The Force of a Feather: The Search for a Lost Story of Slavery and Freedom

The Force of a Feather: The Search for a Lost Story of Slavery and Freedom

by DeEtta Demaratus

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Adorning the cover of this book is a photograph of Bridget "Biddy" Mason (1818-1891), leading the reader to anticipate a biography of this remarkable African-American woman, who, as the slave of Robert and Rebecca Smith, made the 2,000-mile Mormon trek from Mississippi to the Salt Lake Valley and across the Mojave Desert to California; who, after a successful writ of habeas corpus (in 1856, a year before the Dred Scott decision), was declared "free forever"; who, as a free woman, moved from midwifery to real estate, accumulating a fortune estimated at $300,000; who was a founder of Los Angeles's first black church, donating the land on which it was built; and who was further distinguished during her lifetime for her charitable enterprises. Demaratus, an independent scholar in Seattle, feels "chosen to pursue" Mason's story, going in search of this woman who "blazed a path meteoric in its significance." Unfortunately, this book reads like a miscellany of information (such as how the papers of the judge who freed Mason found their way to the Bancroft library) marred by speculative flights into "might have, "may have" and "likely." Alternating with the informational chapters is an account of Demaratus's personal quest, which does not take on the weight she intends it to. There being no full-length biography, readers will be grateful for some of the raw material collected here, but the life of Biddy Mason remains to be written. (Apr.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
While pursuing another writing project, Seattle author Demaratus discovered the life story of Biddy Mason, a former slave who became a wealthy property owner and philanthropist. Unsatisfied with the details of Mason's life as documented at a Los Angeles exhibit, Demaratus began this retelling of Mason's story. Mason's biography turns out also to be inextricably linked to the story of her owner, Robert M. Smith, and his family, Southerners who converted to Mormonism and in 1848 migrated from Mississippi to California with their fellow church members and slaves. In California, a writ of habeas corpus was filed against Smith when he decided to move his family and slaves from California, a nonslaveholding state, to Texas, a slaveholding state. Benjamin Hayes, the judge who presided over the high-profile trial that followed, also figures prominently in the narrative, as do several episodes of author Demaratus's personal life. The result is an unharmonious combination of personal narrative and historiography littered with sentimentalism and unsubstantiated analysis. Mason, Smith, and Hayes deserve a more objective and credible telling of the events that caused their lives to intersect. Suitable for California and Mormon history collections. Sherri Barnes, Univ. of California at Santa Barbara Lib. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
A gracefully-written account of the extraordinary life of Biddy Mason, a former slave who, at the time of her death in 1891, had become a renowned philanthropist and one of the wealthiest African American women in California. The author, a professional writer, poetically weaves into the narrative her own quest to research her subject, with whom she deeply identifies. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (

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University of Utah Press
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6.20(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.90(d)

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Chapter One

The Dream

In the accounts of history, the cross-country journey of Robert Mays Smith would be portrayed as a reckless adventure, a wild, self-centered wandering without regard for the women and children with him, like a comet streaking across the sky, entrapping smaller bodies in its wake. The real impetus for Robert's travels began, as it does for many a young man, when he realized how eclipsed were both his present prospects and his future hopes.

    He was a poor boy from Edgefield District, South Carolina, from a family without land or social status. His Mormon baptismal record states that his father, John Smith, was from Virginia and his mother, Sarah, from South Carolina, where Robert was born in Edgefield in 1804. There were Smiths and Mays in the cabins beside many creeks and rivers draining Edgefield District, and all struggled to survive. In fifty years, from 1780 to 1830, once pristine forestland became overworked farms. In the progress of degradation of natural resources—common in human history—the woods were slashed for timber, topsoil was depleted, and game had become rare. For those with land and financial resources, Edgefield was still a place of beauty and bounty. For the landless and the poor, however, it was an economic prison from which to escape.

