Episode 387: Jean Pfaelzer, California and Slavery

Book cover for California, A Slave State When we think of California, we might think about sunny weather, Hollywood, beaches, wine country, and perhaps the Gold Rush.

What we don’t usually think about when we think about California is the state’s long history of slavery.

Jean Pfaelzer, a Californian and a Professor Emerita of English, Asian Studies, and Women and Gender Studies at the University of Delaware, joins us to lead us through some of California’s long 250-year history of slavery with details from her book, California: A Slave State.

About the Show

Ben Franklin’s World is a podcast about early American history.

It is a show for people who love history and for those who want to know more about the historical people and events that have impacted and shaped our present-day world.

Each episode features a conversation with a historian who helps us shed light on important people and events in early American history.

Ben Franklin’s World is a production of Colonial Williamsburg Innovation Studios.

Episode Summary

Headshot of Jean PfaelzerJean Pfaelzer is a Professor Emerita of English, Asian Studies, and Women and Gender Studies at the University of Delaware. She is an internationally recognized scholar and public intellectual who speaks on issues of migration, resistance, oppression, and survival. She has also written several books, including California, A Slave State.

Using details from her book California, A Slave State, Pfaelzer reveals, The great diversity of California’s Indigenous populations prior to Spanish colonization; Details about how and why the Spanish, Russians, Americans, and Chinese brought different forms of slavery to California; And, the truth about the myth that California entered the United States union as a “free state” in 1850.

*Correction: Chumash flee to the Yokuts territory, not the Yup'ik.

What You’ll Discover

• Why California was slave state even when declared free
• Indigenous territory and way of life during the Native Period
• Spanish use of presidios and missions to claim territory in California
• Junípero Serra’s plan to conquer Native Americans
• The previous representation of California Missions as idealized, when they were a places of violence
• Kumeyaay’s revolt at the San Diego mission
• Russian arrival in Alaska and their economic dependence on fur trade
• Russian enslavement of Alaskan Natives
• The Pacific Slave Triangle Trade
• The transportation of enslaved African Americans and Chinese women to California for the Gold Rush
• Free and enslaved African American activism in early California history

Links to People, Places, and Publications

Jean Pfaelzer
• Jean Pfaelzer, California, A Slave State
California Indian History
Tachi Yokut Tribe
California Missions
Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park
Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo
Mifflin Wistar Gibbs
Peter Lester

Sponsor Links

Colonial Williamsburg Foundation
The Power of Place: The Centennial Campaign for Colonial Williamsburg
American Friends of Lafayette Grand Tour Re-enactment

Complementary Episodes

Episode 014: West of the Revolution: An Uncommon History of 1776
Episode 067: An Environmental History of Early California and Hawaii
Episode 115: The Early American History of Texas
Episode 139: The Other Slavery: Indian Enslavement in the Americas
Episode 233: A History of Russian America
Episode 277: Whose Fourth of July?
Episode 312: The Domestic Slave Trade
Episode 371: An Archive of Indigenous Slavery
Episode 384: Making Maine: A Journey to Statehood

Time Warp PlainTime Warp Question

In your opinion, what would have happened if California had entered the Union in 1850 as a slave state rather than a stated “free state”? How do you think California’s status as an official “slave state” would have impacted California’s history and development as a state?

Questions, Comments, Suggestions

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