California's earliest Black settlers bought land only for it to be stolen. Their descendants want it back.

Former slaves who came to California mined for gold and bought property, only for their land to be stolen or seized. Their families, generations later, say it's time for a reckoning.

Yolanda Tylu Owens' ancestor Edward Hatton owned land in Napa, California, America’s best known wine-growing region, replete with its symbols of wealth and beauty. Marissa Leshnov for NBC News

It had been nine months since Yolanda Tylu Owens unearthed her ancestors’ history by researching her family tree. But one evening, quietly sitting at the foot of her bed in her home in Sacramento, California, an idea flashed in her mind. 

“It was like my ancestors spoke to me,” Owens said. “It was so out of the blue. But it was clear: I should search to see if my great-great-great-grandfather had any land.”

She scrambled for her laptop. Within minutes, she had to sit back in her chair to process what she had learned.

“It was there, plain as day,” Owens said. “There were four deeds in his name. He owned land.”

And not just anywhere, but in Napa, California, America’s best known wine-growing region, replete with its symbols of wealth and beauty. Three of the deeds showed her ancestor Edward Hatton owned prime real estate on Main Street in downtown Napa. A fourth deed covered 209 acres in the nearby mountains.

Owens’ discovery — both that her ancestor owned land and that it was most likely taken away — highlights one component of the state’s effort to consider paying reparations to Black Californians. 

The document showing that land was granted to Yolanda Owens' great-great-grandfather Edward Hatton, at the site where that property was seized in Napa, Calif., in May.Marissa Leshnov for NBC News

California’s founding involved the often violent acquisition and theft of land from Native people, including an 1851 order from the state’s first governor that “a war of extermination” would be waged until “the Indian race becomes extinct,” according to the Los Angeles Times. While California was not officially a slave state, it welcomed bringing in enslaved Africans to work and dig for gold. In many cases those men were able to buy their freedom from the gold they found and, in a short period, purchase land and build what could have been generational wealth. 

That their land was taken away from them — or that the landowners were forced to flee because of violent acts — crystallizes the dilemma and the arduous pursuit some Black families face in the reverberations of California’s reparations efforts for the harms slavery inflicted on Black residents of the state.

The stolen land could be worth millions, and the families’ efforts to reacquire it as the rightful heirs are steadfast. They view getting the land not only as a chance to earn financial compensation, but also as a matter of principle. The reversion of stolen land is likely to be one of many recommendations the California reparations task force will make by July 1. But some families are taking the lead on their own fate.

“No one’s going to do it for us,” Owens said.

Left and right: a locked gate at the site where Owen's family owned land in Napa's nearby mountains, with flowers growing on the other side of a gate. Center: Owens at one of the sites on Main Street in downtown Napa. Marissa Leshnov for NBC News

 To Owens and others, the bottom line is clear: Their ancestors’ land was unjustly taken from them, and they want it back.

“There are not a whole lot of stories like this, because the priority of enslaved Blacks who were brought to California was to get away,” said Jean Pfaelzer, the author of the book “California, A Slave State.” “These men were brought out, but their families were still held hostage on the plantations. So it was much more about finding jobs or starting a business so they could make enough money to buy their families.

“But there were some bold, ambitious Black people who did buy land. And in many cases their land was taken away from them, often in heartbreaking ways.”

Here are the stories of three Black families who are grappling with legacies of seized land and lost generational wealth. 

The Hatton family, Napa

Edward Hatton migrated from Norfolk, Virginia, to Napa in the mid-1850s with other formerly enslaved people. He became a 49er, a gold miner. His son Joseph and grandson Edward followed suit and earned their places as respected Black men in Northern California.

The eldest Hatton became the first Black barber in Napa and a gold-mine owner.

Owens found documents that indicated Hatton owned the three lots in downtown Napa, where a park and Sept. 11 memorial now rests, she said. She acquired the papers from the Napa County clerk’s office for the lots downtown that show the land remains in Edward Hatton’s name.

Yolanda Owens on land that was seized from her great-great-great-grandfather. The property is now a Sept. 11 memorial in downtown Napa, Calif., in May.Marissa Leshnov for NBC News

“It has not been bought or sold,” she said. Napa officials did not find any other deeds on the property.

As for the large piece of land in the outskirts of Napa, Owens said the Hattons bought the 209 acres for $1,500 in February 1885. According to her research from various documents and news clippings, white people wanted the land, and in 1893, a white woman claimed the Hattons had defaulted on a $400 payment. The land was later put up for auction at a court hearing at which the Hattons were not present. The woman bought it and then sold it to the county treasurer at the price she had paid for it. 

“The treasurer, who had already owned other large parts of that mountain, put the land in her own name, and that was that,” Owens said. “They stole it.”

Soon, an upscale restaurant the Hattons owned, The Arcade, was burned down, Owens said, and her ancestors fled Napa.

Thomas Mitchell, a Boston College Law School professor, said that once Black people began to acquire land after having been enslaved, it was considered the norm in the years following the end of slavery for that land to be seized without provocation or justifiable reasons, “for it was considered better and higher economic use of the property.” 

The practice underscored “that notion that we had to accept that Black people’s lives are just not that important,” said Thomas, a 2020 MacArthur Fellow. “Their property ownership, their communities are not as important. They should be at the ready to have their rights sacrificed for the ‘greater good.’”

In 1867, Edward Hatton wrote a letter to the editor of The Elevator, a defunct local Black newspaper, that said, in part: “Why should we of this State be treated with so much injustice? Are we not as intelligent as any class of the community, and are we not taxed as well as others? Why this distinction? I think it is time we should be doing something for ourselves.”

