Remembering Negro Hill

This past weekend I was honored to offer the following comments at the Juneteenth celebration organized at Black Miners Bar (ex-Negro Bar) by FOLFAN, California State Parks and the Tuskegee Airmen. The research mentioned is this paper, which is being refashioned into a chapter in an upcoming book on lost communities of the Sacramento area. The book is due out next spring, and is being written with my co-presenter Eric Webb as well as two colleagues at the Sacramento Public Library.

As we remember the great policy moment of June 19, 1865, let’s also remember what happened before and after it: People were organizing for their own freedom, as well as that of family members and friends – here along the American River, as well as in the South. I want to share a bit about a forgotten Black town, called Negro Hill. What happened there, and why is it important today?

The political freedom finalized in Texas by military order was essential step toward Black liberation. But as we learned from the Jim Crow era, legal freedom was not enough by itself. Economic bondage often reproduced the same arrangements of slavery, so economic freedom must also be pursued. Gaining property of one’s own would have been key to any liberation strategy, and gold strikes represented an unprecedented and unrivaled infusion of wealth into communities like Negro Hill.

Black farmers and miners acquired land in various locations around the Gold Country. And they almost always lost that land, through a variety of dirty tricks played by a white-dominated land ownership system. They also sometimes lost through bad luck, of course, but the dice were loaded against them. The real estate market was crazy back then. And African Americans had little protection in that notorious Wild West, where a wide array of predators sought to separate smallholders from their properties. Black settlers got special attention from the speculators who ran these towns. And that attention was not to their advantage.

What most people don’t understand is that it wasn’t just individual Black pioneers that lost property in California. Black landowners apparently suffered collective, community-scale, land losses. And that hints at the power of what they were up to, and what they were up against. Despite generations of racist policy that have deterred Black land acquisitions, African Americans seem to have managed to piece together full-blown towns with significant (if not majority) Black populations. And then these towns repeatedly failed. We must ask why.

Black community loss was apparently most common during the early decades of California statehood, damaging the prospects of Black Californians in a way that the state’s government bears more direct responsibility than for the grave harms of slavery. While we think of slavery as being something that happened in distant lands, an important response to slavery played out not far from here in the Gold Country.

I want to talk today about something that happened mostly before Emancipation. However, the revisionism that I’m trying to reverse here is very much a product of the following century of nationally institutionalized racism. We must challenge this false narrative that has been passed down by white supremacist history, and appreciate the ambitious and innovative achievements of those who were trying to build a free Black society before and after Emancipation.

The Black Gold Rush

Lots of places around here had names like Negro Bar and Negro Hill. And lots of white historians like to think these places took these names because there were some Black guys mining there once, perhaps digging out on the edges of the strike. Maybe they stuck around for a while. Probably they were chased off as soon as they uncovered anything remotely rich.

Maybe that happened. But then what white town is then going to change its name to celebrate the very people it ran off? The story sort of falls apart, doesn’t it?

More likely, I would argue, these “Negro” sites were settlements where a lot of Black people lived. I did a bit of research on one of these sites, and it seems to support this claim: Just upstream of here, about three miles up the river lay Negro Hill, which was home to hundreds of people for much of a decade. Many if not most of these people were African Americans, and many if not most of the town’s institutions and businesses were probably started, owned and operated by Black people. This went on for years. This was not a few Black miners “camping” for a bit. Rather, a large number of African American entrepreneurs and builders created a relatively durable community.

And Negro Hill was not alone. There were maybe a half dozen Negro Hills, scattered the length and breadth of the Mother Lode. And of course there was Negro Bar and a variety of other sites with names suggesting significant Black communities. I’ve only examined one such community in detail, but what I’ve found suggests the need to revisit the others.

Picturing Negro Hill

The Negro Hill in question is the one closest to us here. This community grew on the north bank of the southern fork of the American River, which was called Kum Mayo by the indigenous Nisenan People. The Nisenan likely had a village here, most likely near a tributary stream across the river at Mormon Island. That south side was the busy side of the river, where (mostly white) people were doing all sorts of crazy stuff on their way to the Gold. That white-led chaos was ironically playing out on land originally granted by Mexico to William Liedesdorff, whose mother had African blood brought by European invaders to the Caribbean.

