The Black Pioneers of Los Angeles County: The Counting of African Americans in the 1850 Federal and 1852 State Censuses

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Anyone who has done research on the Los Angeles region in the first years of the American era knows just how challenging it can be to find information generally and the situation is far more daunting when it comes to underrepresented groups, including women and people of color. Even when we find those rare sources from the period, there can often be issues that pose obstacles to their use.

Take, for example, the 1850 federal census of the region, which, because California was admitted as the 31st state in the Union in September, was not conducted until the first two months of the following year. There was just one census-taker, or enumerator, John R. Evertsen, and being responsible for covering a massive area including all of today’s Orange and San Bernardino counties and portions of what later became Kern County was more difficult because the Gold Rush was in full swing and there was a high degree of fluidity of people within California broadly and greater Los Angeles specifically.

Moreover, for reasons that are unknown, Evertsen simply left out a great many people, particularly the indigenous Indians, of whom he only counted a fraction of the actual population. We know this, because the State of California, understandably concerned about a gross undercount with the federal census (which affected the number of seats allotted to the state in the House of Representatives), decided to conduct its own census in 1852. When the overall figures were released late that year, it was noted that the native population was just under 4,000 people, rather than the couple hundred counted by Evertson.

1850 census Peter Biggs Julia no surname (3)
The enumeration of Julia (no surname), a 45-year old Black woman in the household of merchant Timothy Foster, trader David Douglass and farmer John Simmons in the 1850 federal census at Los Angeles.

So, as people still routinely cite the 1850 census figures for Los Angeles city (1,610 souls) and the county (3,530), it should be noted that these were vastly undercounted, at least by what the state enumeration came up not much more than a year later. Naturally, there were some obvious changes during that year’s time and we can’t know exactly what that entailed. Still, it is abundantly clear that Evertsen’s efforts were, to put it in the best light, less-than-accurate, while we have to acknowledge the many shortcomings of the 1852 count, as well.

This is because the census sheets lacked basic information that should have been included and we can only surmise this is because of the rush to get the count completed. For example, there were no names of the enumerators nor dates inscribed on the sheets for Los Angeles County. Moreover, there was damage done to the original documents, so that the lower left corners of sheets are gone, and what is generally missing are the names and ages of the last roughly half-dozen people on each sheet. While the gender, occupations, place of birth and place of last residence (which is a good piece of information to know in a place where the great majority of residents were arrivals within the last few years or so) did generally survive, losing the names, in particular, is a major issue.

On this holiday, celebrating and commemorating the immense achievements of Martin Luther King, Junior, and his fight for the civil rights of African Americans, we take a look back to the earliest documentation of Blacks in American-era Los Angeles through these two censuses in research done as part of an association with the Biddy Mason Charitable Foundation‘s Long Road to Freedom project. In doing so, we note the fact that, while California was deemed a “free state” where slavery was not allowed, gold seekers and others flocking here in the early 1850s were frequently slave owners from other states and territories and those Blacks brought with them were held in servitude. Other African Americans working in households in the area may very well have been forced to labor without pay, though there is almost certainly no way to document these situations.

1850 census William Becky Susan no surnames (2)
The 1850 census listing of three African-Americans without surnames, including William, residing with seven miners and a blacksmith and Becky and Susan, living with the family of teamster Joseph Hardige.

In January 1856 came the landmark case in the state district court presided over by Judge Benjamin I. Hayes and in which Bridget “Biddy” Mason sought for her and her three children as well as another woman, Harriet and her eight children and a grandchild, through a writ of habeus corpus (basically, unlawful detainment), to be released from all claims agains them by Robert Smith. Smith took most of those involved from Mississippi to Utah, then under the control of the Mormons, and then to this region in 1851 when a colony of the Latter Day Saints came to this region to establish San Bernardino.

Despite this important victory, it is unclear how many Blacks in the region were living in a state of involuntary servitude/slavery, though a look at these first two censuses of the period contain examples that are at least suggestive of such situations. Beyond this vital question, there are other notable questions that come out of these enumerations, many of which cannot be answered, and the data derived from there, incomplete as they may be, are helpful in understanding, however tentatively, something of the lives of some of first African Americans to live in the area.

The 1850 census, with dates ranging from 18 January to 18 February 1851, listed fourteen people as “black”, though the three choices in the column for “Color” were “white,” “black,” and “mulatto”—note that “Indian” was not given as an option. In any case, of these only a half-dozen had surnames, and all but one of these were Spanish-language last names.

