A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico
Sept 20, 2007 Volume 38 / Number 1


Unfree Labor in a Free State

Photo: Indians shelling almonds on Rancho Chico, circa 1890. Despite their rapidly declining populations due to war, displacement, and disease, Indian farm laborers, both free and unfree, played a vital role in California’s booming agricultural industry throughout the 19th century.

Courtesy of CSU, Chico, Meriam Library, Special Collections and Bidwell Mansion State Historic Park

California’s reputation as a “free” state during the Civil War era is largely undeserved, said Michael Magliari, History, who is working on a book on the exploitation of Indian workers in the state during the 1850s and 1860s. With the 1850 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 began his research with a study of Southern California rancho owner Cave Johnson Couts. Couts was a careful record keeper, leaving more than 100 boxes of paperwork. His ledgers and laborer records clearly identify which workers were Indians, making comparisons between Indian laborers and Anglo and Hispanic laborers easy.

Magliari’s case study of Couts, “Free Soil, Unfree Labor” (Pacific Historical Review, 2004), won the Western History Association’s Ray Allen Billington Prize in 2005. He is also 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).

This June, Magliari received a C. Allan and Marjorie Braun Fellowship to spend a month at the Huntington Library, looking through the papers of California rancheros and large business owners during the mid-19th century. They 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.

Convict lease enabled property owners to buy Indian labor at auction. Any Indian convicted of a misdemeanor—vagrancy was a common charge—could be forced to work as a laborer or domestic servant for up to four months if they couldn’t pay their fine. Non-Indians served time in jail—only Native Americans were auctioned off for the duration of their sentences. Rancho owners and wineries often used the convict lease system for cheap labor during harvest time.

Longer periods of cheap labor were procured by California’s system of indentured servitude in which Indian children were indentured for 10 years or more, depending on the circumstances. While the law called for the permission of Indian parents, said Magliari, it was rarely enforced. Instead, a brutal practice of kidnapping developed. Indian parents were often killed and their children sold off into servitude.

When the term of service was over, they were released, completely unprepared for survival. “Unlike traditional indentured servants, who earned some money or clothing or land or farm equipment or something to make their own start, there was nothing for the Indian laborers,” said Magliari. “They had earned nothing; they had accumulated nothing.”

The third system of bound labor Magliari is studying is debt peonage, a carryover from Mexican rule. This system, he said, is more nebulous and more difficult to track, but possibly the most widespread. Magliari is currently the only person writing about it. Under debt peonage, an Indian worker indebted to his employer wasn’t free to leave like a white or Hispanic worker—he had to work until he had paid off the debt. This often happened on isolated, rural ranches where the owner had a store. Between monthly paydays, laborers would rack up debts for ordinary essentials—things like blankets, boots, hats, items of clothing, soap, and candles.

Magliari has found rancho ledgers showing Indian laborers with debts of $15–20, the equivalent of a half a month of work. “At that point,” he said, “it was very hard to climb out of their debt.”

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 “house divided against itself.”

“The problem with Lincoln’s metaphor,” said Magliari, “is that it makes us forget that between free and slave, there was a thin stratum of unfree labor.”

“And the search for cheap, exploitable labor,” he added, “continues on to the present day.”

—Anna Harris, Public Affairs and Publications