Biddy Mason: “The Open Hand is Blessed”

56. The story of Bridget “Biddy” Mason (1818-1891) doesn’t have anything in particular to do with food history, but it’s a good story, and it fits in with our recent posts about the Colorado pioneers Clara Brown and Barney Ford.

Bridget’s birth date given on her tombstone is August 15, 1818, but the age given for her in the 1850 census (25) suggests she may have been born as late as 1824, and may have started having children as early as age 14. She was probably born in Hancock County, Georgia. As an enslaved person, she had no last name. “Mason,” as we shall see, was the surname she chose for herself later in life, just as Barney Ford’s wife helped him choose his surname once he had escaped to freedom.

Bridget was separated from her parents, and appears to have been traded several times by slaveowners, working in households in Georgia and South Carolina. Around 1836, when she was perhaps 18, Bridget was given to Robert Mays Smith (1804-1891) and his wife, Rebecca Dorn. It is said that she and another young enslaved woman, Hannah, were assigned to the couple as wedding gifts.


Back to the story: The Smiths left Edgefield, South Carolina and settled in Mississippi, perhaps at Logtown, just east of Slidell, Louisiana. In 1841, he bought 75 acres of land in Franklin County, just east of Natchez. Along the way, “Biddy” (a common nickname for Bridget) had given birth to three daughters, Ellen (1838-1921), Ann (1844-1857), and Harriet (1847-1914). There is reason to suspect that Smith was their father.

All of these details are reminders of the brutality that’s part and parcel of treating human beings as farm equipment or household appliances. In recent years, there’s been a renewed effort by white supremacists and apologists to suggest that slavery was somehow not so bad. Stories like that of Biddy Mason’s childhood remind us that, yes, it was that bad…and worse.

In the 1840s, the Smiths converted to the new Mormon religion. After Joseph Smith (no relation) was killed in 1844, the Smiths decided to join the Mormon exodus to Utah. The Latter-Day Saints at that time disapproved of slavery, at least in principle, and Smith was urged to consider freeing the people he was keeping enslaved, but he was not required to do so, and did not.

The Smiths left Mississippi in 1847/48 for the Mormons’ “Winter Quarters” in the Florence neighborhood of modern-day Omaha, Nebraska. It’s not clear what their path may have been, but most likely they took steamboats from Natchez to St. Louis, then on up the Missouri to the Winter Quarters.

The Smiths were part of the Willard Richards Company that left Omaha July 1-3, 1848. The 526 pioneers were divided into two sections of covered wagons pulled by oxen. One section was led by Amasa Mason Lyman. It is believed that Biddy ultimately picked her surname from Lyman’s middle name. It is worth remembering that from Omaha to Salt Lake City, Biddy, whose name is listed in the official LDS history of the trek, would have likely walked every step of the way, over 900 miles, with her baby Harriet on her back.


The Mormon Trail, from Nauvoo, Illinois to Omaha, then on to Salt Lake City

Let’s stop and think about this journey. Today, Interstate 80 follows roughly the same path up the Platte River valley across Nebraska. I’ve taken that journey as far as Cheyenne, Wyoming, about 500 miles. Even in the air-conditioned comfort of an automobile zooming along on a paved freeway, it’s not a fun trip. Words like “tedious” and “boring” come to mind.  Now imagine walking that same distance, and then 400 miles more, averaging about one mile an hour, ten miles a day.


Mormon devotional art romanticizes the rigors of the journey, focusing on the family teamwork. For the original converts from upstate New York and Ohio, that was true, just as it was for other pioneers on the Oregon Trail on the south side of the river. But the workload for slaveowner converts would have not been distributed equally, and every aspect of it would involve hard, physical labor, with as much as possible being done by the enslaved travelers.

There wouldn’t have been neatly sawn logs to gather, as in the drawing above. Campfires would have been fueled by picking up several baskets of buffalo chips, i.e., dried piles of bison dung. The dung would burn much faster than firewood, so a lot would be required. Water would have to be carried. Cooking itself was hard work, and cooking over an open fire was inherently dangerous, especially for women wearing long skirts. And keep in mind that all of this would be happening in the dusk after walking in the blazing prairie sun for perhaps ten hours or more.

The company arrived in the Salt Lake Valley three months later, in the middle of October 1848. Smith continued to resist Brigham Young’s counsel to free his ten slaves. (For the record, Young’s own attitude toward slavery was evolving, or perhaps devolving, in the direction of approving it, especially after he received slaves as part of the tithe required of each church family


Biddy and her daughters appear in the 1850 Census Slave Schedule for Utah County, Deseret. Smith owned two adults, Hannah and Biddy, and eight children.

