The Golden State’s “Dred Scott” Legal Case
By Mary Beth Barber
Mary Beth Barber works for the California State Library as a special projects coordinator and is a frequent contributor to the Bulletin.
This article summarizes the research conducted by the late Rudolph M. Lapp, particularly for the publication of his book Archy Lee: A California Fugitive Slave Case. The book was originally published in 1969 by the Book Club of California in an edition of 500 copies. The book was illustrated by Mallette Dean, and the book was reprinted in 2008 by Heyday in paperback. Additionally, the California State Library’s History Room analog card catalogs contain dozens of cards with specific Archy Lee references to historic newspapers and other records about the case.
As California was experiencing growing pains and the rest of the nation teetered towards conflict in the middle of the 19th century, a piece of federal legislation was causing havoc in free states. The law, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, was part of the Missouri Compromise between northern and southern states regarding slavery as an attempt to keep war at bay.
But it also led to increased tensions for the territories and newly minted state of California, because amid the hunting and kidnapping of African-Americans in the North for bondage in the South was the legal question of southern slave owners traveling to free states and territories and bringing their slaves in tow. If the slave-owner establishes residency in a free state, is the so-called slave not free?
This was the principal question of the U.S. Supreme Court decision of March 1857 in Dred Scott v. Sanford, one that the high court found in favor of southern slaveholders. The majority essentially stated that once a slave, always a slave, even in free states. The decision enraged the North and fed the flames of conflict that led to the American Civil War. Constitutional experts today deride the decision as legally unsound.
Yet while Dred Scott’s impact was playing out in the east, a related legal scenario was unfolding in the wild west of California, one with a very different outcome. The case was C.A. Stovall v. Archy (a slave), sometimes known as Ex parte Archy. Noted historian Rudolph M. Lapp chronicled the episode in his well-researched Archy Lee, A California Fugitive Slave Case. I have endeavored to capture the essence of the story here.
Early California and Slavery
The decade of 1850 was a tumultuous one in the Golden State. California established itself as a U.S. state a mere two years after the conclusion of the Mexican-American war. By the fall of 1849 gold seekers and longer-term California residents met in Monterey to draft a constitution, one that did not include slavery.
The reasons California’s first constitution writers did not include slavery were various. Some writers were avid abolitionists. Other California newcomers viewed slavery as an economic disadvantage for non-slave holders. Californios, the former Mexican landholders who were now American property owners, came from a country that officially had forbidden slavery two decades prior. While this Mexican law did not apply to indigenous peoples in practice, many Californios rejected official state-sanctioned slavery for individuals of African heritage. Yet some California constitution drafters wanted to exclude African Americans from the state completely, as well as other minorities. Other early founders of California were pro-slavery and deeply discriminatory against African Americans. These individuals include the state’s first governor and later state supreme court justice Peter Burnett.
Whatever the reasoning, when finally drafted, the California Constitution forbade slavery and California declared itself a free state. Despite the breech of protocol by declaring itself a state before approval by Congress, and despite heated debate and serious misgivings by representatives from the South, the national legislative branch accepted California and its constitution. California became the 31st state in September of 1850.
That early California had conflicting and sometimes hypocritical views on slavery and personal freedom was not unusual. Mexico banned the enslavement of individuals of African heritage in 1829, yet native peoples were forced into servitude continually. California entered the Union as a free state, but passed laws forbidding African-Americans and Asians from testifying in court and other racist legislation.
Despite these civil rights violations, California still attracted a small but strong-willed African American community. Sacramento was the center of anti-slavery activism and the site of the first California Colored Convention. Free blacks, former slaves, and stalwart abolitionists were some of California’s first residents, like Biddy Mason in Southern California gaining their freedom through the courts. San Francisco housed successful African-American businessmen and women, particularly free blacks who served on ships.
The Gold Rush also attracted southerners, most of whom were pro-slavery and deeply racist. So in January 1858 when a young white man from Mississippi ordered a young black man back to slavery and was refused, the case became a touchstone of racial turmoil in California. What transpired over the next ten weeks enraptured the public and press throughout California as the young African-American man’s legal case took multiple twists and turns, during which he was jailed, freed, kidnapped, and released multiple times.
