Thousands of African Americans participated in the California Gold Rush. Some were still enslaved when they did like 49er Alvin Coffey. Join us for Episode 1 to learn more about Coffey’s fascinating tale.
Photo Credit: Alvin Coffey, Tehama County, c. 1880s. Courtesy of the Society of California Pioneers.
Music Credits for Episode 1: “Strange Persons” by Kicksta; “Petit Gennevilliers (Celesta”) by MagnusMoone; and “Summer Breeze” and “Inward” by HansTroost. Tribe of Noise licensing information can be found here: prosearch.tribeofnoise.com/pages/terms
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Transcript We Are Not Strangers Here Episode 1
“Freedom Chasers: Early Black Settlers and the California Dream”
Caroline Collins (Narrator): If they think about it at all, most people think that Black people who migrated to California moved into booming cities. Many times the assumption is that Black people rejected agricultural labor because of its association with slavery and sharecropping. But African Americans are not strangers to rural California; the culture of cultivating the earth runs deep. For generations, Black settlers have shaped life in agricultural areas of California from as far north as Siskiyou County to Imperial County in the South.
Susan Anderson: Black people have been farming and working the land since the gold rush era.
Caroline Collins: In fact, Black folks were in California, long before it became a U.S. state. Take the eighteenth century settlers, who were known as pobladores, that founded the present-day city of Los Angeles.
Patty Colman: Half of them were of African descent. And so there’s this long history of African Americans that a lot of people don’t know.
Caroline Collins: So, whether it’s the history of occupation and theft of native lands or the history of the cultivation of lands, Black people are often excluded from these stories. And that’s a problem…
Susan Anderson: …because it doesn’t really tell the truth about African Americans in California, and it doesn’t tell the truth about California.
(Introspective music stops)
Caroline Collins: Truths that, in many ways, have tested the promise of the California Dream.
(Cal Ag Roots Theme Music, upbeat jazz hip-hop fusion)
Caroline Collins: I’m Caroline Collins and this is the Cal Ag Roots podcast. Cal Ag Roots is unearthing stories about important moments in the history of California farming to shed light on current issues in agriculture. This is the first episode in our We Are Not Strangers Here series. This series, which draws its name from writer Ravi Howard, highlights hidden histories of African Americans who have shaped California’s food and farming culture from early statehood to the present.
This six-part series is also connected to a traveling exhibit with the same name. The exhibit was originally designed to travel throughout California–we printed big, beautiful banners full of all kinds of photos from the archives that accompany the stories we’re telling. But then, the pandemic happened. And so, now we’re digitally reconceiving the We Are Not Strangers Here exhibit so that people can still enjoy it even during the pandemic. It’s not up yet, but we’re working on it. Please check out www.agroots.org for updates.
(Cal Ag Roots Music ends)
PART ONE: HERE FROM THE START
Caroline Collins: A lot of what we understand about California comes from iconic stories about hardy pioneers that panned for gold or settled land–folks who manipulated waterways, grew crops, created communities, and forged innovations that continue to define the Golden State.
These are important stories–and how we tell them, is just as important. So much so that that’s the kind of cultural knowledge I studied when earning my doctorate degree and what I continue to examine at UC San Diego. In other words, I research how the history of the American West gets made and remade in places like California. So, this series and its exhibit that accompanies it are one way we’re reincorporating Black stories into California’s historical narrative.
And this is a subject that’s also personal to me as a Black American. One of my favorite family photos is of my great-great grandfather, Robert Fuller. In it, he’s standing in front of his barber shop around Waco, Texas in the 1870s. He’s got a big handlebar mustache across his face and you can also see a saloon next door with all these Black and Brown cowboys gathered in its doorway–a reflection of what the area historically looked like at the time. This mingling of cultures in the American West is something that still fascinates me as a California native where branches of my family have been since the 1930’s.
Yet, when you look closely at the iconic stories that shape how we view California history, you notice two things: many of these stories take place in rural areas and many of them ignore the long-standing presence of Black settlers. Which means that histories of California’s rural communities are incomplete without acknowledging African Americans.
