Stephen Spencer Hill

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California Gold Rush Freedom Seeker
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Stephen Spencer Hill came to California in the early days of the Gold Rush with his enslaver. In 1853, his enslaver returned to Arkansas, leaving Stephen behind. Declaring himself a free man, Hill filed a claim for 160 acres of land in Gold Springs, CA. In less than a year, he developed the land into valuable property hosting a ranch, orchard, and two cabins. Then, when a White Southerner challenged Hill’s free status, Hill lost everything he had worked so hard to achieve. 


Stephen Spencer Hill worked as a rancher and miner in Gold Springs, California during the early years of the gold rush. While we know little about the life of Stephen Hill before and after his years in Gold Springs, the historical record tells a story of both tribulations and triumph. Stephen (sometimes “Steven” or “Steve”) came to California from Arkansas with his enslaver, Wood Tucker. Tucker and Hill arrived before California's Constitution declared them a free state, but that did not mean Hill became free in 1850. 

Lured by the promise of the Gold Rush, Americans from all walks of life flooded to the California territory. Many people who wanted to take advantage of the opportunity promised by the Gold Rush were also enslavers. Thus, the new state Constitution, which declared California a free state, posed a problem. Ultimately, the state government caved to pressure from Southerners, and allowed a new, regional form of slavery to take shape in which enslaved individuals pressed for more personal autonomy, better working conditions, and greater economic reward.[1] Hill’s enslavement continued under this new, regional form of slavery. In 1853 Tucker decided to return to Arkansas, leaving Hill behind in California. 

After Tucker left, Stephen worked a lucrative mining claim until he found enough gold to purchase 160+ acres of land in Gold Springs, California on which he built a ranch, orchard, and small cabin. In October 1853, Hill filed a claim for this land at the Tuolumne County Courthouse in nearby Sonora, claiming to have been freed on April 1st of that same year.[2] [3] He also purchased more acreage and another cabin from one of his neighbors, James Bradley, who agreed to accept payment at a later date. This type of arrangement was often predicated on the purchaser’s good character. Over the next few months, Stephen developed his land into valuable property and garnered the respect of his white neighbors.  

In late summer of 1854, Owen R. Rozier, a Southerner and friend of Wood Tucker, came to Gold Springs. Rozier could not reconcile his Southern sensibilities with the idea of a successful Black man and moved himself onto Hill’s property as an unwelcome guest. Hatching a plan to take Hill’s land for himself, Rozier wrote to Wood Tucker in Arkansas for permission to act as his agent to return Hill to slavery – Tucker agreed.  

Rozier had Stephen Hill arrested under the auspices of the 1852 California State Fugitive Slave Law.[4] This law stated that all Black individuals who could not prove their free status could be “claimed” as runaway slaves.[5] Hill insisted that he had the papers to prove his free status, but he could not find them after Rozier moved onto his ranch.[6] Another California law banned non-white testimony in any case that involved a white individual. Hill would not be able to testify on his own behalf. County Judge Leander Quint and Justice of the Peace James Lane oversaw the case. This presented further obstacles for Stephen as both demonstrated strong pro-slavery leanings. 

Though the law was against him, Hill had the support of friends and neighbors. They collected money and hired a young attorney named Oliver Wolcott on Hill's behalf. However, they realized that a legal battle was futile under these circumstances. Wolcott obtained a continuance for Hill, postponing the hearing for a few days.[7] During this continuance, Hill’s friends devised another plan to keep him free.  

With Stephen awaiting the court’s decision in the Sonora jail, Owen returned to Gold Springs. There, he found Stephen’s friends harvesting his crops and removing his livestock from the property. Owen raced back to Sonora to get an injunction to stop this action, which Judge Quint granted.[8] But by the time Owen returned to Stephen’s property, Stephen’s friends were gone along with everything of value. 

In the few days that followed, Rozier encountered more troubles. According to County Historian Carlo De Ferrari,  

“public sentiment was running strongly against Rozier and he was harassed at every turn. Steve’s friends were not at all backward in expressing their opinion of the matter to him.”[9]

On one such occasion, Rozier became enraged and hit Samuel Van Nest with his pistol. Van Nest was a friend of Hill’s and filed a complaint against Rozier in nearby Jamestown. The Jamestown Justice arrested Rozier and found him guilty. When Rozier could not pay the $100 fine, the judge  jailed him.[10] A legal battle between the Jamestown Justice, Rozier’s attorney, and Judge Quint ensued. Ultimately, Judge Quint freed Rozier who now owed Samuel Van Nest $200. Van Nest also filed a civil suit against Rozier, asking for $1500 for injuries received. 

