Had it not been for a Mormon missionary stopping by a Mississippi plantation more than 150 years ago, early California may never have known of Bridget Smith Mason.
African-Americans and Mormons have shared much in common ever since their early history in America. Maligned, murdered, driven and exiled--one because of color, the other because of faith--both with a legacy of struggle and courage in the face of overwhelming odds, their paths have frequently crossed in several rare and rewarding stories of the expanding American frontier.
Among the most interesting of these stories is the journey of Bridget "Biddy" Smith. Biddy was a woman of remarkable character, intelligence and compassion. Her story, woven into the tapestry of the Mormon pioneers is unique, binding Biddy and the Mormons of her time and place together in the crescendo of California history.
In the early 1830s the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sent the first Mormon missionaries into the world to share the message of their "restored gospel." Newly settled in Kirtland, Ohio, where they were building their first temple, the fledgling faith had grown rapidly from six members to nearly 10,000 in six years. Among the new converts were several prominent southern plantation owners and their slaves from Alabama, Mississippi and North Carolina. Within a few years, most of these plantation masters would sell their land holdings and travel north to Illinois to live with the Saints who had begun gathering there.
In their new-found faith, however, they faced a dilemma. While slaves may have sustained the economy of the southern states, Joseph Smith, the young prophet of the Church believed slavery was not in harmony with the gospel, and was outspoken about the evils and weaknesses inherent in the system.
As early as 1832, following a "revelation from the Lord," Smith wrote a declaration warning that the issue of slavery could eventually tear the country apart. He warned it would result in a war that would "[begin] at the rebellion of South Carolina." The end would be the "death and misery of many souls." He also warned that the southern states "[would] be divided against the northern states...and slaves [would] rise up against their masters..." None but Latter-day Saints listened to the young leader's tragically prophetic words.
Wanting to be true to Smith's teachings on slavery some of the southern converts freed their slaves before ever leaving the south. Some did not. Even among the freed slaves, however, there were those who considered their master's households to be the only family they had ever known and many chose to remain with their former masters. Some accepted the gospel and were baptized into the Church. Several lived in the prophet's own household, and came to play significant roles in the unfolding drama of the Mormon story.
It is the considered opinion of some that the intensifying storms of persecution descending on the Saints were not so much a result of the "new religion" preached and practiced by the Mormons, but rather were part of mounting socioeconomic and political pressures surrounding them. In addition to Smith's outspoken positions on slavery in which he advocated that the U.S. sell government lands and with the proceeds buy the freedom of all slaves -- there were the non-Mormon perceptions of political and economic upheaval being created by the Mormon settlements.
Non-Mormons also feared the cordiality with which the Native American Indians accepted the Mormons into their midst. In stark contrast to the U.S. government policy of forcing the Indians west onto reservations, Mormons saw Indians as descendants of a sacred people and believed they should be accorded the same rights and respect as other Americans. Storm clouds of dissension grew on the horizon.
Missouri's governor, Lilburn W. Boggs had been especially disconcerted by these developments. As early as 1838, latching onto an incident at the voting polls and the growing hostilities against the Mormons, Gov. Boggs issued an executive order to the state militia to "treat Mormons as enemies & exterminate or drive them from the state." Within days, in response to the governor's order, the Mormons at Haun's Mill were massacred by 200 Livingston County militia.
The furies against the Mormons continued until, in the midst of winter snow storms, the Church and its faithful were driven for a second time from their refined homes and prosperous farms. The following fall and winter Joseph Smith made several appeals to the U.S. government in Washington, D.C. He pled with the president for redress for the terrors being visited on the Latter-day Saints in Missouri. In a meeting with Pres. Van Buren, Joseph was told by the president that he could do nothing for the Saints.
Settling eastward in Illinois on marshy swampland along the Mississippi, the Mormon outcasts built Nauvoo, "the Beautiful." Nauvoo quickly became the largest city on the western frontier, and as the Saints and the city thrived, the swelling flood of mostly impoverished converts brought further hostilities from their neighbors. For several more years angry confrontations erupted between Latter-day Saints and their neighbors. There was talk, believed by many, that there could easily be an alliance between the Mormons, the slaves and the Indians--all of them persecuted minorities of their day--and that such a confederation could form a military force greater than that of the entire U.S. army.
