Archy Lee was a young African American who arrived in Sacramento in 1858 with a white man named Charles Stovall and soon became the subject of one of the most turbulent––and consequential—legal struggles in American history. Prominent historian Philip J. Ethington has called his struggle “California’s Dred Scott case”—and with good reason.
I first read about Archy Lee’s legal struggle in one of historian Kevin Starr’s books about Americans and the California Dream. Interested in the story, I quickly discovered a short book by the accomplished historian Rudolph M. Lapp titled Archy Lee: A California Fugitive Slave Case. It was published in a limited edition by the Book Club of California in 1969. I also found that Lapp had incorporated a short version of Archy Lee’s story into his longer history titled Blacks in Gold Rush California, published by Yale University Press in 1977. Lee’s story was also mentioned in Sweet Freedom’s Plains, an important study of African Americans who traveled westward in the nineteenth century written by the accomplished historian Shirley Ann Wilson Moore and published by the University of Oklahoma Press in 2016. Lapp’s and Moore’s studies provided valuable insights into the history of African Americans––some who were still slaves and others who had already achieved freedom. But neither study dug as deeply into Archy Lee’s story as I wanted to.
I discovered that Archy Lee’s struggle for freedom had included a series of bitterly fought legal encounters, some in the trial courts of Sacramento, one in the California Supreme Court, and more in courts in San Francisco. In the most important of the San Francisco encounters, Lee was represented by Edward Dickinson Baker, a prominent San Francisco attorney and orator whom Abraham Lincoln often called his “dearest personal friend” and who would soon become a U.S. Senator from Oregon. I also discovered that, after Baker was successful in persuading George Pen Johnston, the U.S. Commissioner in San Francisco, to declare Archy Lee a free man, a group of Lee’s supporters gathered in San Francisco’s historic African American Episcopal Zion Church and sang a joyous hymn to “The Year of Archy Lee.”
I was now hooked by Lee’s story. I discovered a transcript of the hearing before George Pen Johnston in the National Archives. I also discovered important facts about Lee’s background. He was born a slave in Pike County, Mississippi, in about 1840, taken some time thereafter to Carroll County, Mississippi, where he lived and worked as a slave of Simeon Stovall, and in January, 1857, left Mississippi with Simeon Stovall’s son, Charles Stovall, on a journey that ultimately brought the two men to Sacramento. Slavery was forbidden in California (in theory if not in practice) by the state constitution, so it would not be entirely correct to call Lee a slave when he arrived in California. But after a short sojourn in the state, Charles Stovall sought to take him back to Mississippi, where he would clearly be a slave. When Lee, confused by all of the arguments that were surrounding him, ultimately refused to go back, the series of legal encounters that resulted in “California’s Dred Scott case” began.
I was also fascinated by other epochal events that took place in 1858. The discovery in the sky of Donati’s Comet, after the Great Comet of 1811 the most brilliant comet to appear in the nineteenth century; was one. Abraham Lincoln was fascinated by the comet and sat observing it for an hour or more on the porch of a hotel in Jonesboro, Illinois, where he had gone for one of his epochal debates with Senator Stephen Douglas. After that, the comet went on to appear in the sky over California, where Baker delivered one of his eloquent speeches mentioning it. 1858 was also the year in which Archy Lee, now declared a free man, sailed north from San Francisco with several hundred other free California blacks to take up residence in British territory, where Vancouver and British Columbia soon became part of the Dominion of Canada. They went there to seek protection from the danger of being returned to slavery in California.
One of the titles I proposed for my completed book manuscript was The Year of Archy Lee: A Black Man’s Struggle for Freedom in Gold Rush California and the Nation’s Epic March toward Civil War. My editor at Lyons Press, the experienced Gene Brissie, preferred Archy Lee’s Struggle for Freedom: The True Story of California Gold, the Nation’s Tragic March toward Civil War, and a Young Black Man’s Fight for Liberty. Thus it was released to the public in 2019.