In 1850, when California was admitted to the Union as a free state, California’s constitution proclaimed, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, unless for punishment of a crime, shall ever be tolerated.” Yet, state archives show that slavery was practiced openly. In 1850, the federal Fugitive Slave Act required government officials and ordinary white citizens in all states and territories to actively assist slaveholders in recapturing enslaved people who had escaped from slave-holding jurisdictions. In California, enslaved people worked mining claims, farmlands, settlements. If they tried to escape, they were imprisoned or routinely returned to their “owners.”
If you Google “who was the first female firefighter?,” an 1818 illustration of Molly Williams pops up. Most capsule descriptions include that she was enslaved, owned by a wealthy businessman, and, “as good a fire laddie as many of the boys.” In an illustration, she’s tilted at a 45-degree angle, wearing just a dress and a scarf in the snow, while she single-handedly pulls a pumper that holds water to douse flames.
As she strains, white men in overcoats and top hats run away from the massive machine on wheels. There’s a children’s book about her heroics, and articles and Wiki entries that celebrate her recorded performance as a firefighter. She was the first! She was enslaved! She was a very good baker! She was brave when men were not! None of them go into much detail about her life.
George W. Sheldon wrote in the 1882 oral history The Story of the Volunteer Fire Department of the City of New York, “One of the most famous “volunteers” of the earlier days was an old negro woman named Molly, a slave of John Aymar (the father of William Aymar), Mr. Aymar, by-the-way, was the last of the old Knickerbockers—a long-tailed coat, knee-breeches, silver shoe-buckles, and the inevitable queue. One of his sons was Benjamin Aymar, the founder of the eminent mercantile house of Aymar & Company. Well, Molly was his slave, and a very distinguished volunteer of No. 11 Engine.” Sheldon identifies Molly as a “slave,” but at the time of the fire, it’s more likely she wasn’t—her husband Peter had bought their freedom 35 years earlier. Benjamin Aymar, a wealthy businessman who ran clipper ships trading brandy, port, mahogany, and coffee from New York to California, had originally owned Molly and Peter, then sold the Williams family to Wesley Chapel, the first incarnation of the John Street United Methodist Church in Manhattan’s Financial District, in 1783 for 40 pounds sterling. They lived in the basement of the church as indentured servants. Peter served as the sexton in charge of buildings, maintenance, and grave digging; Molly cooked and cleaned. They had a son, Peter Jr., and eventually bought their freedom.
Molly continued to work for Aymar as a servant. She cleaned Aymar’s house at 42 Greenwich Street, cooked, and tended to his eight children. Aymar was a volunteer in the city’s fledgling firefighting corps—a prestigious job he agreed to out of self-interest, one that many wealthy merchants took part in. The firefighting corps wasn’t associated with a governing body, but fires broke out frequently, and those most affected were those with the most property. One out-of-control spark could wipe out all Aymar’s merchandise in the warehouses along Lower Manhattan’s docks. When Aymar went to work at Oceanus Engine Co. 11, near what is now Zuccotti Park, he’d bring Molly. She’d cook meals and clean the station. And when outbreaks of flu, yellow fever, and cholera erupted, she’d care for the crew, sometimes replacing the crew altogether.
She used to be called “Volunteer No. 11.” I can see her now, with her nice calico dress and check apron, a clean bandana handkerchief neatly folded over her breast, and another wound about her head and rising up like a baby pyramid. Once, during a blinding snow-storm in 1818, there was a fire in William Street, and it was hard work to draw the engine; but among the few who had hold of the drag-rope was Molly, pulling away for dear life. This may have been the only time that she took hold of the rope, but afterward, when asked what engine she belonged to, she always replied, ‘I belongs to ole ’Leven; I allers run wid dat ole bull-gine.’ You could not look at Molly without being impressed by her really honest face—it was a beaming light-house of good-nature.
She’s identified as a volunteer while serving a former master. Who’s to say how much of her service was offered in good nature or out of fear or out of necessity; certainly not those with the wherewithal to write her history. In fact, one detail not mentioned in the oral history but found on her gravestone was that she died three years after the fire, at the age of 74. She pulled that ole bull-engine at the age of 71. It’s a fair guess that she didn’t do this out of good will alone.She’s identified as a volunteer while serving a former master. Who’s to say how much of her service was offered in good nature or out of fear or out of necessity.
Like most women, Molly was defined by the men around her. Her husband was a successful businessman (after being a sexton at the church, he opened a tobacco shop), her son a priest and abolitionist, her employer and former owner a wealthy scion of New York. (Aymar is buried in Green-wood Cemetery. There’s more of a record of his funeral than of Molly’s life.) When I reached out to the New York City Fire Museum to see if it had any more archival records of Molly or Aymar, the email I received simply said, “It’s a frequently asked question and unfortunately there is not.” Benjamin Aymar lived to be 84, dying in 1876, roughly fourteen years after the Emancipation Proclamation and roughly 11 years after the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified on December 6, 1865.