So, as we’ll soon discover, Black farmers and ranchers in California have been here from the start. And in many ways, their stories are bound by a common thread: the persistent belief in and pursuit of the California Dream by Black people within the state–even in the face of systemic inequity.
Caroline Collins: In order to share these stories of rural Black settlers in California, we worked with public historian Susan Anderson, who’s our primary History Advisor for the We Are Not Strangers Here Project. For decades, she’s researched Black history in California.
Susan Anderson: These assumptions that exist that African Americans somehow don’t have anything to do in a place like California, that they don’t have anything to do with the land or the history of the land–that’s just wrong.
Caroline Collins: As the History Curator and Program Manager of the California African American Museum, Anderson’s working to bring these settlers’ stories to their rightful place in official state history.
Susan Anderson: If we’re looking at California from 1850 to 1900, the first 50 years of statehood, those accounts don’t include the African American presence by and large in rural California.
Caroline Collins: It’s a reflection of the period that simply doesn’t align with actual documentation of the time.
Susan Anderson: If you go back and read newspapers or you read court documents or primary source materials from those times, you will find Black people in the record because they lived in rural California.
Caroline Collins: And they haven’t just existed there.
Susan Anderson: They were noted by their neighbors and they were part of their communities.
Caroline Collins: Many Black Californians actively built their communities, opening schools, working the land, and making sure citizens had equal rights.
Susan Anderson: So you find them when you go back into history, but that history is not brought into the present.
Caroline Collins: It’s a critical oversight. Because stories of Black farmers, ranchers, and rural residents are key pieces of California heritage. In other words, learning about their long presence doesn’t just fill in an important historical gap. Their stories also help challenge myths about early California and create new narratives about freedom, self governance, and civic culture.
In fact, Anderson’s own ancestors were among the various Black settlers that made their way to the state in the nineteenth century.
Susan Anderson: I’m third generation. My great grandparents on my mother’s side arrived in California as young people in the 1890s. I mean, that’s not that early compared to a lot of people.
Caroline Collins: Some Black families came even earlier, and still call California home. Michele Thompson, another descendant of a nineteenth century settler, spoke to me by phone from her home in Walnut Creek. For years, she’s dedicated herself to preserving her family history.
Michele Thompson: My name is Michelle Thompson. I am the direct descendant of Alvin Coffey and I am his great great-granddaughter. Our family was established in California as a result of Alvin’s participation in the California gold rush, both as a slave and as a slave earning his freedom.
Caroline Collins: Like many African Americans who arrived in California in 1849, Michele’s great-great grandfather was one of thousands of people from around the world that rushed into the northern California gold fields. However, unlike many settlers, and especially Black settlers, Alvin Coffey left behind a firsthand account of his overland Gold Rush journey.
John Hogan: They were busy living their lives. They weren’t busy documenting their lives.
Caroline Collins: That’s John Hogan, Education and Gallery Manager of The Society of California Pioneers in San Francisco, which now holds some of Alvin Coffey’s papers. Hogan says that normally, curators and scholars have to cobble together indirect sources in order to get a better sense of the lives of these early pioneers.
John Hogan: Things like marriage licenses, letters that they received. Letters out from the gold rush, of course, don’t stay in California. So families who kept them are in Boston or New York or whatever…the firsthand experience are often not here.
Caroline Collins: So Coffey’s account? It’s a historical jackpot.
Susan Anderson: First of all, it’s still rare to have testimonies from these Overland journey during this time.
Caroline Collins: That’s Susan Anderson again.
Susan Anderson: But to have the voice of an African American who traveled Overland to come to California during the gold rush is even more unusual.
Caroline Collins: And, what a story it is.
(Slow tempo orchestral folk music)
The California Gold Rush is an iconic tale: at the end of 1848, gold was discovered near Sutter’s Mill, outside modern-day Sacramento. The next year, in 1849, almost 90,000 fortune seekers flocked west. They’re still remembered today as the 49ers.
John Hogan: It speaks to the fervor of gold fever that everyone in the country thought California was the place to get rich
So Alvin Coffey came to California as part of the gold rush in 1849. But he came as a slave.
Caroline Collins: Some slaveholders even sent enslaved people to mine for gold in California on their behalf.
