Alvin Aaron Coffey arrived in California in the fall of 1849 in company with his master, Dr. William Bassett. Coffey was born into slavery in 1822 or 1824 in Mason County, Kentucky, the property of Margaret Cooke. Bassett was his third master, who promised him that he could earn the money to buy his freedom, and the freedom of his wife and children, in the goldfields of California. It was a promise that Dr. Bassett would not keep.
Coffey told his story in his Autobiography and Reminiscence of Alvin Aaron Coffey, recorded in 1901 for the Society of California Pioneers. You can read it here. He was the only African-American member of the SCP. Members had to have come to California before 1850, and Coffey was a genuine forty-niner.
Most of his short autobiography is an account of that 1849 overland journey.
When we got pretty well down the Humboldt to a place called Lawsons Meadow, which was quite a way from the sink of the Humboldt, the emigrants agreed to divide there. . . . We camped a day and two nights, resting the oxen, for we had a desert to cross to get to Black Rock where there was grass and water.
(His use of the name Lawson shows how out pronunciation of Lassen’s name has changed.)
Starting to cross the desert to Black Rock at 4 o’clock in the evening we traveled all night. The next day was hot and sandy. . . . A great number of cattle perished before we got to Black Rock. When about 15 miles from Black Rock, a team of four oxen was left on the rad just where the oxen had died. Every thing was left in the wagon. I drove our oxen all the time and I knew about how much an ox could stand. Between 9 and 10 o’clock a breeze came up and the oxen threw up their heads and seemed to have new life. At noon we drove into Black Rock.
The oxen perked up at the scent of water. They still had a long way to go and Coffey mentions wolves, the dangers of hot springs to cattle, poor feed, and hard traveling. They came down Deer Creek to the Sacramento Valley and then went up to Redding Springs and began mining. In 1851 they returned to Missouri, where Coffey hoped to buy his freedom and reunite with his wife and children.
I worked thirteen months for him in California. I saved him [earned for him] $5,500 in gold dust. I saved $616 of my own money in gold dust. Going home in 1851 we went by the way of New Orleans. He said, “Let us go to the mint and have out gold coined.” He kept my money (616 dollars) and when we got up into Missouri, he sold me for a thousand more.
My labor on his farm [before they went to California] amounted to $360, I made $5500 for him in California, he kept my $616 I had saved and sold me for $1000; in this way clearing $8,876 clear profit.
Some say slavery is not profitable!
Coffey persuaded his new owner to allow him to return to California to earn money to purchase his freedom, and returned to the goldfields in 1854. By 1856, he had earned $1000, enough to purchase his freedom. He continued mining and working at other jobs until he had earned another $3,500. In 1857 he returned to Missouri and came back to California with his wife and three sons. Another son was born free in California in 1858.
The Coffey family first settled in Shasta County, and then later bought a farm in Tehama County. During the Modoc War, Coffey provided livestock to the U.S. Army and served as a teamster. Alvin A. Coffey died in the Home for Aged Colored People that he had helped to found in Oakland in 1902. The following obituary and tribute appeared in the Red Bluff Daily News.