As mayor of Nauvoo Joseph Smith already had at his command a sizeable militia. It was also being argued by antagonists that the rapidly increasing number of Mormons was beginning to shift the political balance of power in the counties, and that their continued growth could tip the balance of power in the country. Coupled with Smith's impending bid for the U.S. presidency the situation became politically charged. He was seen as a growing danger to the powers in Washington. In early 1844 a clandestine meeting at the state capitol in Springfield, Illinois, took place behind closed doors. States' delegates sat down to discuss what was to be done about the upstart candidate.
The seeds of Joseph's murder were sown in a shattering scenario filled with intrigue. Based on spurious allegations of treason against Joseph, Gov. Ford of Illinois ordered the local sheriff at Carthage to arrest Smith. A writ was issued and the Carthage conspiracy was set in motion. Joseph, his brother Hyrum and two other church leaders were incarcerated, "for their own protection." Despite his promise to escort Joseph back to Nauvoo to try to calm the fears of the Mormons, the governor departed Carthage without the prophet, leaving the prisoners under guard by a seven-man detachment of the Carthage Grey militia. The Grey's were bitter enemies of Joseph Smith and the Mormons. Like foxes set to guard the henhouse--their rifles loaded with blanks--the Greys were ready to "protect" Joseph. He spent his last hours writing to his beloved wife, Emma, and singing melancholy hymns with his brother and friends.
Just past 5 o'clock on a humid June afternoon, an angry mob gathered like gnats swarming through the dusk at end of day. on June 27th more than 200 men, faces darkened by soot and bootblack, overran the jail, charging the staircase to the upper room. A deadly volley of shots erupted and the young prophet was shot. He crashed through the window in another fusillade of gunfire, falling into the swirling mob below. Men dragged the body, propping it against a well. Four riflemen stepped forward and sent more shots into Smith, his body flinching with the impact of each bullet. Joseph lay murdered. His blood soaked into the ground, sealing in the eyes of his followers -- his martyrdom.
The mood of his enemies, however, was only temporarily mollified. Within months deepening divisions further stirred the fear and fury between the Mormons and their neighbors. The Mormons were forced to flee for their lives a third time, abandoning beautiful homes and thriving farms. While the men hastily loaded wagons many of the women quietly hung freshly ironed curtains and polished their brass doorknobs. They might be forced to leave their homes to enemies, but they would be immaculate, reflecting the loving care these Mormon women gave their Nauvoo homes. Others were so embittered they chose to leave nothing of value to the hands of those who destroyed the life of the prophet.
Then, in the dead of winter, men, women and children turned their backs on Nauvoo "the Beautiful" and set out across the ice-bound Mississippi. Those who turned one last time to look back saw fires reflected against the snow laden hillsides. Homes and barns were being set ablaze, perhaps to be certain the Mormons had nothing to come back to. Nauvoo burned.
Caught up in this maelstrom were the black Latter-day Saints who had loved the prophet and lived as part of his family. Among them were Green Flake, Jane Manning James and her brother Isaac Manning. All were intimately acquainted with the Prophet Joseph Smith. According to Isaac it was he who helped bring the bodies of Joseph and his brother Hyrum in a wagon from Carthage back to Nauvoo. It was he who dug the graves in the cemetery and stood watch through the nights that followed so the mobs would believe the bodies were actually in the stone-laden caskets buried there. And it was Isaac who dug the true graves where Joseph and Hyrum were secretly laid to rest in the cellar of Nauvoos Mansion House, the Prophet's home.
Hearts broken, tears frosting their cheeks, they walked with their fellow Saints through the snow and over the frozen roads of Iowa into the severest winter of the decade. After a season of rest in Winter Quarters--where the wagons of the southern Saints finally caught up to the larger group--the Mormon wagon train left the edge of the United States in an exodus strewn with the unmarked graves of the aged, the newborn and the exhausted. Their arduous trek, unparalleled in history, led the weary Saints over vast plains on a devastating six-month journey toward the uncharted wastelands of the Great Salt Lake. Wagons were only for the aged and ill.
Black pioneers, including Toby and Grief Embers, Oscar Crosby, and Hark Lay were also part of that wagon train. It was Green Flake who drove the first wagon through Emigration Canyon, where the ailing Brigham Young stood two days later to look out across the desert spread beneath the Wasatch. There, in the valley below the Saints settled another homeplace high in the tops of the mountains, far from their persecutors. Together, in a land no one else desired, they toiled to build rude cabins and tilled the barren, windswept soil until, in fulfillment of the Biblical promise in Isaiah 35:1, they made the "desert blossom as a rose."