John Hogan: He was a slave in Kentucky, and his owner said, well, you know, if everyone’s making money out there, Alvin, you can go out to California, make $1,000, send it back to me and you will be a free man. He worked very hard and he made $1,000 and he sent it back to Kentucky. And he gets a letter in return for that.
Caroline Collins: But, it actually wasn’t that simple.
Susan Anderson: Alvin Coffey actually made the journey back and forth from Northern California, to Missouri three times. That’s a remarkable thing because this was the journey that took six months over land.
Caroline Collins: It was even more remarkable given Coffey’s status as an enslaved person. Most African Americans that made their way to California during the Gold Rush were free.
California’s constitution even stated that quote: ‘neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, unless for punishment of a crime, shall ever be tolerated.’ However archives across the state contain evidence that slavery was practiced out in the open.
White southerners who came to California brought hundreds of enslaved Black people with them. These enslaved individuals weren’t only forced to work in gold mines. They were also hired out for cooking, serving, or other work. Sometimes huge fortunes were built on the backs of this free labor.
So Alvin was among those attempting to start a new life while still negotiating the vulnerability of bondage.
PART TWO: THE DREAM OF CALIFORNIA
(Slow tempo orchestral folk music)
Caroline Collins: Alvin was 26 when he made his first trip to California.
But his story starts in Kentucky where he was born enslaved in 1822. As a boy he was sold to a new owner who brought him to St. Louis, Missouri, where he was sold again to Dr. William H. Bassett.
It’s also where he’d eventually meet and marry Mahala Tindall, who was also enslaved. Her owner, who also was her first cousin, was a relative of Coffey’s owner, Dr. Bassett.
A year into the Gold Rush, Dr. Bassett decided to join the fray. But he was chronically ill, so he decided to bring Alvin along.
Susan Anderson: They made a bargain that Alvin Coffey would be able to buy his freedom with money he earned from the diggings from the gold mines when they got to California.
Caroline Collins: Bargain in place, they left St. Louis for St. Joseph, Missouri to join a wagon train departing for the California-Oregon trail. The journey would take months, so Spring was the earliest they could set off if they wanted to avoid the dangers of snow.
With Coffey’s wife Mahala weeks away from delivering their fourth child, Coffey and Bassett left St. Joseph at noon on May 5, 1849 along with nearly 80 other men and 20 wagons. Alvin later described the scene in his writings. He wrote that quote “a crowd of neighbors drove through the mud and the rain to…see [them] off.”
But, like many overland journeys of the time, it was a perilous trip. And hard work.
Susan Anderson: It’s his job to watch the oxen. And sometimes he drove one of the wagons
Caroline Collins: The wagon train faced five months of thunder and lightning, dust storms, scorching heat, and rain. Roads were muddy and wagon wheels cracked. Firewood was hard to come by. Many of the oxen died from exhaustion and starvation, which drove some of the men to join other wagons and abandon provisions right there on the trail.
The wagon train snaked through present-day Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho, and Nevada. It forded fast moving streams, fought with Native Americans defending their lands, and fled a cholera outbreak. Many also got sick with bad colds and coughs, which, back then, could be deadly.
Another 49’er in their party, Titus Hale, noted Alvin’s various contributions in his own diary*. He mentions Coffey’s suggestion to flee the surge of cholera, how he shouldered his rifle to defend the wagon train, and once even jumped into the “icy” Missouri River to save another traveler from drowning.
The thing is, Alvin’s tenacity makes perfect sense. Consider the stakes. He wasn’t heading West to California to ‘get rich quick.’ He was traveling for freedom and the eventual freedom of his wife and children.
Caroline Collins: The wagons reached Nevada by early august. Of their original 20 wagons, only six were left. Dr. Bassett was gravely ill when, almost a month later, they eventually limped into California almost a month later. There, they made their way to the mines of Reading Springs, which is near the present day community of Shasta. Of the original 80 men in their party, only 8-10 made it to this mining camp–Alvin and the still ailing Dr. Bassett were among them.
