No Place for a Woman?

The California gold camps were hard on the ladies, but that didn't stop them
from arriving, surviving, and sometimes thriving.

By Patricia Cronin Marcello

Who would have been foolish enough to travel through hell to get to a place where a person's ears were cut off for stealing and murder was commonplace? The women of the California Gold Rush were. They suffered rugged and perilous journeys by land and sea to face the hardest people and the most backbreaking work of their lives.
Why? For some, it was the fantasy of gold, the prospect of untold riches lying on the ground, waiting to be gathered by the wagon load. The dream had the whole world in an uproar by 1849, but by the time most folks could get to California, the days of easy pickings were over. There was still plenty of gold, but it demanded more hard labor than even some strong men could stand, to extract it from the uncooperative earth. Few gold seekers were women.
Some Gold Rush women had come along with their husbands to the mines and had traveled for months in covered wagons to get there, because the overland route was the cheapest. But some sent their man off alone. Eventually, several of the wives tired of waiting for them to return home. So they packed their belongings and set off with their children in tow to find them.
One such woman, Lucinda Mann, waited three years for her husband to come back, before she decided to take her children overland to California. When she reached the mining town of Jackson, she was shocked to learn that her husband had died four months before her arrival. Rather than go back east, she settled there and took charge of the store her husband had started. The following year, she married another miner and eventually she came to be considered a great success by the women of her time.
But only women who actually lived in the camps knew how hard life was there. Basic conditions were not at all comfortable. Miners moved from claim to claim and lived in tents or shacks or slept on the ground until they settled on a site they knew would be productive. Only then would a log cabin be raised. Usually, it had a dirt floor and no windows. Nothing was expected to be permanent in the gold fields, and these rough conditions kept most women in the towns.
One thing was for certain: a woman who wasn't out looking for gold had her choice of permanent jobs. Those who took on the chores of washing and cooking for the men were highly paid. Eastern women, disgruntled over low wages, were encouraged to come to California where cooks could make as much as thirty dollars a day. Women who washed clothes could often make twice as much.
By 1849 standards, this was big money, but not in gold country, where high wages were necessary for survival. At one point, a dozen eggs cost ten dollars and one potato or one onion went for a dollar each. Often, miners struggled to support themselves. Just saving enough to get back home seemed impossible-never mind being lucky enough to strike it rich.
Luck played a major role in the Gold Rush, and women who came to the mining towns were more likely to be professional gamblers than prospectors. At night and on Sundays, the men wanted recreation. Great piles of gold dust were frittered away at the gaming tables, fixtures in every mining town. Women who dealt the popular card game Monte were bound to make their fortune without eve getting a speck of dirt on their gowns. And, of course, there were the prostitutes. Some of these women dressed as men, ad traveled from camp to camp by mule to make their living. Only in the mining towns could an average woman become fabulously wealthy and maybe move on to an elegant life in San Francisco.
The Gold Rush also had a hand in making some ordinary women famous, if not rich. At Sutter's Mill, where the first gold was found by James Marshall in 1848, a woman named Jenny Wimmer was the cook. It was in her was pot that the first nugget found was boiled in lye overnight, proving when it went unchanged that it was indeed gold.
Dame Shirley was the pen name of Louisa Amelia Knapp Smith Clappe. Her "Letters from the California Mines" ran as a column in a California magazine. She described herself as a "shivering, frail, home-loving little thistle." After living for a time in San Francisco, Louisa and her husband, Dr. Fayette Clapp, moved to the mining town of Rich Bar. She'd had enough dampness and fog. It is through Dame Shirley that we have our best descriptions of the only other women living in Rich Bar at the time.
The Indiana Girl, whose father ran the Indiana hotel, was large and brawny and had a voice to match. Not only did she wear miner's boots, she cleaned dirty dishes with her apron. Once, during a particularly bad snowstorm, the Indiana Girl trudged off to fetch a 50-pound sack of flour, which she lugged back into camp, slung over he shoulder.
A woman known only as Mrs. R. made $900 in nine weeks by taking in wash. She weighed only sixty-eight pounds. Another woman, poor Mrs. Bailey, died of peritonitis soon after meeting Dame Shirley.
Full of life and vinegar was the infamous Lola Montez. Born in Ireland in 1818, she was an actress of questionable morals and talent. By the time she reached San Francisco, she had been through three marriages and numerous scandals involving the likes of Ludwig I of Bavaria and composer Franz Liszt. When Montez took her famed "spider dance" into the gold fields, it wasn't warmly received. In fact, the miners booed her off the stage. She threatened to horsewhip one newspaper editor who had given her a bad review, and dared another to a duel. Montez retreated to Grass Valley in humiliation, yet she remained true to her eccentric nature. She kept a pet bear tethered in her front yard, and she was often seen walking it on a leash.
It was in Grass Valley that Montez met Lotta Crabtree, who grew up to become the best-known comedienne of her time. Montez taught Crabtree to ride and to dance the fandango and the Highland fling. At least one historical source indicates that Montez invited Crabtree to go with her to Australia, where Montez herself migrated after her Grass Valley cabin burned to the ground. Lotta's mother discouraged her daughter from doing so, but shortly thereafter, Lotta was sold to an acting troupe by her father. It marked the start of her professional career. In 1866, Crabtree mocked her old teacher Montez by parodying her in "The Irish Diamond."
Despite their trying circumstances, or perhaps because of them, the women of the Gold Rush were some of the boldest and grittiest women in American history. They deserve our respect for their strength, their tenacity and their ability to adapt and survive in a society composed almost exclusively of men.
Patricia Cronin Marcello is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Pennsylvania. She writes for both children and adults and most recently completed Devil's Gate, a novel about crossing the Oregon-California Trail in 1848.