Women in the Gold Rush

A woman in Auburn Ravine

“Got nearer to a woman this evening than I have been in six months. Came near fainting,” said one lonely California miner. There were few women before the discovery of gold, but as more and more men jumped ship or deserted the army for the mines and the 49ers arrived from across the world having left a wife or girlfriend behind just the sight of a woman was far more rare than a rich gold strike.

And yet a woman was there, in person, at the very beginning. Jenny Wimmer cooked for the men building the sawmill where gold was first found. The cabin she lived in with her husband and six children still stands at Coloma. It was in her pot, in her kitchen, that James Marshall boiled the yellow rock he had found in a solution of lye to prove it was indeed gold.

Lola Montez1847

Life in the early mines was hard, dirty and primitive. Miners lived in tents and shacks or slept on the bare ground. The work was demanding and few women had the grit to endure such conditions. Lucena Parsons wrote, “This morning the gold fever raged so high that I went again to dig with the rest but got very little gold. Came home tired tonight. Still in good spirits.” But a woman could make enormous amounts of money for simple services like washing and cooking. By baking pies and selling them to miners one woman made $18,000. Sarah Royce arrived in October 1849 with her husband and daughter, and noted that of the miners she first met one was a doctor, another a lawyer, and a third a scientist.

Lotta Crabtree

In 1853 Eliza Rosanna Gilbert, better known as Lola Montez the famous dancer, came to San Francisco. There she married a newspaper man named Patrick Hull and moved to Grass Valley. Her stay, and her marriage, lasted only a few years but while there she met Lotta Crabtree, the talented daughter of a local boarding house owner. In 1856 Lotta toured California and Nevada singing and dancing to delighted audiences. Lotta’s mother collected her earnings in gold and kept them in a leather bag and later a steamer trunk. When her family moved to San Francisco, Lotta soon became known as “Miss Lotta, the San Francisco Favorite.”

 

Comments

  1. Although I know of some women prospectors, the other women who were a part of the movement west to the gold fields is not always remembered. Thank you for bringing some of them to light.

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