Here’s Michele Thompson, Coffey’s great-great granddaughter again:
Michele Thompson: Dr. Bassett had gotten sick on the journey and Alvin essentially did all the work when they got to California.
Caroline Collins: And mining was only part of that work. Given the deal he made with Dr. Bassett to purchase his freedom, Alvin spent his evenings washing and ironing clothes for other miners, or repairing their shoes, which earned him $616 in gold dust. Alvin also worked as a laborer in Fremont and harvested hay in Sacramento, where he made $2,000. But all of his earnings went to Bassett. Along with the $5,000 in gold that Coffey mined for him.
Then, a little over a year after arriving in California, Coffey and Dr. Bassett left for home.
Michele Thompson: When they went back, they went by ship, which went to New Orleans.
Caroline Collins: Coffey and Bassett most likely took a common steamer ship route from San Francisco to Panama, traveled across the country’s isthmus to the Caribbean Sea. There, they booked passage on another ship bound for Louisiana, a trip that in total could take up to three months, and was supposed to mark the last leg of Alvin’s journey towards freedom.
When they got to New Orleans, Bassett sent Coffey to the city’s mint to convert their gold dust to coins. But when Alvin returned with the money and handed it over to Bassett–
Susan Anderson: This man reneged on his promise.
Caroline Collins: And when Alvin objected–
Susan Anderson: He threatened to sell Coffey in Louisiana, which was the biggest slave market in the country.
Caroline Collins: In the end, Bassett waited until their return to St. Louis. There–
Michele Thompson: …he decided he was going to sell Alvin. And I guess Alvin had learned a few things about being independent, working hard for your own labor.
Caroline Collins: Bassett claimed that Coffey was a quote: “bad influence on his slaves”. So he sold Coffey to his relative, Mary Tindall, who owned Alvin’s wife Mahala and their children. Coffey’s price: $1000.
(Reflective music begins)
Caroline Collins: It was a brutal setback. But eventually, Alvin was able to convince his new owners, the Tindall family, to allow him to once again make the trip to California. He promised them that he could earn the $1,000 needed to purchase his freedom.
Caroline Collins: So, Alvin made the long journey once again. He went back to Shasta County and started digging for gold. He also ran a laundry in Sacramento. He even made money at the Page and Bacon Bank in San Francisco, which was failing. He didn’t have an account there, but he made money by queuing up and selling his place in line to account holders withdrawing their funds. Over time, he was able to save $1,000. And this time, he consulted with an attorney. Then, he sent word to Missouri that he was ready to send his gold…but that he needed to get his emancipation papers first.
On July 14, 1856–Alvin’s 34th birthday–the “Deed of Emancipation of Alvin A. Coffey” was filed in a St. Louis County, Missouri court.
(Melancholic but hopeful orchestral music)
John Hogan: And we actually are lucky enough to have that letter in our archive. It’s referred to as his manumission paper, and basically it’s a letter from his owner at the time who said, you send us this thousand dollars and you are now free. Um, it’s folded, um, and was clearly kept in a safe place. California was a free state, but he probably still had to show it periodically to show his stature as a free man.
Caroline Collins: Alvin stayed in California until 1857, continuing to mine and work the land.
John Hogan: He then went on to earn the $3,500. That was the price set for his wife and children. And so he worked for years to get that amount of money.
Caroline Collins: At the end of that year, he returned to Missouri. But, he was forced to wait more than a month to purchase the freedom of Mahala and their five children. Missouri law dictated that enslaved individuals could only be legally freed on two specific days of the year. So, he waited. Again. And finally on Monday, October 26, 1857, their deeds of emancipation were recorded.
Caroline Collins: The Coffeys sent their two older daughters to Canada to complete their education, where they lived with Coffey’s mother. She had fled there years earlier through the Underground Railroad. Then Alvin, this time with Mahala and the rest of his children by his side, made his third and final trek to California, eight years after he’d made his first journey. They settled in Red Bluff.
Michele Thompson: Now, my great grandmother Ora was the first black child to be born free in Red Bluffs in Shasta County area.