1850 census Clarissa Maria no surname at hotel (2)
Clarissa, with the family of hotel keeper James R. Holman, and Maria, with the family of James Ruddle, were counted at an unnamed hostelry in the Angel City. Both families came from Missouri and it is likely the two women were brought to Los Angeles as slaves.

Of these latter, there was Ignacio Fernandez, a 30-year old laborer from Guatemala; 18-year old Josefa U. “Chosofo” (who was listed as a male, despite the clear recording of “Josefa” and the last name is a strange rendering by Evertson, who likely had little facility in Spanish), a native of California; Margarita Valenzuela (rendered “Balenzuela,” though also listed as male), who was two years old and from California, but whose mother, Dolores, was listed as white, so one wonders if Margarita was the product of an interracial relationship; and husband and wife, Manuel and Tomasa “Agugue” [Aguirre?], ages 48 and 35, respectively, who hailed from Mexico.

Obviously, it cannot be known why Evertsen marked these five persons as black, though in Mexico and Central America there were many mulattos. In Los Angeles, there was a street just off the southeast corner of the Plaza called Calle de los Negros, but which was named for a dark-skinned Latino, not for an African-American. So, whether he identified this quintet because of some knowledge he obtained from them as he made his rounds or because he simply guessed or assumed is not known.

1850 census Manuel Tomasa Agugue (2)
Census taker John R. Evertsen identified five people with Spanish-language names as Black, including Manuel and Tomasa “Agugue” [Aguirre?], though their two sons, Julian and Felipe, were not so identified.

Of the remaining nine persons, the only with a surname and with much of a history in the Angel City is Peter Biggs, a Virginia native, listed as age 35, who was a slave in Missouri, where he was known to Judge Hayes and his family, and came to Los Angeles as the slave of a commander of a Mormon battalion of volunteers. Biggs then became a well-known barber, married Refugio Redondo (who died of consumption in June 1859), was arrested for openly celebrating the assassination of President Lincoln, and was stabbed to death by the cook of a restaurant in early May 1869.

The other eight people were six women ranging in age from 14 to 45 years and a pair of men in their twenties known as William and described as laborers, while the women had no listed occupations. The younger William was 24 and was born in New York so presumably was born free and he lived in the household of the widow Carmen Guirado de Johnson and her family, so it appears he was not held in involuntary servitude, though he may have worked on a ranch or farm for the family. The elder William, a 27-year old hailing from Mississippi and, therefore born into slavery, lived in a household with seven miners, one an Indian (perhaps Cherokee) from Georgia and a blacksmith, so he may have been brought as a slave of one of the miners.

1852 census John Salley Peter Biggs Thos Smith
An 1852 state census (the only such count taken in California) sheet showing John Salley, third from the top, and Peter Biggs (shown as “Briggs”), the last name at the bottom on line 41. Note the missing information at the lower left corner, which will be noted in other sheets reproduced here.

The half-dozen women were all attached to households. The youngest were Becky and Susan,ages 16 and 14 and from Arkansas and Alabama, respectively, living in the household of teamster Joseph Hardige, his wife and two children. The Hardige children were born in Texas and Arkansas and it is presumed, as the latter was four years old, that the family migrated from the Razorback State to Los Angeles with Becky and Susan as slaves and that they remained in that state of servitude. Twenty-year old Malvina, who hailed from Kentucky, lived in the large household of surveyor John R. Conway, who with his wife Mary Eliza, had nine children, the first two born in Missouri and the remainder, the youngest being two years old, in Arkansas. Again, it seems highly likely Malvina was their slave and came with them to Los Angeles.

Two young women, Clarissa, age 27 and from Tennessee, and Maria, age 17 from Missouri, were enumerated in what was marginally inscribed as a “hotel,” though the name was not given. The keepers of the establishment were Simpson Larned and James R. Holman, the latter from Kentucky and residing with his wife Caroline and two young girls, all born in Missouri, so it appears clear that Clarissa was a slave of that family. Maria was with the family of James Ruddle, his wife and their three young daughters, all born in Missouri as well, and, again, it is very likely she was brought as their slave. Finally, there was 45-year old Julia, who hailed from Georgia, but the three men in the household were all from New York, including merchant Timothy Foster, trader David Douglass and farmer John Simmons. It may be, though, that one or more of these men lived in the South and brought Julia to Los Angeles.

1852 census Daniel
An 1852 census sheet with, at the top, a listing for Daniel, with no surname, who was a 21-year old laborer from North Carolina, last residing in Texas before coming (likely brought as a slave) to Los Angeles.

