Roles of Women During the California Gold Rush

woman in gold rush 1383630852-0The vast majority of miners during the California Gold Rush were men. The census of 1850 showed that only 8 percent of the population in California was female. In fact, women were so scarce in the mining regions that a young man in Nevada City wrote,

Got nearer to a woman this evening than I have been in six months. Came near fainting.

Nevertheless, women did play a role in the Gold Rush, and they were present throughout the era.

When James Marshall first found gold at Sutter’s Mill in 1848, he boiled the nugget in lye in cook Jenny Wimmer’s pot to prove it was gold.

And a young woman named Susan Cooper Wolfskill witnessed Marshall’s trip to San Francisco with that gold and Samuel Brannan’s later attempt to buy up land around Sutter’s Mill:

I saw the first gold ever discovered in California. . . . Marshall came over to our house in Benicia and stayed all night. He was on his way to San Francisco from Sutter’s mill. He said he thought he had gold. He took out a little rag that looked like the bit of a bag that housewives keep aniseed in and opened it. We all looked at it in wonder. Three days after that Sam Brannan, a Mormon, came riding breathless into our place in Benicia and asked John Wolfskill, who was afterward my husband, for a fresh horse. He said that gold had been discovered, and that he was going up there to locate all the land he could and return to Monterey and file on it. Monterey was then the capital of California. But some time before that Brannan had been very unaccommodating to Mr. Wolfskill when he wanted horses to help bring his fruit trees from Los Angeles, so he would not let Brannan have a horse. Brannan rode on, urging his tired beast. He and [John] Bidwell were going to locate the whole gold-bearing country, but Mr. Wolfskill told them it was placer mining, and that they could not hold it all.

“Everybody was guarding the secret of gold in California in hope of monopolizing the product. My father was the first man to write of the discovery. He sent a long letter East to his old friend, Senator Thomas Benton, who had secured him the position of Indian Agent at Council Bluffs years before, and that letter of my father’s was primarily the cause of the gold fever that swept through the Eastern States.

woman washingIn mining country, women were deemed to be “good” or “bad.” The “good” women provided domestic services to the miners, such as cooking, laundry, and boarding houses. The “bad” women were prostitutes, which were present wherever the men went.

Both classes of women earned a steady living—often steadier than the miners earned. One prostitute reported earning $50,000 in a few short months.

A female cook wrote in 1852,

I have made about $18,000 worth of pies… I bake about 1,200 pies per month and clear $200…

For forty pies a day, I hope she made a good living!

Other cooks made $30/day, and a laundress could make twice as much. Of course, when a dozen eggs cost ten dollars and potatoes and onions went for a dollar a piece, the high earnings didn’t necessarily mean wealth. But it could.

Sarah Royce, an early female in the California gold fields, later described the changing circumstances of a neighbor woman who had accompanied her miner husband:

She was probably between thirty and thirty-five years of age, and the idea of ‘shining in society’ had evidently never dawned upon her mind, when I first used to see her cooking by her outdoor camp fire, not far from our tent. Ordinary neighborly intercourse had passed between us, but I had not seen her for some time, when she called one day and in quite an exultant mood told me the man who kept the boarding house had offered her a hundred dollars a month to cook three meals a day for his boarders, that she was to do no dishwashing and was to have someone help her all the time she was cooking. She had been filling the place some days, and evidently felt that her prospect of making money was very enviable. Her husband, also, was highly pleased that his wife could earn so much. Again I saw nothing of her for some time, when again she called; this time much changed in style. Her hair was dressed in very youthful fashion; she wore a new gown with full trimmings, and seemed to feel in every way elevated.

Jessie Benton Fremont

Jessie Benton Fremont

In 1849, Jessie Benton Frémont joined her explorer husband John Frémont in California. She made the treacherous journey by ship south from the East Coast, by land across the Isthmus of Panama, then north by ship to San Francisco. On board ship with Mrs. Frémont were many women seeking husbands.

Most of them were in high demand when they arrived in California. Any woman who wanted to get married had her pick of potential spouses. The paucity of females gave them more say-so than most women back East.

Because of its Spanish heritage, California also adopted community property laws when it became a state, giving each spouse a right to half of whatever was acquired during the marriage. Typically, this benefited the wife, and recognized that the spouses were partners in their marital enterprise.

What surprises you about women’s lives during the Gold Rush?

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  1. A few years ago, I read a book called Sisters: Catholic Nuns and the Making of America. I was really surprised to learn about the dedicated third group of women to go west (in addition to the “good” and the “bad”)–the “holy.” These nuns took care of the sick, no matter who they were…miners, prostitutes, outlaws, etc. They were a gutsy and committed group of women.

  2. Pingback: How the California Gold Rush Changed Emigration Patterns to the West | Story & History

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