Setting the stage for legalized slavery In California

1847 Map of Yerba Buena, aka San Francisco

1847 Map of Yerba Buena, aka San Francisco


As early as 1846, the powers that be in California were setting the stage for legal indenture, or enslavement, of Native Americans. 

 Captain John B. Montgomery was commander of the U.S.S. Portsmouth stationed at Yerba Buena, later known as San Francisco, when he received orders to claim the town for the United States.    Montgomery placed an American flag at the Plaza on July 9, 1846 and worked with Lieutenant Washington Bartlett, a junior officer on the Portsmouth, over the next five months to organize a local government for  San Francisco.

 In September, 1846, Montgomery issued the following proclamation.  On the surface, it appears to guard the Natives against illegal capture and enslavement, and in fact the title of the San Francisco history page where the proclamation is posted is called “End of Indian Slavery in San Francisco”.  But if you read closer, the wording simply transferred control of those natives from non-Americans to Americans by requiring those wanting Indian servants to obtain a contract from an American Justice.      It also requires that all natives “obtain service”, so they had to work for someone or risk “arrest and punishment by labor on the public works”.  



It having come to the knowledge of the Commander in Chief of the district that certain persons have been and still are imprisoning and holding to service Indians against their will, and without any legal contract, and without a due regard to their rights as freeman when not under legal contract for service.–It is hereby ordered that all persons so holding or detaining Indians shall release them, and permit them to return to their own homes, unless they can make a contract with them which shall be acknowledged before the nearest Justice, which contract, shall be binding upon both parties.

The Indian population must not be regarded in the light of slaves, but it is deemed necessary that the Indians within the Settlement shall have employment, with the right of choosing their own master and employers; and after having made such choice, they must abide by it, unless they can obtain permission in writing to leave, or the Justice on their complaint shall consider they have just cause to annul the contract, and permit them to obtain another employer.

All Indians must be required to obtain service, and not be permitted to wander about the country in idle and dissolute manner; if found doing so they will be liable to arrest and punishment by labor on the Public Works at the direction of the Magistrate.

All Officers, civil or military, under my command are required to execute the terms of the order, and take notice of every violation thereof.

Given at head quarters in Yerba Buena
September 15, 1846.

Commanding District of San Francisco.

Published for the government of all concerned.

Washington A. Bartlett
Chief Magistrate.


2 Responses to Setting the stage for legalized slavery In California

  1. It must have been interesting to have the Indian sign a contract which he could not read. (smile, with tongue in cheek). One of the most difficult of decisions for the first Legislature in California was deciding if this was to be a “slave state” or free state. Regardless of what was said on paper, we know the result. My mother, a California Native American born in 1919, was still not considered a full-fledged citizen with all the rights attached to citizenship, AND, when I was born in 1940, my birth certificate said “part-Indian” – a fact not to be taken lightly. In the 1950s, when I was growing up in a small town in Northern California, being Indian was still an important factor in social class. In fact, in this year of 2009, being Indian is still a deficit in the minds of a great many people. My Great-grandmother was actually “sold” to a friend of her father when she was still a teenager in the late 1860s. The primary reason Indians in northwest California were allowed to live during the 1800s is because they were commodities, to be traded and sold, and had to live under the “protection” of a white owner in most cases.

    • lynette77 says:

      The primary reason Indians in northwest California were allowed to live during the 1800s is because they were commodities, to be traded and sold, and had to live under the “protection” of a white owner in most cases

      Boy, I wish I could discount or argue what you’re saying here, but too much information exists that supports your statement… I do hope your less correct when you say that being Native American is still a deficit today, but again, too many things tell me otherwise.

      The question becomes, why. I know there are stereotypes, and unfortunately there are situations that perpetuate them… yet there are just as many whites with the same problems…. So, where do we go from here?

      Regarding your grandmother, I think at least some girls were given, or even sold, to white men of the family’s choice, rather than risk her being taken, or simply raped, by someone else. I don’t know if you know the specifics, but perhaps this was the case here, especially since this was a friend of the fathers…?

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