Archy Lee: A Mississippi Slave in Free California
Archy Lee was an African-American man who came to California in 1857 with Charles Stovall, a 20-something slaveholder from Mississippi. In the South, Lee was a slave on the Stovall plantation. In California, Lee worked as a barber. While he turned over a portion of his earnings to Stovall, Lee also became part of the community of free African Americans in Sacramento. Stovall had intended to seek gold, and when that didn’t pan out, he opened a school. The young Mississippian gave up on California around the first of the year in 1858 and told Lee to pack his things; they were going back.
While Stovall may have wanted to go back to Mississippi, Archy Lee did not. Stovall recruited local police to arrest Lee and force him to return. On the night of January 6, 1858, authorities went to the African-American run hotel Hackett House on Third Street in Sacramento between K and L Streets, arrested Lee, and imprisoned him in the local jail.
At stake was the legitimacy of the Fugitive Slave Act in booming post-Gold Rush California. Lee’s attorneys noted he had travelled with Stovall willingly and was therefore not a fugitive. They also noted that Stovall established residency by opening a school, and California residents could not own slaves and therefore Archy Lee was free.
The first testimony was in front of a local Sacramento County judge Robert Robinson. Hackett House owner Charles Parker raised funds for Lee’s defense and hired prominent white abolitionist attorneys, including Edwin B. Crocker, brother of railroad magnate Charles Crocker. Stovall’s attorneys argued to move the trial to a federal district court knowing that particular judge, U.S. Commissioner George Pen Johnston, was born in the south. Johnston, likely seeing the legal and political pitfalls of the case, sent it back to the county district court.
During the Sacramento County trial testimony on January 23, 1858, Archy Lee spoke up about his wishes. “I don’t understand what you are speaking of,” he said to the judge when asked in legal language whether he wanted to go back to slavery. “But I want it to come out right: I don’t want to go back to Mississippi.”
Three days later Archy Lee was declared a free man by the Sacramento County judge. Immediately after the ruling was issued, Lee was arrested again. Stovall had enlisted the help of California State Supreme Court Chief Justice David Terry, a pro-slavery Tennessee native. The stunned Sacramento audience of free African Americans walked with Lee back to jail, where he waited another two weeks for the state supreme court trial.
California Supreme Court Decision
Two of the three judges of the California Supreme Court, Terry and former Governor Burnett, were strongly pro-slavery. On February 11, to a packed room of anti- slavery activists and pro-slavery southern sympathizers, Terry announced that Archy Lee was to be “given back” to Stovall.
“The press described the decision as everything from ‘lame and impotent’ to a crowning absurdity,” wrote Lapp in his book. “Some wanted to see Terry and Burnett impeached. The feeling was wide- spread that these two men had surrendered the dignity of the State Supreme Court to appease prejudice.”
Lapp’s research of newspaper accounts and other materials outlines the charged nature of the outcome. The room erupted with emotional outbursts, and on the way back to the station house and imprisonment, Lee tried to escape three times.
When the official decision was made public, it was apparent that the court essentially agreed with Lee’s attorneys that Stovall was not a traveler but a resident, and Lee was not a fugitive but a willing traveler who should be a free man in California. Regardless of these facts, the judges still enforced slavery, stating that Stovall deserved pity because he was young and in ill-health, so Lee was to be imprisoned and “given” to Stovall to return to Mississippi.
The young state was embroiled in the conflict. Newspapers derided the decision, noting that the state’s top judicial officials completely ignored the state’s constitution. One Letter to the Editor of the Alta California summed up the court’s illogical conclusion in this way:
The Constitution never operates for the first time.
The Constitution never operates against a man travelling for his health.
Charity is defined, “to take a man away from himself and give him to another.”
A man may gain all the law in his case but lose himself.
