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Celebrating the Emancipation Proclamation: Nevada 1840-1860—California Influence



And what of Nevada?

Tribes inhabited the land that would become Nevada for over 10,000 years before the first documented Europeans or Africans traversed its sweeping vistas. The ancients developed a stasis with the environment which became challenged in the 1820s when fur trappers and traders began to take the local wildlife.

Emigrant trains followed, escalating in 1848 when Mexico, which claimed the land after succession from Spain in 1821, ceded it to the United States in the settlement of the Mexican-American War. An occasional happening became a flood with the discovery of gold in California.

In 1846, 30 plus men executed the Bear Flag Revolt, creating California as a republic. After internal debate, California sought admission to the Union as a free state, upsetting the uneasy balance created in the Missouri Compromise of 1820. Senator Henry Clay, aspiring to thwart a growing crisis, proposed a series of resolutions to “Adjust amicably all existing questions of controversy . . . arising out of the institution of slavery.” They were debated for seven months.

September saw the Compromise of 1850, orchestrated by Senator Stephen Douglas, passing both houses, admitting California as a “free state,” providing provisional territorial governments for Utah and New Mexico, establishing a Texas-US boundary, abolishing slave trade in Washington, D.C., and amending the Fugitive Slave Act.

Hundreds of African-Americans, mostly males, gripped by gold fever and the desire for liberty came to “free” California. They perceived the state a safe refuge and a place of economic opportunity. Entrepreneurs found particular financial success in providing services to mining communities of color. The African-American owners of the Sweet Revenge Mine used profits to buy the freedom of enslaved who emigrated with their masters to the mining fields.

By 1855, Colored Citizen Conventions began to meet and circulate petitions seeking white support for political reform. Some progress was achieved, but late in the ’50s the State Legislature passed a law requiring all colored men to wear a distinctive badge, followed by the disastrous Dred Scott decision (U.S. Supreme Court) which stated (African Americans) have “no claim on American law or rights that white men must respect”.

The subsequent legacy, both local and national, found abolitionists and pro-slavery advocates remaining part of the political culture. The legislature passed a local Fugitive State law, contemplated an anti-immigration bill that would have prohibited free black and slaves from entering the state. African Americans were denied the right to vote or to offer testimony in court where white citizens were parties. Public schools were also segregated.

At this point, many African-American men and women emigrated to western Canada to follow the Fraser gold rush, returning a few years later with enough wealth to become stalwarts of emergent black communities and economies throughout California.

There would be many ties to the eastern Sierra.

For the years 2012-2013, Our Story, Inc. will be be celebrating the 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Project and its legacy in Nevada. This article is part of a series that will be published during that time. Please feel free to circulate and share (credited), comment or submit your own articles.

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