The following is Chapter Three of my story about a pair of free black siblings making the journey to California in 1849:
Chapter Three - Mr. Whitman's Offer
March 1, 1849
Another one of Cleveland's colored citizens departed for California, today. Josiah Norris, a carpenter and former classmate of Randolph's, had sold his shop, purchased a wagon and team and headed for Pittsburg. Chances are he will probably board a steamboat as far west as Cairo, Illinois.
First Tom Russell leaves and now, Josh Norris. Who will be next? Benjamin Fleming? I only hope. Yet, I suspect that my chances of leaving Cleveland might prove to be very slim. Despite a sizeable bank account from my years as manager of one of Papa's livery stables, I did not possess enough funds to finance a journey to California and sustain me in the goldfields.
"How much do you have?" Mr. Whitman asked. A former mountain man who had made his fortune in the fur trade, he happened to be our next door neighbor. After making his fortune, Mr. Whitman opened several dry goods stores throughout Northern Ohio. Quite an accomplishment for a man who had spent the first fifteen years of his life as a slave in Maryland.
It was Mr. Whitman who had told me about Josiah. He understood my need to leave Cleveland. After all, he had been young once. At fifteen, he had escaped his master and made his way to Pittsburg where he joined a fur trading expedition to the Illinois country. And that had been his first journey. In the ensuring thirty years, he had seen St. Louis, New Orleans, the Missouri River, Jefferson Territory, the Rockies and the Southern Plains. Only these days, he seemed to be afflicted by bad health.
Again, he asked, "How much, son?"
I told him. Five hundred dollars. Only enough to get me as far as Fort Laramie. Maybe.
Mr. Whitman agreed that five hundred dollars was not enough. His next question took me by surprise. "How would you like another twenty-five hundred?" Three thousand dollars! It was more than enough. But I could not understand why he would give me over two thousand dollars. And because of that, I had no choice but to refuse his offer.
March 5, 1849
The country has a new President - Zachary Taylor, who happened to be the new Mexican War hero. Papa dismissed the news with a sneer. "Another Southern slave owner," he grumbled. And one who, along with Winfield Scott, had conquered Mexico's former possessions.
On the same day that our new president was inaugurated, Ephraim Whitman died peacefully in his bed. He had been 69 years old. Not only had I lost a chance to acquire needed funds for the trip west, I had lost a true friend. Mr. Whitman had been 75 years old. Two sons and a daughter survived him. I can only assume they will inherit the Whitman fortune. Lucky fellows!
End of Chapter Three