The Native Californian Juneteenth: Another False Promise of Freedom

1820 painting of European view of supplicating Indians seeking absolution from local priests
1820 painting of European view of supplicating Indians seeking absolution from local priests. Bancroft Library, Berkeley, CA (HN000275a)

uneteenth is a commemoration of the announcement of the supposed emancipation of slaves in Texas, on June 19, 1865. This was nearly two-and-a-half years after the effective date of the Emancipation Proclamation. News traveled slowly in those days, but not that slow. There was clearly a deliberate attempt to delay the news. More important, the General Order №3 read by the Union General that day, did not really “free” the slaves. What that General Order actually said was:

The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.

This announcement foreshadowed the failure of Reconstruction.[i] One form of slavery merely replaced another. Instead of working for one master, they had to work for several, falling further into debt no matter how hard they worked. “Idleness” was punished as vagrancy, and the “vagrant” sold again into servitude for his crime. The false promise of freedom given to African-Americans on Juneteenth was also given to Native Californians decades before. This model continues to be followed today.

he Franciscan Fathers who established the Missions in California relied on the indigenous population stolen for labor, just as the Southern plantations relied on people stolen from Africa. Some came voluntarily, but once inside the Missions, they could not leave, and their entire lives were ordered by the Fathers. While slavery of the indigenous population was technically outlawed by the “Leyes de los Reinos de las Indias” or “Laws of the Indies” issued by King Charles of Spain,[ii] there is no other word to accurately describe this system of labor. The control of the padres over their novitates was absolute and eternal. The padres’ only competition was from the military, who often raped and abused novitates. Later, the missions started loaning out their workforce to the presidios, to other missions, and to the new secular settlements, such as El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Angeles de Rio de Porciúncula, keeping the workers’ wages in the missions.

On August 24, 1821, representatives of the Spanish crown signed the Treaty of Córdoba, which recognized Mexican independence under the Plan of Iguala. Like the news of Emancipation, news of Mexican independence from Spain was slow to reach California. It wasn’t until April 11, 1822 that California authorities swore an oath of allegiance to the new government. While the independence movement was based in large part on the desire to diminish the power of the Church, a meeting of military, civil, and mission authorities in California on October 8, 1822, decided that secularization was not to be immediately enforced.

The process of secularization of the missions proceeded slowly, with the native laborers caught in a battle between the military and mission authorities, each invoking the welfare of the novitates as their goal. The military claimed that they were implementing the intent of the Mexican Constitution to free the natives from serfdom, when they were really more interested in seizing mission lands. The mission padres claimed that the native peoples were the absolute owners of the missions, but were still “children requiring parental control” and thus needed to remain under their fatherly supervision. In 1826, a gubernatorial decree allowed neophytes to leave the missions (thus acknowledging the fact of their involuntary status) if they were Christians from childhood, were married, and could prove the ability to earn a livelihood. Few could meet all these qualifications, and also obtain a favorable report from the padres and a permit from the military, required to exercise this “freedom.” Governor José Maria Echeandia brought the issue to a head in 1831. Fearing that he would be supplanted as governor before he could act, he implemented his “Plan para convertir en Pueblo los Misiones” announced the year before, without waiting for the necessary approval from Mexico City. In his words:

I proposed to consolidate the security and good order of the territory by converting into free men and proprietors the 18,000 forzados, indigentes reducidos in the old missions.”[iii]

Instead of converting the “indigent oppressed” in the old missions to “free men and proprietors,” the main effect of Echeandia’s decree was to speed up the growth of ranchos — large land grants given to military officers and others. More than six hundred land grants were made in California under Mexican rule, ushering in the over-romanticized era of rancheros and the dons who ruled them.

As to the natives who the padres maintained were the “absolute owners” of these lands, a puzzling choice was given. They were told they were free to leave the mission life and become owners of their own land, or remain on the missions with the padres, which was the only life most of them knew. Those who chose to leave found the promise of land was empty. Instead, they supplied the labor for the dons who ruled the large ranchos once promised to them. While some became skilled and respected vaqueros, most served as common field hands, laborers or personal servants, for little or no pay.

Those who left the missions but did not find permanent employment in the ranchos faced an even crueler purgatory. Local ordinances were enacted, requiring natives outside of the mission to be gainfully employed. They were required to carry documents indicating the reasons they had been released from work and where they were headed; none could obtain employment without these passes. Men who lacked documentation remained unemployed; those found loitering in public places were arrested as vagrants, tried quickly, and after always being found guilty, fined, and given a choice between a stint in jail or work on public projects like mucking out the zanja madre.[iv] Thus began the practice of exploiting “undocumented” workers in California.

