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Style Magazine

Freedom Discovered

Oct 07, 2010 05:30AM ● By Style

When word of James Marshall’s gold discovery reached St. Charles, Missouri, William Gooch caught the fever rapidly spreading across the country.

In 1849, with hopes of striking it rich, Gooch and his family packed up their holdings and joined a wagon train headed for California.

Among their most valued possessions were two married slaves, Nancy and Peter. Accustomed to being treated as property, they had no choice but to accompany their masters on the hard journey across the plains. Slave owners thought nothing of tearing black families apart and sadly, Nancy and Peter were forced to leave behind their beloved son, Andrew. Nancy left with a heavy heart and a strong will to reunite her family.

Something far more valuable than gold awaited them in California; not long after their arrival in Coloma, the couple discovered freedom. The year was 1850, and California had joined the Union, thus forbidding the institution of slavery. Nancy worked tirelessly to establish herself and her family as respected citizens of Coloma in slave-free California. Little information exists about Peter, but Nancy gained a reputation as an honest, hard-working individual who cooked for hungry miners, took in laundry and sewing, and raised and sold vegetables from her garden. All the while, she patiently saved her earnings to send for her son left behind in Missouri.

Thinking ahead, Nancy filed homestead rights on some of the best land in Coloma. Eighteen years passed before the $700 to pay Andrew’s way out to California was accumulated. By then, the Civil War had freed all slaves; Andrew was married to his wife Sara and was the father of two boys, Pearley and Grant Monroe. Nevertheless, his mother’s hard-earned money was put to good use. In the spring of 1870, a joyous reunion took place in Coloma.

Like his mother, Andrew Monroe was determined to make a place for himself and his family in the community. Learning to read and write became one of his priorities. In time, he became a member of a Bible class taught by Charles Edwin Markham. A “jack of all trades,” Andrew worked as a barber, preacher and blacksmith. He planted fruit trees, grape vines, and raised and sold vegetables. Soon, the Monroes became one of the most prosperous families in Coloma. Andrew and Sarah had seven more children, five of whom lived: William, Garfield, James, Andrew Jr., and Cordelia. Consequently, they enlarged Nancy’s small cabin. All the children attended school in Coloma and grew up to become respected members of the community. Over time, the family holdings comprised 80 acres of land, including the site of Sutter’s Mill.

Andrew’s son James, the last surviving member of the pioneer Monroe family died in 1988 at the age of 99. He once told an interviewer: “I’ve lived the life I wanted to. I’ve done everything I’ve wanted to do. No one ever tried to stop me. Maybe freedom, to be summed up, means being able to live the kind of life I wanted to live.”