The town of Negro Hill was actually at the bottom of the hill – now near the bottom of Folsom Lake, well below the high water mark of an area called “the peninsula.” This was a large wedge of land, stretching about six miles north, halfway to Auburn. A broad sloping ridge was relatively isolated between the two main forks of the American River, mostly surrounded by steep canyons. This ridge grew progressively more rugged on its northern end, forming a sort of natural fortress. This was a geographic container in which African Americans could achieve a level of development that would have been more difficult elsewhere in Gold Rush California.

To uncover what was actually happening at Negro Hill, I conducted a series of searches of the California Digital Newspaper Collection (CDNC).  This search was not conclusive, and prone to error due to two reasons: First, text recognition software has its limits with the fuzzy type of old newspapers, so some mentions of Negro Hill were likely missed. And second, sometimes people put stuff in newspapers that was not true.

Even so, I found strong evidence of African American miners all over the place. But racist revisionism bleached out the story. For example, the California Historical society laid down an orthodoxy that had no room for Black settlements like Negro Hill. This orthodoxy can be seen in the California Historical Society meeting of 1948, a few years before the site was flooded out by Folsom Dam. The guest speaker was Rev. John W. Winkley, a traveling preacher with a passion for old Gold Rush towns. His meander through dozens of mining camps was briefly summarized in the society’s journal, as was typical for speakers at the meetings. Winkley’s findings were recounted without critique, except for one prominent rebuttal inserted near the beginning of his talk. Here’s how the summary began:

In the American River country, the speaker has carefully explored the ruins of such towns as Mormon Island; Prairie City on Alder’s Creek, whose only relics are wooden grave makers; Little Negro Hill, the site of which seems an incongruity to us and its story a hoax…

So what did Rev. Winkley say, right near the beginning of his talk? What hoax needed to be nipped in the bud? Unfortunately I’ve been unable to find anything further. But here’s what we can tell from newspapers of the day: Negro Hill had people, businesses, infrastructure, investment, transportation and crime. Negro Hill was a bona fide Gold Rush town, established in 1849 and reportedly the site of significant mineral wealth. Negro Hill was home to several hundred people for much of a decade, peaking in the mid-1850s. There was enough traffic to and from town to warrant weekly and even daily stage routes, as far as Chico. This community had enough energy to build a ditch that was still watering Negro Hill, right up until the day it was submerged in Folsom Lake.

Follow the Water

Water was key to the success of Negro Hill – it would have been needed to wash gold out of the gravels. But getting it up the hill required the difficult and ambitious construction of a ditch across miles of daunting terrain. This ditch tapped into the river upstream, at the same retention pond used by the Natoma Company to tighten its stranglehold on land south of the river. In contrast, the Negro Hill ditch seems to have helped protect local Black autonomy.

The first sign of such effort can be found in 1853, when a convention of ditch companies met in Sacramento; the Salmon Falls and Negro Hill Canal Co. was represented by Orlando Jennings, and reportedly capitalized at $25,000.

Jennings and a partner named Fraser later served as a model to other communities. These ditch innovators were later cited as being involved in another proposed ditch on the Yuba River – suggesting that the latter effort had better chances of success from their endorsement and involvement. Negro Hill was not a hoax. It was a model to copy.

The Bell Murder

Jennings and Fraser may not have ever lived here, but one known resident is also worth remembering. Henry Bell was murdered in March of 1855. A news report recalled that, “He was a peaceable man, and was stabbed without the slightest provocation.”

Now, I want to acknowledge that this is a problematic story. White folks tend to ignore communities of color until something goes wrong, and this is definitely one of those cases. However, the second of two news descriptions of this tragedy captured a glimpse of an important everyday scene unfolding at a saloon called Tracy’s House.

Monday evening last, there were present in a house or drinking saloon, kept by a negro named Jackson, four whites and three or four negroes, when a gang of rowdies came in drunk and noisy; after some words, one of them seized a bench, which was pulled away from him by one of his own party; in a moment he again seized and threw it at some negroes who were standing behind a table. At the same time, a negro by the name of Henry Bell, was stabbed between the sixth and seventh ribs, by one of the rowdies.

This crime ironically captured the peaceful routine at Tracy’s. This remarkable account, read carefully, reveals a bar run by and patronized by African Americans – as well as at least a handful of whites on at least one occasion. Furthermore, the report seems to identify three separate African American parties in addition to the barkeeper. Tracy’s was thus an African American establishment in a town with at least a large minority of African Americans. For such a bar to continue as a going concern, it would need some combination of customers who were either African American themselves, or comfortable routinely buying drinks from an African American and consuming them in an integrated crowd.

