Women of the West Bridget “Biddy” Mason African women during the gold rush not only survived unbelievable hardships, but showed their courage, determination and intelligence. Meet Biddy Mason who was born a slave in Mississippi in 1818. As a child she was separated from her parents and sold several times. She worked on plantations in Georgia, Mississippi and South Carolina. She was not allowed to learn to read or write, but she learned many medical skills, especially the ability to deliver babies and the use of herbs to help the sick. When she was 30 years old she walked 1,700 miles behind a covered wagon caravan. First her owner, Robert Smith, took her to Utah, and a few years later to California. Her jobs along the way were to set up and break down camp, cook the meals, herd the cattle, deliver babies and take care of her three young daughters. Whether she knew it or not, her walk to California was leading her to freedom! California was a “free” state, even though the laws were not well written on slavery. After five years Biddy challenged her owner for her freedom. Her owner was fleeing with Biddy and his other slaves to Texas (a “slave” state), so that he could keep them. The sheriff found out that the blacks were being illegally held, and he gathered a posse of cowboys and vaqueros who caught up with the wagon train and prevented the “owner” from leaving the state. Biddy petitioned the court for freedom for herself and her family of 13 women and children. The judge ruled in favor of Biddy, citing California’s 1850 Constitution, which made slavery against the law. This triumph in court represented a great victory toward justice in California, but the battle was not won. Californians may have been anti-slavery, but they were not anti-racist. Two years after Biddy and her family received their freedom, reformist Georgiana Kirby wrote: I heard last week that there was a fuss in the common school…about two colored children, nice, intelligent, well-behaved children all say, but disgraced by their skin. I understand that the children are admitted but put off by themselves, poor things and not allowed to take places no matter how much they out-spelled those above them. The more violently pro-slavery do not permit their children to go to the school at Women of the West Handout, Lesson 2 1 all. The ignorant, white people from the slave states are the curse of California, they are so stupid and conceited they think one man (to-wit, themselves) just as good as another, providing there be not the least drop of African blood in them. Biddy Mason and her family moved to Los Angeles where she organized an African American church and started a school for African American children. She worked as a midwife and a nurse and saved her money. She purchased some land that became very valuable in downtown Los Angeles. When she was growing up as a slave she was not allowed to learn to read or write, so she was illiterate. However, due to her good business knowledge, savings, and her purchases of real estate, she became a very wealthy woman. She was well respected because she helped many people and organizations in the community. She invited needy people to stay in her home. Lines of people would form who needed her help. She donated money and land to schools, day care centers, grocery stores and churches. She also visited people in jail regularly. Biddy Mason’s great-granddaughter quoted Ms. Mason as saying “If you hold our hand closed, nothing good can come in. The open hand is blessed, for it gives in abundance, even as it receives.” Sources: http://www.blackpast.org/aaw/mason-bridget-biddy-1818-1891 http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3404708078.html Levy, JoAnn, They Saw the Elephant, Women in the California Gold Rush. Archon Books, 1990. Charley Parkhurst Men made up most of the population during the gold rush; some records show that only 10% were women. These women adapted to the environment, and solved challenges in interesting ways. For example, Charlotte Parkhurst ran away from an abusive orphanage when she was twelve years old. At that time boys and girls were often dressed in shirts and overalls and had the same haircut. Short hair was much easier to keep clean and vermin free. Charley was mistaken for a boy, which was to her advantage, because she was able to get a job taking care of horses at a stable. She was very skilled with horses and enjoyed her work with them. Charley continued to dress like a man so that it would

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