The following article is republished with permission from "Lost LA." This history documentary series explores our region’s hidden past through documents, photos and other rare artifacts from California libraries and archives. "Lost LA" is produced by the Public Media Group of Southern California and USC Libraries.
Auctioning off human beings is a practice many would think was confined to the pre-Civil War American South. Here in California, slavery was purportedly banned during the 1849 Constitutional Convention. But even though it was situated in a supposedly “free” state, Los Angeles held its own human auctions during the mid-19th century. And the product for sale was Native Americans.
When Europeans arrived in 1769, more than 300,000 American Indians called California home. By 1860, that number dropped to about 30,000, meaning approximately nine out of every 10 Native Californians had been wiped out. After the Gold Rush started and California became part of the United States in 1848, thousands of Americans began flooding the state. Consequently, Native Californians were facing the prospect of elimination.
Even before Los Angeles became an American town, Native Americans in Spanish and Mexican Los Angeles were treated as a subclass of people, prevented from full participation in public life and left at risk of violence and subjugation. In fact, Mexican Angelenos, descendents themselves of American Indians and Africans as well as Spaniards, attempted to elevate their own social status, while obfuscating their own mixed ancestry, by distinguishing themselves from and marginalizing local Native Americans.
During the 1850s, Angelenos generally grouped Native Californians into one of two categories. You had what were referred to, in dehumanizing terms, as the “wild Indians” who lived outside town or in the mountains. The approach to dealing with this group can best be described by the old, and repugnant, saying: “There is no good Indian but a dead Indian.” If captured, death was a routine punishment.
But Angelenos had a different approach with respect to the other group of American Indians. These were the Christianized Native Americans who had been associated with the California Missions. They were sometimes referred to as the “tame Indians” or the “Mission Indians.” These “Mission Indians” were often utilized as a source of cheap labor.
During the 1850s, Angelenos contrived an economic scheme that essentially subjected Native Americans to a type of indentured servitude. They used alcohol to incentivize the scheme to the Native Americans. This system supplied cheap labor and revenue for the town, and in the process decimated the native population of Los Angeles.
The system worked as follows: Local ranchers and vineyard owners started paying some or all of the wages owed to their American Indian laborers in alcohol. The Native Americans then got drunk off the alcohol and American lawmen arrested them for drunkenness. The next morning, after sobering up, the American Indians were auctioned off to local ranchers and vineyard owners who would post their bail in exchange for one week of forced servitude. At the end of the week, if they performed their work satisfactorily, one-third of the sale price was given to the laborer. Of course, this payment was usually in the form of more alcohol. So the vicious cycle of alcohol-induced arrest and resulting servitude often repeated itself.
Horace Bell, a colorful but sometimes unreliable chronicler of the early days of Los Angeles, described it like this:
The cultivators of vineyards commenced paying their Indian peons with aguardiente, a veritable fire-water and no mistake. The consequence was that on being paid off on Saturday evening, they would meet in great gatherings called peons, and pass the night in gambling, drunkenness and debauchery. On Sunday the streets would be crowded from morn till night with Indians, males and females of all ages ... About sundown the pompous marshall ... would drive and drag the herd to a big corral in the rear of Downey Block, where they would sleep away their intoxication, and in the morning they would be exposed for sale, as slaves for the week. Los Angeles had its slave mart, as well as New Orleans and Constantinople – only the slave at Los Angeles was sold fifty-two times a year as long as he lived, which did not generally exceed one, two, or three years, under the new dispensation.
And this process was not undertaken in the shadows – out of the reach of law enforcement – because auctioning off Native people was totally legal in 1850s California.
The ironically named California Act for the Government and Protection of Indians of 1850 allowed any white person to post bail for a convicted American Indian and then require the Native person to work for the white man until the fine was discharged. Historian Robert Heizer called this legislative act “a thinly disguised substitute for slavery.”
Imitating the state Legislature, the Los Angeles City Council passed its own ordinance in 1850, which allowed prisoners to be “auctioned off to the highest bidder for private service.”
The auction took place nearly every week for almost 20 years. That the practice became routine is demonstrated by an 1852 letter written by the administrator of Rancho Los Alamitos. He called upon his employer to “deputize someone to attend the auction that usually takes place at the prison on Mondays, and buy me five or six Indians.”
This routine practice continued until there was no one left to sell.
In his book, "The Herald’s History of Los Angeles City," Charles Willard described it as follows:
About two thousand natives who had either been brought up at the missions or had sometime been under their influence, so that they were not wholly wild, were living in and around Los Angeles. During the week they worked on the ranches and vineyards and on Saturday, having secured their pay, much of it in brandy, they repaired to the city to indulge in a frantic carouse ... When they were all drunk, which happened usually within twelve hours after their discharge from the ranches, they were gathered into a corral back of the present location of the Downey block. On Monday morning they were sold off, like so many slaves, the employer agreeing to pay the fine in return for the next period of service. The Indian received only a dollar or two for his week's work, part of that in brandy. This condition of affairs lasted until the Indians were all dead, and they went out rapidly under such a hideous system.
The present-day location of the human auction is Main Street between Temple and Aliso streets in downtown, where the United States Courthouse now stands. It is ironic that such a great injustice occurred at a place where Angelenos now go to seek justice. In fact, over the past few decades, Native American groups have staged several different protests at the federal courthouse in an effort to seek justice, on the very site where, a century earlier, their forefathers were auctioned off like cattle.
This auction offers insight into the Native American experience in the newly American town of Los Angeles. Native Californians during the 1850s had very few rights. They could not gain citizenship or vote. They could not testify against a white person in court or own a gun to protect themselves. If they were accused of a crime, the case would be heard in front of an all-white jury, if a mob or vigilance committee did not take justice into its own hands first. Already weakened by years of Spanish and Mexican rule, American Indian life in Los Angeles disintegrated even further under American rule. And this alcohol-induced system of forced labor was one of the final straws that pushed Los Angeles’ Native people to the brink of extinction.
Horace Bell. Reminiscences of a Ranger (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999), 34-36.
J.M. Guinn. The Passing of the Old Pueblo, Southern California Quarterly, Vol. 5, No. 2 (1901).
Robert Heizer. The Destruction of the California Indians (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1974).
Carey McWilliams. Southern California: An Island on the Land (Salt Lake City: Peregrine Smith Books, 1946).
George Harwood Phillips, Indians in Los Angeles, 1781-1875: Economic Integration, Social Disintegration , Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 49, No. 3 (1980).
David Samuel Torres-Rouff, Before L.A.: Race, Space, and Municipal Power in Los Angeles, 1781-1894 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 23-54.
Charles Dwight Willard. The Herald’s History of Los Angeles City (Los Angeles: Kingsley-Barnes & Neuner Co., 1901), 282-283.