Information on a personality.
Drawing of 1852 wood cabins at Maine Gulch, Columbia's winter-made "river"
where todays south parking lot is currently.
STEPHEN SPENCER HILL
(The following account follows John Jolly's diary)
A Brief History of Stephen Spencer Hill
Fugitive from Labor by Carlo M. De Ferrari
A mile north of Columbia, on the low dividing ridge that separates the town from the deep
canyon of the Stanislaus River, there is a tiny peak known as Nigger Hill. For over a century this
small knoll has preserved the memory of a colored slave named Stephen Spencer Hill; it serves
also as an eternal monument to Hill's friends, the miners of Gold Spring, who helped him escape
the chains of bondage.
Time has drawn its curtains over much of the life of Stephen Spencer Hill; However, it is known
that he came to California with his master, Wood Tucker of Arkansas, during the great Gold Rush
of 1849, and that when Tucker returned home, Hill did not accompany him. Hill claimed that he
had purchased his freedom from Tucker and had been a free man since April 1, 1853. (1)
The first record of Hill's life in Tuolumne County was made on October 27, 1853, when he filed
claim to 160 acres of land on the gently rolling, well watered slopes that cap the southern walls
of the Stanislaus river canyon northeast of Gold Spring. (2) It was an unusual thing for a Negro
to do at that time, but then Stephen Spencer Hill was as unusual as his name. Intelligent, literate,
he was a man of ambition in an era when such traits in a Negro were considered by many to be
non-existent - and if evidenced, to be dangerous.
Hill, or "Black Steve" as he was commonly called, was allowed to take quiet possession of the
land he claimed. Under his hard working, industrious hands, 40 acres were cleared and planted in
crops of wheat and barley. Near one of the two good springs on his ranch, Hill built a small,
snug cabin for himself. Below the cabin there was a flourishing plot of vegetables. When not
working at his ranch, Hill mined at Gold Spring where his claim was rich enough to provide him
with money to buy wagons, stock and other equipment needed for the ranch.
Hill also acquired possession of another cabin and additional land owned by a neighbor, James
Bradley, agreeing to pay for them at a later date. By the early spring of the following year,
Stephen Spencer Hill had one of the most prosperous ranches in the county.
Black Steve was equally successful in his mining. On April 1, 1854, the Columbia Gazette
reported: "On 'Steve's' claim, at Gold Spring, a beautiful specimen was taken out, weighing 9
ounces, pure gold. (3) The coin of fortune has two sides, and the next toss of fate ended Hill's
short winning streak. On March 27, 1854, Owen R. Rozier, a friend of his former master, arrived
and settled down on the ranch as Hill's unwelcome guest.
The ownership of the valuable land was no secret, and upon learning of Steve's alleged title,
Rozier immediately professed to believe that the Negro had never been given his freedom and
was actually yet the slave of Wood Tucker. As Tucker's chattel, he argued, the land really
belonged to the master and not the slave.
Rozier went to Sonora and discussed the matter with an attorney, Benjamin F. Moore, who was a
Southerner of his own viewpoint. (4) Moore advised him to write Tucker and inform him of the
matter, and if the latter still claimed Black Steve, to send Rozier a legal appointment as his agent
to reclaim the slave.
In 1854, the mail service between California and Arkansas was extremely slow. The weeks that
followed Rozier's appearance must have been ones of desperation for Steve, as Rozier made no
secret of his intention to return Hill to slavery and take his property. Steve claimed that he had
purchased his freedom from Tucker and had papers to prove it; however, for some reason
documentary proof was never recorded at the county seat. Perhaps the slave had little faith in the
protection of the law, or the manumission papers were improperly drawn, for in any event, in late
July 1854, Steve made what must have been an agonizing decision. He would try to sell the
ranch and flee before action could be taken by Rozier.
Hill placed an advertisement in the Columbia Gazette of July 22, 1854, offering the ranch,
improvements, crops and furnishings for sale, adding that "...the purchaser in a few years would
realize a fortune." (5) The following issue of the Gazette carried the same ad over Hill's name,
but the next issue had Rozier's name added as Steve's "gent."
Fortunately for Black Steve, his quiet, industrious attitude had won him the friendship and
respect of most of the miners of Gold Spring, and it was clear to Rozier that if a showdown
came, the ex-slave was going to have some strong friends supporting him. Unfortunately, Rozier
had a legal weapon with which he could attack with impunity. This was the fugitive labor act
passed by the California Legislature in 1852. (6) Under this law, the owner, or his agent, was
empowered to have an escaped slave arrested and brought before a magistrate. The act provided
for a hearing to be held, and if proper title could be proven, the owner or his representative was
entitled to a certificate authorizing the removal of the slave from the state "...using such force
and restraint as may be necessary..." The act further denied the slave the right to testify on his
own behalf at the hearing!
