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Black pioneers in Marysville: Slavery's past touches area
A reprinted 1852 advertisement from the San Francisco Herald offers $100 for the capture and return of an escaped Marysville slave.
"Runaway from Mrs. Elizabeth Ware in the month of October, 1850, from Marysville, a BLACK GIRL named HAGAR …" it reads.
The ad is featured in a National Park Service informational pamphlet titled "Underground Railroad: The Quest for Freedom Moves West, 1848-1869."
Its author, Guy Washington, is on a mission to flesh out the story of black pioneers in California — those who escaped from slave owners elsewhere, those who bought or were granted freedom prior to their arrival, and those who were brought here as slaves.
"I'm looking for stories related to slavery and related to freedom from slavery," he told a group of Marysville-area residents last week at the Mount Olivet Baptist Church in Olivehurst.
Washington, coordinator for the Pacific West Region of the NPS Underground Railroad Program based in San Francisco, told the 40 or so who came to hear him speak that he once found manumission papers — a slave's freedom documents — boxed up in someone's garage.
Among his goals, he said, is the resurrection of the Beckwourth Frontier Days celebration in Marysville. The festival, held at Beckwourth Riverfront Park, honored James Pierson Beckwourth, a mixed-race fur trapper who established a wagon route through the Sierra Nevada into the upper Sacramento Valley.
The former slave "fled Tennessee, looking for opportunity in California," said Washington.
The festival's return, he said, could help bring economic life to the region and help advertise the historical legacy of Marysville.
In the meantime, Washington is hoping to spur interest among descendants of black pioneers in researching their own family stories, especially as it relates to the Underground Railroad — a loose network of people who helped escaped slaves in the South reach safety in the North, West, Canada and elsewhere before and immediately after the abolition of slavery in 1865.
The National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Act of 1998 directed NPS to seek out and locations and future preservation sites associated with this theme.
This NPS project, Washington said, has brought him to the Marysville area several times before, in search of information about local pioneers.
He is currently hoping to find the burial site of one Rev. Thomas E. Randolph, who purchased the land for Mount Olivet Church and was among the church's primary founders.
The church will celebrate 150 years in 2012.
"Marysville was a very, very important city in those days. It was one of the premier towns of California," he said.
Gold mining and related businesses drew hundreds of African Americans into the foothills. Some were looking to earn money to purchase their still-enslaved family members. Some were brought by slave owners to work without pay.
"Newspapers describe slave escapes, ads offer slaves for sale, and court records list freedom papers and cases involving enslavement," according to Washington's NPS brochure. "De facto slavery was still practiced for many years after its legal abolition."
Washington is familiar with much of Marysville's own African-American legacy, and the names of the area's black pioneer families come easily to him — Pogue, Churchill, McGowan, Duplex — and of course, Beckwourth.
The descendants of some were present. Many are current members of either Mount Olivet or Bethel A.M.E. Church in Marysville.
Church leaders were enthusiastic in their embrace of Washington's message.
"Sometimes we lose that history in our families because we don't talk to grandma and great-grandma," said the Rev. Frieda Cash of Bethel A.M.E. Church.
Cash proposed that church elders and others interested in researching and sharing family information related to Washington's quest meet formally in November.
CONTACT reporter Nancy Pasternack at 749-4781.