The Wild West of Yester-Year

Biddy Mason: From Slavery to Success
By Rachel Kovaciny

Bridget "Biddy" Mason was born in 1818 in the Deep South, a slave. Sold several times as a child, she ended up on the plantation owned by John Smithson in South Carolina. There she learned the duties of a house slave and midwife until she was eighteen. In 1836, the Smithsons gave Biddy and her sister Hannah to Robert and Rebecca Smith as a wedding present. Biddy was eighteen and this was her fourth master.

The Smiths took Biddy and Hannah to their home in Mississippi. Biddy had frequent use for her midwifery skills, for Robert Smith fathered six children with his wife. He reportedly also fathered Hannah's nine children and Biddy's three daughters. Eight years after their marriage, Robert and Rebecca converted to Mormonism. This changed all their futures. The Smiths, the Smithsons, and some of their friends decided to move to Utah in 1848. They took the slaves with them. At that time, Utah still belonged to Mexico, and slavery was allowable there. The Smiths settled near Salt Lake City until Mormon leader Brigham Young called for volunteers to settle along the coast in California. Robert volunteered and, in 1851, moved his family and slaves to San Bernardino County, California.

California had entered the Union as a free state a year earlier, so slavery was technically illegal in the entire state. The Smiths seemed not to care. But Biddy knew California could be their Promised Land. The group lived in San Bernardino for five years. Though slavery was illegal, most courts would side with a white man against a person of color in any legal battle, so Biddy and her fellow slaves waited for the right opportunity to seek freedom. They made friends with the free blacks and, in 1855, got their chance when the Smiths decided to move to Texas, a slave state. Along the way, the Smiths stopped in Los Angeles to wait for Hannah’s ninth baby to arrive, and Biddy and Hannah's friends rode to the rescue. Free blacks Charles and Elizabeth Rowan, plus many Mexican vaqueros who worked for them, surrounded the Smiths. They brought along Frank Dewitt, the Los Angeles sheriff, whom they had told of Smith's plans to take his slaves to Texas so he could keep them enslaved. Dewitt convinced Judge Benjamin Hayes to issue a writ of habeas corpus against the Smiths to prevent them from leaving the state. Biddy and the other slaves were placed under Sheriff Dewitt's protection until the trial.

Biddy was illiterate, but she hired a lawyer and formally petitioned the court for freedom for herself and her family. California law prohibited a person of color to speak out in court against a white person, so the lawyer had to do all their speaking for them. After three days of deliberation, Judge Hayes ruled in Biddy's favor, declaring her family free. At age 37, Biddy was ready to begin a new life. She took the surname Mason to mark the beginning of her free life.
Biddy and her family settled in Los Angeles, where she worked as a midwife and nurse for Dr. John Griffin. Her medical skills earned her the respect and trust of many, and she delivered hundreds of babies to women of every color and class. For her work, Biddy earned $2.50 a day, startlingly good pay for women of that time. She saved scrupulously. In 1866, she bought two lots of land on the outskirts of Los Angeles, becoming one of the first African American women to own land there.

Over the coming years, Biddy continued to invest in real estate, selling the original parcel of land she had purchased for $250 in 1866 for $1,500 in 1884 and investing in more land with that money. By the late 1800s, Biddy Mason was the wealthiest black woman in Los Angeles, having accrued a fortune of nearly $300,000. Biddy was generous and openhearted to anyone in need. As a nurse and midwife, she would tend people regardless of their ability to pay her. In later years, she became deeply involved in charity work. She and her son founded First A.M.E. Church, the first African American church in the city. Although Biddy never gained a formal education, she insisted her children be educated and she later helped open an elementary school for black children.

By the time of her death in 1891, Bridget "Biddy" Mason, born a slave, had become one of Los Angeles' wealthiest, most respected, and most beloved citizens. She lived the American Dream, overcoming obstacles we today can only vaguely imagine. Her courage and determination stand as a shining example to all who hear her story. If you want to learn more about Biddy Mason, African Women of the Old West by Tricia Martineau Wagner and Epic Lives: One Hundred Black Women Who Made a Difference by Jessie Carney Smith are good places to start.