Historians are uncovering the forgotten history of African-Americans in the California Gold Rush

Historians in the News
tags: Black History, California Gold Rush

The history of African-Americans and the California Gold Rush is a complicated one, and often overlooked. But it's part of the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST: Now picture the California Gold Rush, the people that traveled cross-country, the forty-niners. It's probably a safe bet that the first people who come to mind probably aren't black, but the history of African-Americans in the West is about to get more recognition when the Smithsonian Museum of African-American History and Culture opens a week from today. NPR's Nathan Rott has the story.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: It's easy to tell when you've hit gold rush country. There's Mother Lode coffee-roasting, Mother Lode market, Mother Lode motors all tucked away in the oak-covered foothills of the Sierra Nevada in little frontier-style towns like Sonora. The story of William Sugg starts in Sonora at the Tuolumne County Recorder in an old book of deeds.

I don't even know if I can read this handwriting.

SYLVIA ROBERTS: I know it's a challenge. Let's see. Let me give it a try. Yeah. I think you had better do it.

ROTT: That's Sylvia Roberts. She's a local historian of sorts. And what we're trying to read is a deed of manumission written in 1854 between a slaveowner...

...that, I, Francis - is it Drake?


ROTT: Francis Trale.

And a man he had enslaved named William Sugg. This deed of sale bought Sugg his freedom for the cost of $1. It's all recorded here.

ROBERTS: Because California was a free state, there was no other place to record such a transaction.

ROTT: The history of African-Americans and the gold rush is clearly a complicated one, and it's often overlooked. Roberts' book "Mining For Freedom: Black History Meets The California Gold Rush" is one of only a few that have ever been written on the subject. And it includes the story of William Sugg and his family. After he was freed, Sugg married another former slave Mary Elizabeth Snelling. And together, they hand-built a red adobe home that's still standing a few blocks away from the county courthouse. ...

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