California stole a Black pioneer’s land in 1949 to create a park. The family would like it back.

Published February 22, 2022

Coloma, CaliforniaIt’s a hot summer evening in July 2021 at the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park cemetery, final resting site of Coloma’s historical pioneers. Jonathan Burgess and his twin brother, Matthew Burgess, stand at the foot of the grave of their great-great-grandfather, Rufus M. Burgess, reflecting on his legacy. This park, site of the California Gold Rush, is now a source of dispute between an African American family and the state of California over land ownership.

The Gold Rush changed the course of California history and state seizures of land once owned by African Americans has spurred demands for reparations and recognition. In September, Governor Gavin Newsom signed legislation to return a stretch of beachfront property to the descendants of the Bruce family who owned land confiscated in 1929 by eminent domain.

The Burgess family also wants their family’s legacy restored in a dispute that has stretched for decades. Park and state officials had been in communication with the family and a spokesperson said last week a review is underway.

Rufus M. Burgess was among the early Black settlers of Coloma. He was an entrepreneur and landowner in the town. After he died, his property was passed down through generations until the state seized it by eminent domain in 1949 to make room for the state park.

The Burgess family contends their ancestors once owned land that today amounts to “half the park.” But there is currently no land ownership in Coloma under the family name and their historical ties are not publicly evident on park grounds. Therein lies the crux of the dispute between park officials and the Burgesses in their effort to obtain both reparations and recognition of their family’s legacy.

It is a battle that began long before the twin brothers were alive. Now, Jonathan and Matthew are leading the family’s endeavor.

The emergence of Coloma

An estimated 300,000 people traveled to California in search of gold, beginning in 1848. By 1900, the population was almost 1.5 million. Today, it is one of the most culturally diverse states in the U.S. and has the fifth-largest economy in the world. This accelerated growth was sparked by gold discovered in a little town called Coloma. The Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park is meant to reflect this moment in history.

For the Burgess family, the narrative told by the park in the form of public tours and other documentation conflicts with their own oral history, deeds, and letters passed down by their ancestors. To their chagrin, there is no formal acknowledgment of the family’s ties to the land and no reparations are currently underway.

“People in power know the history,” says Jonathan. “Some want to ignore it, which I don’t understand. I really don’t. Other than, I’ll say this: This park was created on supremacy. So to make this park right, you’d have to dismount the whole thing. And that I don’t know if California is ready for, but they can start by telling the truth.”

The Gold Rush began with a discovery on the early morning of January 1848 when an American carpenter named James W. Marshall, overseeing the construction of a sawmill in Coloma, reported the finding of small flecks of gold in the nearby American River. Not yet part of the union, the Golden State’s population boomed soon after. People from all over the world began journeying to California in search of gold. The southerners of America would not be left behind. With word of possible fortune spreading to the states down south, white slaveholders set their sights on Coloma. They brought along enslaved people to mine gold for them. Many Black people mined enough gold to buy their freedom and that of their families.

Such was the case for Rufus M. Burgess, an enslaved man living in Kentucky. Jonathan Burgess believes, through his own research, that Rufus M. Burgess’ freedom was paid for by his father, Rufus Burgess Sr. who traveled to Coloma in 1851, accompanied by his soon-to-be former enslaver. With his newfound freedom, Rufus M. Burgess went to work, eventually acquiring enough gold to buy land.

Rufus M. Burgess’ legacy

In 2000, Marion Burgess, Rufus M. Burgess’ son, listed his father’s many skills in an interview with the local newspaper, The Mountain Democrat: “He terraced the land by hand and planted fruit trees. He also opened a blacksmith shop…where Grange Hall is located.”

According to Marion, his father also did repairs in Coloma, including wagon wheels. He would sharpen tools and do horseshoeing, and owned a church in Coloma. He was a distributor and writer for the Pacific Appeal. He also had orchards and a wagon trail that journeyed as far as San Francisco. Even 27 years after his arrival to Coloma and long after the flurry of the Gold Rush dried up, Rufus was documented in The Mountain Democrat, California’s oldest newspaper, in 1878 still mining for and finding gold. 

