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bySue Bailey Thurman

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.

Coffey left to us the following account:

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 o’clock 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 o’clock and we buried him. We got ready and started at eleven the same day and the moon was new just then.

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 Headspeth’s 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 trains.

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 provisions.

When we got well down Humboldt to a place called Lawson’s Meadow, which was quite a way from the sink of the Humboldt, the emigrants agreed to drive there. There was good grass at Lawson’s 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 and water.

Starting to cross the desert to Black Rock at four o’clock 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 o’clock 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 ox’s 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 o’clock. 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, “I’ve 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 Coffey’s 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 Redding’s 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 Coffey’s 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 patriarch’s 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 support.

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 Thurman.
San Francisco : Acme Pub. Co., ©1952.

Courtesy of the San Francisco African American Historical Society.

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