Although it would be three years before he was sustained as prophet and president of the Church, the responsibility of leadership fell on Brigham Young. During that time it was he who had to assure that the Saints endured--not only physically and spiritually, but politically as well. As they struggled to gain U.S. recognition and acceptance for the Utah Territory, they encountered evolving positions on slavery that mirrored the attitudes prevalent in 19th century America. While many were anti-slavery themselves, the Latter-day Saints for a time begrudgingly accommodated slavery in the territory of Utah.
Once peacefully settled in the Salt Lake Valley, Young--who was gaining a reputation as "The American Moses" and "The Great Colonizer"--sent out a call for families willing to head for California. Expecting a group of 50, Young was stunned to find more than 500 Saints ready to head west. His plan to establish an outpost at Rancho San Bernardino as a point of departure for missionaries was also a strategy to create a place of refuge, respite and shelter for the anticipated flood of converts that would be arriving by sea from the Pacific isles and Asia. Brigham also saw it as a way-station for an inland mail route from the coast, and he envisioned the potential of an agricultural center where fruit and cotton could be grown and sent back to the Saints in the Salt Lake Valley.
The southerners, knowing they would be especially adept at cotton farming, were among the 500 responding to Young's call. After suffering through the hard winters they found the prospects of a warmer climate enticing. Prior to the group's final preparations Young met with them to discuss the particulars of their mission. To the southerners he gave specific counsel. Leave the slaves behind or free them before departure. He made it clear to them that since California's constitution forbade slavery, their slaves would be free once they arrived there. Most who had not already done so earlier freed their slaves before embarking on the journey. one who chose to ignore Brigham's advice was Robert Marion Smith (unrelated to the prophet Joseph Smith), who was master to Biddy. Liz Flake and Biddy strode side by side on this trek, driving cattle and tending the pioneer children who walked the entire way.
From the vantage point of history, a seeming paradox resulted from this freeing of slaves by the Latter-day Saint pioneers. Years later some of the freed slaves told their children and grandchildren about the terrors they had at the thought of being free and on their own. They related how they had begged their masters not to take them into California and its freedom. Even once in California many of the newly freed slaves, having known nothing but life-long servitude, plead to remain within the homes and families of their former masters. In such ways and through their own choice black settlers became part of the Mormon journey out of the Great Salt Lake Valley into California.
Of those who accompanied the Mormons, Biddy would ultimately stand out from all the others. According to the family Bible, Biddy had been born to slavery on Aug. 15, 1818 in Hancock County, Georgia. She became by all accounts a woman of remarkable strength and courage, walking every step of the trails blazed by the Mormon pioneers--from Mississippi, to Nauvoo, to the Salt Lake Valley, then to California. It was the practice in those days when a plantation family was baptized into any Christian faith, that the slaves were also baptized, whether they accepted the Christian faith in their own hearts. The Churchs policy was that no slave would be baptized into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints against their own will. Although it isn't known if she was ever baptized as a Latter-day Saint--as were many of her fellow slaves--her heart and eyes beheld the same heartbreaks, sorrows and joys as those with whom she journeyed.
Biddy and her "sister" Hannah [it isnt known if Hannah and Biddy were blood sisters, or if this was just a term of the bond of sisterhood they accorded one another] were highly esteemed mid-wives, beloved among the Mormon women whose babies they delivered under the harshest of conditions during the westward treks. Biddy had a gift of healing in her hands. Lore passed down through the ages from African healers through their descendants was vouchsafed to Biddy over the years. Through her great skill with herbs and medicinals she was immeasurably rich with invaluable knowledge.
Once in California, Biddy and Hannah, with their children, remained part of the household of Robert Smith. In spite of the counsel and warning he had from Young, and against the advice of his fellow plantation owners who had freed their slaves before ever leaving Mississippi, Robert chose not to "give" Hannah, Biddy or the others their "freedom."
There is a whisper of his thinking in the newspaper account published five years later. Robert Smith looked upon Hannah and her children with duality. For years he had been not only their master, but he also considered himself their patriarch and father. This peculiar reasoning ultimately led to his grievous sin of omission in acknowledging their freedom, and contributed to his downfall in the eyes of the Church.
For five years in San Bernardino the Robert Smith household continued intact. The vibrancy of freedom thrummed all around them and was likely a topic of family conversation between the two women day in and day out. on the one hand their friends urged them to take their leave of Smith. on the other hand Smith impressed upon them the fact that throughout their lives he had been their sole protector and provider. He promised that he would always do so. They must have been left terrified over the uncertainty of their plight should they leave him--where would they go? how would they live? who would feed and shelter their tender children? What bond held Biddy, and especially Hannah and her children, to Robert Smith?
