California Love: Pioneer Alvin Aaron Coffey

After witnessing the second impeachment acquittal of Donald Trump, then following that up with a viewing of Judas and the Black Messiah, I can’t say that I’m in the best Black History Month mood right now. I keep telling myself in this moment, however, that it is important for me to keep this personal record of what I’ve learned and what I’ve studied for my sons. I want to be able to explain to them that we live history even as we study it and that we are as responsible for advancing the cause of progress as we are for making sure not to repeat the same mistakes of our forebears. I imagine that Fred Hampton is looking down on us, shaking his head and noting how he tried to tell all of us about the power of uniting all aggrieved parties against the right enemy. I’m trying to figure out when all of us here on Earth are going to learn that.

Anyhow, I last left off with the Bear Flag Revolt in California history—which was quite a short-lived rebellion. Two years later, in January of 1848, another member of the revolt by the name of James W. Marshall discovered gold near the Sacramento River. The news spread quickly but for a good little while, finding gold was a very easy and egalitarian pursuit with no need to ask permission for mining, no taxes to pay on any findings, and a combination of Natives, Whites, Blacks and Californios all joining the hunt. In those early days before the California gold rush of 1849, the gold was plentiful and did not necessarily require back-breaking labor as this documentary points out; some of it was right on the surface of the ground if you knew where to look. Furthermore, California was so sparsely populated that there wasn’t much competition either. But as time went on, people all over the world heard about the riches in California’s hills, and folks came by boat, wagon, and foot to get their portion.

One of those folks was Alvin Aaron Coffey. Born a slave in Kentucky in the early 1820s to Larkin Coffey and Nellie Cook, he later moved to Missouri with what would become his fourth owner, Dr. Bassey. When Dr. Bassey caught the gold rush bug, Coffey convinced him of the benefit in allowing Coffey to come along and mine enough gold to buy freedom for himself, his wife Mahala and their three children. Dr. Bassey agreed and so leaving his family behind, Coffey drove cattle from St. Louis to the Sacramento Valley during the Spring of 1849. The young man recorded his experiences and a portion of that book can be read here.

As I imagine was the case with the vast majority of slave owners, Dr. Bassey was not to be trusted. Coffey succeeded in mining a total of $5500 in gold dust for the doctor and $616 for his own little nest egg. But when Dr. Bassey returned with Coffey to Missouri later in 1849, he took Coffey’s savings and sold Coffey for $1000 to the next fool. Coffey, refusing to give up his plan for buying his and his family’s freedom, convinced his new master to allow him to return to California to do just that in 1854. Coffey succeeded in earning $7000 and he, Mahala and their five collective children all moved to the Golden State. Their sixth child was born free in California in 1858. They settled and homesteaded in Shasta County.

Coffey and his children were quite enterprising during their lives in California. Coffey supplied the U.S. Army with horses and teamster services during the 1872 Modoc War (this” war” was not cool at all) before opening a laundry and farming turkeys. He helped found a school that educated Black and Native American children in Shasta County, and of course his children attended. Later on, his sons and daughters married well and excelled in their various professions which included farming, oil production, and social work. Two of Coffey’s descendants, Grace Logan Patterson and Peter Williams were residents of Vallejo, California. Grace Patterson, would eventually have a Vallejo elementary school named after her. (I’ll blog about that later.)

Coffey himself, meanwhile, was inducted into the California Society of Pioneers in 1887. Though he was the organization’s only Black member, his fellow members held him in very high regard and described him as a “noble man” who was “perfectly honest” and “paid every debt he owed and was brave.” Coffey died in Alameda County in 1902.

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