Although it prohibited chattel slavery, California permitted the virtual enslavement of Native Americans under the 1850 Act for the Government and Protection of Indians. Scholars have described some of the key components of the Indian Act, but none has provided a systematic examination of the law's labor provisions or examined how individual employers actually used the law. This article does both by offering a careful survey of the Indian Act, followed by a detailed case study focusing on Cave Couts, the owner of Rancho Guajome in San Diego County. The Couts example reveals that the 1850 Act did not simply legalize the exploitation of Indians as prisoners and indentured "apprentices." Perhaps more importantly, it also preserved the system of debt peonage that had �ourished in California under Mexican rule. Not until after the Civil War did California become a truly free state.

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