Underground Echoes: Life on the family farm: Aaron Rice (1860-1871)

Special to the Gazette

Picking up Aaron’s story from where we left off, William Rice still had custody of Nathaniel while the rest of his family was free. They finally get to celebrate the holidays without following someone else’s rules. This included their first ever Thanksgiving as it was not recognized in the South while Christmas was actually illegal in the North and wasn’t a federal holiday until 1870.

When William Russell sells his Napa property to Robert and Charlotte for $100 ($3,000 today) on September 19, 1860, it established the family’s livelihood for years to come. For the Rice family to keep the land, under the Preemption Act of 1841, they had to cultivate crops or build a home. The 1853 U.S. California Survey Act allowed only improved property to be sold or purchased with few exceptions, which makes the Rice family’s acquisition even more impressive.

With the Civil War fast approaching, they become both observers and participants of one of the most consequential periods of California and US History. President Lincoln’s election on November 6, creates great tension within the state and anxiety for African-Americans. Approximately twenty percent were Southern sympathizers, with large numbers in Monterey, Napa, San Francisco, San Joaquin, Santa Clara and Tulare Counties along with the majority of Southern Californians, who supported and attempted secession. On April 12, 1861, the Civil War officially begins. September 4, California elects its first Republican Governor, Leland Stanford, eventually bankrolls the Union’s cause, and remains unified.

The Great Flood of 1862 brings about enormous destruction and loss of life in California, Oregon, Nevada, Idaho and more. Despite certain damage to their family farm, they survive and continue to be prosperous. However, that April Louis (their youngest son who was only 11 years and 8 months old) dies of consumption (TB). On September 22, the Emancipation Proclamation is issued, declaring an end to slavery, if the Confederacy doesn’t surrender by January 1, 1863.

On May 22, 1863, the War Department issues General Order No. 143 establishing the “U.S. Colored Troops.” Then in short order: April 9, 1865, Robert E Lee surrenders; April 15, President Lincoln’s assassination; May 9, Civil War ends and finally June 19, slavery officially ends. Today, forty-five states celebrate “Juneteenth” or “Freedom Day” as a holiday yet it’s not recognized nationally.

During this turbulent time, African-Americans sought safe places to fulfill their social, spiritual, educational and political needs. For most of the Napa African-American community, membership in the integrated Methodist Episcopal Church (ME) was one. Yet despite the anti-slavery congregation, cultural differences made it difficult for them to discuss politics and education. Edward Hatton’s Napa barbershop was another. He and his son Joseph were agents for both San Francisco African-American newspapers the Pacific Appeal founded 1862 and The Elevator founded 1865, vital components of their budding society.

In April 1867, the newly formed African-American Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church of Napa purchases the old ME’s building with Aaron, Nathaniel, and five others as trustees. On October 2, they acquire property to house it. (Our first proof that Nathaniel reunited with his family.) Aaron’s father Robert, without any formal training, often officiated while Nathaniel ran the Sunday school. Since public schools didn’t exist until late 1870’s, the AME Church became Napa’s only African-American school.

After three years of struggle, the 14th Amendment granting citizenship to African-Americans is ratified on July 9, 1868. However, without voter protections, full citizenship remained elusive. Thus on February 26, 1869, the 15th Amendment is drafted, securing voting rights for all citizens. To pressure the California Legislature for ratification, both The Elevator and Pacific Appeal sponsored preregistration efforts of African-Americans. The November 26, 1869, issue of The Elevator, publishes Joseph Hatton’s list of prospective voters naming Aaron, Nathaniel, his father Rev. Robert Rice, and 35 others. By February 3, 1870, the Amendment is ratified causing widespread celebration. (However, it takes the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s for California to finally ratify the 14th Amendment in 1959 and the 15th Amendment in 1962.) Aaron registers for the first time on April 16, 1870 along with Robert and Nathaniel. Until their deaths, they never missed an opportunity to vote.

The 1870 Census depicts the Rice family living together in their newly built farmhouse with Robert 70 as head of household, Dilcy 74, Aaron 49, Charlotte 58, Nathaniel 24 with Robert owning the property valued at $1,000 ($20,000 today) and a personal of $600 ($12,000 today), while Nathaniel’s personal estate is $200 ($4,000 today). However, Aaron has no wealth recorded despite purchasing two thirds of the property from Robert for $1 in 1869. Additionally, Robert, Dilcy and Aaron’s recorded origin of birth is N Carolina, Charlotte’s Virginia, Nathaniel’s Missouri, and Robert’s parents as foreign-born (Africa). It also recorded Aaron and Charlotte as illiterate, Robert and Dilcy as readers only, and Nathaniel as literate.

From the historical record, we can imagine a day in the life of Aaron’s Family. Aaron and Nathaniel did most of the wheat harvesting and preparation of its milling. On a good day, they would haul the grain by wagon, traveling the dirt roads back into town to leave it with the W. R. Cooper’s Flour Mill. They would continue on to Main Street probably stopping at J. B. Murphy’s Candy Factory and Bakery to satisfy their sweet tooth or checking on Charlotte or Dilcy’s baked goods before visiting friends, the Hatton’s at their barbershop. If they needed horse equipment or repairs, next door was Beebe & Hall.

Along their journey, they might have observed the Amelia a 174-foot steamboat or the Napa Valley Railroad transporting passengers and goods to and from Napa. After enough time passed, they would return to the mill for their flour to sell it or keep it for Charlotte and Dilcy to bake more goods for the market or Sunday church socials. With Nathanial being of marrying age, it was only a matter of time….

We are two of the founding members of the Potter’s Field Project. Both of us have a passion for discovery, history, genealogy, anthropology and archaeology. For more info, please visit our website MartinezCemetery.org. To learn more regarding our sources and detail about Aaron’s life, type Aaron Rice in the Search Bar. Do you have a Potter’s Field story to tell? We welcome any pictures or information regarding the Alhambra Cemetery’s Potter’s Field. Please email us at martinezcemetery@gmail.com or call us at (925) 316-6069.

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