A History of Black Americans in California:
Steven Spencer Hill Ranch
On October 27, 1853, Steven Spencer Hill filed a claim for 160 acres of land northeast of Gold Springs in Tuolumne County, on gently rolling, well-watered slopes abutting the Stanislaus River Canyon. Hill came to California during the Gold Rush of 1849 from Arkansas as a slave-bondsman of Wood Tucker. When Tucker returned to Arkansas in 1853, Hill purchased his freedom and remained in California as a free person.
Hill took possession of Tucker's land, and soon made it an enterprising concern. Initially, 40 acres were cleared and planted, and a small cabin built. Hill mined part-time at Gold Springs, and was successful there, too. The Columbia Gazette (April 1, 1854) reported: "On Steve's claim, at Gold Springs, a beautiful specimen was taken out, weighing 9 ounces, pure gold." With his mining fortune, Hill was able to buy the equipment and stock needed to improve his ranch and, by the spring of 1854, had one of the most prosperous ranches in the country.
Unfortunately, the productive ranch was not to be the property of the ex-slave for very long. Owen R. Rozier moved onto the ranch March 27, 1854, asserting that Hill had not been manumitted, and therefore was still Wood Tucker's property and a fugitive slave. Under the California Fugitive Labor Act of 1852, the court could have Hill arrested and removed to Arkansas if Tucker would substantiate Rozier's allegation, and empower him to act as his agent.
A hearing on the matter was held before a magistrate. Wood Tucker claimed by letter that Hill was still his slave, and empowered Rozier to act on his behalf in securing Hill's return. Hill tried unsuccessfully to sell the property, then on learning of Tucker's treachery, fled the ranch. He was soon arrested and tried by a magistrate who ordered his removal to Arkansas. In September 1854, Rozier booked passage to Arkansas for himself and Hill aboard the steamer Urilda from Stockton.
Hill again escaped. His successful flight was reported in the San Joaquin Republican on September 25, 1854:
While it appears that Hill gained his freedom, he certainly never regained title to his property. This experience mirrors the extent of Black people's disenfranchisement in nineteenth-century California, a state which entered the Union as a non-slave, free state.
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