In the state tally of 1852, about a year-and-half after the federal census, there were thirty-four persons located who were described either as either “Black or “Mulatto,” these being the choices in the “Color” column along with “White,” or, in two cases, “Negro,” though why this latter was used for two persons is not known. Again, there are no names of the enumerators, although there appears to be at least two different handwriting types on the sheets. In any case, Biggs is listed as age 40 (which would be three years older than the age given in the 1850 count—this is not at all uncommon in census listings). Notably, his prior place of residence is listed as Virginia, though it is clear he was in Missouri before being brought to Los Angeles, as noted above. Biggs and 22-year old servant, John Salley, also from Virginia and where he lived prior to being in Los Angeles, were identified as “negro,” as was Daniel, who had no surname listed, and was a 21-year old laborer born in North Carolina and most recently in Texas. Salley and Daniel were almost certainly brought west as slaves.

Two men with surnames and listed as Black were Joseph Boggs and James Jackson. The latter, who was 37 years old, was born in Ohio, but, notably, was said to have lived in Mexico before coming to Los Angeles. It would be fascinating to know his story, but that is all that we know unfortunately. As to Boggs, who was thirty, there was no place of birth or prior residence listed and, moreover, his occupation was listed very clearly as “crazy.” He lived in the household of Dr. Henry R. Myles, one of the first physicians in town and a native of Kentucky, so it may be that he was brought by the doctor as a slave to the Angel City.

Then, there is the situation with W. Thompson, listed as a 50-year old white farmer, born in South Carolina and last in Texas, though Sarah Thompson, age 27 and a native of Georgia also last residing in Texas, and a five month-old baby Jesse, born in California, both have the letter “M” for mulatto next to their names. Is it possible this was an interracial marriage or, perhaps, that Sarah was the daughter of W. Thompson, and the child her son, or, that there was an error in identifying the race of the woman and child?

1852 census Joseph Boggs crazy (2)
This detail shows 30-year old Joseph Boggs, with no shown place of birth or last residence and whose occupation box is inscribed with “Crazy,” living in what appears to be a household with Dr. Henry R. Myles, one of the first physicians in Los Angeles and two other men. Myles was from Kentucky, so perhaps he brought Boggs with him to California as a slave.

The remaining twenty-six blacks and mulattos enumerated in the 1852 state census were all brought by Mormon slave owners to greater Los Angeles the previous year when that colony was sent from Utah to populate San Bernardino, though many of these African-Americans wound up in Los Angeles. None had surnames, although they are listed under families with the last names of Morse, Cliff and Folks [Flake?—ancestors of former Arizona U.S. Senator Jeff Flake brought Biddy Mason, Hannah and other slaves to California].

Among these are Biddy, age 36, and said to have been born in Mississippi, though we know that Biddy Mason was from Georgia, though she lived in Mississippi as noted in the 1856 court case and her children Ellen, Ann and Harriet, and Hannah, age 30 and a native of South Carolina, and at least two of children, Ann and Lawrence, mentioned in the suit, as well as two other young children listed below her in the census, Cato and Toby. Notably Biddy and her daughters Ann and Harriet were denoted as mulattos, the only persons on the list so designated.

1852 census 24 blacks mulattos incl Biddy (2)
The 1852 enumeration of twenty-five African-Americans, all brought as slaves by Mormons from Utah, and including Biddy Mason (line 29) and her children. Note the lost information at the lower left.

As for the remaining Blacks brought from Utah, there is 50-year old Toby, a laborer from Indiana, Griff (35), Harriett (30), Tennessee (an 18-year old woman), Dick (27), Hark (a 26-year old man), Philip (26) and a nameless two-year old boy. Because the bottom left corner of the sheet is missing, there are eight individuals whose names are lost, though we know that three of them were ages 2, 3 and 6, while one was over 21 and the genders were five male and three female. All but two had birthplaces that remain on the sheet, with two from Utah, two from Iowa (likely they were born in slavery to Mormons in that state), one from North Carolina and one from Mississippi.

Again, there is so much we do not know about many of these early African-American residents of Los Angeles and questions raised that have to go unanswered, but the material from the 1850 federal and 1852 state census does at least provide us a record, however incomplete and unsatisfying, of the nearly fifty persons who comprised the origins of the Black community in Los Angeles. In the near future, we’ll look at the listings of other African-Americans in the Angel City as enumerated in the censuses of 1860, 1870 and 1880, so please check back later for those.

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