"Real women" who defied stereotype

In a variety of roles, they often earned more than miners

By Kathryn Doré Perkins
Bee Staff Writer
Published Jan. 18, 1998

Historians have painted colorful Gold Rush landscapes peopled with scruffy, flinty men and a sprinkling of easy, frowsy women.

But something is wrong with that picture. Missing are the wives, daughters, sisters and single women who with awesome courage and a high sense of adventure joined that army of men and carved out lives with their ingenuity and perseverance.

"These are women who are quite the opposite of the stereotypes we have been led to believe were there," said Jo Ann Levy of Sutter Creek, who has researched the role of women in the Gold Rush era.

"These are real women with real experiences and they are stunning," said Levy, who scoured letters, diaries, reminiscences, newspapers, court records and census reports, and detailed some of those lives in her book, They Saw the Elephant -- Women in the California Gold Rush."

Levy writes of Luzena Wilson, who with her husband, Mason, and two young sons endured a perilous overland journey and terrible hunger and thirst crossing the desert and ascending steep Carson Pass. They reached the mines 50 miles east of Sacramento "in rags and tatters" in September 1849.

That night, as Luzena was cooking dinner over a campfire, a miner approached, lured by his longing for bread baked by a woman.

"I'll give you five dollars, ma'am, for them biscuits," he said. Luzena was speechless; $5 seemed a fortune. The miner, misunderstanding her silence, doubled the offer and slipped a $10 gold piece in her hand. Luzena had discovered her gold mine.

The Wilsons moved on to Sacramento and prospered, running a hotel with Luzena in the kitchen, only to lose everything in the 1849-1850 floods. Hearing of a gold strike near Nevada City, she persuaded a teamster to transport her, her children and stove, promising to pay him $700 when she could.

Luzena installed her kitchen under a pine tree, bought two boards, set them on stakes she chopped, and offered meals for $1. When her husband returned from mining that night, he found 20 miners eating at the table.

Not only did Luzena earn enough money to repay the teamster, she took her husband into partnership, replaced the family's brush house with a frame one and opened a hotel and store. But in 1851 they again lost everything when a fire roared through town.

Undaunted, they leased wheat land between Sacramento and Benicia from Emmanual Vaca and Luzena set up her stove once more. She bore two more children, established another inn and watched the town of Vacaville emerge around them.

Like Luzena, most women mined their gold by working for others […]

Life was exhilarating for women cut loose from the social constraints of the East. One wrote: "A smart woman can do very well in this country. True, there are not many comforts and one must work all the time and work hard, but there is plenty to do and good pay. ... It is the only country I ever was where a woman received anything like a just compensation for work."

In the mining towns, women earned as much or more than miners by baking pies, sewing, cleaning, ironing, washing, running hotels, dealing cards or pouring drinks in gambling houses. At Sutter Creek, to earn money for food, Charity Hayward carried her cracked washboard to the creek each day and washed other miners' shirts, unbeknownst to her proud miner husband.

Women worked in unconventional roles, as well. Levy's research revealed a photographer, a French woman barber, a Mexican woman who ran a string of mules and brought flour to the camps, a woman bullfighter who was showered with gold dollars for her performances, and a stagecoach driver who for years disguised herself as a man.

In fact, Anglo American women were not the first women to prosper in the mining towns, said Susan L. Johnson, an assistant professor of history at the University of Colorado. Miwok Indian women were the first of their gender to pan for gold.

Mexican, Chilean and Peruvian women initially worked in the boardinghouses and in the "leisure sphere of dance halls and gambling saloons," Johnson said. Isabel Ortiz, for example, managed two dance halls, in Calaveras and Amador counties.

"There was more fluidity," Johnson said. A woman might do laundry for a while and then work in a saloon -- whatever was required and earned the most. There wasn't the clear-cut division of classes that later separated upstanding middle-class women from women of vice.

In the early years of the Gold Rush some white prostitutes did well, particularly in the larger towns such as San Francisco, Sacramento and Stockton. In Placerville, a young woman from New Orleans imported about a dozen Hawaiian girls, and in less than a year she was worth $100,000, estimated Edward Ely. He wrote that an evening with the madam cost $100; time with one of the girls, $50 […]

Early on, men treated white prostitutes with some measure of respect. But that changed as more families arrived in some of the mining districts. By 1851, Louisa Clapp wrote from Indian Bar, on the Feather River's north fork, "These thousand men ... looked only with contempt or pity upon these, oh so earnestly to be compassionated, creatures!" The prostitutes were driven away from the town in a few weeks, she said.

Louisa Clapp was raised in an upper-middle-class New England family and was extraordinarily well-educated. But she relished the rough existence of the camps and wrote long letters to her sister, letters now invaluable for the intimate style and detail with which she described life and death in the mining towns.

As gold gave out in Indian Bar and miners deserted the district, Louisa packed to leave and wrote, "Really, everybody ought to go to the mines just to see how little it takes to make people comfortable in the world."

She added, sadly, "My heart is heavy at the thought of departing from this place. I like this wild and barbarous life; I leave it with regret."