Women of the Gold Rush

By Guest Contributor September 15, 2017 21:16

Gold Rush Sonora’s saloons, hotels and other enterprises appear in this January 1852 drawing by George Goddard. Six months later all was ashes as the town’s biggest fire wiped out the entire district.

By Carlo M. De Ferrari

The first wave of California’s Gold Rush was principally a masculine tide, and here in the Southern Mines, it was primarily Hispanic.

The first Latin Americans to receive the news of the discovery were the Mexicans, most of whom were experienced miners from the state of Sonora. And many of these miners, along with gold seekers from Panama, Chile and Peru, brought more than their hopes and dreams north.

Unlike counterparts from Europe and the Eastern United States, they brought their wives and children.

These settlers established the Sonoranian Camp, which would later become the City of Sonora. And, of the estimated 5,000 miners who came here from Mexico in 1848 and 1849, about one-fifth were women and children.

As a result, Tuolumne County was the only area in the Mother Lode that had even a remotely significant population of women before the end of 1850.

A Chilean couple out for a stroll in Gold Rush California. Chileans were experienced miners and early arrivals here. From “We Were 49ers!” by Edwin Beilharz and Carlos Lopez, 1976

Many of the Spanish women were as good at mining as their spouses and worked beside their men in the diggings. Walter Colton, alcalde of Monterey, toured our area in the autumn of 1848 and observed this interesting scene:

“One woman, a Sonoranian who was washing here, finding at the bottom of her bowl only the amount of half a dollar or so, hurled it back into the water, and straightening herself up to her full height, strode off with the indignant air of one who feels herself insulted.”

Colton asked another woman how long she had been mining and how much gold she averaged a day. Her answer: “Three weeks and an ounce.”

Another Gold Rush traveler, the Rev. Daniel Woods, was mining at Sullivan’s Creek near Stent when he noted:

“Here there was a large settlement of Chilenos. They often bring their families with them. An interesting girl of five years, with a tiny pick and spade, was digging in a hole already sunk two feet and putting the dirt in a pan which she would take to the stream and wash.”

“Sonora was probably the only place in California where numbers of the gentler sex were to be found,” observed William Perkins, who arrived at the camp in 1849.

“The men had constructed brush houses and, leaving their wives and children in charge, separated in all directions in search of the richest diggings, where they would work all the week, to return to their camp and families on Saturday, when they generally commenced gambling and drinking, and continued both until Monday, never thinking of sleep.”

By 1851, Sonoranian Camp had become Sonora, and Mexican women were no strangers to the young city’s many saloons.

Perkins wrote of two Mexican señoritas who had a run of good luck at faro, then lost everything on the turn of a single card.

Hispanic women also operated some of the games in the gambling dens. Alcalde Colton saw one of these women presiding at a monte table where gold, perhaps 100 pounds of it, was used instead of coins.

Elizabeth Gunn and her husband, Dr. Lewis Gunn, were Sonora pioneers. She and their four children endured almost seven months at sea to join the family patriarch, who arrived in 1849. Their home is part of today’s Gunn House Hotel. From “Records of a California Family,” 1928

Most women from the United States and Europe did not accompany their husbands to California, mainly because the men planned to make fortunes quickly and easily, then return home rich. Also, the hardships of the gold fields and journey west generally discouraged women from coming along.

In the absence of a woman’s touch, cleanliness standards for the miners dipped a bit.

“Our floor is getting a little dusty and our house was swept clean about two weeks ago,” reported miner M. Simpkins in an 1858 letter home. “Soon it will be raining, and I think the rain will dampen the dust and it will not need sweeping again until New Years.”

As for keeping up appearances for the fair sex, Prentice Mulford, one of the best Gold Rush writers, questioned the point of it: “Dressing was a short job, a pair of damp overalls, a pair of socks, a pair of shoes, possibly the heavy rubber mining boots. Flannel shirts we slept in. Who was there to dress for?”

Following his career as a miner, Mulford taught school in Jamestown and noted that his female pupils were in such matrimonial demand that most were wed by age 16.

As for the wives and girlfriends left behind, many took the advice of the old song, “Oh! Susanna” and didn’t cry for their husbands or fiancés. Many miners received “Dear John” letters with lines much like this actual one:

“Dear Jim, Come right off if you’re coming at all; Edward Kelderman is insisting that I shall have him, and he hugs and kisses me so continually that I can’t hold out much longer.”

By mid-1851, wives and families were arriving in increasing numbers, and this phenomenon was a never-to-be-forgotten experience for many of the miners. News of the first baby in Jamestown spread throughout the diggings, and miners from a 10-mile radius trooped to its parents’ tent just to look upon the infant. Many were so touched they left gold nuggets as gifts.

A Tuttletown miner astonishes his fellow gold hunters by showing off a lady’s boot, a poignant reminder of hearth and home so far away. Frank Marryat illustration, 1855

In Tuttletown, a miner held up a lady’s boot that he had found and told the assembled crowd of fellow gold hunters: “The chunk ain’t been found that can buy this boot; ’taint for sale, no-how.”

After the wives grew in number, the area’s many prostitutes were forbidden to join in the community’s social affairs. One Columbia prostitute, Big Annie, took exception and made the mistake of talking about one of the “decent” women of that camp.

Even the miners were offended, and rather quickly the members of the Columbia Fire Department hauled out their pumper and marched in full dress to Big Annie’s home, washing her and her belongings into the street with their hose.

Inevitably, as their numbers increased, the ladies began to cast disapproving eyes at the saloons, gambling dens and houses of ill repute. In 1853, some of them petitioned Sonora’s governing board to close the brothels.

After a no-holds-barred battle between vice and virtue, city trustees worked out a compromise by passing the first law in Sonora’s history to deal with sin. In the politically correct fashion of the day, it stated that “all houses of ill fame within the limits of this city shall either keep their front doors closed or have good and sufficient blinds or screens in front thereof to hide anything transpiring within from the view of persons passing on the street.”

These “good women” also brought with them a desire for more stable social conditions, schools and churches. They wrestled with and triumphed over the rampant forces of evil.

It was a happy day when a local newspaper editor could observe: “House after house may be passed where female clothing is hanging out to air; the prattle of children, or the sight of a comely and pleasant countenance bending over the accustomed household task speaks to the presence of ‘Man’s greatest good.’ Time was when the presence of virtuous women in the mines was a thing wished for, not enjoyed.”


Carlo M. De Ferrari

“Women of the Gold Rush” was adapted by local historian Sharon Marovich from never-before-published writings of longtime Tuolumne County Historian Carlo M. De Ferrari on file at the Sonora archive that bears his name. De Ferrari died in April 2017 at age 93.

This material is included with permission of Tuolumne Heritage Publications, Inc., a nonprofit that publishes high-quality history books to raise funds for the archive, which houses Tuolumne County’s official records dating back to 1849.

The Archive is at 490 Greenley Rd., behind the Tuolumne County Library, and is open to the public from 8am-4:30pm each Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Appointments are encouraged; contact Andy Mattos, archive and records manager (209-536-1163,  amattos@co.tuolumne.ca.us).



Copyright © 2017 Friends and Neighbors Magazine




By Guest Contributor September 15, 2017 21:16
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1 Comment

  1. Biff March 30, 19:20

    Enjoyed reading this. Hard men looking at a newborn is such a sweet thought. Thank you.

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