Archy Lee: The Rodney King of Gold Rush California

Image from:”The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom” By Wilbur Henry Siebert, Albert Bushnell HartEdition: 2Published by Macmillan, 1898, pg. 26[1]), Public Domain,

March 1991, California and the world were transfixed by the video of Rodney King being brutally beaten by Los Angeles Police Department officers. The public remained transfixed throughout the legal proceedings, both criminal and civil, which followed. The acquittal of the officers who beat King on April 29, 1992 sparked the 1992 Los Angeles Protests, Riots, or Uprising (depending on your point of view).

This is a story of another Black Man, unwittingly caught in the middle of events which transfixed public attention and laid bare the ugly sores of racism of the time. This is the story of Archy Lee, who I call the “Rodney King” of Gold Rush California.

Like King, Lee was an ordinary man who did not seek out this attention. The controversies around King dominated the news of 1991–1992, especially in California. The controversies around Lee similarly dominated the news of 1858 California.

efore we can tell the story, we must set the stage. California became part of America as a result of the Mexican-American War, a war fought for the purpose of expanding slave territory into the West. When gold was discovered, it sparked the first truly global gold rush into California. The new immigrants, most fresh off the boat, quickly adopted a Constitution and petitioned Congress for admission as a state. Without any substantive discussion, and without any dissenting vote, these men unanimously agreed that “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, unless for the punishment of crimes, shall ever be tolerated in this State.” [Art. I § 18 of the 1849 Constitution, currently in Cal. Const. Art. I § 6]. This was not an expression of any moral aversion to slavery. Rather, they just did not want slaves competing with free “White” labor in the gold fields. [John Ross Browne, Report of the Debates in the Convention of California, on the Formation of the State Constitution, in September and October, 1849 (J. T. Towers, D.C. 1850), pp. 43–44]

The reason given to Congress as to why they prohibited slavery was that “The relation of master and slave has never existed in the country, and is there generally believed to be prohibited by Mexican law.” This may have been true on paper, but not in real life. The Native Californians had been, and were still, held as slaves in all but legal title.

California’s petition to be admitted as a free state threw a monkey wrench into the fragile balance between North and South states at the time. But with all that gold at stake, Congress had no choice but to accept California into the Union. But as part of the deal, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, which required all states to return runaway slaves to the state they were “owned” in.

Practical illustration of the Fugitive Slave Law / E.C. del.; Library of Congress #2008661534

nto this scene of tensions which were about to lead the country into a Civil War, stepped two young men from Mississippi: Charles Stovall and Archy Lee. In another time and place, they could have been good friends. They probably were, as children; they may even have been (half) brothers. But in that day and age, one was defined as an owner, and the other as a slave.

Stovall and Lee arrived in California in 1857. On arriving in Sacramento, Stovall hired out his slave, keeping Lee’s wages for himself- precisely the practice which had been roundly denounced at the Constitutional Convention. In January 1858, Stovall, who was reputedly in poor health, decided that he would return with Lee to Mississippi.

Mary Ellen Pleasant — Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Archy Lee had already come in contact with free Blacks in California, who were small in number but well organized. Many others had been brought to California as slaves, but realized their freedom. These included Biddy Mason, who become the owner of a large part of what is now downtown Los Angeles, and founded the First AME Church, which was at the center of the protests for Rodney King. Also part of this highly-organized network was Mary Ellen Pleasant, who funded John Brown’s effort to start a slave rebellion at Harpers Ferry.

Photo by Adib Harith Fadzilah on Unsplash

The central organization of these efforts in California was the Colored Convention. Instead of an underground railroad, the Colored Convention used a network of barbershops. Yes, barbershops. “This was accomplished” writes Delilah L. Beasley, “because all the barbers in the State were Negroes.” [The Negro Trail Blazers of California, p. 77].

The free Blacks informed Lee that California was a free state, so that he was no longer property of Stovall. They convinced him to flee to a safe house in Sacramento. Sacramento police arrested Lee, and Stovall then filed a petition for habeas corpus to release Lee back into his custody, as his property. This began a series of legal proceedings, breathtaking escapes and captures, and courtroom drama, which held the public attention for much of 1858.

