Business flourished during the California gold rush. Black men like Mifflin Gibbs and Peter Lester were successful merchants in San Francisco who enjoyed the benefits of their financial success except political freedom.
By 1851, anti-black sentiment on the Pacific Coast was growing. Oregon’s new constitution expressly forbade free blacks from entering the state. The California state legislature passed the Civil Practice Act which disqualified blacks from testifying against whites in court.
Capturing fugitive slaves in California
The following year, the Fugitive Slave Act was passed. This permitted the arrest of any escaped slaves found in California and their return to servitude if they were taken out of the State within a year of their escape. The Fugitive Slave Act also did not allow escaped slaves to testify in court in their own defence.
Many southerners had brought slaves with them to California to dig for gold. As the gold rush waned, many slave owners wanted to bring their slaves back home with them. When the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1852, many raids were carried out to kidnap ‘fugitive slaves’ who had left their owner and living in California under the assumption that their freedom was secured by living in a ‘free’ state.
In San Francisco, Gibbs and other black merchants had to pay a poll tax for the right to vote, yet when they tried to do so, they were prevented by angry mobs.
The Case of Archy Lee
Charles A. Stovall was a rancher living in Carson City who had come from Mississippi with a slave named Archy Lee. Stovall, who had complained of ill health, had run out of money and sent Lee to work elsewhere with the intent that Lee would hand over his wages. In January 1858, Lee sought his freedom and in a short time, Stovall applied to have his ‘fugitive slave’ returned.
The blacks of San Francisco raised money for Lee’s defence and followed the case closely. One week later, the leader of the Assembly, A.G. Stokes, introduced a bill that if a slave owner were travelling through California and a slave escaped, the owner should have his property restored to him.
In February, the Supreme Court upheld that Stovall was a resident of California and not travelling or visiting in the State. Stovall was trying to uphold slavery in California which had entered into the Union as a ‘free’ state.
Stovall kidnapped Lee and arranged to sail for Panama on March 4th. The blacks discovered where Lee was being held and applied for a writ of habeas corpus to gain his release. Stovall evaded being served and arranged to have Lee moved to another hiding spot.
On the day that the steamer was to sail for Panama, police found Stovall in a boat with Lee. Both were brought back to the docks where a large crowd of blacks had gathered.
While Stovall was arrested, there was still the legal hurdle of testimony. The state senate judicial committee in Sacramento had upheld the ban on black testimony. The next day, on March 5th, the court turned down Stovall’s application to dismiss the writ and Stovall’s lawyer agreed to give Lee his freedom. The crowd of onlookers were shocked and outraged when Lee was arrested as a fugitive slave and ordered back to jail. A near riot broke out.
Eventually Archy Lee was granted his freedom, but there was more to worry about.
In March, the government introduced Bill 339 to restrict and prevent immigration and residence of blacks in California. It also made it illegal to bring a slave into California for the purpose of freeing him or her.
As the economy was slowing down, blacks were having a harder time finding employment. Black merchants were facing discrimination. There was nowhere to turn.
On the night of Archy Lee’s liberation on April 14, 1858, San Francisco’s black community held a meeting to raise the remainder of funds to cover his legal costs and to discuss destinations for a mass emigration.
On hand at the meeting was Jeremiah Nagle, a landowner in the British colony of Vancouver Island. He was the captain of the steamship Commodore which was making regular voyages between San Francisco and Victoria. Nagle answered their questions about life on Vancouver Island and he also told them something else: gold had been discovered in the Fraser River.
Within a few days, Gibbs and thirty-four others were on their way to Victoria to start a new life. Hundreds more followed over the spring and summer of 1858.