Cory’s Historical Corner

By Cory Peterman

Black Pioneers of Sierra County – Part 2

The collection of the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley is home to the David Brown papers, which date from 1853 to 1887. Included in this collection are papers relating to the Colored American Joint Stock Quartz Mining Company, which was formed in Sierra County and operated in 1865-66. David Davis Brown, a Black man who was reported to be a runaway slave from Virginia, lived in Downieville, and was secretary of the mining company, which included the other following Black members: Amanda Isom, Sylvia Campbell, Henry Mills, John Hall, Albert Callis, Philip Scott, Samuel Crosby, John Johnson, Richard James, Robert H. Isom, R. Riggs, William Cole, John W. King, and Samuel Barns.

One of these men, Albert G. Callis, was a member of “Major” William Downie’s original party that travelled along what is now the North Yuba River. Like Brown, Callis was also said to be a runaway slave from Virginia. Downie wrote about the gold claims Callis acquired, stating they “proved particularly rich, and gold could be seen in considerable quantity by simply removing the dirt with the foot…we arrived at our camp on a Sunday, but although Albert kicked the dirt off in sundry places, and saw the yellow gold, he conscientiously covered the metal up again, as he would not remove it on the Sabbath. He came originally from Mathews County, Virginia, and I believe was a runaway slave.

He afterwards settled in Downieville, married and had quite a family, which he supported partly by working at his trade as a barber. I may state here that none of the drakes belonging to my company (I mean those of African blood, could have been induced to work Sunday, the effect no doubt of early training.”

The Colored American Joint Stock Mining Company didn’t last for long. Katie Willmarth Green writes “Eventually the mining company was forced to sell off its holdings at public auction to pay delinquent assessments — not necessarily a reflection on their mining skills, as the newspapers are filled with similar hard luck stories that happened to the best of mining men. The men next spread out to Negro Canyon and elsewhere to prospect. David Brown tried his luck mining around Coyoteville with a single partner, as well.

Green states that Callis ran a barber shop on Main Street in Downieville for over two decades, and mined in Negro Canyon with seven white men, in a party that called themselves the Amigo Company. Along with his wife Catherine and their eight children, Callis lived at the eastern edge of Downieville upon leaving town towards Sierra City. The marriage between Albert Callis and Catherine Hughes, a Black woman originally from Boston, took place in Downieville in 1863.

Callis was one of very few Black men that married in Sierra County. Green writes “John Johnson, Robert Isom and Christopher Campbell also married and established families but virtually all the other black men were bachelors” and “most remained single for obvious reasons — few black women came and miscegenation laws prevented intermarriage with whites in California until 1948.” Johnson also served as a barber in Downieville.

David Davis Brown lived on Durgan Flat in Downieville, but also jointly owned a ranch near Coyoteville. In his older years, he became the “Town Crier” of Downieville. According to The Mountain Messenger, Brown’s job consisted of “walking around town ringing a bell and telling of a show or dance.

Ironically, as Green states, Brown wrote “a number of bitter lines to condemning ‘foreigners’, most especially the Chinese. In the pecking order of that small mountain society, the blacks were at least a peck above the Asian out-group. ‘They have put the wages down very low now. Chinamen work at anything and everything, washing, cooking, farming, mining, or anything else that you can mention, and they are the most expert thieves in the world, rob sluices, stages, travelers or anything that comes in his way. You speaking of hard times. I presume that times are very hard every where now, everyone complaining and men looking for work in every direction.’

Of interest, both Albert G. Callis and David D. Brown both met a similar fate at the end of their lives. Callis, who had a long problem with alcohol, received many complaints about his erratic behavior, and the court ordered him to be evaluated by local physicians. He was found mentally unfit, and brought to the psychiatric hospital in Napa in 1888, where he died on July 29, 1891. Callis’s widow moved to Marysville, and at the time of her death in 1929, had outlived all of her children, most of whom had moved to either Butte or Yuba County.

David D. Brown, at the age of 80, was also deemed by local doctors to be insane, and sent to the hospital in Napa. Brown deeded his property in Downieville to Jack Callis, one of Albert Callis’s sons, and a local widow, Mrs. Jerome York. Katie Willmarth Green stated that Brown’s small dilapidated house was destroyed, and “his lot was later mined by the Chinese so that the house, garden and orchard were obliterated in the ongoing insatiable quest for gold.

Though once a gathering spot for many Black miners in the 1800s, all that remains today at Negro Canyon is a dilapidated Depression-era mining cabin.

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