Wild West

OUT OF THE HOUSE OF BONDAGE

After residing in San Bernardino, Calif., for four years, Robert Smith in 1855 decided to relocate to Texas with his slaves. Although Smith, a Southern-born Mormon convert, had allowed his wards to live as though free and promised their status would not change in Texas, his slave Biddy—a wedding present to Smith and his wife—was aware California’s constitution prohibited slavery, and she petitioned a Los Angeles court for her freedom. Smith argued that while California was indeed a free state, its Legislature had allowed slavery in practice, given the fact resident Southerners had kept slaves since the start of the Gold Rush in 1849.

Assisted by a cadre of abolitionist lawyers and sympathetic Los Angeles officials, Biddy gained her emancipation in 1856. She promptly adopted the surname California, the Legislature had tacitly permitted the practice and often vigorously enforced the federal Fugitive Slave Law of 1850.

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