After the verdict and transport back to jail, Lee vanished from the public eye. Rumors abounded about his fate. Some speculated Stovall left by boat from San Francisco with Lee; others thought they departed by stagecoach. Neither turned out to be true.
According to Lapp, the most likely scenario was that the African-American population had worked as a unit to watch Stovall, particularly through patrols at the port, and Stovall hid with an imprisoned Lee until he saw a way to leave.
“During the crisis Negro businessmen closed their offices to man the wharves alongside maritime workers,” said Lapp. “This last group was most important because many Negro leaders worked as stewards, cooks, waiters, and deckhands on ships that plied the waters of the bay, and like the Negro barbers, they were the eyes and ears of the Negro organization.”
A letter published in a San Francisco paper indicated that Lee was in a Stockton jail in February. By early March rumors flew that Stovall was going to try to leave the San Francisco with a kidnapped Archy Lee in tow and avoid an underground network helping Lee flee.
While this could have been the end of Lee’s case with a questionable legal conclusion that mirrored the Dred Scott decision by a pro-slavery leaning California judiciary, it wasn’t. The African-American community of California had another move. Black activists had obtained the legal documents and law enforcement’s backing to remove Stovall’s authority over Lee, and then have Stovall arrested for kidnapping. They wanted to bring the case back to the courts if they could find Lee.
Local sheriffs were tipped off that Stovall was planning to stow Lee aboard a vessel in San Francisco Bay, the Orizaba, set to depart on March 5. This information likely came from Mary Ellen Pleasant, a highly successful San Francisco African-American businesswoman who was a principal funder of abolitionist John Brown’s slave uprising efforts, and whose husband was employed by the captain of the Orizaba.
Crowds had gathered on the wharf, with Stovall’s supporters jeering as the ship pulled away from shore. Also on board, though, was the deputy sheriff and two of his assistants, and a boat for the sheriffs was attached on the back of the ship. As the Orizaba neared Angel Island in the middle of the bay, a rowboat with Stovall and two other men attempted to board with a kidnapped Archy Lee forced to lie flat in the bottom. After heated words and a scuffle on board, the Orizaba departed the Golden Gate, minus two planned passengers. The sheriffs returned to the shore in their smaller boat with Stovall and Lee.
Back in Court
Stovall paid a $500 bail on the kidnapping charge, while Lee was brought to the San Francisco jail to await the next steps. Overnight the African-American community coalesced, holding meetings at local churches integral to African-American rights efforts. Crowds overflowed the Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church at Pacific and Stockton Streets. The community raised funds for Lee’s legal fees.
The charge of kidnapping was dropped against Stovall for technical reasons, but the Archy Lee slavery issue was once again front and center, this time in the courtroom of San Francisco County Judge T. W. Freelon, who originally hailed from Vermont. Many influential individuals voiced that this highly publicized legal decision from the California Supreme Court was deeply flawed and somewhat of an embarrassment. Local papers published extensive criticism of the decision and encouraged Judge Freelon to correct a wrong and “make his mark,” legally speaking. Protocols and jurisprudence may not have been appropriately followed, since the case had been tried in both another county court as well as a decision rendered by the state’s highest court. Regardless, the San Francisco County judge agreed to hear it.
Stovall’s attorneys rushed in from Sacramento, but this time Lee had a different legal team: Elisha O. Crosby, W. H. Tompkins, and Colonel E. D. Baker. Crosby was part of the 1849 constitutional convention to found California as a U.S. state. Tompkins was well known as a keen legal mind. The orator of the three was Col. Baker, an old friend of Abraham Lincoln’s and well known to the local populace. He was also familiar with Stovall’s attorney, James H. Hardy, as both had roots in Illinois.
Newspapers covered the deliberations in key detail, with reporters describing the emotional and packed courtroom. The story riveted not only the local populace but the rest of the country as well. The courtroom was packed when deliberations started on March 15.
Hardy, speaking for Stovall, warned the court not to usurp the California Supreme Court as the higher court. Further, said Hardy, it’s illegal in California for an African American to testify in court, so the original warrant for Stovall that returned Lee to court was invalid, as they were filed by local African-American leader James Riker.
