CSU, Chico News

History Professor Researches Slave Labor in the Civil War Era in California

Date: 08-29-2007

Kathleen McPartland
Public Affairs

California’s reputation as a “free” state during the Civil War era is largely undeserved, said Michael Magliari, a professor of history at California State University, Chico. Magliari is working on a book on the exploitation of Indian workers in the state during the 1850s and 1860s. With the passage of California’s Act for the Government and Protection of Indians, a system of what Magliari calls “unfree labor” was made legally possible, fostering “abuses that shaded over into de facto slavery.”

Magliari is the co-author, with Michael J. Gillis, of John Bidwell and California: The Life and Writings of a Pioneer, 1841–1900 (The Arthur H. Clark Company, 2003).

Magliari began his research into the exploitation of Indian labor with a study of Southern California rancho owner Cave Johnson Couts. Couts was a careful record keeper, leaving more than 100 boxes of records. Magliari’s case study of Couts, “Free Soil, Unfree Labor” (Pacific Historical Review, 2004) won the Western History Association’s Ray Allen Billington Prize, 2005 for his article on Couts.

Magliari received a C. Allan and Marjorie Braun Fellowship to spend a month at the Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif. looking through the papers of California rancheros and large business owners during the mid-19th century. The papers included correspondence detailing labor relations and account ledgers of workers, wages, and debts—and carefully noting which workers were Indians.

Through these records and extensive archival research across the state, Magliari is putting together a picture of how property owners used the Indian Act of 1850 to virtually enslave Indian laborers through convict lease, indentured servitude and debt peonage.

Magliari’s upcoming book, contracted by the University of Nebraska Press, will be the first statewide study of forced Indian labor. It will expand on his Couts study, looking at it as representative of the big California merchants and rancho owners’ use of exploited racial labor during the Gold Rush and Civil War eras. He is also doing in-depth research into the kidnapping trade, finding, in county courthouses across the state, records of attempts to prosecute kidnappers who sold Indian women and children into indentured servitude.

In the meantime, Magliari, who has taught history at CSU, Chico since 1990, uses his study as a lesson in his archival research class: “It’s like detective work,” he said, “the study of obscure records in obscure places.” He also integrates it into his History of California class, teaching his students that the structure of the labor system in pre-Civil War America wasn’t quite as simple as half slave and half free, what Lincoln famously described as a “house divided against itself.”