“The treasurer, who had already owned other large parts of that mountain, put the land in her own name, and that was that,” Owens said. “They stole it.”Marissa Leshnov for NBC News

The Blue family, Sacramento

Les Robinson had to leave a family cookout to compose himself. A cousin told him to look up an ancestor on his phone — Daniel Blue. Robinson had never heard of him, but a search revealed the longtime pastor in the Sacramento area, who was integral to the region’s Black community. Robinson learned that his great-great-grandfather was brought to Sacramento in 1849 as an enslaved man from Kentucky by John Daugherty, the son of his enslaver.

Blue, 53 at the time, worked as a gold miner and discovered enough gold to buy his freedom and become an entrepreneur, opening a dry cleaners and starting a church in his home and later a stand-alone structure. That church — St. Andrews AME Church — was founded in 1850, and it remains the West Coast’s oldest continuous African Methodist Episcopal congregation. Blue also started a school for Black, Latino, Asian American and Native American children.

And he bought property. Lots of it — 60 acres, according to Robinson, including nine blocks in Sacramento, California’s capital, documents show.

On that property today, Robinson said, stands the California Railroad Museum, the Amtrak Station, Sacramento RailYard, the courthouse and the Sacramento County jail. 

But the question looms: “What happened to the property? We don’t know,” Robinson said. He said his research told a familiar, unnerving story — that the property was taken.

Les Robinson's great-great-grandfather Daniel Blue was brought to Sacramento in 1849 as an enslaved man. Courtesy Les Robinson

“I’ve been told that it was taken because the railroad needed that land to complete the transcontinental connection,” Robinson said. “So he basically was booted out.”

And burned out, as intimidation by whites who did not welcome freed Blacks turned violent. Part of the school was burned down and rebuilt before eventually it closed years later. Blue’s house was burned in 1869. There was a failed attempt to burn down the church, too, Robinson said. 

Mitchell said the seizing of property — by citizens, law enforcement or the government — comes with an additional injustice beyond stunting generational wealth: It destroys culture and history.

“Whether you’re talking about Harlem or southwest Georgia, there’s often an erasure of important culture and history,” Mitchell said.

Much of what Robinson and others in his family have discovered is documented in newspaper articles and other periodicals, which makes it frustrating for Robinson that he cannot locate deeds or ownership documentation. They have not yet presented their findings to state or local officials yet, preferring to do more research and hear what the reparations task force has to say about seized land. But they are clear about what happened.

“It was obviously taken,” Robinson said. “He was a smart man. He wouldn’t give away 60-plus acres of land.” Robinson is working on a book about his ancestor that sums up what having the land returned to him and his family would mean. Yes, he wants the land for its financial value, but also for its sentimental value. Robinson, who founded a church in 1999, said the revelations about his ancestor resonate in a tangible way. Looking back and seeing what his ancestor accomplished, “I see parallels in our life — even not having ever known him,” he said. “When I found him, I met him — and we have the same spirit. I am doing what he would want me to do.”

The Burgess family, Coloma, California

It was “exhausting” for Jon Burgess when he learned that an ancestor had been the hangman in the 1800s in Coloma, a small community about 55 miles northeast of Sacramento, where his family lineage traces.

“That’s not something you want to see, and it floored me for two days,” Burgess said.

It was the price of digging into his family’s history. Burgess and twin brother Matthew have been floored for the last five years for another reason: In the family Bible, where many Black families used to document significant moments of family members’ lives, Burgess discovered that his great-great-great grandfather Rufus Burgess was one of the state’s first gold miners and that he built wealth and bought land in California at the end of slavery intent on its staying in the family for future generations.

Jon and Matthew Burgess with their family Bible.Courtesy Jon and Matthew Burgess

Using eminent domain, the city seized much of the 420 acres, Burgess said. Much of the land he wants to reclaim is Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park in Coloma. 

Burgess has testified before the California reparations task force, posted short videos on Instagram about his family findings to educate followers and connected with Gov. Gavin Newsom about the subject. “I’m just trying to get people to empathize with the fact that we had an inheritance that was supposed to remain in our family for years per those deeds. And yet it was stripped away,” he said.

Burgess possesses the deed to the land, documentation he believes that when it is properly reviewed will stand up in court, particularly because there is no record of his ancestor’s selling the land, he said.

“If we didn’t have the deed, it would just be another story,” said Burgess, a firefighter. “But we do. And the deeds can certainly tell a very different story.”

What’s next for reparations

The story for all these families is unfinished. They hope their gathered documentation will yield a result similar to that of Bruce’s Beach in Southern California, where Los Angeles County seized land in Manhattan Beach purchased in 1912 by a Black couple, Charles and Willa Bruce. White residents led a petition to have their resort for Black people condemned in 1927 and turned into a park. It was returned to the Bruce family last year. The family sold it back to the county for $20 million.

The cases are not parallel to that of Bruce’s Beach, but it elicits hope for these descendants, especially as California considers reparations in such an aggressive manner.

Burgess’ case has been acknowledged by the California task force as similarly valid to that of Bruce’s Beach, and may be included in its final report and list of recommendations, which will be issued to the Legislature at the end of June.

“Land and property are things that my pioneer ancestors did not sell or take for granted, because they knew the value, coming from slave plantations’ making others wealthy for generations — all behind land,” Burgess said. “Generational wealth means my family and descendants would have the same if not more than the Bogle family, Veercamp family, Gallagher family, Del Monte family and a host of others who came here with nothing prior to 1870 and were left to prosper — but also allowed equal protection by the laws.”

The 209-acres of land Yolanda Owens' ancestor owned in the hills of Napa, Calif., can be accessed only by a winding two-lane road.Marissa Leshnov for NBC News