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Indian Slavery In Contra Costa County

Contra Costa County, California Broadcast Station
KLX, Oakland, California
Broadcast on February 22, 1938

Kidnapping is not altogether a modern development. In the early days in California they had their kidnapping problems, but they were limited to the question of kidnapping Indians, not for rewards to be paid, as now, for their delivery, but to make slaves of them. Tom McHugh, the Martinez correspondent of the Oakland Tribune has called my attention to certain indictments or presentments of the Grand Jury found by him among the archives of Contra Costa County. The presentment was made to the District Court on December 13, 1852 and is a general commentary on conditions.

It read as follows, "The grand jury having terminated their labors, before retiring, believe it to be their duty to call attention to the present condition of the county jail." (Incidentally this jail was at Martinez and was the only jail within the confines of the area now embraced by both Alameda and Contra Costa County. Prisoners taken in the territory of Livermore, Oakland and Encinal, now known as Alameda, had to be brought all the way to Martinez for imprisonment and tried). "We consider the jail entirely deficient for the legitimate purposes of a jail. We find it insecure, uncleanly and that the necessary bed clothing is not furnished prisoners.

"We find also that a regular system of kidnapping Indians is carried on, and that the present law in many cases are inadequate to the emergencies and fail to afford relief." Following this general charge of kidnapping we find that the Grand Jury in December 1852, presented a specific indictment against one Ramon Briones for kidnapping an Indian, name unknown, in the County of Napa and bringing him to Contra Costa County.

Briones was arrested and bail was set at $1,000. He was tried and found "not guilty." Evidently the trial jurors did not believe that kidnapping Indians was a particularly serious offense. This, in spite of the fact that among the Grand Jury's notes appear a notation to the effect that Ramon Briones sold two Indians to Wm. Castro for $300.

Shortly thereafter another indictment was filed which reads as follows, "The People of the State of California against Ramon Mesa in the Court of Sessions of the County of Contra Costa December Term, 1852. Ramon Mesa is accused by the Grand Jury of the County of Contra Costa, by this indictment of the crime of kidnapping committed as follows; the said Ramon Mesa on the 1st day of Sept. A. D., 1852 did forcibly steal, take and arrest one, an Indian whose name is unknown, in the County of Napa in the said State of California and forcibly did bring said Indian whose name is unknown into the said County of Contra Costa, against the statute in such cases made and provided and against the peace and dignity of the State of California".

It will be noted that the Indians kidnapped were stolen in Napa County and brought to Contra Costa County. This is because the Indians in Napa were a more or less timid tribe and not very good at fighting, and hence easy to capture and secondly, once they were taken across Carquinez Straits, there captors were fairly safe from pursuit, as in those days crossing the Straits was quite an undertaking. Rowboats were the only means of transportation and there were very few of those, and what few there were not accessible to Indians. In fact the waters of the Straits constituted a natural barrier between the Indian tribes of Napa County and those who inhabited the territory on this side of the water.

Suggested Reading:

  • Original papers of A. F. Bray in the Contra Costa County History Center archives.

Judge A.F. Bray