The article provides a glimpse into Rufus’ determination to prosper despite anti-Black sentiments prevalent at the time: “When we were over Coloma last Wednesday, we caught Mr. Burgess at the Blacksmith shop, in the very act of panning out a quartz prospect,” the newspaper stated as part of its “Mining Items” section. “As a matter of course we immediately assumed a sort of supervisory control of the operation. The quartz he was prospecting from Travis Creek, about 14 miles from Georgetown, where he says he found such ore comparatively unlimited. The quartz we examined showed no free gold to the naked eye, but after crushing and careful panning it yielded a prospect which we should estimate at no less than $65 per ton.”

Being one of the few documented Black landowners in California at the time, Rufus amassed a large amount of land. His status was important enough to merit an obituary when he died in 1900.  “Mr. Burgess was one of the best-known colored men in the county, highly esteemed by all and an honest, industrious citizen,” states the obituary published in The Mountain Democrat. “He was a pioneer resident of Coloma, he owned and operated the blacksmith shop for many years.”

Rufus M. Burgess would leave behind a wife, three children, and a legacy for the next generation of the Burgess family.

After Rufus died, the land stayed within the Burgess family, but much of it would eventually be taken away. How much land? Depends on who you ask. Jeff Lee, a park neighbor and member of the nonprofit Gold Discovery Park Association, has said the Burgess land is 9.35 acres while the family contends it is significantly more. “I estimate we had half the park,” says Jonathan.  

In a recent email, Lee wrote that a deed from 1881 now indicates the land once owned by Rufus was about 11 acres.

“While researching all the deeds for Burgess and two other families, I did find a deed record for Rufus’s Burgess from 1881 that did not show up on my notes to the Park,” wrote Lee, who is not a spokesman for the park but helps with research and other efforts. “I am not sure of the original size but have reported it to the State Park as 1.77 acres. This would bring Rufus Burgess total owned (at one time) acreage to around 11 acres.”

Last week, Adeline Yee, a spokeswoman for the park, wrote in an email that, “State Parks is in the process of reviewing the newly discovered information from local historian Jeff Lee. The district will provide an update to the public when it becomes available.”

Old Coloma 

Construction on the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park, which encompasses 576 acres, began in 1942 to commemorate the Gold Rush. In 1947, with the centennial anniversary coming the following year, the park pushed for expansion.

The Burgess property was close to where gold was discovered and there was an urgency to obtain the land for park use. It was seized by the state two years later—along with properties belonging to other Coloma residents, including Pearly Monroe whose family members also were formerly enslaved, eventually gained their freedom and acquired land. A 1950 article in The Mountain Democrat documents the Burgess family’s loss of property.

“The old Burgess home that had been in that family since the early ’60s (1860s) was razed last week by state employees,” the newspaper reported. “Once one of the nicest homes in Coloma, it was bought by Rufus Burgess when the owners moved to greener pastures after the county seat was moved to Placerville.”

To see what the town looked like during the height of the Gold Rush, one only needs to visit the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park. Diverse trees and plants brought to California by immigrant settlers spread their roots throughout what is now a tourist attraction. Near the entrance of the park, stands a large teepee and to its left, two Chinese store replicas. The teepee is made from the actual trees used at the time when the original settlers and Indigenous people lived in Coloma or as it was originally called, Cullumah, meaning beautiful valley. Cullumah was once home to the Nisenan Tribe. Wanting to stay true to history, park officials commissioned Nisenan descendants to construct exact replicas of teepees used by their ancestors.

The details of these landmarks give a sense of time and place, allowing visitors to see life through the eyes of the early inhabitants. “We want all people to feel welcomed. To feel represented here,” says Leslie Hatzell, Cultural Resources Division Chief for California State Parks.

To the left of both the teepee and the Chinese store sits the Burgess and Monroe properties. Two of the earliest Black settlers in Coloma, their history is often tied together and includes at least one marriage between the two families. There is also a Monroe orchard trail named after the family’s farmland, a working blacksmith shop where a photo of the Monroe family is on display, and a replica of the Monroe house. Through the window, one can see furniture and home decor from the 1800s.

The Burgess property sits on an empty field covered with weeds. There are no markings tying the property to the original owner. Park officials say they’re cooperating with the Burgesses in their effort to have the family’s legacy formally acknowledged but the full extent of land ownership must still go through a verification process for signage or some other form of recognition to be installed.

