The Torturous Road to Freedom

I wanted to know more about Alvin A. Coffey than I could find online, so I sought out this book about his life: The Torturous Road to Freedom: The Life of Alvin Aaron Coffey, by Jeannette Molson and Eual D. Blansett, Jr. It is a thoroughly researched biography of Coffey, with information gathered from his own account and letters, accounts by people who knew him, overland journals, and newspaper articles. It is especially strong on genealogy.

The author, Jeannette Molson, is the great-great-granddaughter of Alvin and Mahala Coffey and this book is a tribute to her resilient ancestors. The book was published in 2009.

Alvin Coffey made three overland trips to California, returning twice to Missouri by sea. The first trip was made with his master, Dr. William Bassett. Alvin worked mining gold in the Shasta Mines until they had accumulated $5,500. Alvin did the work, Bassett got the money. At night Alvin would work for himself — washing clothes and mending boots for miners. By this after-hours work he earned $616, which Dr. Bassett kept for himself on their return to the States.

After being sold to Mary Tindall, Alvin convinced her son Nelson to let him return to California to earn the money to buy his freedom. He must have had a reputation for perfect honesty, since Nelson believed him when he said, “If I tell you that I will send you the money, I will do so.” And that is how it happened.

In California he earned $1000, by mining and by running a laundry. He sent for his Deed of Emancipation, promising to send the money when he received his freedom papers, which he promptly did. Then he went to work to earn another $3000 to redeem his wife and five children.

Alvin Coffey’s deed of emancipation describes him as “a bright mulatto with grey eyes and bushy hair, heavy set, weighing above 180 pounds, about five feet ten inches high. Scar on his left cheek.” Molson writes that the term “bright mulatto” indicates that he was “very light-complected.” He was taller than average, and “heavy set” probably describes his muscular physique. He was certainly a good-looking man, and smart enough to make his way on “the torturous road to freedom.”

About nancyleek

Nancy is a retired librarian who lives in Chico, California. She is the author of John Bidwell: The Adventurous Life of a California Pioneer.
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