perkins, Robert Perkins, and Sandy Jones, three former slaves from Mississippi, the gold rush seemed to present unprecedented possibilities for securing freedom and economic self-sufficiency. After arriving in the small mining town of Ophir, California, in 1851, the three men built a booming freight business hauling supplies across California’s northern gold country. Within a few months, they amassed over $3,000 in personal property, including a mule team and wagon.
The African American men’s dreams of California freedom ended abruptly in the middle of the night on April 31, 1852. While the three men slept, a group of armed whites broke into their cabin. The invaders tied up the black men, loaded them into their own wagon, and hauled them to Sacramento using their own mule team. There, a justice of the peace pronounced the men to be fugitive slaves and ordered their deportation back to the Slave South.
The African American men likely knew at least of one of their captors. Green Perkins, the leader of the midnight raid, was the first cousin of Charles Perkins, the man who had brought the African Americans to California in the first place. Charles Perkins belonged to a Mississippi slaveholding family and he had traveled to California to dig gold in 1849. Like many young slaveholding men, Perkins depended on networks of family capital to make