More about Phoebe Colburn

When Phoebe Colburn died in 1876 she left her dresses to a niece in Mobile, Alabama, and her considerable estate, some $3000, “to her best friend of all others on earth”, Col. William Magee.

Phoebe Colburn probably met William Magee in Alabama. She was born in Mobile between 1818 and 1825, the earlier date being more likely. He was a native of South Carolina, born in 1806, but moved to Alabama in the late 1820s. He served as sheriff in Mobile from 1836 to 1840. From there he went to New Orleans where he engaged in business until 1849, when the Gold Rush drew him to California.

In 1828 he married Miss Margaret Bass in Mobile and they had a daughter in 1830. It is possible that Phoebe was a servant in the Bass household and came with Margaret when she married. Phoebe would have been a young teenager at that time.

Magee left his wife behind when he set out for California, as many men did. It doesn’t look like Margaret ever joined him in California. On the 1860 census he and Phoebe appear to be in the same household and Margaret is not listed. She died in 1869 and he remarried twice in Shasta, to Mary Perry in 1877 and Ann Moore in 1888.

Phoebe may have come to California as early as 1849, when William Magee made the trip via Panama, or he may have sent for her a few years later. We only know that she shows up on the record in 1854 when she buys a house in Shasta City. When did she become free? How did she earn the $700 to buy the house? No one knows.

More mystery hovers around another headstone in the Shasta Cemetery. Not far from Phoebe’s grave is the grave of an Indian boy.

Erected by Phoebe Colburn to the memory of the faithful Indian boy JOHN died March 30, 1858 aged 15 years.

Had Phoebe adopted the boy and named him John? Was he an orphan rescued by Phoebe, or was he kidnapped from his family and sold into servitude? The trade in Indian children in the 1850s and ’60s was rampant.

But clearly Phoebe was fond of the boy, however he had come into her care. A headstone for an Indian child can only indicate concern and affection. This tombstone is the only evidence we have that John ever existed.

In the 1870 census another teenage boy appears in the household of Col. Magee, surveyor, and Phoebe Colburn, housekeeper. Along with those two names we see “William Schmidt.” A letter “I” appears next to his name, indicating that he is Indian. His father is not named, but the column labeled “Father of foreign birth” is checked.

So it seems that 14-year-old William is the son of a German father and a native mother. He was born in 1855 or 1856. He may have been a servant in the Magee household, but another column is checked that indicates that he attended school within the last year. Perhaps he is another child that Phoebe took in and looked after.

What became of half-German half-California native William? Possibly he is the William Schmidt who turns up on the Great Register for Nevada County in 1876-78. This William lives at Mooney Flat and is the only voter listed on those two pages of the roll born in California. Men came from all over the States and the world, but not many were born in California in 1855.

These two young men who appear along with Phoebe seem to be telling us that she was a loving, caring, nurturing person who was particularly sensitive to those who, like herself, were marked by race or color. How we wish we knew more!

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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