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.
JOHN B. MONTGOMERY.
Commanding District of San Francisco.
Published for the government of all concerned.
Washington A. Bartlett