This Article was published in the Martinez News-Gazette on 7/30/2017
By JOSEPH & JUDIE PALMER
Special to the Gazette
When last we wrote, William Rice had brought Aaron and his family with him to Napa by early 1860, when he then purchased land from longtime friend and ex Gov. Lilburn Boggs, of Missouri. His family resided at 720 Seminary Street, (the home of another former Missourian Major John H. Seawell) while Aaron and his family were most likely regulated to small cabins on Boggs’s property. After William oversaw the seeding of his land, he left Aaron, Aaron’s family, and other enslaved individuals to work his farm while he set out to find a permanent location for his new ranch. Before we can continue with their story, some early California history is needed for context.
California became a Free State on September 9, 1850, and yet many were still entrapped. Before California was admitted into the Union, discussion regarding its impending status as either “Free”, “Slave”, or splitting in two was highly contentious. The Californian of March 15, 1848 wrote, “We entertain several reasons why slavery should not be introduced here. First, it is wrong for it to exist anywhere. Second, not a single instance of precedence exists at present in the shape of physical bondage of our fellow men. Third, there is no excuse whatever for its introduction into this country (by virtue of climate or physical conditions). Fourth, Negroes have equal rights to life, liberty, health and happiness with the whites. Fifth, it is every individual’s duty, to self and to society, to be occupied in useful employment sufficient to gain self-support. Sixth, it would be the greatest calamity that the power of the United States could inflict upon California. Seventh, we desire only a white population in California. Eighth, we left the slave states because we did not like to bring up a family in a miserable, can’t-help-one’s-self condition. Ninth, in conclusion we dearly love the ‘Union,’ but declare our positive preference for an independent condition of California to the establishment of any degree of slavery, or even the importation of free blacks.” Although The Californian was thought to represent the many moderate and intelligent voices of the state, the Seventh and Ninth points are very revealing of its white supremacy streak.
From the PBS KED program, New Perspectives On The West, “1850 California enters the Union. With miners flooding the hillsides and devastating the land, California’s Indians find themselves deprived of their traditional food sources and forced by hunger to raid the mining towns and other white settlements. Miners retaliated by hunting Indians down and brutally abusing them. The California legislature responds to the situation with an Indentured Act which establishes a form of legal slavery for the native peoples of the state by allowing whites to declare them vagrant and auction off their services for up to four months. The law also permits whites to indenture Indian children, with the permission of a parent or friend, and leads to widespread kidnapping of Indian children, who are then sold as “apprentices.””
In People vs. Hall, the California Supreme Court ruled in 1854 that the testimony of Chinese men who witnessed the murder of Ling Sing, a Chinese miner, by George Hall was inadmissible. It stated, “The appellant, a free white citizen of this State, was convicted of murder upon the testimony of Chinese witnesses…The 394th section of the Act Concerning Civil Cases provides that no Indian or Negro shall be allowed to testify as a witness in any action or å proceeding in which a white person is a party. The 14th section of the Act of April 16th, 1850, regulating Criminal Proceedings, provides that “No black or mulatto person, or Indian, shall be allowed to give evidence in favor of, or against a white man.” …We are of the opinion that the words “white,” “Negro,” “mulatto,” “Indian,” and “black person,” wherever they occur in our Constitution and laws, must be taken in their generic sense, and that, even admitting the Indian of this continent is not of the Mongolian type, that the words “black person,” in the 14th section, must be taken as contradistinguished from white, and necessary excludes all races other than the Caucasian… For these reasons, we are of opinion that the testimony was inadmissible. The judgment is reversed and the cause remanded.” A reading of the entire ruling reveals the truly vile racist mindset of the court and the state. Not until 1873 did California pass a law invalidating all previous testimony laws.
Prior to 1860, California was on the verge of becoming a Slave State as the legislature and Governor where controlled by the pro southern\slavery wing of the Democratic Party. However, the 1860 election changed everything as the abolitionist movement gained enough power within California’s parties to prevent secession to the confederacy, and elected Abraham Lincoln President.
Albert S. Broussard in his work, Civil Rights, Racial Protest, And Anti-slavery Activism in San Francisco, 1850-1865, writes about the abolitionists, Rev. Thomas Starr King, and Jessie Fremont (the wife of John C. Fremont, the Republican candidate for president in 1856), “These individuals congregated intermittedly at the San Francisco home of Jessie Fremont, known as Porter’s Lodge. …Jessie Fremont, according to one writer, established “San Francisco’s first literary and political salon.” Rev. King was a highly sought after abolitionist from New England who fielded numerous plum offers from around the country. Broussard continues, “King, a transplanted New Yorker, migrated to San Francisco in 1859, and served as pastor of the Unitarian Church in San Francisco. Because of his liberal views and the power and uncompromising tenor of his oratory, King immediately became a highly respected figure in San Francisco’s African American community. He was fervently antislavery, a fact that he made no attempt to disguise.”
With his great power of oratory, he traveled the state extensively to convince citizens to support the Union. He was credited as, “the orator who saved the nation” and President Lincoln stated he “single-handedly kept California in the Union.” Due to his tireless efforts for God and Country, he contracted diphtheria and pneumonia from exhaustion and died on March 4, 1864.
He is one of the very few individuals to remain interred in San Francisco, while also having two streets named after him, King St. and Starr King Way.
Rev. King also raised funds for flood and drought relief in Northern California, and worked for the rights of enslaved Americans. In April of 1860, he intervenes on behalf of Aaron Rice and his family to free them from William….
For more information on the Martinez Historical Society’s - Potter’s Field Restoration Project, please visit our website MartinezCemetery.org. Do you have a Potter’s Field resident story to tell? We welcome any pictures or information on anyone or anything regarding Potter’s Field. Please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call us at (925) 335-9396.
To find out more about Martinez and Contra Costa County history:
Martinez Museum – 1005 Escobar Street, corner of Court Street. Open Tues and Thurs 11:30 a.m. to 3p.m. First 4 Sundays 1-4 p.m. 925-228-8160; www.martinezhistory.org.
Contra Costa County History Center – 610 Main Street, Martinez. Open Tues through Thurs, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.; 3rd Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. 925-229-1042; www.cocohistory.com
Judie & Joseph Palmer are two of the founding members of the Potter’s Field Restoration Project and its Martinez Cemetery Committee for the Martinez Historical Society. Joseph is also a MHS Board Director, chairman of the committee and webmaster of its website. Both have a passion for discovery, history, genealogy, anthropology and archaeology.