Although it was admitted to the Union as a free state in 1850, labor-starved gold-rush California permitted employers to bind Native Americans as unfree leased convicts, minor custodial wards, debt peons, and, between 1860 and 1863, indentured servants or “apprentices.” As a key component of California's elaborate system of unfree Native American labor, Indian apprenticeship flourished for three years until its abolition during the Civil War in the wake of the Emancipation Proclamation. Little remembered today, much remains obscure regarding the essential details of Indian apprenticeship and the illegal slave trade that emerged to supply the considerable market demand for bound labor. This essay focuses on Humboldt County in northwestern California, where significant numbers of white residents made extensive use of Native American apprentices at the same time that many of their neighbors demanded—and began carrying out—the forced removal and outright extermination of local Indian peoples. Building on valuable data that the anthropologist Robert Heizer extracted in 1971 from the unique but now missing cache of over a hundred surviving indentures discovered in 1915 by the historian Owen C. Coy, this study offers two detailed group profiles of Humboldt County's white employers and their legally bound Native American workers. These collective portraits reveal the social, economic, and demographic compositions of frontier California's master and servant classes while simultaneously tracing both the rise and the fall of Indian apprenticeship within the violent racial context of Humboldt County during the gold rush and the Civil War.

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