Col. Baker criticized the previous case and its outcome, noting that the California Supreme Court decision was not only flawed and politically motivated, but would lead to a stain on the young state of California and its legal and government systems. After hours of heated testimony and argument, Judge Freelon announced his decision that Lee was a free man.
As the crowd took in the information, a U.S. Marshall entered the courtroom and re-arrested Archy Lee. He was headed to federal court.
Yet Another Trial
Lapp’s book notes the highly charged emotions of the situation through his careful reading of press reports from the time. Reporters quoted Lee as saying that he would rather die than return to slavery. Hundreds of people followed the U.S. Marshalls and Lee as they walked to the Merchants Exchange Building that housed U.S. Commissioner George Pen Johnston, the same man who had declined to hear the case in January in Sacramento.
Tempers were heated during the walk through the San Francisco streets. Pro-slavery whites shouted and pushed Lee as the police tried to protect him. When an African- American man returned a punch from a white man, local police intervened. Reporters noted that Lee arrived at the U.S. Commissioner’s office with bruises; while he had an entourage of police and supporters to protect him, the crowd was so thick he was mauled anyway.
The lawyers debated once again. This time Stovall’s attorneys tried to make the case that Lee, as a slave, had no right to legal counsel, a motion Johnston denied. Then Stovall’s legal team contested that Lee was a fugitive rather than willingly travelling to California with Stovall. Lee had said he came willingly, and was supported by witnesses for Stovall. For example, Sacramento resident and Stovall acquaintance John P. Zane testified that Stovall had told him the former Mississippian intended to live in California and was not simply passing through, and that Lee had come with Stovall willingly at the time.
Any possibility of a quick decision and short trial was thwarted. When Commissioner Johnston took a ten-day break in the trial, Charles Stovall quietly departed San Francisco. Exactly why is unknown, but theories include that he was about to be arrested for perjury, or that he was paid for Lee’s freedom and left with the cash. The case continued in his absence in late March.
Among the new witnesses presented by both sides was William Stovall, Charles’ brother who traveled with him and Lee to California during the original trip. Outbursts between attorneys disrupted the courtroom during William Stovall’s testimony.
The story became muddier as more and more information was presented. Stovall lawyers tried to claim Lee was a runaway. Lee’s lawyers as well as the press pointed out that this statement was never made during the previous trials. Various witnesses, including those for the Stovall brothers’ side, relayed that Lee was not a fugitive but a pawn in some kind of conflict between family members and neighbors. An Alta California interview with Lee indicated the same.
Newspaper reports indicate Johnston was frustrated by the Stovall team, particularly when one lawyer said that the commissioner should put Lee, and any African American, into bondage if a white declares him or her as property. Despite his southern sympathies, Johnston found that notion to be a “monstrous doctrine.” For closing arguments, Col. Baker’s oratory skills captured the hearts and minds of the press and much of the room.
Johnston wasn’t ready to make a decision in front of the crowds and press that gathered during the trial. This was possibly because of the complicated case, but also could have been to prevent an all-out race riot given the mood of the crowds both inside and outside the courtroom. Instead, Johnston took written briefs from each side and contemplated the issue for a week.
On April 14, 1858, he rendered his decision: Archy Lee was free.
After receiving his freedom, Lee left for British Columbia as part of a migration of free blacks looking for better opportunities outside the racial rancor infecting the U.S. The Sacramento Daily Union reported his presence in Victoria by June. “Many of the colored people who are here, Archy Lee amongst them, propose remaining. They are delighted with the social equality and fraternity accorded them.”
The California that Archy Lee left behind was growing more and more conflicted. The white population of San Francisco became agitated at the coalesced power of the African Americans in their city. Legislators introduced bills restricting immigration of all non-whites to California. Racial rancor exploded. For example, a mob in Auburn lynched an African-American man within hours after a fight but before a proper arrest and trial could take place, despite the pleas of local officials and a Catholic priest.
