History of California
History of San Francisco
and Mission Days in Alta California, by Guadalupe Vallejo
in California Before the Gold Discovery, by John Bidwell
T. Sherman and Early Calif. History
T. Sherman and the Gold Rush
Gold Rush Chronology 1846 - 1849
Gold Rush Chronology 1850 - 1851
Gold Rush Chronology 1852 - 1854
Gold Rush Chronology 1855 - 1856
Gold Rush Chronology 1857 - 1861
Gold Rush Chronology 1862 - 1865
Eyewitness to the Gold Discovery
Governor Masons Report on the Discovery of Gold
Rush to the Gold Washings From the California Star
Discovery as Viewed in New York and London
Day in the 1850s
Brannan Opens New Bank - 1857
ALVIN A. COFFEY
ALVIN A. COFFEY has told
his own story in the Book of Reminiscences, which can be seen at the library
of the California Society of Pioneers, located on McAllister Street near
Van Ness, in San Francisco. We are deeply indebted to the society, organized
in 1850, for this particular story as well as for its general service in
collecting valuable reminiscences of early pioneer members. Without the
materials they gathered and preserved so carefully, we would have no such
record of a Negro pioneer, given in his own words, and in the first person,
as one playing a vital role in an eventful ox-team journey across
the plains, a hundred years ago.
to the top of the page.
Coffey left to us the following
I started from St. Louis,
Mo., on the 2nd day of April in 1849. There was quite a crowd of the neighbors
who drove through the mud and rain to St. Joe to see us off. About the
first of May we organized the train. There were twenty wagons in number
and from three to five men to each wagon.
We crossed the Missouri
River at Savanna Landing on about the sixth of May. There were several
trains ahead of us. At twelve oclock three more men took our place and
we went to camp. At six in the morning, there were three more who went
to relieve those on guard. One of the three that came in had cholera so
bad that he was in lots of misery. Dr. Bassett, the captain of the train,
did all he could for him, but he died at ten oclock and we buried him.
We got ready and started at eleven the same day and the moon was new just
We got news every day that
people were dying by the hundreds in St. Joe and St. Louis. It was alarming.
When we hitched up and got ready to move, Dr. said, Boys, we will
have to drive day and night.
There were only three saddle
horses in the train, Dr. Bassett, Mr. Hale, Sr., and John Triplet owning
them. They rode with the Dr. to hunt camping places. We drove night and
day and got out of reach of the cholera. There was none ahead of us that
we knew of.
Dave and Ben Headspeths
train was ahead of us. They had fourteen or fifteen wagons in the train
and three to five men to a wagon. Captain Camel had another such train.
When we caught up with them, we never heard of one case of cholera on their
We got across the plains
to Fort Laramie, the sixteenth of June, and the ignorant driver broke down
a good many oxen on the trains. There were a good many ahead of us, who
had doubled up their trains and left tons upon tons of bacon and other
When we got well down Humboldt
to a place called Lawsons Meadow, which was quite a way from the sink
of the Humboldt, the emigrants agreed to drive there. There was good grass
at Lawsons Meadow. We camped there a day and two nights, resting the oxen,
for we had a desert to cross to get to Black Rock where there was grass
Starting to cross the desert
to Black Rock at four oclock in the evening, we traveled all night. The
next day it was hot and sandy. When within twenty miles of Black Rock,
we saw it very plainly.
A great number of cattle
perished before we got to Black Rock. When about fifteen miles from Black
Rock, a team of four oxen was left on the road just where the oxen had
died. Everything was left in the wagon.
I drove one oxen all the
time and I knew about how much an ox could stand. Between nine and ten
oclock a breeze came up and the oxen threw up their heads and seemed to
have new life. At noon, we drove into Black Rock.
Before we reached Sacramento
Valley, we had poor feed a number of nights. The route by the way of Humboldt
was the oldest and best known to Hangtown. We crossed the South Pass on
the Fourth of July. The ice next morning was as thick as a dinner plate.
About two days before we got to Honey Lake we were in a timbered country.
We camped at a place well known as Rabbit Hole Springs. An ox had given
out and was down, and not able to get up, about one hundred yards from
the spring. A while after it got dark as it was going to be, the ox commenced
bawling pitifully. Some of the boys had gone to bed. I said, Let
us go out and kill the ox for it is too bad to hear him bawl. The
wolves were eating him alive. None would go with me, so I got two double-barreled
shot-guns which were loaded. I went out where he was. The wolves were
not in sight, although I could hear them. I put one of the guns about five
or six inches from the oxs head and killed him with the first shot. The
wolves never tackled me. I had reserved three shots in case they should.
When we got in Deer Creek
in Sacramento Valley, we divided up wagons. Some went to Sacramento Valley
to get provisions for the winter and came up to Redding Springs later.
We camped several days at Honey Lake but the grass on Madeline Plains was
not very good. While Headspeth and a guide we had were hunting the best
path to Sacramento road, the cattle recruited up nicely. We took several
days to go from Honey Lake to Sacramento Valley.
