Phoebe Colburn

Phoebe Colburn — picture of unknown origin

Phoebe Colburn is buried in Shasta Pioneer Cemetery. She is known to have been a free person of color who succeeded in the rough-and-tumble world of the California Gold Rush. What can we find out about her?

Her tombstone spells her name “Coulbourn” but that spelling doesn’t show up in the newspaper or the census. Perhaps someone decided to get fancy with the spelling of her last name. The tombstone reads:

Sacred to the memory of Phoebe Coulbourn Who died Nov. 22, 1876 aged 58 years.

Phoebe was born into slavery in Alabama. If her tombstone is correct, she was born in 1818. If the 1870 census is correct, she was born in 1822, or maybe 1825 if we believe the 1860 census. Already her life has its mysteries.

How she became free and how she came to California is unknown. She may have come with guide and trailblazer Jim Beckworth, or maybe they are only linked because both were black. She first turns up in Shasta County when she bought a house in Shasta City from Harrison Shurtleff for $700 in 1854. The deed was witnessed by her friend, Col. William Magee. Phoebe could not read or write, so she signed with an X.

Her lack of literacy didn’t prevent her from becoming a shrewd businesswoman. She rented the house to Magee and kept house for him, but lived elsewhere. She went on to engage in a number of property transactions. In 1855 she held a mortgage on the American Ranch (now the town of Anderson).

The next place for Phoebe is at the Foot-of-the-Mountain Station beside Noble Emigrant Trail east of Dersch’s Stopping Place in the early 1860s. William “Billy” Smith owned the place and Phoebe worked for him as a cleaning woman and housekeeper. Smith was having a hard time making the stopping place a paying business and was going into debt. Because Phoebe was thrifty and saved her money, Smith borrowed $500 from her.

But he could not repay the loan. In 1865, he deeded the 40 acres on which the Foot-of-the-Mountain Station stood, plus 240 more acres to Phoebe. Phoebe continued to operate the stopping place.

The building included a bar, a gambling hall, and a dance hall on the top story with six bedrooms off to the side. It also included a wraparound 12-foot veranda and a front entrance with two large 8-foot high glass topped doors that opened into an impressive hall.

Dottie Smith, “Phoebe Colburn was a freed slave who made a fortune.” Redding Record Searchlight, March 26, 2010. https://archive.redding.com/lifestyle/phoebe-colburn-was-freed-slave-who-made-a-fortune-ep-377005305-355322071.html/

Foot-of-the-Mountain Station was a way station on the Nobles Emigrant Trail, some 30 miles east of Shasta City. The buildings no longer stand.

Phoebe sold the property in the late 1860s to a German immigrant named George Schuler and moved back to Shasta City. The 1870 census finds her there, living with Col. Magee as housekeeper. It is notable that she is wealthier than he is — she lists $500 in real property and $2000 in personal property. He only has $350 and $500.

It’s also interesting to see that the census taker first put down a W for White next to her name, and then overwrote that with an M for Mulatto (rather than a B for black). She may have been a rather medium shade of brown, or even fairly light-skinned for her race.

If only we knew more about this enterprising woman!

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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