“We met with him [Jonathan Burgess] a couple of months ago and he asked to recognize some of the property that they [Burgess family] owned,” Barry Smith, the park’s superintendent, said in July. “So when we meet again…we hope to have some sort of draft to show maybe what that panel would look like…no matter how much we substantiate something or put it on a panel, sometimes new information will come to light which will maybe change that.”

In 2020, a photo of Rufus M. Burgess, along with a plaque mentioning his accolades, hung inside the Monroe blacksmith shop after the Burgess family pressed the park for some recognition. But the plaque was placed in the wrong blacksmith shop.

Rufus had no association with the Monroe blacksmith shop, which was built years after his death. The one Rufus owned and operated was located where Grange Hall, a place that today holds local community events, currently stands. Later that year, both items were removed and have not been replaced though Smith has said the plaque may ultimately be put up by Grange Hall.

“I think that we’re putting it in the location that it should be, which is over here by the grange [Grange Hall],” Smith said in July. “When we met with Jonathan that was part of our discussion, putting it down here where it belongs because that would be the location.”

The amount and location of land with Burgess family ties also is a major source of dispute. The park recognizes the Burgess land to be at the south end, which was a segregated area on the lower end of the American River where Black and Chinese residents settled during the Gold Rush era. Jonathan believes his family also owned property on the other side the American River connected to the park by a bridge where a patch of vacant land with just a few trees sits across the Coloma Resort. This piece of land, Jonathan says, once belonged to his family.

“He was a major landowner,” Jonathan says of his great-great-grandfather. “After the Gold Rush most people left and Black people began to move up into the main areas of the town.” He believes the family also owns other property, including a church, but there is no conclusive documentation.

Even as the park does not dispute claims on some of the Burgess property, visitors are not privy to this history. The only evidence of Rufus M. Burgess as one of the early settlers is a photograph, which can be found in the park museum. But even the date surrounding that image is hazy. The one in the museum says it was taken in 1890 while the same picture published in a book titled I, Remember by Betty Yohalem says it was taken “as late as 1883.”

An ancestor’s journey

Bernice Burgess, the mother of Jonathan and Mathew, began writing letters to park officials in the 1970s questioning why they hadn’t properly acknowledged the contributions of Rufus M. Burgess, grandfather of her husband Milton Burgess, and other family ancestors. As a frequent visitor to the park, Bernice was vocal about the discrepancies on displays with the wrong picture of Rufus, and changes to Grange Hall slowly phasing him out altogether. She would point out where Rufus owned land and tell of his contributions to the town during the Gold Rush. “She was just irritated…for years… going up to that state park, trying to get the information corrected and then only to be not helped or told something different,” recalls Tonia Burgess, Bernice’s daughter.

“I remember as a little girl going into the blacksmith shop, which reminded me of a barn. There was hay there on the right, there was all this blacksmith equipment in the center of it. Right in the forefront, there was a picture of my dad’s father, Rufus Burgess (Jr.) on the wall in his military outfit,” Tonia recalls. “My mom was so pissed, she told them, ‘That is not correct. That is not the right Rufus that you have on that wall.’”

The “right Rufus” that Tonia speaks of is the elder statesman, Rufus Burgess Sr. the family patriarch and father of Rufus M. Burgess.

Back at the cemetery as the sun is setting, the brothers walk over to a large, white, marble tombstone. It reads “Nelson Bell,” a man mysterious to the park itself despite the large size of the tombstone. To the Burgesses, he is the most important figure in their family’s history.

“When I was a child my mom used to say, ‘You’re related to the Bells,’” Jonathan recalls. “I was too young to understand what mom was talking about at that time, but after my mother’s passing, I realized who this man Nelson Bell really was.”

According to the family, Nelson Bell was the name given to Rufus Burgess Sr. after he was enslaved. He is the father of Rufus M. Burgess; grandfather of Rufus Burgess (Jr.); great-grandfather of Milton Burgess; and great-great-grandfather to twin brothers Jonathan and Matthew Burgess and their sister Tonia Burgess.

