Third in a Series: On the status of individuals held as slaves in California prior to its entry into the Union

In the late 1840s slavery had become a major issue in the United States. Its twenty-six states were equally divided between the thirteen permitting slave holding and the thirteen opposed. After the defeat of Mexico and the addition of vast new areas, including California, the issue of whether new states would be slave-holding or not became bitterly contentious.

In 1848, the discovery of gold attracted thousands, many from the south, and of these many were accompanied by their slaves. In October 1849, in the absence of action by the United States Congress, California held a constitutional convention to determine how it would be governed. One of the questions that needed to be resolved was how the state would deal with the slavery issue. Northern abolitionists were against the practice on moral grounds and Anglo-European miners did not want competition from slave-holders. Southerners wanted the right to bring their slaves with them into the gold fields and to establish agricultural enterprises similar to those in the South.

The chairman of the committee that drafted the constitution was William Gwin, a slave-holder from Tennessee. Gwin was more interested in gaining control of the Democratic Party than he was in winning this battle and made no effort to write slavery into the new constitution. (He was later bitterly criticized by Southern leaders in Congress.)

In 1849 California presented itself to Congress and the world as a "free state" and sent a balanced representation to the U.S. Senate. The Southern slaveholder, William Gwin, and the Northern abolitionist, John Fremont, were the first two senators elected to represent the state.

However, the status of slaves held by miners and others prior to the decision to enter the union as a free state remained unknown.

Furthermore the Federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made any official who did not arrest an alleged runaway slave liable to a fine of $1,000. This merely required a claimant’s sworn testimony of ownership; the suspected slave could not ask for trial or testify on his or her own behalf and any person aiding a runaway slave by providing food or shelter was subject to six months imprisonment and a $1,000 fine. Officers who captured a fugitive slave were entitled to a bonus or promotion for their work. Slave owners only needed to supply an affidavit to a Federal marshal to capture an escaped slave. With no trial provision or right to defend themselves, this led to many free blacks being conscripted into slavery.

In January 1852, California Assemblyman Henry A. Crabb, a Southerner, introduced a Fugitive Slave Law that would make it illegal for slaves to run away from their owners in California. This Act, Chapter LXVII, passed into law in April 1852. It provided that “Any person or persons held to labor or service, in any state or Territory of the United states, by the laws of such State or Territory, and who were brought or introduced within the limits of this State, previous to the admission of this State, as one of the United States of America, and who shall refuse to return to the State or Territory where he, she, or they owed such labor or service, upon the demand of the person or persons, his or their agent or attorney, to whom such labor or service was due, such person or persons so refusing to return, shall be held and deemed fugitives from labor” (subject to forcible return)!

The Act was challenged in the Perkins case later that year. The state Supreme Court found that, under the California Fugitive Slave Law, Perkins must be returned to his master. Finally, however, the law failed to be renewed by the state legislature in 1855.