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Opinion

Op-Ed: California’s forgotten slave history

Slavery in California illustration
(André da Loba / For The Times)

Separated by just 60 miles along the I-10, Los Angeles and San Bernardino feel worlds apart. The former boasts some of the richest urban developments and residential pockets in the nation. The latter — a “broken city,” as this newspaper put it in 2015 — struggled through five years of bankruptcy and municipal dysfunction. But their roles in this California tale of two cities were once reversed. Before the Civil War, San Bernardino was the most prosperous and fastest-growing settlement in Southern California.

San Bernardino’s early success rested on a pair of seemingly incongruous forces: Mormonism and slavery.

In 1851, some 450 Latter-day Saints — Mormons — were sent by their church from Utah to establish a colony in what we call the Inland Empire. Within several years, the settlement’s population skyrocketed to more than 3,000 — at least as big as, if not bigger, than Los Angeles.

The pioneers plotted a town, established a municipal government and created the separate County of San Bernardino. To transform arid land into a thriving agricultural settlement, the Saints exploited dozens of enslaved African Americans that they had brought with them from Utah, as well as an untold number of coerced Native American laborers.

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Slaveholders occupied the upper echelons of the Mormon hierarchy in San Bernardino. According to U.S. census data and the records of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the colony’s co-founder and its bishop owned slaves. One of San Bernardino’s high counselors, Robert Mays Smith, did too. In fact, Smith claimed 14 enslaved women and children, making him the largest slaveholder in the continent’s Far West.

Although most Mormons hailed from free states, the leadership of the LDS Church welcomed slaveholding converts in the 1840s and ’50s. Slaveholders were among the first settlers in what would become the territory of Utah, which was organized in 1850. In 1852, the Mormon-dominated territorial legislature passed a law innocuously called “An Act in Relation to Service.” With the measure, Utah became the first Far Western territory to legalize African American slavery.

When Mormon slaveholders crossed the border into California, they entered a free state. California’s Constitution of 1850 outlawed slavery, but its Legislature and courts, dominated by migrants from the South, defended coercive labor practices in the state. Well into the 1850s, the slaveholders of San Bernardino operated openly, free from legal interference.

To supplement their African American workforce, Mormons purchased and “adopted” Indian children. By the early 1850s, both California and Utah had legalized Native American servitude. “An Act for the Relief of Indian Slaves and Prisoners” allowed Utah’s white residents to keep Native children in their households for up to 20 years. Those children were generally required to work to pay back the price of their own purchase. Through a similar law, white Californians secured Indian minors as domestic wards.

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African Americans and Native Americans occupied the lowest rungs of a strict social and political hierarchy in San Bernardino. According to LDS custom, church leaders exercised a monopoly on religious and civil offices alike. All San Bernardino County officials were Mormons.

The LDS colonists’ stable and well-regulated government contrasted sharply with that of neighboring Los Angeles. Between 1850 and 1859, according to Yale historian John Mack Faragher, L.A. County witnessed 200 homicides out of a total population of several thousand. Few if any American cities had a higher murder rate. From that standpoint, California’s first “broken city” was Los Angeles, not San Bernardino.

Antebellum San Bernardino rose rapidly, but it fell even faster. The source of the town’s stability — its Mormon hierarchy — became its greatest liability. By the mid-1850s, chafing under the authority of the LDS Church, disaffected Saints and non-Mormons challenged the colony’s leaders. When the settlement’s co-founders — its kingpins — threatened to seize land without compensation, opposition intensified. Brigham Young, dismayed by the unrest, recalled the faithful to Utah in 1857. Within a year, 1,400 Mormons left California.

Church authority and the institution of slavery in San Bernardino unraveled simultaneously. Robert Mays Smith was among the dissenters. When he attempted to leave for Texas with his slaves in late 1855, he was served with a writ of habeas corpus. The court required him to establish that he had a right to remove his bondspeople from the state. He fled instead of appearing in court, and 14 African American women and children finally walked free, six years after California technically outlawed slavery.

One former Smith slave, Biddy Mason, moved to L.A., where she became a nurse, a real estate investor, a religious leader and a philanthropist. She tended to prisoners and orphans, funded L.A.’s first elementary school for black children and co-founded its first African American church. As the city boomed in the late 19th century, so too did her fortune. When she died in 1891, Mason was worth an estimated $300,000 (roughly $8.5 million today). In many ways, her remarkable life mirrored the shift in opportunity and wealth from San Bernardino to Los Angeles.

Despite the dramatic sweep of her life and the significance of her legacy, Mason and the other enslaved laborers of California have largely slipped from public consciousness. The Mormon Trail Monument (a state historic landmark) pays tribute to the LDS migrants who settled San Bernardino. But there is nothing to commemorate the city’s slaveholding origins.

The bondspeople of San Bernardino, African American and Native American, deserve recognition. Their labor was crucial to what was once Southern California’s richest agricultural settlement. And their presence testifies to an overlooked chapter in U.S. history, when the long arm of slavery reached across the continent and laid claim to California.

Sarah Barringer Gordon is a professor of law and history at the University of Pennsylvania. Kevin Waite is an assistant professor of history at Durham University. They are co-directing a project on Biddy Mason and the African American origins of Los Angeles, with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities.


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