Let that sink in for a minute. It’s like every “Old West” saloon you’ve ever seen in the movies. Except a lot of the faces have changed. And this saloon is not a mirage. It was part of a living, breathing Black community with shops and hotels and a school. Try to hold that image. Negro Hill was a real place, with a real history.

The Williams Omission

But strangely, the history of Negro Hill does not include a famous fugitive slave named James Williams. His autobiographical account of his time in Gold Rush California often included great detail. But he did not say much about Negro Hill, even though he went straight there after arrival in California, and apparently stayed for six months.

It is curious that Williams did not think this place was interesting enough to recall; a fugitive slave and Underground Railroad worker would presumably find half a year in an African American mining town worthy of description. Even stranger, he complains that he “made nothing but my board” – during the boom times of May 1851. Yet when he left he was leading a well-equipped group: “I packed my rocker that we washed the gold with, my prospect-pan and my pick and shovel, and led the way.” There is clearly a gap in his narrative.

Williams’ omission is even stranger when we consider the likely connection between Negro Hill and a strategy of economic liberation from slavery. Historian Tina Alexander first opened my eyes to organizing efforts like the Colored Citizens’ Conventions. These were first held in 1855, and repeated in 1856 and 1865 – they spanned the decade before Emancipation, and have much to teach us about the liberation strategies of the time. Even my introductory research into these historic meetings has revealed hints of cooperative organizing – the last convention’s proceedings recorded a recommendation for “the forming of joint stock companies for farming and other purposes,” noting that “the individuals generally made more money than those who worked separately.”

Also, let us keep in mind that Negro Hill is right across the river from Mormon Island. Now those folks knew how to squeeze shared wealth out of a harsh land. The Mormons as a whole certainly have some racial issues. Some enslaved people. Some brought those enslaved people to California. It is entirely possible that some Mormons enslaved people within sight of Negro Hill. Still, other Mormons probably had more enlightened views on the mater. In any case, it seems likely that there was some degree of cross-pollination across the river. And given the overarching project of leveraging mineral wealth into freedom, it’s hard to see how the residents of Negro Hill could have missed the value of the Mormon model.

What Happened?

We are told that Black people can’t hold on to wealth. If Negro Hill existed, its loss is just part of a larger predictable pattern that conveniently supports a racist view of California history. This dominant narrative is false. At best it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. But it is important to keep in mind here because it has helped prevent Americans from understanding of what Black people were doing here during the Gold Rush.

So what did happen to Negro Hill? Several towns disappeared from the land, and from history, literally wiped off the map and forgotten.  And Negro Hill seems to fall into this larger pattern. As I’ve learned about the string of towns that rose and fell along the American River, the story has mostly been that of white settlers taking land from other white settlers. But here’s the question that has haunted me all along: If mostly white communities were suffering from this level of disappearance, what was happening to the Black settlers?

Probably well-connected speculators could have swiped their land without even leaving much of a paper trail to be obscured later. They could have just marched on in and dared the owners to take them to court. Black people couldn’t even testify back then.

And the taking wasn’t limited to ruthless white speculators in the heat of the Gold Rush. The government was involved too, for at least a century. Coloma, where it all started, was left to the Blacks and Chinese when the county seat moved up to the “dry diggings” at Placerville. Jonathan Burgess and his siblings are doing some very important family history work, which seems to point strongly at the state happily taking their land for a historic park but then omitting them from its interpretative framework.

I don’t yet have an answer for the specific actions that separated the residents of Negro Hill from their land. But clearly we have a situation where a town existed, and then it ceased to exist. And when a white pastor raised questions about it a century later, he was put right back in line.

Probably most Black people left Negro Hill for reasons that were legal and economic. But then somebody brought it up a century later and the History Authorities basically gave it a big “nope.” We weren’t going to talk about that any more. Rev. Winkley was a great speaker, but that part of what he said was wrong. Forget it.

So that raises some questions, doesn’t it?

Even with the silencing of Rev. Winkley, there were surely stories floating around, telling the story of Negro Hill and all the other Black Gold Rush communities. Let’s find them, and weave them together. We need to transform our image of the people who walked the dusty streets of the Gold Rush.

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