February Dates in Women's History
by Susan G. Butruille
During February, Black History Month, my thoughts turn to some amazing African-American women I've encountered in my research on Gold Rush California.
Biddy Mason is one. In 1851, this intrepid woman drove a herd of livestock more than 2,000 miles from Mississippi to California, while caring for her three small girls. Biddy Mason and her daughters traveled at the end of the wagon train -- the worst place to be because of incessant dust and mud.
After she and her children settled in Los Angeles, Biddy Mason saved money she earned as a nurse and midwife, and wisely invested in downtown property. She built a $300,000 fortune and gave much of it away. People for miles around knew they could count on "Mother Mason" when they needed help. She visited jail inmates, founded a school and a church, helped flood victims, and gave refuge to the homeless.
One more thing about Biddy Mason: she went to California as a slave, and she drove the livestock for her "owner." Although slavery technically was outlawed, many owners were allowed to keep slaves they brought into California. For five years, Biddy and her children were in bondage. When the "master" decided to leave California, Biddy and her children were freed. Today a memorial marks the site of her home and honors this woman who took her freedom and ran with it.
Black women are an important thread in the fabric of California history and legend. One tale says that California was named for a fabled dark-skinned Amazon Queen, Calafia. A Spanish writer spun a tale of Queen Calafia and her Amazon warriors who lived on an island called California, which abounded with gold and precious stones. Christopher Columbus himself told of women warriors living on an island in the New World.
The beautiful, powerful, adventurous, and quirky Mary Ellen (Mammy) Pleasant came from the East to San Francisco in about 1849. A former slave, she was a free, wealthy black woman. Mammy Pleasant became a major power and money broker, and an owner of boarding houses, which also were places of high-priced prostitution.
"The Mother of Civil Rights in California" used her wealth and influence to win rights of black people to ride street cars, testify in court, earn respectable wages, and live free. Before the end of slavery, she even journeyed to the South and helped thousands of her people escape to Canada, earning a reputation as the "western terminus" of the Underground Railroad.
Mary Ellen Pleasant, said to have partly financed John Brown's ill-fated raid on Harper's Ferry, was a mysterious figure. Some said she practiced voodoo. Others whispered that she had the "evil eye" because she had one brown eye and one blue. But all saw her as a powerful force in her city.
In the gold fields, black people often were regarded as mysterious, exotic, and dangerous. Many of the gold seekers, especially if they were white, believed that black people possessed some magic that enabled them to find gold. That superstition only added to the racism the white miners brought with them, and served their aim of keeping the gold for themselves. Black people, then, were unwelcome in much of the Mother Lode country. But they came anyway.
Nancy Gooch traveled the overland trail as a slave in 1849 and won her freedom soon after reaching the heart of the Mother Lode country. Doing laundry and other chores for the miners, Nancy saved enough money to buy the freedom of her son and his wife, Andrew and Sara Ellen Monroe, who were still in Missouri. The Monroes traveled by wagon to join Nancy, and eventually became major holders of land, including the gold discovery site at Sutter's Mill.
Most women in Gold Rush California were not famous and wealthy, like Biddy Mason and Mammy Pleasant. In the early years, women were scarce, especially in the gold fields, and most were white. Most women, like the men, came seeking a better life. Gold Rush California often was a mean and violent place, and it was hard for any woman to scratch out a living. Most women earned their gold by mining the miners -- washing their clothes, feeding them, and providing "other services."
Like Biddy Mason and Mammy Pleasant, most black women who migrated to California settled in urban areas. Laws and tradition discriminated against both women and minorities, and black women were expected to take the lowest-paid, most menial jobs. Yet many became teachers, entrepreneurs, and civic leaders, laying foundations for their families and communities.
I wonder, as I often do when I encounter stories of any group of people, past and present, who do not have the legal and cultural rights of the majority group: what could these women have accomplished had they been truly free?
And I wonder about the woman described by a traveler on the California Trail in 1850: "Among the crowds on foot, a negro woman came tramping along through the heat and dust, carrying a cast-iron bake oven on her head, with her provisions and blanket piled on top -- all she possessed in the world -- bravely pushing on for California."
I hope that woman found whatever kind of gold she was seeking in California.
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