The same divides that led the United States to Civil War existed in California, also along a north-south axis. In 1859, the California legislature, which was intensely pro-slavery, passed the Pico Act, calling on Congress to divide the state. It was signed by Governor John B. Weller, and overwhelmingly approved by voters in Southern California. But the federal government did not split the state into two because of the Civil War. Northerners supported the Union effort, while white Los Angelenos who had migrated from the south supported Secessionists. Approximately 250 Southern Californians enlisted in the Confederate Army. By 1861, the Los Angeles Mounted Rifles company became the only militia from a free state to fight for the Confederates. During Reconstruction, California was the only free state to reject the Fourteenth Amendment, and also rejected the Fifteenth Amendment, which guaranteed crucial civil rights for Black citizens—equal protection of the law and the right to vote. Remnants of L.A.’s Confederate proclivities lingered for more than a century in a cluster of 37 graves in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, where plaques and a granite rock memorialized the service of the men who had fought for the Confederacy. It was not until 2017 that the markers were removed.
Bryan Stevenson, the author of Just Mercy and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, has written at length about the through line from slavery to mass incarceration. “We are living at a time of horrific injustice and inequality in our criminal justice system,” he told me. “Where we are tolerating racial bias and discrimination and police violence.” During the course of our interview—and more than anything, it was a course—Stevenson said California was no exception to racial oppression and violence: “California didn’t permit interracial marriage in the 1940s, just like Alabama and Mississippi.”
The state was founded on principles of white supremacy, even though there’s long been propaganda that California was and is a liberal bastion. The Golden State governed by the noted progressive Jerry Brown twice was also where Reagan got his political start. Early on, the California frontier was promoted in pamphlets to individuals living east of the Mississippi as an unending pot of gold with free land—160 acres was available to any household head, according to President Lincoln’s Homesteading Act of 1862. Lincoln described the law as an effort “to elevate the condition of men, to lift artificial burdens from all shoulders and to give everyone an unfettered start and a fair chance in the race of life.” In reality, when approximately 10.5 million acres of California, nearly ten percent of the state, was given away to frontier people, most claims went to white settlers or corporations. The expansion not only displaced and robbed Native Californians of their land, in practice the Homesteading Act rarely benefited Black Americans in California. Lanfair Valley, in the Mojave Desert, is one of the only recorded Black communities in California that was established with homesteaded land.
In the 1880s, not too far from where Malibu 13 is now, John Ballard, a man formerly enslaved, left central Los Angeles to become the first Black American to settle in the hills above Malibu. By the mid-1880s, he and his family had claimed 320 acres through the Homesteading Act. In the time he lived in the hills, Ballard’s house was burned down at least twice by racist ranch owners in Malibu, until he finally moved. He left a sign on the charred ruins that read, “This is the work of the devil.” Shortly after Ballard moved, the area was referred to with a racial slur, which continued until the 1960s, when his homestead became officially known by the state of California as “Negrohead Mountain.” It wasn’t until 2009 that the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted to change the name to Ballard Mountain.
Farther south, Jesus Santa Maria was only able to stake a homesteading claim in the Santa Monica Mountains because the notorious Mexican bandito Tiburcio Vásquez (said to be one of the inspirations for Zorro) agreed to share Topanga Canyon with him. Homesteaders used fire to tame the land, but occasionally out-of-control blazes destroyed what they’d built. By the late 1800s, a rural infrastructure was created, as needed. If water was found up a mountain, the path with the fewest granite boulders became the route to reaching it, though sometimes that meant a roadway of whiplash turns. In the early 1900s, Francisco Trujillo, one of three original homesteaders in Topanga Canyon, along with inmate road crews, built the community’s first mountain pass from the Pacific to the San Fernando Valley, what is now Topanga Canyon Boulevard. Today, inmate crews, specifically the women of Malibu Camp 13, maintain the fire roads and mop up fires in the area. When I was reporting a story in 2019, I ran into crew 13-3 just hours after a small fire had been knocked down. A spark from a resident’s Weedwacker lit up three acres of hillside in Tuna Canyon. It had been three years since I met 13-3 the first time, and the crew was entirely different. They eyed me, wondering how I knew their foreman and what we were talking about.
The evolution of California’s prisons and its use of prison labor has mirrored the nation’s. The ’49ers arrived seeking gold, and within the year California’s population grew from twenty thousand non-native people to a hundred thousand. In 1850, California entered the union, but the territory had no basic mechanisms either for governance or for a prison system. Prospectors from Oregon, northern Mexico, and the Great Plains continued to migrate to Northern California, while Bostonians and New Yorkers boarded clippers to fulfill the United States’ claim to Manifest Destiny. With the newcomers and newfound wealth, came crime.