Even worse for Black Steve and his supporters, the act made it unlawful for any person to "...aid, abet or assist such fugitive, directly or indirectly to escape." Anyone violating this provision
of the law was subject to a $500 fine and two months imprisonment if found guilty. In addition,
such a person would be liable for civil damages to the owner in the sum of $1,000 for each
Somehow, Steve was warned that Rozier had received instructions from his former master to
seize him as a fugitive slave, and he immediately fled the ranch; however he was too well known
in the county to escape and was soon arrested by Sheriff Perrin L. Solomon and lodged in the
Upon learning of Steve's arrest, his friends, the "Gold Spring boys," met to assist him.
Unhappily, Hill had fled in such haste that he had been unable to take his certificate of
manumission with him, and his friends could not find it at his cabin. With this important
document missing, it was evident that there was little hope of winning a legal battle in view of
the law and the sentiment at the county courthouse which was then strongly pro-slavery. (7)
But the miners of Gold Spring were still determined that Stephen Spencer Hill should go free,
and that he would take with him as much of the fruits of his labor as possible. Arrangements
were made to fight his battle on two fronts - one strictly legal and absolutely hopeless, and the
other considerably less legal but with some prospects of ultimate success. Some of Steve's
friends collected funds to employ a young attorney named Oliver Wolcott to wage the legal
battle, while the other prepared to engage in less legal but more effective tactics. (8) Wolcott got
the hearing date continued for ten days, and Hill's friends started their campaign.
On August 12, Rozier returned to the ranch from Sonora. To his surprise, he found there had
been great activity during his absence. The stock was gone, the crops were being harvested by
Steve's neighbors, and there was strong evidence that the place would soon be bare of everything
of value except the land itself. The busy men paid no attention to Rozier's protests, and in the
confusion he was only able to identify two of them - Jeremiah Connelly and William Fullam.
Rozier rushed back to Sonora to inform his lawyer, Moore, of these outrageous doings. Moore
immediately filed a petition with the county court for an injunction to prevent the identified men,
or any others, from removing property from Hill's ranch pending a decision upon his legal status.
By the time Rozier returned with the injunction, nothing remained on the ranch but two empty
cabins and some immature crops. (9)
Public sentiment was running full tide against Rozier and he was harassed at very turn. Steve's
supporters were not at all backward in expressing their opinions of the matter to him. One of
them, Samuel Van Nest, finally succeeded in so enraging Rozier that he drew his revolver and
struck him over the head with it. This was all that was needed. Van Nest filed a compliant in the
Jamestown Justice Court against Rozier for assault and battery. Rozier was arrested and brought
before Justice James M. Stuart who promptly found him guilty and fined him $100. Rozier did
not have enough money to pay his fine and as a consequence found himself in the county jail
with Black Steve. (10)
Van Nest followed up his complaint with a civil suit asking for $1,500 damages for alleged
injuries caused by Rozier's pistol whipping. Rozier's attorney filed a confession of judgment in
the sum of $200 on behalf of his client, and applied for a writ of habeas corpus. The writ was
allowed by County Judge Leander Quint and Rozier was freed. (11)
While these interesting skirmishes were taking place, Stephen Spender Hill's attorney had also
filed for a writ of habeas corpus on his behalf. A hearing was held before Judge Quint and the
petition for a writ denied. (12) The whole matter was then referred back to Justice James Lane's
court for decision under the statute governing fugitives from labor. On August 28, Rozier was
issued a certificate authorizing him to return the slave Stephen Spencer Hill to his master in
While the legal battle had been lost as expected, the campaign was progressing quite
satisfactorily on the other front. If all plans worked out, Black Steve would not only be free, but
also in possession of at least part of his hard earned fortune. James Bradley, who had sold Hill
his ranch, now filed an action against him in the Columbia Justice Court alleging that the latter
still owed him $350.00 plus costs, a total of $411.85. (13) On August 30th, he got a judgment
against Steve and took possession of the ranch even though the formal sale by the constable was
not scheduled to be held until September 18. Rozier, by virtue of being the agent of Steve's
owner, shortly afterwards disposed of the same property to an unwary purchaser named Levi P.
With two men both claiming ownership of the same ranch, trouble could be expected. Bradley,
unaware of Womack's claim to the ranch, returned one morning from a visit to Yankee Hill to
find a four-horse team and wagon before the door of his cabin and four men inside making
themselves at home. He entered and informed them that they were trespassing. Womack, who
had been reclining on Bradley's bed, apparently had a temper rivaling Rozier. He spring up, and
calling Bradley a Son of a B---, struck the later repeatedly over the head with a pistol until as
Bradley later testified "... the blood run freely." (15)
When Bradley had recovered sufficiently from Womack's unwelcome attention, he went to
Sonora and had the latter arrested for assault and battery. Womack posted a $300 bond and was
released. The charge was later dropped from the district court calendar.
On September 18th, Bradley and Jeremiah Connelly purchased the entire Hill property for $690
at the constable's sale, and Bradley immediately disposed of his interest to a Columbia attorney,
John G. Sparks, for $150. (16) Rozier, thanks to the Van Nest trouble, was unable to outbid
Bradley, and in addition had to make a refund to Womack.
