- Freedom’s Frontier: California and the Struggle over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and Reconstruction by Stacey L. Smith
The historiography of the Civil War and Reconstruction is shifting westward. In the last year, three separate monographs have appeared focusing on California: my own American Heathens: Religion, Race, and Reconstruction in California (2012), D. Michael Bottoms’s An Aristocracy of Color: Race and Reconstruction in California and the West, 1850–1890 (2013), and now Stacey L. Smith’s Freedom’s Frontier. These works join recent studies by Heather Cox Richardson, Elliott West, Adam Arenson, Alison Clark Efford, Fay Yarbrough, Tiya Miles, Kevin Mulroy, and others that push beyond traditional categories of North/South and black/white. Together, these books represent the beginnings of a more expansive, truly continental vision of the Civil War era while exploring the interwoven natures of African American, Native American, Asian American, and Mexican American history. Smith’s excellent Freedom’s Frontier should be recognized as a cornerstone of this [End Page 620] new historiographical subfield, demonstrating that historians of slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction ignore the West at their own peril.
Blending political, social, and labor history, Freedom’s Frontier examines contests over unfree labor in California from the Gold Rush to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Smith uses the term “unfree labor” because the word “slavery” fails to describe the complex range of labor relations present in early California. In the pages of Freedom’s Frontier, the reader meets African American chattel slaves, Native American captives, Mexican “peons,” Chilean serfs, Chinese “coolies,” Hawaiian contract workers, bound women, indentured children, apprentices, and many other categories of laborers who fell short of the ascendant ideals of free white labor. Indeed, the most important historiographical intervention Smith makes, it seems to me, is her shattering of the notion that antebellum slavery was confined to the black South. She shows how California is crucial to our understanding of American slavery not simply for the state’s role in the Compromise of 1850 but because of the “dizzying array” of multiracial unfree and semifree labor relationships that proliferated there despite being nominally a “free” state (83). Smith tracks how this “dense tangle of unfree labor systems— most real, some imagined” troubled Republicans and other advocates of free white labor, prompting a raft of discriminatory state laws ranging from immigration restriction to foreign miners’ taxes (2). Ultimately, antislavery and racism—never truly in opposition—merged in California and then in the nation in the form of Chinese exclusion.
Freedom’s Frontier begins in the Gold Rush, showing how the promise of vast mineral wealth sparked the importation of numerous labor systems, including “wage labor, slavery, contract labor, debt bondage, peonage, and indentured servitude” (17). Into the gold fields came southern white masters with their African American slaves, Californio rancheros with their Native American servants, Mexican and Chilean patrones with their peones and inquilinos, contract laborers from Hawaii, and indentured workers from China. The book’s middle section examines how these various forms of unfree labor persisted for at least a decade after California’s outlawing of slavery in 1850 despite efforts by champions of free labor. White southerners used emancipation contracts, manumission bargains, and fugitive slave laws to subvert the state’s slavery ban. Concerns about Latin American “peons” and Chinese “coolies” led to foreign miners’ taxes in 1850 and 1852, which Smith interprets as mingled expressions of white supremacy, free labor, and U.S. imperialism. In the realm of domestic work, the government of California allowed Indian and African American children to be declared “wards” and placed under the exploitative authority of white and Californio men. The proliferation of prostitutes, concubines, “sold wives,” [End Page 621] and other bound Indian and Chinese women violated free-labor ideals and threatened white, middle-class gender roles, resulting in antikidnapping, antimiscegenation, and antiprostitution laws. In California, antislavery did not map neatly onto binary racial categories.
The final section of Freedom’s Frontier covers the period of the...