Once the state was seen as a valuable and necessary asset to the United States, the Anglo takeover of California was supported by laws that enabled the use of inmate labor to build California’s infrastructure. Between 1848 and 1880, Los Angeles underwent a transformation from a small diverse town to an Anglo-dominated city. To build the city, to lay the roads, to dredge the wetlands, and to irrigate the fields, land owners relied on an inmate workforce. In 1850, California passed a law, written and signed by California’s first elected governor, Peter Burnett, called the Act for the Government and Protection of Indians, which allowed white people to buy Indigenous children as “apprentices.” According to the historian Jim Rawls, “Any white person under this law could declare Native Californians who were simply strolling about, who were not gainfully employed, to be vagrants, and take that charge before a justice of the peace, and a justice of the peace would then have those Native Californians seized and sold at public auction.” For four months, the uncompensated labor of the seized Native Americans would belong to the person who brought the charges of vagrancy.
The California legislature followed states like Kentucky, where convict leasing had long been in use. In developing a convict leasing system, a private company or individual would provide security and “care” to convicts in exchange for the right to sell their labor. In 1851, as part of a private convict leasing arrangement run by James Estell, a corrupt businessman, 30 inmates imprisoned on the Waban, a 268-ton ship docked in the San Francisco harbor, began working on the construction of California’s first official state prison, San Quentin. The prisoners jailed on the Waban were from six county jails—they came from San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Monterey, San Jose, and San Francisco. Deputies were paid a dollar a mile for escort services, which added a profit motive in jailing people for their labor. On the Waban, the men’s crimes ranged from those who committed gruesome murders to being drunk in public. The Waban, a ship meant to house 50, eventually held 150 convicts, most of whom slept on deck.
Fate being cruel, convicts collected the rocks and quarried the bricks that they used to build the dungeon cells that would eventually house them. The iron doors that sealed off the cells included a slit known as a “Judas hole.” Inside the vermin-laced cells, men slept on straw matting next to night buckets for waste. Floggings were a standard form of punishment, as were “shower baths,” in which naked prisoners were tied to ladders and then sprayed with a pressure stream of cold water. In 1855, after a series of scandals (drunkenness, escapes, bookkeeping discrepancies), California took control of the prison from Estell, then proceeded to spend half a million dollars in eleven months running San Quentin—half the state’s budget. A few years later, the governor contracted the scandal-plagued Estell once again, this time paying him $10,000 a month to run San Quentin. In 1860, the state controller reported the total cost of keeping state convicts for the previous eight years was $1.5 million dollars. This became a key factor in motivating the state to contract out prison labor. California authorities assumed the goods manufactured by prisoners would cover the cost of running the prisons, but in 1894, after heavy lobbying from labor rights organizations that did not want to compete with prison-made products, the state agreed to limit prison work to hard labor. In San Quentin, that meant sewing jute sacks in mills; in Folsom, that meant breaking rocks.
By 1865, the constitution legally abolished slavery except in one instance—imprisoned people. The Thirteenth Amendment read, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” In the excellent City of Inmates, Kelly Lytle Hernández wrote about how settler colonial theory—Manifest Destiny on steroids—fueled carceral practices at the time. Humans were exploited early in Anglo California’s history, she wrote, “Held every Monday morning at the Los Angeles County Jail, the auction of Natives was a spectacle on the streets of Los Angeles. As one city resident recalled, the local Marshal would begin arresting Natives on drunk and vagrancy charges at sunset on Saturday evening. In the morning, the jailer tied the incarcerated Natives to a wood beam in front of the jail, allowing white employers to inspect and bid on them as convict laborers.” Between the 1880s and 1910s, authorities in Los Angeles redirected and expanded the city’s carceral capacity, targeting poor white men, who were considered “tramps” and “hobos” for migrating, working seasonal jobs, and living beyond the nuclear family ideal. By the turn of the twentieth century, the American West was the epicenter of incarceration in the United States.
Prisoners in the early 1900s laid streets, broke rocks, and made furniture. Much of their work, especially the road building, allowed for the center of Los Angeles to expand westward and provided access to inhospitable mountain regions. By 1902, convict labor was tasked with cutting and filling Sunset Boulevard, a 22-mile stretch of road that wound its way downtown to the Pacific Ocean, and would eventually become the northern border of Los Angeles. Most of the significant infrastructure of early California was built by inmate crews.
Excerpted from Breathing Fire: Female Inmate Firefighters on the Front Lines of California’s Wildfires by Jaime Lowe, to be published July 27th by MCD/Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Copyright © 2021 by Jaime Lowe. With permission of the author. All rights reserved.