The family has held on to important artifacts belonging to Bell, including a photo of Bell as well as the family Bible. Tucked inside the Bible, between the pages of the written gospel, is an old fruit voucher with Bell’s name on it and his handwritten autobiography.

According to his autobiography, Bell was born in 1790. By the time he arrived in California, he was middle-aged. “I was brought by Bell to California who soon left me to follow the desires of my own heart,” Bell presumably wrote, “A privilege, which for 50 years I have longed to possess.”

Nelson Bell arrived in California as an enslaved man owned by Robert Bell, who traveled to the state to mine for gold. Deeds show that Nelson Bell purchased land in El Dorado County as early as 1852. In 1857, he’s listed as a landowner on the Coloma city township map. There is little other information about Nelson Bell.

This is yet another point of contention between the park and the Burgess family. Park affiliates do not acknowledge any bloodline between Nelson Bell and Rufus M. Burgess. During a reporting trip to the park over the summer, Lee, the association member, served as a tour guide. Asked if there’s a connection between Rufus Burgess and Nelson Bell, he said: “I don’t believe so, and the only way to prove it is a DNA test.”

Jonathan says he would be happy to oblige: “I’ll take a DNA test. I can admit if I am wrong. I just simply want the truth,” he says.

Growing up, the Burgess brothers recall their father Milton having no interest in revisiting his family’s history. Bernice would push her husband to be more involved in reclaiming the family’s legacy, reminding him that he was the last heir to Rufus M. Burgess. But Milton would not budge.

“I think some of it was my father wanting to suppress it and move on,” Jonathan says. “He didn’t have good memories of this place…It was nice having mom there to really take that interest in it and so that was ingrained in us at a very young age…(she) would make my dad come up here (Coloma). My dad would say, ‘I don’t want to be up here.’

“At some point, there are times where you’ve known what’s going on and you don’t want to be where you’re not accepted,” Jonathan says. “Mom would say ‘this is the history for our kids. They need to know’ and so she was the driving force behind that.”

Bernice never gave up. She continued to seek the truth until she died in 2017, leaving behind documents and passing down the family Bible to her children. It is not known what happened to the numerous letters the Burgess family says she wrote to the park. The Burgess family says the park has the letters, but the park states that none of the letters “have been identified to date.”

Reparations task force

In September of 2020, the state passed a bill establishing the Reparations Task Force to study claims by African Americans whose ancestors had their land seized at some point in history, the first of its kind in the U.S.

That same year, Justice for Bruce’s Beach was founded by Kavon Ward, which spearheaded the push for the Bruce family to reclaim their beachfront property, known as Bruce’s Beach. Now Ward and Ashanti Martin have formed another advocacy group called Where’s My Land, which is assisting families like the Burgesses in their push for restitution. “When property is stolen from Black folks it’s not just the land that is stolen, it’s the community that is stolen. It’s the opportunity for them to build wealth. It’s the opportunity to pass down generational wealth,” Ward says. “I think that once we uncover the truth and once the task force uncovers the truth about Black land theft in California, they will do something about it. I’m hoping that they will.”

In September 2021, Jonathan was invited by the task force to speak on behalf of his family.

“It is clearly a continuing struggle in California to live up to what it perceives itself to be, as this wonderful dream that has equal opportunity and access for all,” Secretary of State Shirley Weber remarked at the gathering following Jonathan’s presentation.

Jonathan continues to work with the task force and is currently receiving requested documents from the Secretary of State’s office. “Eminent domain has a long history of being wielded or weaponized as a way to deprive minority groups and Black people of their property,” says Jonathan’s lawyer, Adante Pointer. “This is about writing historical wrongs and making sure that the correct and accurate history is told, not one that’s been biased or fabricated in order to minimize or erase people’s contribution to this great state.”

For the Burgess family, recognition also means compensation—the return of land now owned by the state and restitution.

“I’m a direct descendant. This had a direct effect on my life and my family’s life and the legacy that we leave behind,” says Jonathan. “So, the return of the property, restoration of the property, to be directly specific, there needs to be cash payment.”

“Had our ancestors stopped we wouldn’t be here today,” says Matthew. “So stopping isn’t a viable option. We always move forward to see how much better we can leave things. If that means pushing the envelope, then we’ll continue to push the envelope.”

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