    A will, written in Edgefield on July 12, 1829, and "proved by oath" on September 13 of the following year, says: "I, William Dean, feeling the infirmities of age, make this my last will and testament." Among its provisions is this statement: "I give to mygrandson Robert M. Smith $150." It was a bequest, apparently, that became the grubstake for Robert's planned move west. To people living in Georgia and the Carolinas, the West was the newly opened Indian lands east of the Mississippi River where the earth was deep and rich, the trees thick and tall, and cotton bolls swelled like clouds in a summer sky. It was to Mississippi that Robert Mays Smith, inheritance in hand, planned to travel, as soon as he could buy supplies and secure passage.

    The adult life of Rebecca Dorn, like that of many of the women of her time, was largely shaped by her family's and then her husband's situations and ambitions. In Rebecca's case, the life she left behind to follow the dreams of the man she would marry—Robert Smith—was one of wealth, social prominence, and privilege.

    Rebecca's ancestors were German Palatine immigrants who came to Charles Towne, South Carolina, on a vessel named the Dragon, and traveled inland to establish a colony. On December 24, 1764, George Dorn was granted two hundred acres on Sleepy Creek in what was to become Edgefield District, South Carolina, establishing the family homestead passed on to successive generations of Dorns. Rebecca's mother, Sarah Burkhalter Dorn, was descended from Swiss emigrants who came to Georgia and the Carolinas. By the time Rebecca Ruth was born on April 7, 1810, the Dorn homestead on Sleepy Creek was a prosperous plantation of sixteen hundred acres.

    There were ten Dorn children, eight boys and two girls, Rebecca and her sister, Mary, called "Polly." Two of Rebecca's brothers, Densley and Benjamin, were described as "deranged." Rebecca was especially fond of Densley, five years her junior, and often took care of him. In her later years, Rebecca suffered an unspecified sort of ill health, but those infirm years were far in the future. During their childhood, Rebecca, her sister, and her brothers enjoyed an idyllic existence at the homestead on Sleepy Creek.

    The Dorns were both educated and cultured. Rebecca's brother Solomon would later start the Manual Labor School, offering classes in "spelling, reading, writing, arithmetic, English, grammar, geography, natural philosophy, Latin, and Greek." Another brother, William, would spend much of his life hunting for gold and, to the astonishment and scorn of his Edgefield neighbors, eventually find it and become immensely rich.

    The Dorn boys were at liberty to pursue such endeavors because the work on the plantation was performed by several dozen slaves. Slaves also worked in the Dorn house. Rebecca and her sister, like many children of the affluent, probably had personal slaves who took care of their young mistresses' needs, and were companions or playmates as well. Rebecca's own slave was apparently a light-skinned girl named Hannah, twelve years her junior.

    Rebecca Dorn, living in a handsome house in a serene setting, surrounded by loving relatives and friends and attended by slaves, may well have imagined that, after marriage, her life would continue the same way. Instead, one day, perhaps at a wedding, she met a blue-eyed stranger named Robert Mays Smith.

* * *

Robert Mays Smith and Rebecca Dorn married in 1829 or 1830 and apparently lived in Edgefield for a short time. The 1830 census for Edgefield District, South Carolina, lists as head of household a Robert Smith, with a wife of Rebecca's age, and a young man who was of an age to be her brother Densley. Also living in the Smith household was a young girl who was probably Rebecca's slave, Hannah. Many poor men might have welcomed or profited from being married to a rich man's daughter, but if Robert was living off his in-laws, then the subsidized lifestyle came to an early end. Robert Mays Smith's obituary states that he and his wife left South Carolina for Mississippi in 1830. At that time, Densley and Hannah returned to the Dorn homestead. Rebecca's leaving without her personal slave might be attributed to her father's refusal to let the young girl go, to a falling out with her family—who might have been distressed at Rebecca's mismatched marriage—or to Robert's insistence that they make their own way, without help of any kind. In 1830, Rebecca accompanied Robert to Mississippi and apparently never saw Edgefield or her family again.

    A decade in southwestern Mississippi had given Robert a passel of children, but little else. According to the reported birthplace of one child, the Smiths were living in Copiah County in 1836. The 1840 census for Franklin County, Mississippi, shows Robert M. Smith with a wife and four children. The 1841 Franklin County Tax Records show Robert to be a poor farmer whose only possession worth inventorying was a grandfather clock, probably given to Rebecca as a wedding present. At night, in a two-room cabin, with his children sleeping two to a bed and his exhausted wife beside him, Robert could likely hear two things: the wind in the trees in the piney woods and the clucking of the incongruous clock.