Reports seem to indicate that Smith had prospered for a time within the San Bernardino colony, but soon found himself beset by mounting personal difficulties. The place of Hannah and her children in his household caused some concern in the circumspect Mormon community. Fellow Church leaders strongly rebuked his behavior and attitude, and his refusal to free his slaves, suggesting he remedy things. Smith rankled under the chastisement, becoming restive and uncomfortable in the Church he had chosen to follow.
As disenchantment and resentment consumed Smith he began plotting with his overseer, Hart Cottrell, to leave for Texas, where he could keep his slaves and the wealth they represented. His thinking became at best contradictory and at worst muddled. Although he knew Texas had laws against importing free blacks, he must have believed that in Texas it might be possible to recoup some of his wealth by selling some of his slaves. He simply chose to ignore the niceties of both California and Texas law, each of which forbade what Smith wanted to do.
But it was also specifically Robert's intent to keep Hannah and her children. He would not agree to the manumission that had been their right ever since they entered California. According to published accounts he promised her "nothing would change" in their relationship if she and the children went with him to Texas. He had "treated Hannah and her children as he did his own family." Put more simply, Robert had no intention of letting this part of his "family" leave him.
Meanwhile, Biddy and Hannah's closest friend, Elizabeth Flake, was growing more concerned over her friends. Liz had been baptized a Latter-day Saint when the Flake family of North Carolina joined the Church, and she remained strong in her faith in the Mormon religion. The Flakes had given Liz her freedom before leaving Mississippi. This was the same Liz who had driven cattle with Biddy on the journey to San Bernardino. Another friend of the Mormons, Charles Rowan, whom Liz later married, was one of the free blacks who had also traveled the trail with the Mormons.
Liz talked often to Biddy about the circumstances in which Biddy and Hannah found themselves --free, yet not free. As the time for their departure grew nearer, Biddy and Hannah shared with Liz their fears and uncertainties over the threatened trip to Texas. Hannah was pregnant, ready to deliver another child, and frantic that her new infant be born free. Yet she seemed hesitant about leaving the home and hearth provided by Robert Smith.
Notwithstanding, within days Smith packed his people and belongings into wagons and left San Bernardino with furtive haste. Liz, however, realizing what was going to happen to her friends became adamant that Biddy and Hannah remain free. Determined to thwart Robert Smith's plot to take her friends into Texas, Liz rushed to Charles Rowan and Latter-day Saint friends, urging them to help. Charles raced to Los Angeles to enlist the aid of Robert Owens, the famous black cowboy who owned a livery and teamster business there. Together they devised a bold plan to help Biddy and Hannah in an "11th-hour" escape from Smith.
As Smith and Cottrell drove the loaded wagons inexorably over the rutted roads to the coastline, Biddy, the pregnant Hannah and the children endured the rough ride in obedient silence. Meanwhile, Owens and Rowan rushed to alert Sheriff Frank Wyatt of Los Angeles about Smith's plot and the desperate plight of his people. They soon determined that Smith had headed into the Santa Monica mountains where he intended to camp, keeping Biddy and Hannah and the children hidden there to wait the arrival of the boat that would take them to Texas and lives of certain slavery. Meanwhile, Biddy and Hannah awaited the approaching birth of Hannah's baby.
In a pounding ride through the Santa Monica mountains, the sheriff, Owens and ten of his black vaqueros scoured the scrub-shrouded hillsides, until at last they found Smith's camp hidden in a secluded canyon. With a writ of habeas corpus in his hand, the sheriff immediately confronted Smith and challenged his intentions for Biddy and Hannah. Unsatisfied with Smith's explanations, the sheriff took the women and children into protective custody, and with the vaqueros escorted them back to Los Angeles and safety.
Their bid for freedom and their daring escape -- accomplished through the assistance of friends in the Mormon community, black and white alike, and with the law of the State of California standing behind them -- gained Biddy and Hannah a court date. It was to become one of the landmark civil rights trials in history.
In 1856, during the much-watched and well-reported hearing in the First Judicial District before Judge Benjamin Hayes, Smith insisted in his written affidavit that Hannah and her children were "well-disposed" to remain with him, and that they had never been a willing party to the pleading. The court made note of the fact that Hannah and her children were "so fair as to be indistinguishable from the white race," a fact that may well have explained Hannah's hesitancy to speak up against Robert in court as well as Smith's insistence that Hannah's children would be treated no differently than his own children.
