The women of Rich Bar

With the addition of Dame Shirley there appear to be only four women in the whole of the Rich Bar mining camp at the end of 1851. One, the 25-year-old hostess of the Empire House, was apparently permanently tanned dark by her trip west across the plains. When she set out for California she left behind a nursing baby eight months old along with two other children, and at the time of Shirley’s arrival she had a brand new two-week-old infant. Since she spent most of her time cooking and tending to the guests of the hotel, the baby lay alone in a champagne basket cradle and kicked furiously while screaming with all the power of a six-month-old.

Another of the women was known as the Indiana Girl because of her father’s hotel where she worked, although to call her a girl may have been a stretch due to her enormous size. Shirley noted how the roll of the Indiana Girl’s mighty voice, booming through two doors and a long entryway, added considerably to a headache she suffered from at the time. The girl wore the thickest of miner’s boots and had the habit of wiping the dishes of the Indiana house on her apron. Still, the miner’s said she had “metal to the backbone” because when she’d come to Rich Bar the previous spring she’d walked all the way through snow five feet deep carrying a fifty pound sack of flour on her back.

A woman in Auburn Ravine

The last of the female population of this rustic mining camp was as small as Indiana Girl was large, weighing in at only 68 pounds. And although she had three children that Shirley called pretty, she worked as the bartender at a little log cabin near the entrance to town called the Miner’s House while her husband was away tending to other unknown duties. Shirley quickly realized that her prospects for an active social relationship with the women of Rich Bar were not very good.


  1. Gloria Harris says:

    I am a member of the Women’s Museum of California located in San Diego and would like to obtain a copy of the picture on your website titled, “A Woman in Auburn Ravine” for my book, Women Trailblazers of California. I have written a chapter about Dame Shirley and would like to include this picture. Please let me know how I may obtain a digital copy together with the appropriate source to contact for permission to publish the picture in my book. Thank you for your help.

  2. Patsy Gifford says:

    Yes, women had it mighty rough in the old west! But where would you men be without us! Look at all the duties they performed for you and I doubt they ever heard a word of praise!

    • Patsy, in the early day of the gold rush women were so rare that men would ride 40 miles just to get a look at one. I doubt if women have ever been more appreciated than during those days. It wasn’t until the completion of the Panama Railroad in 1855 that women felt comfortable enough to travel to California and bring the kids with them, and that was about the time that the easy to find placer gold was just about gone. It’s no surprise that the rough and rowdy gold rush began to settle down about then. Women were pretty darn special to those early California gold miners.

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