At the same time the anti-slavery sentiment grew stronger as well. Anti-slavery activist Thomas Starr King arrived a short time after Lee left, and thousands of Californians eagerly listened to his oratories and sermons. Once the Civil War began the state stood with the North, and thousands of Californians joined Union military units. Others supported the Union’s war efforts, such as the $1.5 million donated to the United States Sanitary Commission, a precursor of the American Red Cross.
Despite the excitement and potential importance of this case, it’s not well known with the general public. Today the location of the Hackett House at Third and K Streets in Sacramento is a parking garage next to the
I-5 Freeway. Historians like Shirley Ann Wilson Moore and her late husband Joe Moore of Sacramento continued Lapp’s efforts, and California publisher Heyday reprinted Lapp’s 1969 Archy Lee: A Fugitive Slave Case in 2008 with an introduction by Shirley Moore. Other academics have recently explored this history as well, such as historical writer Brian McGinty in his Archy Lee’s Struggle for Freedom, newly published in December 2019.
The Hollywood ending to the story would bear a resemblance to Biddy Mason’s, who after gaining her freedom through the courts lived a long life as a well-respected nurse in the medical community. Her early property investments allowed her and her family to become Los Angeles philanthropists in the late 1800s, and she is remembered in L.A. through memorials and a park in her name. Archy Lee’s fate was not as such, nor did it lead to a quiet life in Canada. Instead he died a mere fifteen years later, and under mysterious circumstances.
Where Lee spent his years after the trials is unclear. The Pacific Appeal, a black weekly newspaper, reported four years later, in 1862, that Lee was working as a barber in Nevada. The Sacramento Daily Union quotes an unnamed Canadian paper as stating Lee got into a brawl in Canada with a white man that same year, in March.
The historic record goes dark for over a decade, until November 7, 1873. In an article that was repeated by dozens of other newspapers nationally, the Sacramento Record summarized the history of the case, then ended the story with this paragraph:
Yesterday some boys were playing the sand on the Yolo shore, opposite the mouth of the American river, when they discovered the body of a man buried in the sand, only his head protruding. They gave the alarm and the chap was resurrected and brought to the Station-house in this city. Arrived there he was found to be sick, and said he covered himself with the sand to keep warm. He was sent to the County Hospital. He had been camping there several months, a fact unknown until yesterday. He was the hero of the most exciting times of fifteen years ago, the slave Archy Lee. His career in this State began here, and here it seems likely to end.
This article is from the California State Library Foundation’s Bulletin #126. For more articles, artwork or information please visit our website www.cslfdn.org
“1849 California Constitution Fact Sheet,” California State Archives website, retrieved from www.sos.ca.gov/archives/collections/ constitutions/1849-constitution-facts/ on December 31, 2019.
“A Bit of History — After Fifteen Years,” Grass Valley Daily Union, November 9, 1873, page 2, retrieved from the California Digital Newspaper Collection.
“Death of T. W. Freelon,” Daily Alta California, April 1, 1885, page 1, retrieved from the California Digital Newspaper Collection.
“An Ethiopian Drama,” Daily Alta California, March 18, 1858, page 2, retrieved from the California Digital Newspaper Collection.
“From Victoria,” Sacramento Daily Union, June 7, 1858, page 4, retrieved from the California Digital Newspaper Collection.
“Where Are They?” Sacramento Daily Union, March 7, 1862, page 2, retrieved from the California Digital Newspaper Collection.
Beckner, Chrisanne, “Slavery: California’s Hidden Sin,” Sacramento News and Review, October 23, 2003, retrieved January 7, 2020, from https://www.newsreview.com/sacramento/slavery-californias-hidden-sin/content?oid=16199.
Burg, William, Sacramento’s K Street: Where Our City Was Born, Arcadia Publishing, 2012, viewed from partial view online from Google Books (www.books.google.com)
Lapp, Rudolph M., with foreword by Shirley Ann Wilson Moore, Archy Lee: A California Fugitive Slave Case, Heyday, 2008.
White, Arisa, Biddy Mason Speaks Up, Heyday, 2019.