At one point during the hearings Cottrell attempted to entice several of Hannah's children to leave the courthouse with him. Meantime, since women were not permitted to give testimony in open court, the judge questioned Biddy in his chambers about their desires for freedom. Speaking for herself and for Hannah, who was "indisposed" after the birth of her new-born son, whom she named Marion, Biddy simply replied, "I have always done what I have been told to do." She then added, "I always feared this trip to Texas, since I first heard of it."
By the third day the judge made his decision, wrote his opinion excoriating Robert Smith for his actions, and finally Biddy, Hannah and their families gained their freedom. Judge Hayes opinion, recorded in "A Suit for Freedom" published in the Los Angeles Star, was rendered a full year before the famed Dred Scott decision of 1857. Had it occurred any later their freedom may well have been a moot point, since all slaves would from that point on remain so, no matter the law of the state where they lived.
By the time the Los Angeles trial ended Smith had fled California, into Texas with his wife Rebecca and their children, and into obscurity. A few weeks later he was excommunicated 'in absentia' from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, for his "un-Christian like conduct." Hannah went on to marry Toby Embers, another black pioneer, and gained renown far and wide for her daring midnight horseback rides to deliver babies in the colony.
Once free, however, it was Biddy who became famous. When asked for the name to be inscribed on her freedom papers, she chose the surname Mason, said to have been done in honor of the great Mormon apostle, Amasa Mason Lyman, who had led the Mormon wagon trains to the Great Salt Lake valley and then on to San Bernardino. She was from that time onward called Biddy Mason.
Living in Los Angeles with the Owens family, Biddy continued her midwifery, working for Dr. John Strother Griffin "catching" babies in the growing communities of San Bernardino and Los Angeles. Invited into the meanest hovels and the grandest Victorian homes alike, Biddy delivered newborns into the arms of the poorest and the wealthiest of mothers. Diligently saving whatever she could of the money she earned, her savings grew over a period of ten years to the grand sum of $250. Then, following the counsel of both Dr. Griffin and her friend Bob Owens to invest in land, Biddy purchased several lots, beyond the edges of Los Angeles, near today's Spring Street and Broadway. Through her unflagging labors and wise management she soon established a homestead of her own, becoming one of Los Angeles' first real estate investors and developers, and eventually becoming one of the wealthiest and most prominent women in early Los Angeles.
Biddy's homestead became a gathering place where she nurtured her family and contributed to her community. She taught her children the virtues of generosity and Christ-like love--the principle that giving to others always brings back more than has gone out. Her own life preached her sermons to them. Her donations sustained education programs and she established schools where the poorest and most needy children could be taught. According to one of her biographers Biddy arranged to purchase the freedom of a score of black children. After a deluge of flood waters in the 1880s Biddy went to a local grocer and set up open-end accounts where those displaced from their homes and livelihoods could obtain food and necessities. Biddy quietly paid all the bills. Those helped through Biddy's generosity were people of all races--black, white and brown. To Biddy there were no differences.
On a bright day in 1872 Biddy gathered with a circle of friends in her home. They had learned after their emancipation that the centerpiece of their new-found freedom was their right and ability to found schools, societies and above all, churches. That day Biddy and her friends organized the Los Angeles branch of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church. She donated the land on which the church was built, paid the taxes each year and assured that the minister's salary was met regularly so he could tend the new flock.
Her life adventures continued. In later years she visited the poor and the ill, becoming a renowned philanthropist. She established convalescent homes to care for the aged and ill. She was a frequent visitor to the jails, proffering medical care among the prisoners, and her own home provided a refuge for stranded travelers. Lines formed each morning in front of her home as petitioners sought her help.
Finally, aged and feeble, Biddy died on Jan. 15, 1891. It was the first morning her children had to turn people away from her benevolence. She lies buried in Evergreen Cemetery, in Boyle Heights near Los Angeles, where in 1988 a memorial marker was placed at her gravesite by her remaining family and admirers. Today her descendants and those of the Smith, Mason and Owens families still remember and honor her name. Extended family -- both white and black -- have sought out one another for family reunions. A plaque stands in a Los Angeles park as a monument to Bridget "Biddy" Mason and her remarkable and long-lasting legacy to the cities of San Bernardino and Los Angeles.
Through her lifetime Biddy gained hard-earned wisdom and hard-earned wealth, through which she had significant influence and impact on the lives of her fellow men and women. Hers is a legacy to honor for the heritage she brought with her, and for the heritage she left those who followed after her.
And yet, had it not been for a Mormon missionary stopping by a Mississippi plantation more than 150 years ago, California may never have known the devotion and legacy of Bridget Smith Mason, the beloved Biddy.
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