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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Enslaved in a Free Country: Legalized Exploitation of Native Americans and African Americans in Early California and the Post-Emancipation South


In 1850, California joined the United States as a free state. However, one of its first laws, the 1850 Law for the Government and Protection of Indians, legalized the enslavement of California Indians. Drawing comparisons between early Californian and Southern statutes that maintained racialized political economies, we argue that the institutionalized oppression perpetrated against Native Americans in California bears important legal similarities to that perpetrated against African Americans in the South, both before and after Reconstruction. This similarity is not a coincidence; the presence of both African and Native American populations in Southern legislation, the movement of Southerners to the West to participate in California’s development, the regional history of Mexican and Spanish systems of Indigenous enslavement, and a political economy reliant on racialized underpaid or unpaid labor, all created the conditions for California to legally retain de facto systems of slavery in a context of de jure freedom.

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