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Los Angeles’ 1850s Slave Market Is Now the Site of a Federal Courthouse

United States Courthouse in downtown Los Angeles
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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.

Even though it was situated in a supposedly “free” state, Los Angeles held its own human auctions during the mid-19th century.

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.

Los Angeles in 1853
Los Angeles in 1853. Lithographic drawing by Charles Koppel for the Pacific Railroad Survey. | Reports of Explorations and Surveys, to Ascertain the Most Practicable and Economical Route for A Railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean.

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:

The cultivators of vineyards commenced paying their Indian peons with aguardiente, a veritable fire-water and no mistake. The consequence was that on being paid off on Saturday evening, they would meet in great gatherings called peons, and pass the night in gambling, drunkenness and debauchery. On Sunday the streets would be crowded from morn till night with Indians, males and females of all ages … About sundown the pompous marshall … would drive and drag the herd to a big corral in the rear of Downey Block, where they would sleep away their intoxication, and in the morning they would be exposed for sale, as slaves for the week. 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.
This process was not undertaken in the shadows because auctioning off Native people was totally legal in 1850s California.

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.”

Two Indian women at San Fernando Rey de España Mission
Two Indian women at San Fernando Rey de España Mission in 1890. Photo courtesy of the Photo Collection – Los Angeles Public Library.

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:

About two thousand natives who had either been brought up at the missions or had sometime been under their influence, so that they were not wholly wild, were living in and around Los Angeles. During the week they worked on the ranches and vineyards and on Saturday, having secured their pay, much of it in brandy, they repaired to the city to indulge in a frantic carouse … When they were all drunk, which happened usually within twelve hours after their discharge from the ranches, they were gathered into a corral back of the present location of the Downey block. On Monday morning they were sold off, like so many slaves, the employer agreeing to pay the fine in return for the next period of service. The Indian received only a dollar or two for his week's work, part of that in brandy. This condition of affairs lasted until the Indians were all dead, and they went out rapidly under such a hideous system.

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.

United States Courthouse in downtown Los Angeles
The site of the Indian slave auction today: the Federal Courthouse. Photo by Robert Petersen.
Native American protesters battle with federal law enforcement authorities
A group of Native Americans protestors, who said they were conducting a religious ceremony, being physically removed from the grass lawn in front of the Federal Courthouse in 1979. Photo courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection – Los Angels Public Library.

Sources

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.

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