The Black Pioneers of Los Angeles County: The Counting of African Americans in the 1860 Federal Census

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

A previous post in this series looked at the enumeration of early Black residents of Los Angeles when the 1850 federal census, actually taken in the first couple of months in 1851 because of California’s admission to the Union in September 1850, and the 1852 state census, the only of its kind and undertaken because of the gross undercount from the federal census, were conducted.

The counts of African-Americans in the federal tally totaled fourteen, though a few were people with Spanish language surnames and origins in Mexico and Latin America, while the state enumeration included thirty-four persons, including a large number brought by Mormons from Utah in 1851 when the colony of San Bernardino was established. When tensions between the Mormons and the federal government mounted later in the decade, Brigham Young issued an order of recall of the flock in southern California, though not all returned. By then, Bridget “Biddy” Mason and others in her family who came with the Mormons, successfully sued for her freedom so she and the other plaintiffs in the case stayed in Los Angeles.

1860 census Amelia Paulina no surnames El Monte
The enumeration of the young girls Amelia and Paulina in the El Monte household of farmer Samuel S. Thompson. Thompson, a native of Virginia, is the Southern-founded community, could well have brought the girls with him and him as slaves and kept them in servitude, despite California’s free state status.

By the time the 1860 census was taken in June and July, the Angel City had gone through a decade of frequent deviltry, during which the Gold Rush years and the aftermath included astonishing rates of violence and occasional dramatic outbursts of racial and ethnic animosity, though this was largely between Spanish-speaking residents and Americans and Europeans. The small Black community appears to have steered clear of such antagonisms, though there were, of course, many ways, undocumented though they may usually be, in which African Americans experienced the harshness of racism in that era.

We can assume, for instance, that a substantial number of Black residents of Los Angeles County were slaves brought to Los Angeles from elsewhere and held in servitude, even if California was, technically, a free state. There are a number of persons, often without surnames, living in households of people from Southern states.

1860 census Nelson no surname San Jose
A Black laborer known only as Nelson worked on the ranch of prominent California Francisco Vejar in the San Jose Township where the Vejar family’s portion of Rancho San Jose was in today’s southern Pomona.

For example, at El Monte, a community established by white migrants from the South, farmer Samuel S. Thompson, a Viriginia native, had as servants in his household two girls, Amelia, age 13, and Paulina, age 9, both from Arkansas, where Thompson no doubt lived before heading west. At San Gabriel, John R. Evertsen, the 1850 census taker, and also a Southerner, had a 16-year old female servant and Florida native named Lucy in his domicile. The port community of San Pedro included 14-year old Missouri native Harriet, who was a servant in the larger household of Phineas Banning, creator of the town of Wilmington and known as the “port admiral,” but the smaller household within Banning’s domicile was that with Thomas H. Workman, also born in Missouri and working as Banning’s clerk, at the top of the list.

In other cases, it can be more problematic trying to surmise whether African American workers were in subjection or had a measure of freedom of employment and residence. At the San Jose Township, in today’s Pomona area, a 40-year old man from Tennessee named Nelson, but with no surname, was a laborer for Francisco Vejar, a rancher whose father was the co-grantee of Rancho San Jose. Nearby, 25-year old Illinois native John Merren was a labroer in the Linares family household. Should we assume that because the heads of the households were Latino that these Black workers were free?

1860 census Cortes Peruvian
There is a long and rich Afro-Peruvian culture in that South American country, from where Francisco Cortes, a cook in the household of the wealthy and powerful rancher Abel Stearns, hailed.

The numbers of African Americans living in the outlying regions of the county were few, numbering about 20, including a pair who were double counted in San Pedro and in Los Angeles. About 70 Blacks lived in the city of approximately 4,400 persons and men outnumbered women about two to one, with most of them single, though there were several families.

Of the single men, several were from outside the United States, including Francisco Cortes, a fifty-year old from Peru (where the Afro-Peruvian population is still substantial), was a cook for the very wealthy and powerful merchant and rancher Abel Stearns. Another cook, 35-year old John Charles, whose boss was another well-known merchant, Alexander Bell (uncle of Horace, the fanciful and colorful chronicler of eaerly Los Angeles through his Reminiscences of a Ranger and On the Old West Coast), hailed from “Hayti.” At San Pedro, laborer John Sturges, age 24, came from the West Indies, though where exactly was not stated, as was William Smart, mentioned below. John Hill, a 40-year old cook, was born at “St. Helena Island,” presumably the South Atlantic British possession where Napoleon died One African-American, Joseph Smith, a 28-year old laborer who resided with French-born Ramon Alexander, was from Mexico.