    The Mississippi land boom of the 1830s was strangling on its own success. Thousands of settlers such as Robert had poured into the new state, and those with money bought the best land and planted cotton. Small farmers, cattle ranchers, and loggers competed for the remaining land—and did so in humid heat accompanied by swarms of insects. The place they had struggled to reach was no better for most than the land they had left.

    Despite the notoriety it would soon achieve and its perceived singularity, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or LDS Church, more commonly known as the Mormon Church, had its roots in the nineteenth-century religious revivals from which sprang numerous Protestant sects and denominations. The Great Awakening, the early period of these religious manifestations, was based on a dynamic evangelism that had at its core the experience of conversion. The conversions, emotional experiences often transforming the believers' lives, occurred during religious revivals—camp meetings—or protracted meetings during which penitents were prayed over. The Second Great Awakening, coming in the latter part of the century, added a new dimension in which the converts saw themselves as participants in a heroic history, a time of preparation for Christ's Second Coming, necessitating the reformation of U.S. society and the establishment of a new social order. In The Year of Decision, 1846, Bernard DeVoto would term Mormonism "a great catch basin of evangelical doctrine," meaning it incorporated all the trends and tendencies of a religious century.

    Although the religious ferment of the times was the fertile soil from which the new faith sprang, "the combination of millennialism and the westward movement assured its growth." The prophet and founder of the church was Joseph Smith, who had visions and visitations and in time claimed to have been shown sacred Scriptures that he translated into The Book of Mormon. On April 6, 1830, in Fayette, New York, Joseph Smith formally established the Church of Christ, which later became the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In less than a year, Smith decided to move his church from New York to Ohio and at the same time began a missionary system to recruit converts to the new religion.

    The Mormon missionaries who took the church's message south during the 1840s were probably zealous but humble and dedicated men. They rode on horseback between far-flung farms, sleeping in open fields or unlocked barns, eating fruit from trees or whatever farmers cared to share, having in their saddlebags only essentials besides the central doctrinal document of their faith, The Book of Mormon. The strongest appeal of the church was to the dispossessed, offering them both hope and, after 1846, the prospect of a homeland, a New Jerusalem. To those like Robert Smith whose dreams had turned out to be chimeras, the new religion offered consolation and a way to become part of a close community.

    The result of the LDS Church's southern initiative was impressive. Two of the missionaries riding throughout Mississippi during these years were Benjamin Clapp and John Brown. In less than one year, between August 1843 and June 1844, these two alone baptized almost two hundred converts. Two new branches of the church were organized, and one of them, the Little Bear Creek branch, was in Franklin County, Mississippi.

    One day, when Robert returned to the cabin from a day in the fields or woods, he may have found an unfamiliar horse tied in front of his house, or perhaps Robert and his family were gathered around the dinner table when a knock came at the cabin door. In either case, Robert's convictions concerning the new doctrine were cemented within a few short hours, because the missionaries' diaries show that by the next day they had moved on. For the price of a tithe, the missionaries seemed to offer much to a man such as Robert: a belief that was absolute, a rationale for his sufferings, and hope for the future. In his increasingly desperate situation, he would have welcomed the idea of a community interested in his welfare, would have welcomed hearing himself addressed for the first time as "Brother Smith."

    As Rebecca moved about the cabin, removing dishes and putting the children to bed, perhaps she listened to the missionaries' words and saw the beginning of a transformation in her husband's face. No doubt she had been as distressed by their misfortunes as Robert. Rebecca was presumably a Baptist, as that was the church affiliation of her parents, although the records of Little Steven's Creek Baptist Church in Edgefield District, South Carolina, do not report her attendance as a child. Perhaps Rebecca was as captivated by the promise of this new faith as her husband or swept along by his emotions. Perhaps she calculated that she had to follow Robert into Mormonism or risk losing him as a provider altogether. Her childhood home on Sleepy Creek, her family, her friends, Hannah, and the sights and sounds she had known and loved were gone as surely as leaves in a stream. Robert and her children were now all she had in the world.

