I Never Knew About This Skeleton In California’s Closet

On May 11, according to this May 12 story:

“Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland released the first volume of the 106-page investigative report as part of the 2021 Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative.”

This and related stories are getting a lot attention, and they should – and not only because the treatment of the children was “horrible,” as the headline put it.

But also for this reason, from Deborah Parker, CEO of the National Native American Boarding School Coalition, in a May 11 PBS Newshour interview:

“We’re written out of history books.”

Here’s another Native American-related story that’s also been written out of history books.

And it took place here in California.

California – the bluest of the blue states, the uber-liberal state, the territory that would achieve statehood in 1850, as a free, non-slavery state.


Let’s visit early Los Angeles, CA.

It wasn’t much:

Los Angeles in 1853. Lithographic drawing by Charles Koppel for the Pacific Railroad Survey. 

In 1850, the population of Los Angeles was about 1,600 people.  The city finally had its first post office and first hotel.  It had none of these, which are everywhere in LA today:

Palm trees were brought in from the desert, and paved streets existed only in the residents’ imaginations.

In 1850, Los Angeles also had this:

This was the Downey Block, on the corner of Temple and Spring Street.  The building was owned by Governor John G. Downey (1827-1894).

Why do I mention the Downey Block?

Because the rear of the Downey Block served as the Los Angeles…

Slave market.

A “flourishing” slave market, according to this article:

A flourishing slave market where Native Americans were sold in auctions from about 1850 to 1870.

Here’s how it worked.

California, the “free, non-slavery state,” had passed a law.

According to this article:

“In 1850 the California legislature passed an Act for the Government and Protection of Indians that essentially forced many Native Americans into servitude.  The law provided for the forced labor of loitering or orphaned Native Americans, regulated their employment, and defined a special class of Indian crimes with punishments.

“Forced labor” is, of course, another term for “slavery.”

Add that to the reality that Native Californians could not become citizens, vote, or testify against a white person in court, and you have a situation parallel to any plantation in the American South.

The above Slavery by Another Name article and others I found said the Act made it legal for whites to enslave Native people, and here’s what happened:

On Mondays, employers seeking cheap labor would come to the Downey Block slave market auction and pay the bail of men and women who had been arrested under the Act.  The accused native workers were then forced to work until their debt was paid. 

At the time, local ranchers and vineyard owners paid their Native Californian workers with alcohol, a practice that in turn encouraged public intoxication.  Local lawmen regularly conducted sweeps, arresting Native people. 

As this article put it:

“At the end of the week, if the Indians performed their work satisfactorily, one third of the sale price was given to the laborer.  Of course, this payment was usually in the form of more alcohol.  So the vicious cycle of alcohol-induced arrest and resulting servitude often repeated itself.”  

The article goes on quote Horace Bell, a chronicler of the early days of Los Angeles:

“Los Angeles had its slave mart, as well as New Orleans and Constantinople – only the slave at Los Angeles was sold fifty-two times a year as long as he lived, which did not generally exceed one, two, or three years, under the new dispensation.”

The slave auction took place nearly every week for almost 20 years.  That the practice became routine is demonstrated by an 1852 letter written by the administrator of Rancho Los Alamitos (in the area that’s now Long Beach).  He called upon his employer to “deputize someone to attend the auction that usually takes place at the prison on Mondays, and buy me five or six Indians.”

These auctions reflect the widespread discrimination and violence against Native Californians. 

Between 1850 and 1870, their populations in Los Angeles fell from 3,693 to 219 people.

Native American slave trafficking eventually faded, though not out of any discomfort on the part of the traffickers.  Instead, it was due to the decreasing population of Native Americans in the area as well as the increase in immigrants from other nations, namely China and European countries.

The Downey Block was torn down in 1905, and today that space is occupied by this:

The Los Angeles Federal Courthouse.

A certain amount of irony there.

Who were these enslaved Native Americans in Los Angeles?

Here’s a map naming the tribes in the Los Angeles area:

Southern California Indigenous tribes; the star indicates Los Angeles.

The articles I read didn’t identify the enslaved Native Americans by tribes, because they were unknown.  Their tribes were unknown because back then, nobody bothered to ask the Native Americans. 

As the above administrator of Rancho Los Alamitos put it when he was ordering up some slaves, “buy me five or six Indians.”

“Indians,” generic.

Another unknown is how many Native Americans were living in California before contact with Europeans and later, Americans.

Estimates for before range from 133,000 to 705,000, with some recent scholars concluding that these estimates are low.

After that contact with Europeans and Americans – and their diseases, enslaving, and murdering (because “the only good Indians are dead Indians”) – estimates are a reduced California Native American population as low as 25,000 in 1870:

Here’s another unknown.

There aren’t that many images of 19th-century Southern California Native Americans, and those I could find rarely included a name. 

Like this unidentified woman:

And this unidentified family:

And this, identified only as “Group of Indians”:

No names.  No tribal names. 


Perhaps the story of enslaved California Native Americans will include names – if, someday, it’s written back into history books

My research for this post included this thoughtful article from 2021:

“Despite the debilitating and long-lasting effects on numerous Native communities, the bondage of Indigenous people has largely escaped the ongoing dialogue about American slavery and its legacies.  Perhaps that’s because Native American bondage took various forms – convict leasing, debt peonage, child servitude, captive trading – making it difficult to classify, especially when compared with the multigenerational and brutally systematized chattel slavery of the South.”

“Yet this history – what the historian Andrés Reséndez has dubbed ‘the other slavery’ – is crucial, especially as Americans interrogate the legacies of exploitation and question what’s owed and to whom.  

“American slavery wasn’t the ‘peculiar institution’ of the South alone; it was a transcontinental regime.  And a diverse range of people was caught in its cruel embrace.”

In her interview with PBS Newshour, Deborah Parker talked about healing from the harm done to children in our country’s Native American boarding schools.

Her words from than interview apply to the Native American enslavement story as well:

Deborah Parker, CEO of the National Native American Boarding School Coalition and a member of the Tulalip Tribe in Washington.

“It has impacted so many of us for generations.  And it’s time that we tell the story…Hearing these stories, know that our relatives suffered so enormously is a lot to carry…The hope is that we find healing.  The hope is that we come together as a nation not only to tell of these truths, but also to begin to heal together.  Our communities have known this truth for generations.  It’s time the United States government understands these truths.”

Of course…

This is not the only story of Native American enslavement in California.

There’s the story of Native Americans and the 21 Spanish Catholic missions…

…where according to many articles like this:

“In the 65 years between establishment of the missions in 1769 and their secularization by the Mexican government in 1834, more than 37,000 California Indians died at the missions.  Around 15,000 of those deaths were due to epidemics aided by the missions’ crowded conditions, while a significant number of the rest succumbed to starvation, overwork, or mistreatment.”

Carmel Mission, unnamed Indians burial site.

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