1860 census Henderson w Rev Boardman
John Henderson was cook for the Reverend William E. Boardman, pastor of the town’s Presbyterian Church.

Other single men included a trio of barbers, William Leonard, a 30-year old from Maryland, 28-year old Arkansas native Henry Hill, and James Jefferson, a 20-year old from Ohio. They all lived with, and presumably worked for, Alejandro Rendon, a well-known tonsorial artist who migrated from Mexico several years earlier and who went on to be a barber at William Workman’s Workman Mill property. Rendon’s daughter, Hortensia, lived to be well into her nineties and provided Thomas W. Temple II some interesting information about his family in interviews she did with him in the late 1950s.

Further single males in the employ of prominent white men in the city included 23-year old Texas native and cook John Henderson, who worked for the Reverend William E. Boardman, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church; 30-year old servant and Maryland native James Berry, employed by city clerk John W. Shore; William Brown, a 51-year old cook from Washington, D.C., who, with 10-year old George Bankhead, worked for Ozro W. Childs, a tinware merchant and nurseryman who became one of the city’s wealthiest persons; and William Ashton, a 35-year old cook from Virginia, who was employed by well-to-do farmer Spencer H. Wilson.

1860 census Smart Green Mason Owens Brady Hamilton next to Army camp
A contingent of African Americans residing next to a United States Army encampment included cattle dealer Robert Owens, the wealthiest of the city’s Black community members. Also present was cook William Smart and his family (and their indigenous servant), laundryman Jesse Hamilton and his family, and Lewis G. Green, his wife Maria Yancey and Biddy Mason’s daughter Harriet.

As to families, the most prominent was the Owens clan, headed of 54-year old Robert Owens, a cattle dealer and his wife Winnie. The 1860 census was the first of two, the other the one that was conducted a decade later, that recorded the self-declared values of real estate and personal property and Owens stated that he held $6,500 of the former and $5,000 of the latter, by far the most of any African American in Los Angeles. Their son Charles, age 25, and his 21-year old wife Ellen, lived with their year-old son, and he had $800 in real estate and $200 in personal property. Living with them was Ellen’s mother, Biddy Mason, who would go on to amass a substantial amount of downtown real estate, though there was no recorded property value for her.

Robert and Winnie Owens, along with 33-year old cook William Smart and his wife Sarah and two-year old son, along with their native female servant, William; father and son Philip (age 52) and Henry Brady (25), both laborers; Jesse Hamilton, a 33-year old laundryman, and his wife Nancy and their 18-year old son Granville, a cook, and 10-year old daughter Sarah; and 30-year old barber Lewis G. Green, his wife Maria, and Biddy Mason’s 12-year old daughter Harriet, all lived next to an encampment of officers and soldiers from the United States Army. Within a year, the Civil War would erupt after years of growing tension between the North and South over slavery, so the presence of these fourteen people, 20% of the Los Angeles Black population, adjacent to the camp is notable.

1860 census Ballard Smith
The enumeration of Oscar Smith and the family of John and Amanda Ballard. John later was on the Rancho La Puente and appeared in tax assessment records as “Workman’s John,” a curious possessive identification.

Other Los Angeles families included that of Daniel Jefferson, a 44-year old porter, his wife Sarah, age 30, and their two sons, ages 8 and 4, and daughter, aged 2; 28-year old laborer Richard Jackson, his 24-year old wife Harriet, and their three children, daughters who were 2 and 1 and an 8-year old son; and John Ballard, a 29-year old teamster, his wife Amanda, age 30 and their daughers Dora, age 3 and Julia, age 1. A few years after the census was taken, John was listed in the county’s tax assessment records after William Workman as “Workman’s John,” though it is not known what the extent of the relationship was between the two. The possessive, however, is striking.

Patty Colman, a Moorpark College professor who has written extensively on the Ballard family, found that Amanda was in the household of John Rowland at Rancho La Puente several years earlier and may have been in servitude as Rowland and his wife, Charlotte Gray, a Southerner, claimed guardianship over her and a daughter, who may well have been Dora. Two weeks from today, Colman is hosting a virtual conversation with Ryan Ballard, descendant of John and Amanda.