    Sometime in the evening, Rebecca may have joined her husband and the missionaries in prayer, feeling the furtive stirrings of hope for their future as a family. What is certain is that on February 11, 1844, according to Mormon Temple records, Robert M. Smith and his wife, Rebecca, were baptized into the LDS Church.

* * *

During the next four years, the lives of Robert Mays Smith and his family changed dramatically. Sometime between 1844 and the spring of 1848, the Smiths became the owners of three slaves: a woman named Biddy and her two small daughters.

    Not much is known about Biddy's early life: she was born on October 15, 1818, and was originally a slave on a cotton plantation in Hancock County, Georgia. One story maintains that Biddy ran north, sought asylum with the Cherokee Nation, and married one of their chiefs. Because the majority of Cherokees living in Georgia by the late 1820s were farmers and slave owners themselves, with laws in place forbidding interracial marriage, this story is likely apocryphal.

    It was not uncommon for slaves to assume the last names of their first owners. And, indeed, among the cotton planters residing in Hancock in 1820 were Thomas Mason Sr. and Thomas Mason Jr., evidently father and son, both of whom owned female slaves whose ages correspond with Biddy's at that time. The 1830 census lists both Thomas Masons, but by 1840 both were gone from Hancock County.

    How Biddy got from Georgia to Mississippi where she became the Smiths' slave is also unknown. However, if either of the Masons did own her, their abrupt departure from Hancock County is a clue that yields a plausible conjecture.

    By 1830, it was already evident that cotton crops took a tremendous toll on the landscape by depleting the soil. As a planter from Alabama put it, cotton was more destructive than earthquakes or volcanoes. "Witness the red hills of Georgia and South Carolina, which produced cotton till the last dying gasp of the soil forbade any further attempt at cultivation." In 1841, the grand jury of Hancock County presented a list of grievances to the Georgia Superior Court, complaining, "The making of cotton to purchase everything else necessarily causes us to be great consumers of the products of other states, consequently exchange must be against us. Under this unwise policy our lands have become exhausted, our citizens involved in debt, and relief is called for from every quarter." The truth of these contentions is obvious in the migration of hundreds of farmers, plantation owners, and their slaves from Georgia's cotton belt to more fertile soil in Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas. The Masons and Biddy may have been among them.

* * *

The 1840 census for Franklin County, Mississippi, shows that Robert M. Smith did not own slaves, as does an 1841 tax list for the same county. Biddy's acquisition by the Smith family at this juncture remains a curious and unexplained occurrence. During these years, Smith could barely support his wife and children, let alone purchase a slave or take on three more dependents. But although the historical record does not document Biddy's arrival among the Smiths, it does offer a few possible explanations for it.

    By the fall of 1844, Robert and his wife, Rebecca, were practicing members of the Mormon Church. The LDS Church in Mississippi at this time comprised a number of branches scattered across the state, and it is possible that a wealthy member of their branch or of the larger community of believers—perhaps a wealthy plantation owner—decided to assist a family in need with the gift of Biddy. Another benefactor might have been Rebecca's older brother Robert Dorn, who had lived in Mississippi since 1834. He resided with his family on a sizable plantation in Tallahatchie County, in northwestern Mississippi, and owned several dozen slaves.

    But why would the Smiths welcome a female slave, burdened with children, in lieu of a male to assist Robert with the farming? In the spring of 1845, Rebecca was pregnant again. A female slave could take the workload from her shoulders and, if necessary, serve as a midwife. That Biddy had children was also an advantage: dependents made it difficult for a mother to run away.

    When Biddy joined the Smith household, she had with her Ellen, her daughter born in Hinds County, Mississippi, in 1838, and another daughter, Ann, who was between two and three years of age. Before leaving Mississippi with the Smiths, Biddy would give birth to a third child.


Excerpted from The Force Of A Feather by DeEtta Demaratus. Copyright © 2002 by DeEtta Demaratus. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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