Caroline Collins: Alvin and Mahala opened a laundry, purchased land, and earned a small fortune producing hay on their turkey farm. And they lived a full life in rural California:
Michele Thompson: And there are so many things when you look at, for example letters that they’ve written and the handwriting of each is so beautiful, so exact. It just shows what Alvin was able to do in terms of getting an education for his children.
Caroline Collins: An education he and Mahala had to fight for because this was a time in California’s history when many public schools prohibited both Native and African American children from attending. And he wasn’t just fighting on behalf of his own children. Susan Anderson explains–
Susan Anderson: In Shasta County, he and his wife ran a school for native children and Black children into Haven County. He was also involved in what was called the colored school.
Caroline Collins: In fact, Alvin remained an active philanthropist, even into retirement.
Susan Anderson: This was a time when old people’s homes day nurseries for children, all kinds of charitable institutions would not accept, uh, Black people. So Black people built their own.
Caroline Collins: And Alvin was a big contributor to one of the first Black retirement homes, the Home for the Aged and Infirm Colored People in Beulah, California.
Susan Anderson: His philanthropy was noted by African Americans around the state. And then it turned out as an old man in the very early 20th century, he was the first resident of the home. And actually that’s where he ended up dying.
Caroline Collins: Coffey wrote an autobiography, Book of Reminiscences, which remains one of the only first-hand written accounts of a Black pioneer. And in 1887 he joined the Society of California Pioneers, the organization that now holds his manumission papers, which were a donation from Coffey’s family. At the time, many of the societies founded to commemorate pioneers were made up of white propertied men. But…
Susan Anderson: …because of his relationships with the people he came from Missouri with, they were some of the founders of the society of California pioneers. And he joined as the first African American member. So this is partly why we have some of his testimonials.
Caroline Collins: In many ways, Alvin Coffey’s tale reflects the complex narratives of opportunity and progress that so often define the Golden State.
John Hogan: His story helps bring out this untold part of the gold rush story, which was opportunity for all, is what it was believed to be. That’s why they call it the California dream. Some people thought it was going to be a great equalizer, everyone was going to get rich. And then you come and you realize society just brings it social issues and ails with it. You know, there’s no books written called the California reality.
Caroline Collins: Alvin and Mahala Coffey’s story is remarkable and filled with all kinds of iconic pioneer moments. Yet their story remains generally undertold in official California histories. Tune into our next episode, Hidden Roots: Uncovering the Legacies of African American Homesteaders in California, to learn more about how Black people in rural California get remembered–and forgotten–in the stories and landmarks that tell the beginnings of the Golden State.
(Cal Ag Roots Theme Music, upbeat jazz hip-hop fusion)
Caroline Collins: Thanks for listening to the Cal Ag Roots podcast. If you liked what you heard, you can check out other stories like this one at www.agroots.org, or on Apple Podcasts, or anywhere else you get podcasts And by the way, if you subscribe and rate this show it will help other people discover it.
Now some important acknowledgements: We Are Not Strangers Here is a collaboration between Susan Anderson of the California African American Museum, the California Historical Society, Exhibit Envoy and Amy Cohen, myself–Dr. Caroline Collins from UC San Diego, and the Cal Ag Roots Project at the California Institute for Rural Studies.
Our traveling exhibit banners were written by Susan Anderson, our project’s Primary History Advisor. And this podcast was written and produced by me with production help from Lucas Brady Woods.
This project was made possible with support from California Humanities, a non-profit partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities (Visit calhum.org to learn more), and the 11th Hour Project at the Schmidt Family Foundation.
And finally, special thanks to another Coffey great-great granddaughter Jeannette L. Molson who self-published an account of Alvin’s life with researcher Eual D. Blansett, Jr. Their text helped us tell this story.
–End of Episode–
*Titus Hale actually recorded these reflections of Alvin in an official obituary for Coffey: Institutional Records, “In Memoriam, a biographical sketch of Alvin A. Coffey,” Society of California Pioneer Obituary Notices (San Francisco: Society of California Pioneers, 1903), Vol. 9, 135.
Cal Ag Roots Supporters
Huge THANKS to the following generous supporters of Cal Ag Roots. This project was made possible with support from the 11th Hour Project of the Schmidt Family Foundation and California Humanities, a non-profit partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.