Sevastopol [Sebastopol], California: 1857. Unbound. This two-page letter measures approximately 7.25” x 12.5.” It is datelined “Sevastopol April 11 -57”. Although there were several Sebastopols/Sevastopols in California, the letter’s description of weather and lumbering indicate that this was probably written from the one in Nevada County. No mailing envelope. In nice shape with a small rectangle clipped from its upper left corner.
The letter's contents suggest that the Gadson brothers were drawn to California during the Gold Rush years of the 1850s. E. C. (the author of this letter) remained, Monroe, returned home to marry their cousin, Martha, and care for their mother. In this letter, E. C. describes his life in the Sierra Nevada, and, perhaps surprisingly, mentions slaves being used to make “sweets.”
“‘Tis a white Easter & Hollis & I are invited to a sugaring. Hossins have been making sugar two months and they are competing with slaves in producing sweets. Winter has wore out its welcome long ago, and still it lingers. . .. We have four new neighbors in town since you were here. Some of them ought to be in the other Sebastopol. . .. Dear Monroe do you remember the last time we were together [and] I advised you to go home and be married to cousin Martha and take care of the old folks. . . .. you have carried it out to the letter, and I know you are much happier than if you were an old bachellar wandering in the bilious west. . .. I cannot sell my lumber without taking it to the R.R. and the roads are so bad it cant be hauled at present. I have 150 run stacked in my yard and shall have nearly as much more by fall. . .. They will commence a R.R. four miles south of here this summer if should keep my lumber till that is built I could get from 15 to 20 per run. . ..”. Very good. Item #009925
Despite California’s Constitution that declared, “Neither Slavery nor involuntary Servitude, unless for the punishment of crimes, shall ever be tolerated in this State,” African-American chattel slavery flourished. Most slaves were put to work in the gold mines, but as this letter attests some were used to perform other tasks, like sugaring, as well. The ”sugaring” that E. C. refers to is the making of syrup by tapping maple trees. Although Sugar Maple trees are not found in California, Big Leaf Maples are, and they can also be tapped to make syrup. That slaves would be used to produce “sweets” from maple sugar is especially ironic as it was promoted by abolitionists as a “free” alternative to the cane sugar that slaves were forced to produce at the plantations of the West Indies and deep American South.
The railroad mentioned by E.C. was very likely the Sacramento Valley Railroad which was incorporated in 1852 with the intention or linking Sacramento to Marysville in the north and Placerville in the East. By 1856, trains were regularly running between Sacramento and Folsom.
(For more information, see “Big Leaf Maple Sugaring” at the Oregon Maple Project, Beecher’s “How Maple Syrup Played a Surprising Role in the Abolition of Slavery” at Vice, Waite’s “The little-known story of how slavery infiltrated California and the American west” at The Conversation, all available online.) A nice firsthand account with a reference to the slavery that flourished within California despite the political and legal lip-service that declared it illegal..