In his first court case, before the County Court, Judge Robinson decided that Lee was not a fugitive from labor within the definitions of the state or federal laws, and that Stovall, by the length of his stay and the fact that he had engaged in business, had forfeited his right to claim that he was a transient. He argued:

“Comity can never extend to strangers anything beyond the rights and privileges which the State allows its own citizens. Now if a man may retain his citizenship in the State of Mississippi, and sojourn here two months and work his slave, why may he not stay twenty years and work twenty slaves? The principle is precisely the same. The law would not permit a citizen of this State to hold and work a slave against his consent, and what it does not allow its own citizens to do, it cannot be reasonably expected to sustain strangers in doing.”

Judge Robinson had made known an hour beforehand what his verdict would be, so that Stovall was able to obtain another warrant before Lee was released. No sooner was the verdict pronounced, than he was re-arrested and, followed by “a great crowd of sympathetic whites and negroes,” led back to his cell. The case was then brought before the state Supreme Court on a writ of habeas corpus.

Peter Burnett — First Governor of California, and later California Supreme Court Justice — Official California State Portrait

The California Supreme Court issued the one published legal opinion which was produced by this drama. [In the Matter of Archy Lee, 9 Cal. 147 (1858).] The Court was forced to face the conflict between the right to property in the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (even if that property was a human being), and the prohibition against slavery in the new California Constitution. The opinion was issued by former Governor Burnett and his fellow Southerner, David Terry. Burnett was one of those arguing at the Constitutional Convention that even “free negroes” should not be allowed into the state.

The decision began by expressing “no reasonable doubt” that the “right of transit with slaves through a free State exists.” The question, then, was whether Stovall was a “traveler” through the state, entitled to bring along his property, in the form of Archy Lee, or did he exhibit the properties of a resident, who was prohibited by the California Constitution from practicing slavery in the state?

To put it bluntly, was Archy Lee a Man,

or was he a piece of luggage?

The answer hinged on the same issue which dominated the Convention, the accepted principal that “The sojourner has no right to enter with slave-labor into business competition with those who are not allowed the same privilege.” From the evidence, especially Stovall’s rental of Lee’s labor for his own profit, the Court was forced to admit that “it would seem clear that the petitioner cannot sustain either the character of traveler or visitor.”

ut” the Court went on, “there are circumstances connected with this particular case that may exempt him from the operation of the rules we have laid down. This is the first case and under the circumstances we are not disposed to rigidly enforce the rules for the first time.” Poor Archy Lee won the legal argument, but lost his freedom; he was returned to the custody of Stovall, because the Court took pity on Stovall’s poor health and ignorance of the law.

This decision was universally ridiculed throughout the state. One diatribe posted in the famous Rattlesnake Bar in Placer County gave a popular syllabus of the opinion:

The Constitution never operates for the first time;

The Constitution never operates against a man traveling for his health;

Charity is defined, to take a man away from himself and give him to another;

A man may gain all the law in his case but lose himself.”

tovall took the heavily manacled and carefully guarded Archy Lee from Sacramento to Stockton. Both then disappeared, starting a state-wide game of hide and seek. The Colored Convention was tracking the movements of Lee and Stovall. The Executive Committee of the Colored Convention devised a secret code for this purpose, which was passed by way of their network of barber chairs throughout the state. They were also active in collecting the funds to pay (white) lawyers who would argue on Lee’s behalf in the courts.

When the Colored Convention learned that Stovall and Lee were soon to come to San Francisco to take passage for Panama, they determined to effect a rescue. At the time when Stovall and Lee were expected to arrive, the water front was patrolled day and night by between fifty and a hundred volunteers. A prominent Black citizen had sworn out a warrant charging Stovall with kidnaping, and had also secured another writ of habeas corpus authorizing the apprehension of Lee. (Whether a non-white could do so became a major issue in subsequent legal argument). An officer was kept in readiness to serve these papers. As it was feared that Stovall would board a ship after it had left the dock, it was arranged to have outgoing ocean vessels accompanied by officers until they were outside the Bay.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Stovall attempted to board an outgoing vessel with Lee after it got under way. In the midst of a scene of great excitement, they were both arrested by Sheriffs and taken back to the wharf where they were received by a wildly cheering crowd. Stovall was quickly released on bail and the charges against him dismissed. His arrest had merely been a ruse to separate the two and keep Stovall’s lawyers occupied.

