Los Angeles’ 1850s Slave Market Is Now the Site of a Federal Courthouse | KCET
Los Angeles’ 1850s Slave Market Is Now the Site of a Federal Courthouse
Auctioning off human beings is a practice many would think confined to the pre-Civil War American South. Here in California, slavery was purportedly banned during the 1849 constitutional convention. But even though it was situated in a supposedly “free” state, Los Angeles held its own human auctions during the mid-19th century. And the product for sale was Native Americans.
When Europeans arrived in 1769, more than 300,000 Indians called California home. By 1860, that number dropped to about 30,000, meaning approximately nine out of every ten Native Californians had been wiped out. After the Gold Rush started and California became part of the United States in 1848, thousands of Americans began flooding the state. Consequently, Native Californians were facing the prospect of elimination.
Even before Los Angeles became an American town, Indians in Spanish and Mexican Los Angeles were treated as a subclass of people, prevented from full participation in public life and left at risk of violence and subjugation. In fact, Mexican Angelenos, descendents themselves of Indians and Africans as well as Spaniards, attempted to elevate their own social status, while obfuscating their own mixed ancestry, by distinguishing themselves from and marginalizing local Native Americans.
During the 1850s, Angelenos generally grouped Native Californians into one of two categories. You had what were referred to, in dehumanizing terms, as the “wild Indians” who lived outside of town or in the mountains. The approach to dealing with this group can best be described by the old, and repugnant, saying: “There is no good Indian but a dead Indian.” If captured, death was a routine punishment.
But Angelenos had a different approach with respect to the other group of Indians. These were the Christianized Indians that had been associated with the California Missions. They were sometimes referred to as the “tame Indians” or the “Mission Indians.” These “Mission Indians” were often utilized as a source of cheap labor.
During the 1850s, Angelenos contrived an economic scheme which essentially subjected Native Americans to a type of indentured servitude. They used alcohol to incentivize the scheme to the Native Americans. This system supplied cheap labor and revenue for the town, and in the process, decimated L.A.’s native population.
The system worked as follows: Local ranchers and vineyard owners started paying some or all of the wages owed to their Indian laborers in alcohol. The Native Americans then got drunk off the alcohol and American lawmen arrested them for drunkeness. The next morning, after sobering up, the Indians were auctioned off to local ranchers and vineyard owners who would post their bail in exchange for one week of forced servitude. 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.
Horace Bell, a colorful but sometimes unreliable chronicler of the early days of Los Angeles, described it like this:
And this process was not undertaken in the shadows – out of the reach of law enforcement – because auctioning off Native people was totally legal in 1850s California. The ironically named California Act for the Government and Protection of Indians of 1850 allowed any white person to post bail for a convicted Indian and then require the Native person to work for the white man until the fine was discharged. Historian Robert Heizer called this legislative act “a thinly disguised substitute for slavery.” Imitating the state legislature, the Los Angeles City Council passed its own ordinance in 1850 which allowed prisoners to be “auctioned off to the highest bidder for private service.”
The 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. 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.”
And this routine practice continued until there was no one left to sell. In his book, The Herald’s History of Los Angeles City, Charles Willard described it as follows:
The present-day location of the human auction is Main Street between Temple and Aliso Streets in downtown, where the United States Courthouse now stands. It is ironic that such a great injustice occurred at a place where Angelenos now go to seek justice. In fact, over the past few decades, Native American groups have staged several different protests at the federal courthouse in an effort to seek justice, on the very site where, a century earlier, their forefathers were auctioned off like cattle.
This auction offers insight into the Indian experience in the newly American town of Los Angeles. Native Californians during the 1850s had very few rights. They could not gain citizenship or vote. They could not testify against a white person in court or own a gun to protect themselves. If they were accused of a crime, the case would be heard in front of an all-white jury, if a mob or vigilance committee did not take justice into its own hands first. Already weakened by years of Spanish and Mexican rule, Indian life in Los Angeles disintegrated even further under American rule. And this alcohol-induced system of forced labor was one of the final straws that pushed Los Angeles’ Native people to the brink of extinction.
Horace Bell. Reminiscences of a Ranger (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999), 34-36.
J.M. Guinn. The Passing of the Old Pueblo, Southern California Quarterly, Vol. 5, No. 2 (1901).
Robert Heizer. The Destruction of the California Indians (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1974).
Carey McWilliams. Southern California: An Island on the Land (Salt Lake City: Peregrine Smith Books, 1946).
George Harwood Phillips, Indians in Los Angeles, 1781-1875: Economic Integration, Social Disintegration , Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 49, No. 3 (1980).
David Samuel Torres-Rouff, Before L.A.: Race, Space, and Municipal Power in Los Angeles, 1781-1894 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 23-54.
Charles Dwight Willard. The Herald’s History of Los Angeles City (Los Angeles: Kingsley-Barnes & Neuner Co., 1901), 282-283.
Federal Coronavirus Bailout Program is 'Frustrating And Disappointing' For Some Small Business Owners
Many small business owners that have had to close or lay off employees due to coronavirus still have no idea whether they will receive loans from the federal Paycheck Protection Program.
Unless politicians strengthen emergency tenant protection laws to include forgiveness for back rent owed, experts and advocates warn that Los Angeles (and California) could see a huge surge in homelessness in the near future.
When the "Safer at Home" orders went into effect, there was worry for the community's seniors, a cohort that tends to shop on an as-needed basis, often on foot, in the few dozen square blocks in and around Chinatown or Lincoln Heights.
Fifteen more deaths from coronavirus were reported today in Los Angeles County, raising the total to 147, while the overall number of cases went up by 420 as the county entered what officials expect to be one of the worst weeks in terms of virus spread.
- 1 of 259
- next ›
Griffith Park is one of the largest municipal parks in the United States. Its founder, Griffith J. Griffith, donated the land to the city as a public recreation ground for all the people — an ideal that has been challenged over the years.
During World War II, three renowned photographers captured scenes from the Japanese incarceration: outsiders Dorothea Lange and Ansel Adams and incarceree Tōyō Miyatake who boldly smuggled in a camera lens to document life from within the camp.
Prohibition may have outlawed liquor, but that didn’t mean the booze stopped flowing. Explore the myths of subterranean Los Angeles, crawl through prohibition-era tunnels, and visit some of the city’s oldest speakeasies.
Although best known for designing the homes of celebrities like Lucille Ball and Frank Sinatra, the pioneering African-American architect Paul Revere Williams also contributed to some of the city’ s most recognizable civic structures.
As recently as a century ago, scientists doubted whether the universe extended beyond our own Milky Way — until astronomer Edwin Hubble, working with the world’s most powerful telescope discovered just how vast the universe is.
- 1 of 5
- next ›