While these events were taking place, the strategy for the final battle was being worked out. On
August 31, John Jolly and William Fullam went to Sonora and visited Steve at the county jail;
however, the jailer would not permit them to speak to the prisoner privately and Jolly recorded in
his diary: "Saw Steve in presence of jailers. Could not say anything to him." (17)
Following Jolly's visit, Steve languished in jail for several weeks while Rozier made
arrangements for the long journey to Arkansas; however, as it transpired, the trip was not as
lengthy as anticipated. Arriving at Stockton, Steve was placed as a prisoner aboard the steamer
Urilda while Rozier became a guest at the nearby St. Charles Hotel pending sailing of the vessel
for San Francisco.
The last chapter in the saga of Stephen Spencer Hill is best told in the following brief news item
which appeared in the September 25, 1854 issue of the San Joaquin Republican:
ESCAPE OF A FUGITIVE SLAVE -
Mr. O. R. Rozier called on us yesterday, and stated that his slave, Stephen, whom he had
brought from Sonora, and was taking to Arkansas, made his escape from the steamer
Urilda, while lying at the wharf, whither he had taken him to send him to San Francisco.
The negro had the gold watch of Mr. R., some thirteen dollars in cash and a draft on
Miles Greenwood and Co., of New Orleans, for $500. It is thought he went towards Sonora,
Tuolumne County. Mr. Rozier is still in this city, at the St. Charles where he would be glad
to receive any information of the fugitive. (18)
Thus, Stephen Spencer Hill finally won his war for personal independence. (19)
1. "Peo. ex. rel. Hill vs. Sheriff of the County of Tuolumne." County Court, Tuolumne County,
August, 1954. Answer filed by Stephen S. Hill to return on writ of habeas corpus. Alta
California, April 9, 1858, p. 1, c. 3, quoting an article which had allegedly appeared in an
issue of the Sonora Herald during August, 1854.
2. Vol. 7 of Claims, Tuolumne County Records, p. 456. Dated October 27, 1853 and recorded on
October 28, 1854.
3. Columbia Gazette, April 1, 1854, p. 2, c. 2.
4. Benjamin M. Moore was a noted county attorney who had been a member of the
constitutional convention of 1849-1850 which had devoted so much time to consideration of
the status of the colored race in California.
5. Columbia Gazette, July 22, 1854, p. 3, c. 3.
6. Chapter XXXIII, Statutes of 1852, "An Act respecting Fugitives from Labor, and Slaves
brought tooth's State prior to her admission into the Union."
7. County Judge Leaner Quint, although a Northerner by birth, was strongly pro-slavery in
sentiment. Justice of the Peace James Lane and Sheriff Petrin L. Solomon were both men
who espoused the southern viewpoint on slavery.
8. Gold Spring Diary, entry of August 15, 1854.
9. "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.
10. "Samuel Van Nest vs. O.R. Rozier." County Court, Tuolumne County, August 1854. "Van
Nest" is sometimes found as "Van Est."
12. "Peo ex rel. Hill vs. Sheriff of the County of Tuolumne," op. cit.
13. Columbia Gazette, September 2, 1854, p. 3, c. 2.
14. "Peo vs. Levi P. Womack." Court of Sessions, Tuolumne County, September 1854. Transcript
from Columbia Justice Court.
16. Vol. 3 of Deeds, Tuolumne County Records, p. 258. Dated September 30, 1854. Recorded
November 21, 1854.
17. Gold Spring Diary, op. cit., entry of August 31 1854.
18. San Joaquin Republican, September 25, 1854, p. 2, c. 1. This news item generally follows
the version which has come down in the Rozier family as recalled by Madeline Rozier Poe.
Although the records indicate that Rozier's first name may have been "Orrin," Mrs. Poe
believes that the correct name was "Owen" as used in this account.
19. Some further light is shed upon this matter by newspaper articles which were published
during the famous controversy over the slave Archy which stirred California nearly four
years later. See the Alta California, April 9, 1858, p. 1, c. 3, and April 18, 1858, p.1, c. 3. The
latter issue contains a letter from a Gold Spring resident who had taken part in the fight for
Black Steve's freedom. This letter confirms the details of the struggle which is apparent in
the shadows of the documents upon which the story of Stephen Spencer Hill is based. The
writer from Gold Spring commented:
"I do not remember the entire circumstances of the case, which was fought inch by inch
by the negro's friends and supporters, the 'Gold Spring boys,' at whose instance also the
agent who claimed Steve was several times arrested on various pretexts.
"The final result of the case was, that Steve, lacking evidence to prove his statements, all
his papers having been taken from his house after his arrest, was ordered to be returned
into slavery, and was carried as far as Stockton, where, however, assisted by 'outsiders,'
who were informed of particulars from here he made his escape, and he is, I believe, still
in the State.
"His property, which was considerable, was immediately attached for some small debts,
which he owed, and finally 'went to the dogs,' (- or the lawyers.)"
Gold Spring Diary - The Journal of John Jolly
Edited and annotated by Carlo M. De Ferrari
Tuolumne County Historical Society Sonora, California
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Floyd D. P. Øydegaard.
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