On January 13, 1847, American and Mexican authorities signed the Treaty of Cahuenga,[v] securing American control of California as part of the Mexican-American War.[vi] The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed February 2, 1848, ended that War, and formally ceded California Alta to the United States. The American military authorities validated the existing practices toward natives, while Congress debated the status of the new territories. The military commander in San Francisco issued an ordinance on January 11, 1847 similar to the local ordinances mentioned above. While declaring that the natives shall “not be regarded in the light of slaves,” they were required to have jobs and abide by their labor contracts, or they could be subject to arrest and forced labor on public works.[vii] A subsequent ordinance foreshadowed the employer sanctions in current U.S. law. Employers were required to issue their native workers documentation; natives found outside of the mission or rancho without such a pass could be arrested.[viii]

The Gold Rush brought early statehood to California. The California Constitutional Convention voted unanimously to make California a free state. This was not because of noble purposes however. To the contrary, it was for the explicitly racist purpose of protecting the dignity of “white labor.” As one member of the Convention explained:

I am opposed to the introduction into this country of negroes, peons of Mexico, or any class of that kind; I care not whether they be free or bond. It is a well established fact, and the history of every state in the Union clearly proves it, that negro labor, whether slave or free, when opposed to white labor, degrades it.[ix]

In the Memorial sent to Congress by the Convention, seeking statehood, it was explained that:

The relation of master and slave has never existed in the country, and is there generally believed to be prohibited by Mexican law, consequently the original California population is utterly opposed to it. Slavery is a question little discussed in California, so settled appears the public mind relative thereto.[x]

While it was true that slavery was technically prohibited by Mexican law, it certainly had existed in California, at least since the padres arrived. Even before California was accepted as a state, a legislature was convened and started passing laws, including laws codifying the rules making the native people indentured peons, or “undocumented” workers. An Act supposedly “for the Government and Protection of Indians” was passed in the first legislature.[xi] The “Indians” who were supposed to be “protected” by this law were required to be employed. Any able-bodied Indian “found loitering and strolling about, or frequenting public places where liquors are sold, begging, or leading an immoral or profligate course of life, shall be arrested on the complaint of any resident citizen of the county, . . . .” If found “guilty” the authorities “shall hire out such vagrant within twenty-four hours to the best bidder . . . for any term not exceeding four months.”

The “freedom” of Native Californians was as illusory as the Juneteenth proclamation of emancipation. In both cases, slavery continued, albeit in a new form. California provided the model, not only for the continued servitude of African-Americans, but of making an entire people “undocumented” so that they could be more easily exploited. What one historian said of the California Natives applies equally to both groups — they each “were free, but they were not free to be idle.”[xii]

Portions of this article come from Chapter 00 (A Prehistory of California Labor Law) of the Author’s book — A History of California Labor Legislation: Revised and Updated Centennial Edition (Queen Calafia Publishing 2012).

[i] For further reading on the failure of Reconstruction, see W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America (New York 1935); Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution 1863–1877 (Harper & Row 1988); and Douglas A. Blackmon, Slavery by Another Name (Anchor Books 2009).

[ii] See the translation and compilation of these laws by S. Lyman Tyler, The Indian Cause in the Spanish Laws of the Indies (U. Utah 1980) (“Recopilación”). On paper, they had more rights than many workers today. Slavery was abolished, and their service could not be transferred between masters. They were to be given health care, allowed to attend mass, and could not be worked on “holy” days. There was even a system of arbitration established to adjudicate wage disputes. The reality was quite different.

[iii] Echeandia, Decreto de Secularizacion de Misiones (January 6, 1831).

[iv] Richard Steven Street, Beasts of the Field: A Narrative History of California Farmworkers, 1769–1913 (Stanford 2004), at p. 96.

[v] “Cahuenga” is the Spanish version of the native Tongva name for that place — CahungNa — meaning “place on a hill.”

[vi] The purpose of the Mexican-American War was to extend the territory of slavery. See the material collected in Abiel Abbot Livermore, War With Mexico Reviewed (Boston 1850).

[vii] These official ordinances were collected and presented to Congress during the debates over California’s admission. 31st Cong., 1st Sess., 1850, serial no. 537, pp. 334–335. A summary and explanation of these territorial laws can also be found in Lidley Bynum, Laws for the Better Government of California, 1848, 2 Pacific Historical Review 279–291 (Sep. 1933).

[viii] Mason, Proclamation of September 6, 1847, reproduced in the report to the 31st Cong., supra, and in the California Star of September 18, 1847.

[ix] Statement of Henry A. Tefft in 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), at pp. 143–144

[x] Id. at Appendix p. xix.

[xi] Stats 1850 ch. 133 pp. 408–410.

[xii] James Rawls, Indians of California: The Changing Image (Norman OK 1984) at p. 84.

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

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