Retired librarian Nancy Leek of Chico has long been drawn to pioneer history. His new book, illustrated by Steve Ferchaud, is about a man who “didn’t come to California of his own free will. This decision was made for him by the man who claimed to own him. But he came with hope. Hope of freedom. Hope for a better life for him and his family.
“Alvin Coffey: The True Story Of An African American Forty-Niner” ($16.95 in paperback from Goldfields Books, goldfieldsbooks.com) is available locally from Made in Chico, ABC Books, Bidwell Supply Company, the Chico History Museum and the Bidwell Mansion gift shop.
Coffey was born into slavery in Kentucky 200 years ago. “In 1846, when he was 24, Alvin was sold to Dr. William Bassett for $600.” Married to Mahala, with a growing family, Alvin’s life was not his. “At that time,” writes Leek, “the law said he didn’t even own himself.”
With the help of “Alvin and Mahala Coffey’s great-great-granddaughter, Jeannette Molson,” Leek tells the story of an enslaved man who finds not riches but something far more valuable. .
“When Dr. Bassett heard about gold in California, he was eager to get there. He took Alvin with him to do the hard work for him. The wagon train arrived in California in October 1849. “I worked the claims,” Alvin said in interviews years later. “After dark and on Sundays, I used to do odd jobs for other people and work at my cobbler.”
This extra money was enough to buy his freedom, but instead, Bassett took it all. Back in Missouri, Bassett sold Alvin for $1,000 “to Mary Tindall, the owner of Mahala.” Alvin was granted permission to return to Shasta County and, as he later said, “labored for years” and managed to buy their freedom.
Back in Missouri, he takes his family to California. “We were finally standing under God’s clear sky,” he said, “free at last, thank him.”
The story, Leek writes on his website, “needs to be better known.” It keeps alive the memory of the terrible legacy of slavery – and the life of a brave man.
Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. Send review requests to [email protected] Chronicles archived on https://dielbee.blogspot.com