Slaves or Freemen?
Three Blacks in Gold Rush Placer County
In October 1849 twenty-two year old Charles Stewart Perkins arrived in a bustling San Francisco completing a three and one half month sea voyage from his family’s Mississippi plantation. Succumbing to the lure of the California gold fields caused by James Marshall’s historic gold discovery near Coloma, California in 1848, Perkins had decided to forgo plantation life for the Spartan existence of a gold rush prospector. Perkins primary motive for his California gold seeking venture, unlike other forty-niners, was not money. Because his fabulously rich family owned a sprawling cotton plantation on the banks of the Mississippi River in Bolivar County Charles had lived a privileged life. Instead, Charles intended to prove himself in the rugged goldfields of California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, then return to Mississippi, a wealthier man, yes, but also with a sense of triumph and accomplishment.
Charles, however, was not traveling alone. Joining him was Carter Perkins, not a relative but a nineteen-year old Virginia born slave, one of the 166 slaves working on the Perkins plantation. Charles reasoned that with Carter’s labor and a little luck his gold mining adventure would prove successful. In addition Charles, was bringing something else unique to the gold fields. Because he had recently graduated from the College of New Jersey (Princeton) in 1848, Charles hoped that the mineralogy and geology classes taken during his senior year would allow him to more easily locate a rich gold strike.
Soon after landing in San Francisco Charles and Carter, reliant on each other but in no way equals, met with great success in an obscure mining camp in El Dorado County. By August 1850 because of favorable correspondence they had received from Charles two Mississippi neighbors Stephen and Jonathan Kirk along with two Perkins’ cousins, Albert Green Perkins and W. B. Perkins joined Charles and Carter in the gold fields. Accompanying the four were two additional slaves from the Perkins plantation, Robert Perkins, 40, and Sandy Jones, perhaps 38. In 1840 Charles’ father had given Sandy to Charles as a gift. Now Sandy would be rejoining master Charles in the gold fields.
Three months later in November 1850 the illness of Stephen Kirk compelled the Kirk brothers to return to Mississippi. Charles meanwhile remained in California, prospecting now with the three slaves Robert, Carter, and Sandy, but in Yuba County. Six months later, in April 1851 Charles, too, returned to Mississippi to assume control of his deceased father’s plantation. Before departing he turned his three slaves over to Dr. John Hill, a man he had met earlier in El Dorado County.
The slaves worked seven months for Hill in Yuba and later in Placer County giving all their earnings to Hill. In November 1851 Hill freed the three men, telling them their “time was up.” Whether Robert, Carter, or Sandy received freedom papers from Dr. Hill is unknown. Nonetheless, they were free men.
For the next six months the former slaves worked in Auburn and Ophir, Placer County’s most populous town. Despite its 500 people (mostly miners) the town was, according to the September 18, 1852 Weekly Placer Herald, “remarkable for the cleanliness of its streets and the general quiet and order of its inhabitants.”
In Ophir Robert, Carter, and Sandy continued mining. According to the Herald the winter of 1851 was one in which “miners … were generally very successful and many new diggings were discovered in the vicinity [of Ophir]….” Sandy and Robert earned additional money blacksmithing (Sandy and Robert had worked as blacksmiths on the Perkins plantation). The three men also began hauling freight within Placer County and perhaps as far as Sacramento. By May 31, 1851 the three owned a wagon and a four-mule team valued at $1,200. In addition they had accumulated $1,000 in gold and another $1,000 in other property. Ophir locals also owed the men money for work the three had completed on credit. Freedom had indeed smiled on the former slaves.
On April 15, 1852 Charles Perkins, now in Mississippi, initiated legal paperwork there to recover his slave property in California. Under the terms of California’s recently enacted fugitive slave law (unique to free states) slaves arriving in California prior to its admission as a free state in September 1850 could be arrested and returned to bondage. Since Robert, Carter, and Sandy had been brought to California before it attained statehood they unwittingly had become potential victims of this new law. Perkins, perhaps aware of this new law, transmitted his legal documents to his cousins Albert Green (A. G.) Perkins, Harden, and Thomas Scales then in California.
Accordingly, some six weeks later, just after midnight on Monday, May 31, 1852, Alabama-born Placer County Sheriff Samuel Asten, the county’s first sheriff and “usually cool, collected and good natured - afraid of no man” led five, possibly six other armed men to a cabin near Ophir. Accompanying him were Constable James Ross, John Hubank, a miner named Woods, A. G. Perkins, Hardin Scales, and possibly a sixth man, Thomas Scales. Their task was to arrest Carter Perkins, Robert Perkins, and Sandy Jones as fugitives under the recently enacted California fugitive slave law per Charles Perkins’ request. Bursting into their cabin Asten and the others surprised the three sleeping blacks. A. G. Perkins undoubtedly provided Sheriff Asten with positive identification of the trio. After binding two of the three prisoners securely and under cover of darkness Sheriff Asten and the others hurried the blacks away by a circuitous route to avoid contact with any of their friends. Using their (the blacks’) own wagon and team and forcing one of the blacks to drive the wagon, they all set out for Sacramento.
Prior to leaving the cabin with the three prisoners Harden Scales had confiscated the blacks’ money and gold dust and had given it to Green Perkins. A subsequent claim filed on their behalf to recover property taken from the three valued at $3,200 at the time of their arrest attested to the prosperity they had enjoyed since Hill released them in November 1851.
Asten and Ross accompanied the group some ten miles until morning. At that point they may have reached the Sacramento County line where Asten’s jurisdiction ended. Asten and Ross then returned to Ophir leaving Scales, Woods, Perkins, and possibly Hubank to complete the journey. By Monday evening, the blacks and their captors had arrived in Sacramento, having spent the better part of a day traveling the thirty-five miles from Ophir.
In Sacramento that evening a fifty-two year old doctor, E. M. Patterson, met the three slaves and their captors as soon as they arrived. A Nashville, Tennessee slaveholder Dr. Patterson had lived in California for only a few months. Common sense would dictate that A. G. Perkins and Scales would be very anxious to convey the slaves to the security of the Sacramento jail as soon as they arrived. Instead, they took the unusual step of paying an evening call to Dr. Patterson first. While none of the sources consulted offered any motive for this unusual decision it is logical to conclude that one or more of the slaves were injured, perhaps in a scuffle during the arrest, and Perkins was seeking medical attention for them.
Following the visit with Hill Perkins and Harden Scales brought the three “fugitives” before Sacramento Justice of the Peace, B. D. Fry. Fry, following the wording of California’s fugitive slave law, remanded the three men to Albert Perkins and Scales for transport back to Mississippi and a return to slavery. Later, in an additional hearing and another before the California Supreme Court local white attorneys funded in part by Sacramento’s free black population represented Robert, Carter, and Sandy. Ultimately, the three blacks lost each case and faced a return to slavery. According to their attorney and one other observer they may have escaped while crossing the Isthmus of Panama on their journey back to Mississippi. However, documentation supporting these sketchy accounts is lacking. If the men were indeed successful in making their escape they could not have returned to either Mississippi or California for fear of being rearrested.
While Charles Perkins appears in the historical record as an “official” California forty-niner no such recognition exists for his slave Carter. Perkins lived for another five years on his Mississippi plantation enjoying the fruits of his slaves’ labors. Robert, Carter, and Sandy, on the other hand, after their brief taste of freedom, disappeared from the historical record altogether. Ironically, were it not for their master and his decision to bring a slave to the gold fields of El Dorado, Yuba, and Placer Counties, the three blacks would have remained anonymous as were the millions of other Southern slaves in the United States at that time.
Ray R. Albin
May 19, 2011