1860 census Bullard El Monte
The family of Benjamin F. Bullard, his wife Sally, and their daughter Cassandra, in the household of El Monte farmer and English native George Balaam.

The only Black family found in the outskirts of the county was at El Monte and this was Benjamin F. Bullard, a 47-year old from Missouri who labored on the farm of English native George Balaam, and whose wife, Sally, a 25-year old from Iowa, and year-old daughter Cassandra, were also in the household. Another figure to note who was living outside Los Angeles was 37-year old New York native Jeremiah Redding, who resided with the prominent Lugo family on their Rancho San Antonio, adjacent to city limits on the southeast.

There were occasions in which Black men married Latinx or indigenous women. Peter Biggs, for instance, who was perhaps the best known African American in the city at the time and who was a barber, was married to Refugio Redondo, though she died on consumption in June 1859 after suffering from the disease for a year, leaving 39-year old Peter as a single father to raise their 12-year old daughter Juana. Then, there was John Brannigan, a 41-year old farmer (the only agriculturist in the Black community), who lived outside town and was married to 18-year old “Sora,” a native woman. The couple had a three-year old son, Henry, and a year-old daughter, Izabell. George Smith, a 33-year old ship caulker, who lived with mariner 52-year old Samuel Lamson (whose brother William was a bootblack, or shoe shiner), was married to an 18-year old indigenous woman named Melania.

1860 census mortality Refugio Biggs Jackson sisters
The mortality schedule from the census with, at the left, listings for Refugio Redondo, the wife of barber Peter Biggs, one of the best known Blacks in Los Angeles and for Elizabeth and Louisa Jackson, ages 3 and 1. Elizabeth died when her clothes caught fire and Louisa passed away from lung inflammation, perhaps from the conflagration.

Notably, besides the listing of Refugio Biggs in the mortality schedule completed for the 1860 census, there were recorded the tragic deaths of 3-year old Elizabeth E. Jackson, whose clothes caught fire suddenly in December 1859, while 1-year old Louisa Jackson passed away the same month due to a lung inflammation suffered for a couple of weeks—perhaps as a result of the same fire. The girls appear to have been the daughers of Richard and Harriet Jackson, mentioned above.

It is rare, but it does happen that the same person is enumerated twice in the same census and this happened several times in 1860. For example, the prominent Pío Pico, the last governor of Mexican California, was counted twice–one in Los Angeles where he had a townhome where his famous Pico House was built a decade later and then at his “Ranchito” on the Rancho Paso de Bartolo in today’s Whittier. William Lamson, the shoe-shiner mentioned above who was in the household of Prussian-born Martin Fulda, was counted again at San Pedro, as was young George Bankhead, a ten-year old brought to this area with the Mormons from his native Utah.

1860 census Green next to Bella Union
Four days prior to his counting next to the Army encampment, Lewis G. Green and his wife were tallied at his barber shop next to the Bella Union Hotel, a local landmark.

Then there was Lewis G. Green, another of the most prominent African Americans in Los Angeles over several decades. Green, who was a slave of a United States Navy officer and came to California in the American invasion during the Mexican-American War, was another one of the city’s Black barbers but he did his colleagues one better by being counted with his Mississippi-born wife Maria Yancy, age 20, and Harriet Mason, Biddy’s daughter, on 22 June with Robert and Winnie Owens, William Smart and the others living next to the Army camp, while four days earlier, he and his Maria were enumerated in town.

Strangely, the first tally listed Green was being born in South Carolina, while the second showed he was from Jamaica, when it is generally acknowleged that he was born in North Carolina. In any case, Green later worked as a janitor, including at the county courthouse (built as a commercial market house by Jonathan Temple the year prior to the census) and for the Temple and Workman bank, where a photo of the interior from the early 1870s may well be one of the first photos showing a Black resident of Los Angeles, though he stands in the bank and was merely denoted as “Green the Janitor” on an inscription.

1860 census Davis Owens Mason Houston
Bridget “Biddy” Mason, who later amassed considerably valuable downtown property, as listed with her daughter Ellen and Ellen’s husband Charles Owens and their son Robert and two other African Americans.

Information on the pioneering African Americans of Los Angeles can be extremely challenging to find and census material provides us among the few available sources. We’ll be back next week with a look at members of the city’s Black community in the 1870 enumeration, so check in with us then.

2 thoughts

  1. Thank you, Ion, and glad you’re enjoying this series—there’ll be a couple more during the rest of the month.

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