Cory’s Historical Corner

By Cory Peterman

Black Pioneers of Sierra County – Part 1

Considering the month of February is Black History Month, I decided this would be a perfect time to honor the Black settlers of Sierra County. Though the Black population of Sierra County has never been large, several locales around the North Yuba region remind us of their presence. However, much like the previously-named Jim Crow Road which was recently renamed Crow City Road, these place names have often been the source of controversy and other social commentary – places like Negro Slide, Negro Tent, Negro Creek, and Negro Canyon (despite their controversial names, the latter three locations still show up on most current maps – earlier in the county’s history, these locales had the other “N-word” in their titles that I dare not say). Despite their distasteful names, these places are important because they help us remember that Sierra County was once home to a historically valuable Black mining population.

It is important to remember that during the Gold Rush, most Blacks were still enslaved elsewhere in the United States. Katie Willmarth Green states in her book Like A Leaf Upon The Current Cast that “Several writers about the West have opined that blacks were ill-suited for mining. The usual reasoning given is that most African-Americans who migrated here in the early days were former slaves who had been conditioned by subjugation to be dependent. Indeed, a superficial reading of the record would indicate that blacks who resided for any length of time in Downieville worked at least some of their lives as waiters in the hotels, as day laborers, handymen at the courthouse, or otherwise attached themselves to others’ enterprises. However, the same could be said of representatives of every other racial group.

Proportionately, perhaps it is true that blacks didn’t mine as much as whites or Chinese in early California, but there were fewer of them and their lack of secure civil rights or safety in numbers made them easy prey for claim jumpers. They couldn’t fight back using the legal system; like the non-naturalized foreign-born or the Native Americans, they couldn’t sue or own property for a long time, let alone vote, and their testimony in court against whites was inadmissible until after the equal voting rights amendment to the Constitution of the United States was passed in 1868.

Though many people know California joined the Union in 1850 as a “free” state, they may not be familiar with the Fugitive Slave Act. The California Historical Society website states “In a precarious effort to balance the concerns of Southern slave-holding interests and those against slavery’s expansion, Congress cobbled together the Compromise of 1850. The series of bills admitted California as a free state, while also granting important concessions to the South. That included the draconian federal Fugitive Slave Act, which required government officials and ordinary white citizens in all states and territories to actively assist slaveholders in recapturing enslaved people who escaped from slave-holding jurisdictions.

Negro Canyon and Negro Creek, located about four miles west of Sierra City, was home to many Black miners in the early days. Not much is known about Negro Slide. The earliest mention I found of this location comes from the August 12, 1854 edition of the Sierra Citizen, which states the following: “Negro Slide – We learn that the recently discovered diggings on the South side of the Yuba, some two miles from Oak Valley, are paying from eight to sixteen dollars to the hand. The ‘Slide’ is on the hill-side about 200 feet above the river. This is an important discovery, showing that the bank diggings extend farther down the river than was formerly supposed.” This location was in the vicinity of the present-day Ramshorn Campground, across the river.

Negro Tent, located between Sleighville House and Mountain House, on the other hand, was a rather notorious location, being home to the Sierra-Nevada House, a wayside inn owned by the Romargi clan (refer to my earlier writings regarding Madam Romargi. This location was originally known as Hollow Log, according to William Downie, whose party consisted of “two white men… and seven colored men.” Some of these men I will talk about later on in the series. Downie wrote that he was sold “a quantity of provisions which had been left at Negro Tent, then known as Hollow Log, and on the 25th of February, 1850, we started out to bring them in.

Various sources state why the name of Negro Tent came to be. Some state that two Black men set up a blacksmithing shop at this location, or made wooden shakes at the spot. In his book Three Years in California [1851-54], British-born artist John David Borthwick wrote the following, which I have censored: “The next place I came to was a ranch called the ‘N****r Tent.’ It was originally a small tent, kept by an enterprising N****r for the accommodation of travelers; but as his fortunes prospered, he had built a very comfortable cabin, which, however, retained the name of the old establishment.

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