Those that kept on from
Deer Creek to Redding Springs camped at Redding Springs the thirteenth
day of October, 1849. Eight to ten miles drive was a big one for us at
the latter end. The last four miles the cattle had nothing to eat but poison-oak
brush. We cut down black oaks for them to browse on, and got to Redding
Springs the next day at four oclock. We watered the oxen out of buckets
that night and morning. The next day we gathered them up, drove them down
to Clear Creek where they had plenty of poison oak to eat.
On the morning of the fifteenth
we went to dry-digging mining. We dug and dug to the first of November.
At night it commenced raining, and rained and snowed pretty much all the
winter. We had a tent but it barely kept us all dry. There were from eight
to twelve in one camp. We cut down pine trees for shakes to make a cabin.
It was a whole week before we had a cabin to keep us dry.
The first week in January,
1850, we bought a hundred pounds of bear meat at one dollar per pound.
I asked the man how many pounds he had sold, and he said, Ive sold
thirteen hundred pounds and have four hundred to five hundred pounds left
in camp yet. I gave the men considerable for helping me dress it.
We gather from other sections
of Coffeys amazing story that he was born in Mason County, Kentucky, in
1822, moving later to Missouri with the family of his owner. Dr. Bassett
had included him as his slave, in the party journeying to California, and
Coffey used the venture as a golden opportunity to make money enough to
buy his own freedom and that of his wife and children, whom he was compelled
to leave behind in Missouri. By clever ruse, his owner took the first money
he made at Reddings Diggings, and the next year decided to return with
Coffey, via New Orleans to Missouri.
Afterwards Coffey, having
now a different owner, came again to California crossing the plains in
1854, and this time he was able to save seven thousand dollars required
to purchase his personal liberty and the freedom of his entire household.
He writes joyously of the
proposed trip back South, to bring his pretty wife, Mahala,
as he describes her, and elder children out of the slavery belt to California.
The younger children went with their grandmother to Canada, where they
remained in school until 1860. By that year Coffey secured money enough
to make the trip to Canada, and bring them home, traveling this time across
the Isthmus of Panama.
With all of his family reunited
in the West, Coffey settled down to the life of an enterprising homesteader
in Tehama County, at Red Bluff. He had worked the Shasta Mines, during
his second sojourn in California, from 1854 to 1857, and at one period
had vested interest in the Sutter Mines, as well.
He was in position to be
employed by the government for the long years when treaties were being
established with the Modoc Indians. He owned the teams engaged by the Commissary
Department. His five sons also took up homesteading in Tehama County at
the time when allotments of one hundred fifty to six hundred acres were
allowed a single owner.
Coffey and his descendants
prospered throughout the state. The sons and daughters married into old
California families. The oldest daughter, Louvinia, married a Logan, and
began the Coffey-Logan combine which has come down to our day in four
living generations. The oldest son of Louvinia, Alvin Logan, (named for
his grandfather) now in his eightieth year has had an adventurous life
in line with his inheritance. He is a well-to-do farmer of Woodland,
California, who at the age of twenty-one went to Africa, in the colonization
movement of the latter half of the Nineteenth Century. He had planned to
open up trade relations there but succumbed to tropical fever and had to
return home. Settling near Woodland, he bought up acres which included
oil lands, leased from him at some time by the Standard Oil Company. Mrs.
Irma Hopkins, another of Coffeys grandchildren, is a social worker in
charge of an old age pension office in Los Angeles.
Mrs. Mack Greene, another
granddaughter, is the wife of the director of physical education at Wilberforce
University, in Ohio. Mr. Greene, well known to the inter-varsity sports
world, has a creative interest in dramatics, which he carries on in collaboration
with Antioch College. Mrs. Ora Williams Jones, is the handsome, unassuming
granddaughter who gave much information on the latter days of her remarkable
grandparents. A resident of San Francisco, she was one of the first colored
nursery school teachers to be employed in the city.
Alvin Coffey has a number
of living descendants engaged in various fields. They include twelve grandchildren,
twenty-four great grandchildren, eighteen great, great, grandchildren,
and two great, great, great-grandchildren. All of them must regard
with special pride their noble patriarchs gesture of generosity to his
beloved community, when in the final years of his life he became the prime
mover in the organization of the Home for the Aged and Infirm, located
near Beulah, California, giving his total income to its establishment and
He died October 2, 1902.
His fellow pioneer society members visited him often during his last days,
and attended his funeral in a body. A paragraph from his obituary prepared
by them, the full text of which may be found in the library of the Society
of California Pioneers, is the finest statement of tribute which can be
paid to his memory:
Alvin Coffey was a
noble man, ever generous to his unfortunate neighbor. Perfectly honest,
he paid every debt he owed and was brave.
We would like to repeat
that he was brave, indeed.
In: Pioneers of Negro Origin in California by Sue Bailey
San Francisco : Acme Pub. Co., ©1952.
Courtesy of the San Francisco
African American Historical Society.