As a novice historian, I have learned to temper my disappointment when I learn the subject of my research was human, flawed, a product of the times. I suppose that is one of the consequences of historical research, bringing the ugly truths to the surface. However, it can still be emotionally challenging when your subject – so glowingly portrayed in short biographies – was basically a racist and worked to implement policies of discrimination.
Amos P. Catlin has been largely forgotten when it comes to California history. Notably, as a State Senator in 1854, he sponsored the legislation to move the State’s Capitol from Benicia to Sacramento. Amos came to California in 1849 as a young lawyer from New York. He founded the Natoma Water and Mining Company along the South Fork of the American River and those water rights still serve the residents of Folsom today.
Aside from a few mentions about the history of the State Capitol, Amos’ only legacy is having a park named after him in Folsom. Unlike so many other 1849 immigrants, Amos did not fade away. He made Sacramento his home. He was active in politics and had a very successful law practice. He was nominated for a Supreme Court Associate Justice seat. Eventually, in 1890, he was elected as a Superior Court Judge in Sacramento County.
Amos Catlin Was A Racist
Amos was also a racist. He supported the Kansas-Nebraska Act and California’s version of the fugitive slave act while as a State Senator and Assemblyman. Later in the 1870s he denounced Chinese immigration as the greatest evil to California. He saw no reason to extend suffrage to black men or women.
The prospect of discontinuing my research, and ultimately a book on Amos, has never occurred to me. My mission to research the people who had such a tremendous impact on the Sacramento region is bigger than one racist. I don’t know if when I release my book and Amos is outed as holding such racist and bigoted views if the City of Folsom will reconsider renaming the park honoring him.
I admit to increased diligence to find ameliorating facts and anecdotes that speak to Amos’ character. There are numerous accounts, some written by Amos, that soften the hard-edge charge of racism. He denounced the violence against Chinese miners that were being served by water from his Natoma water ditch and as a judge he applied the law without overt discrimination based on the color of the offender’s skin or gender.
Amos was described by many of his contemporaries as having a brilliant legal mind. He was often retained by the Sacramento City Board of Trustees and the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors for his counsel and legal defense services. On several occasions he helped organize local political parties independent of the entrenched Republican and Democratic Parties. He grew disgusted with the corruption and primary vote manipulation of the main political parties. Amos also called for measures to address the monopolistic practices of the railroads regarding freight rates and land acquisition in California.
When reviewing Amos Catlin’s life, and an attempt to put it into context, this is the point where I can almost touch the void of academic training and preparedness. I struggle with how to write about the character of a man who can in one breath demonize the Chinese, then in the next breath voice empathy for their human condition. How can a man, so solidly behind the Union during the Civil War and for the emancipation of Black Americans, not subscribe to the principle of Black suffrage? How can a man who testified on behalf of numerous white Europeans to gain citizenship through the Naturalization process, advocate for the exclusion of Chinese men from California? In addition to Amos’ own words, the only conclusion is that Amos was racist, pure and simple.
I do not write about historical figures to glorify them or give them honor. I’m just presenting the facts and how the person’s actions influenced the course of history in the Sacramento region. I am guilty, like most historians, of developing an emotional investment in my subjects. It is hard not to hope your subject makes the right decisions when you have researched every small aspect of their life from family, work, and recreation. They seem like an old friend.
Consequently, there is a sadness when I must write about the important speech Amos gave about the evils of Chinese immigration or his belief that states should be able to determine if slavery would be legal within their borders. Amos’ personally held beliefs were not unique then or now. Humans are complicated, just like the history of California.