History in the Making

Document Type



Discussions of unfree labor systems in the United States have long been focused on history of institutionalized slavery on the East coast and plantation slavery in the American South. However, recent scholars have challenged the definitions of unfree labor systems based solely on the framework of American slavery in these areas. Forced Indian labor in the territory of Alta California between the late 18th and mid-nineteenth centuries has offered historians a major counter-example of institutionalized unfree labor within the United States. This paper focuses on explaining the social context under which the 1850 "An Act for the Government and Protection of Indians" developed. It argues that, despite California legislators' rejection of the institutionalized slavery framework then in place in the American South, they nevertheless codified and perpetuated the subjugation of Native Americans that took place initially under Spanish and Mexican administration of California. The primary motivation for Indian policies under the administration of United States citizens, particularly the 1850 Indian Act, was to maintain control over Indian lives. Ostensibly for the protection of the Indians and non- Indian settlers alike, these policies expressly perpetuated established means of extracting resources (labor, land, water, minerals, timber, etc.) from the state's indigenous population.