More about Alvin A. Coffey

from The Tortuous Road to Freedom, by Jeannette L. Molson and Eaul D. Blansett, Jr.

Back in February I wrote about Alvin A. Coffey, African-American forty-niner. Thanks to Eaul Blansett, co-author of The Tortuous Road to Freedom, I now have more sources for his story.

My favorite sources are always first person accounts. Alvin left one account in an interview with the Society of California Pioneers, which is the basis of my first post about him. Now I have another. It sounds like it comes from a newspaper, but I don’t know which one — there’s no indication of the source or date. It’s an interview done when Alvin was a resident of the Home for Aged and Infirm Colored People at Beulah (now part of Oakland) so it must have been between 1899 and 1902.

Alvin and Dr. William Bassett came to California in 1849. Dr. Bassett was sick nearly the entire time, while Alvin mined for gold during the day and did jobs for other miners in the evenings. He never forgot how his master treated him when they left in 1851. Here is his account:

By and by the doctor he didn’t get no better and he made up his mind he wanted to go home. So he had me bring out the dust and weigh it. And I poured his sack in one pile on the table in one place and it weighed out $5600, and I poured my sack out in another place on the table and it weighed a little over $600.

I didn’t say nothing to him about it. He knew it was mine and just how I earned and saved it after paying all the camp expenses, so I just watched to see what he’d do. And when he’s weighed it out he just swept it over to the other pile, and I knew he’d taken that too, for his own.

But I didn’t say anything. If I’d run away there’d have been plenty to help me and protect me, but I just acted peaceably and helped him about getting ready to go away, and one day we went aboard the Panama steamer. We went home by way of New Orleans and up the Mississippi river.

All this time you needn’t think I’d forgotten about my $600 and one ounce savings, or how he’d grabbed it, but I never said a word, because if I did I knew he’d play mad and put me on the block at New Orleans sure and get maybe $1400 or $1500 for me. And I was homesick for a sight of Mahala and the children.

So there you have it. Bassett had cheated him and stolen his money, but he “never said a word.” Alvin’s paramount concern was to return to his wife and children. As much as the modern reader might want to see him knock his master down, and take all the money and run, he had to bide his time so that he could see his family again.

Bassett did indeed sell him when they got back to Missouri, but he sold him to the woman who “owned” his wife and children. They were together again, and after three years, Alvin was able to get back to California and earn his own freedom and that of his entire family.

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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