On August 28, 1854, Judge James Lane authorized Owen R. Rozier to return Stephen Spencer Hill to slavery in Arkansas.[11] Afterward, two of Hill’s friends visited him in jail but were unable to tell him about their plans for a rescue.[12] 

The journey from Tuolumne County to Arkansas was extensive. The first leg required a long ride from Sonora to the port town of Stockton, in San Joaquin County. When they reached Stockton, weary from a long day of riding, Rozier stopped in a bar to refresh himself. A group of gentlemen who had followed him into the establishment invited him to play some cards. Enticed, Rozier locked Hill in a nearby room before joining in the game. After several hours of drinking and gambling with his new friends, Rozier went to check on Hill – but Hill had disappeared. When Rozier went to enlist the help of his new friends in seeking out the runaway, they were gone as well.[13]  

It seems that Hill’s friends had followed Hill and Rozier from Sonora to Stockton. They split into two groups: one to distract Rozier with a card game, and one to break Hill out. Oral history of the escape suggests that these men gave Hill the money made from selling off his crops, livestock, and other belongings.[14] This money would have helped him get a new start in parts unknown. 

Back in Sonora, James Bradley, the man who sold property to Stephen Hill, made more trouble for Owen Rozier. Bradley foreclosed on Stephen at the Justice Court in Columbia, another nearby mining town. On August 30th, Bradley took possession of the property.[15] Believing Hill’s property was now his own, Rozier sold the land to a man named Levi Womack. When Bradley discovered Womack on the property, he accused him of trespassing. Womack had a temper and gave Bradley a severe pistol-whipping in response. When Bradley recovered, he had Womack arrested for assault and battery.[16] The matter was later dropped, but Rozier had to make a refund to Womack for the property. 

On September 18, 1854, two of the men who helped salvage Hill’s belongings purchased Hill's property for $690 at the constable’s auction.[17] Rozier was unable to outbid the men for the property after the Van Nest trouble and the refund owed to Womack. Hill’s friends were willing to risk the stiff penalties imposed on those who aided freedom seekers. Thanks to their help, Rozier’s attempt to use the law to claim Hill and his property was thwarted. 

Stephen Hill was never seen nor heard from again. He likely changed his name after escaping from Rozier. Some scholars have proposed that Hill may have sailed to British Columbia with many other Black Americans in the late 1850's, seeking greater freedom and economic opportunity in Canada.[18] For now, we can only guess what became of Stephen Spencer Hill. 



[1] Stacey Smith, “Remaking Slavery in a Free State: Masters and Slaves in Gold Rush California,” Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 80, No. 1 (2011): 29-31.
[2] Claims, Tuolumne County Records, Vol. 7, p. 456. Dated October 27, 1853 and recorded on October 28, 1853.
[3]. “Peo. ex. rel. Hill vs. Sheriff of the County of Tuolumne.” County Court, Tuolumne County, August, 1854. 
[4] Sonora Herald, August, 1854.
[5] Though California was established as a free state, Southern sympathizers dominated the state legislature and passed multiple pro-slavery laws in the 1850s.
[6] Lapp, Rudolph M. Blacks in Gold Rush California. New York: Yale University Press, 1977, p. 141.
[7] Jolly, John, Gold Spring Diary, entry of August 15, 1854. 
[8] “Wood Tucker vs. Stephen Hill, et al.” County Court, Tuolumne County. Petition for writ of injunction filed by O.R. Rozier on behalf of Wood Tucker, on August 12, 1854. 
[9] Carlo De Ferrari, ““Stephen Spencer Hill, Fugitive from Labor.” The Quarterly, (Tuolumne County Historical Society) 5, no. 3 (1966) p. 163.
[10] “Samuel Van Nest vs. O.R. Rozier,” County Court, Tuolumne County, August 1854
[11]  Sonora Herald, 8/26/1854, p. 2, c. 1.
[12] Jolly, John, Gold Spring Diary, entry of August 31, 1854
[13] Columbia Gazette, September 2, 1854, p. 3, c. 2.
[14] ”Peo. Vs Levi P. Womack.” County Court, Tuolumne County, 1854.
[15] As told to Carlo M. De Ferrari by Madeline Rozier Poe in Sonora c. 1966.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Deeds, Tuolumne County Records, Vol. 3, p. 258. Dated September 30, 1854. Recorded November 21, 1854.
[18] Carlo De Ferrari, ”Stephen Spencer Hill, Fugitive From Labor.” The Quarterly, (Tuolumne County Historical Society) 5, no. 3 (1966) p. 163.

Last updated: July 19, 2022