In 1851, Smith joined another group led by Amasa Mason Lyman that went from Utah to form a new settlement at San Bernadino, California. Many of the settlers were from Mississippi. Because news traveled slowly, Smith was probably unaware that in 1850, California had been admitted to the Union as a free state, and state law specified that any slaves brought into the state after 1850 were automatically free.


San Bernadino in 1852

By December 1855, Smith was running into conflicts with the Mormon leaders, and when he found out that his slaves were legally free, he decided to leave California and head back east to Bexar County, Texas.

According to legend, Charles Owens, who was courting Biddy’s daughter, Ellen, told Biddy about the law and filed court papers seeking her freedom. But the notorious Fugitive Slave Act, part of the Compromise of 1850, had left the legal status of all African Americans, free or enslaved, up for grabs. In California, that meant that no black person could file or testify in court, especially against a white person. So more than likely, it was another white person (a Mormon authority or a sympathetic Abolitionist) who filed on behalf of Biddy, her children, and Smith’s other slaves. The local sheriff stopped Smith, and took the enslaved people to the county jail, for their own protection.

At the ensuing trial in January 1856, Smith (below) testified that his slaves were his family, and that they were choosing to leave California with him. Some suspect that Smith meant this quite literally, i.e., that the children of Biddy and another slave named Hannah, were in fact his children. (It should also be noted that in the 1850 Census, Biddy is listed as “Black” but two of the children are listed as “Mulatto.”)


But the District Judge, who had interviewed Biddy outside the courtroom, ruled  in Mason v Smith that the enslaved were inherently under duress from their owners, and rejected the claim that they could ever truly  be free to choose to leave with him. Biddy and the others were declared free, and Smith went on to Texas without them.

Biddy settled in Los Angeles, which had a population of about 5000 in 1860. In the 1860 Census, she was living with daughter Ellen, who did indeed marry Charles Owens. Biddy is listed as Bridget Owens. This may be the first photograph of the city, and shows the general area where the family lived–


Biddy worked for Dr. John Strother Griffin as a nurse and midwife. In fact, IRS tax records show that in 1862, “Biddy Mason” paid $10 for a license as a “Physician.” She had a reputation as a midwife and a master of herbal medicine, so much so that Griffin paid her $2.50 a day. (For comparison, in 1942, just before he was drafted into the Army, my Dad was earning $1 a day as a farmhand, plus room and board.) Along the way, Biddy became fluent in Spanish, and served the Mexican community as well as the Anglo settlers. She even dined with Pio Pico, the last Mexican governor of Alta California and a real estate tycoon.

Biddy managed and saved her money wisely, and by 1866, she was able to pay $250 for a lot and house. From there, even though she could not read or write, she built up her own little real estate empire in what would become downtown L.A., near the present-day City Hall. This was her first land deed–


On one of her properties on Spring Street, she built the house that she lived in for the rest of her life:


Biddy built up a $300,000 fortune, an astounding figure for the time. It’s estimated that the equivalent value of that much money today would be around $6 million. Her grandson, Robert Curry Owens, went on to become the richest, and one of the most influential, African Americans in the west.

But Biddy Mason was not just rich. She was also generous and unselfish. She took care of orphans, established a Traveler’s Aid society, and donated the money to open an elementary school for black children. No wonder she’s an honoree in the California Social Work Hall of Distinction.

In 1872, she became a founding member of First African Methodist Episcopal Church of Los Angeles. First A.M.E has gone on to become a mega-church with over 19,000 members today.


First A.M.E. went on to build bigger churches. Meanwhile, in 1906 the original church she built on Azusa Street became the center of the new Pentecostal or Holiness movement, the Apostolic Faith Gospel Mission.


Biddy died in 1891. She was buried in an unmarked grave in Evergreen Cemetery. In 1988, Mayor Tom Bradley, along with about 3000 members of First A.M.E., dedicated a gravestone honoring her. A community center on her old house lot includes an open space known as Biddy Mason Park, featuring a memorial wall with a timeline of her life.


Perhaps she is best remembered for these words:

“If you hold your hand closed, nothing good can come in. The open hand is blessed, for it gives in abundance, even as it receives.”


Author: Dan Anderson

I'm an Iowa boy by choice. I love cooking and I love history, so I thought I'd put the two together.

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