When Lee appeared for his hearing, a great crowd, Black and White, surrounded the courtroom. Like Rodney King over a century later, all eyes were on the court. After some legal skirmishes, Stovall’s lawyer surprised everyone by agreeing to Lee’s discharge.

Once again, Lee’s apparent freedom was short-lived. As he left the courtroom to join the cheering crowd, Lee was met by a U.S. Marshall, who arrested him under the Fugitive Slave Act. Stovall’s lawyers also had a few tricks up their sleeves. The discharge was just a ruse to bring Lee before a federal judge, who they thought would be more sympathetic to slaveowners.

Lee was led down the street to appear before a pro-slavery Southerner, Judge George Penn Johnston. Like Black Lives Matter protests today, the crowd supporting Lee was met by another one supporting Stovall, with the police in between. Fist fights broke out between them, which nearly escalated into a full-fledged riot.

After initial arguments, Judge Johnston granted a ten-day continuance. At the reconvened hearing, another riot nearly broke out, this time between the lawyers. Stovall’s lawyer apparently had a hidden gun, and rushed at one of Lee’s lawyers during the interrogation of Stovall. The Judge broke up the fight, and then granted another week continuance.

inally, on April 14, 1858, another crowd gathered outside Judge Johnston’s courthouse to hear the verdict. Johnston surprised everyone. Despite his personal views, he followed the law. The law which brought Lee before him was the Fugitive Slave Act, which allowed federal officials to arrest and return slaves who fled from one state to another. But Lee was not a fugitive. It was his master, Stovall, who brought him from Mississippi to California. Federal officials had no jurisdiction over slaves running away within a state, and since slavery was not allowed in California, there was no basis for such a charge. So, Johnston concluded that he had no jurisdiction: Archy Lee was a free man.

That night the free Blacks of San Francisco, Lee in their midst, gathered to celebrate the great victory. The click of the coins so generously poured out to complete the payment of the expenses of his defense was drowned in the great chorus,- five hundred strong, — that shouted familiar hymns modified to fit the great occasion:

Sound the glad tidings o ‘er land and o ‘er sea,

Our people have triumphed and Archy is free!

‘Blow, ye trumpets blow!

The gladly solemn sound,

Let all the nations know

To earth’s remotest bound,

The year of Archy Lee is come,

Return ye ransomed Stovall home.”

would like to end here on this happy note, but there is more to this story. While Archy Lee’s case galvanized the Black community in California, it also highlighted the racism they still faced in this supposedly “free” state. In addition to the Supreme Court decision in this case, a bill had been presented in the legislature to prohibit the immigration of “free negroes and mulattoes” into the state. [1857 AB 411, refused passage at Assembly Journal, 1857, p. 824. 1858 AB 395, passed, Assembly Journal, 1858, p. 525. The later act was never added to the Statutes, and was reportedly repealed in 1859.] They were still without political rights, and the legislature summarily dismissed their petition to be permitted to testify in the courts in cases to which white men were parties. Such was the dissatisfaction that there was much talk of a plan to emigrate in a body, and British Columbia and Sonora were discussed as possible places of settlement.

As for Archy Lee himself, he joined the exodus to British Columbia. He apparently returned to California after the Civil War, but sadly passed away soon after. In 1873 he was found in the sands on the bank of the American River, and died shortly after.

Like Rodney King, Archy Lee lost one case, but then won another. Yet despite the efforts of an organized community in each time period, racism survived its loss. But as those heroes of another time who rallied to Archy Lee, we must persist.

Sources and Further Reading:

Lucile Eaves and J. David Sackman, A History of California Labor Legislation: Revised and Updated Centennial Edition (Queen Calafia Publishing 2012).

Rudolph M. Lapp, “Archy Lee: A California Fugitive Slave Case” (Book Club of CA 1969), reprinted by Heyday Books in 2008.

Delilah L. Beasley, The Negro Trailblazers of California: A Compilation of Records from the California Archives in the Bancroft Library at the University of California (Los Angeles 1919).

Thanks to my wife, Jerolyn Crute Sackman, who helped my research. In particular, she was the one who discovered the network of barbershops described in Beasley’s book. We still haven’t cracked the code, though.

Representing the Working Class as a lawyer since 1982. Questioning everything, especially myself.

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