The scarcity of gold rush women

In 1848 and 1849 there were very few women in the gold country of California, and in many of the more remote camps there were no women at all for years after the discovery of gold. But the miners in these places valued the fair sex perhaps more so because of their absence. In 1851 a man in Tuttletown along the Stanislaus River had acquired a lady’s boot and would often hold it up before an admiring crowd of lonely men. And when someone would offer a large amount of gold for the boot the man would always reply that it “tain’t for sale—no how.” In 1852 a ball was held in Angel’s Camp where all the dancers were long bearded men in flannel shirts and boots and armed with revolvers. There was a general understanding that any man who wore a large white patch cut from a flour sack on his pants was to be considered a woman. In almost every place in the mines where a fiddler could be found, dances were popular regardless of the total lack of women.

The winter of 1849

In San Francisco men would crowd onto the wharves when respectable women first arrived on ships from the east. During a heated auction at James L. Riddle & Co. the room emptied in an instant when a man shouted that there were two ladies outside on the sidewalk. In an isolated camp in the mountains a man borrowed his uncle’s mule and rode forty miles overnight because he had heard that a woman had come to another camp. When the first woman arrived in Downieville, the miners turned out in great numbers, yelling and shouting as she came down the long hill into town. A year or two later, when Elise Biscaccianti came to the same town on a concert tour, the men also met her at the top of the slope and showed their appreciation for her visit by carrying her piano down the hill to town. When another woman, riding a mule, arrived on the ridge overlooking Canyon Creek the miners were so overjoyed that they rushed up the mountain and carried her, still seated on her mule, all the back down to the camp.



  1. Women were scarce in the Montana gold camps, too, but not as scarce as you write about, John. Estimates I’ve read say that of the 25,000 people who swarmed into the Alder Gulch diggings between 1863 and 1866, 10% were women and perhaps 10% of them were respectable women. I have a list of “honest” women from that time. It numbers fewer than 40 women and girls, among them one who went on to start the first school in the territory.


    • It’s hard for us to realize today but in 1849 California was one of the most remote places on earth. Most men who came to the gold rush intended on staying a year or so and returning home a rich man. They wanted to travel light and fast and they left the wife or girl friend at home. A great many of these men never went back, but some of their women eventually came out to be with them and when they showed up they had a big impact.

      There is a story of fifty “good” girls who came from Paris to work in the gambling houses. They were all married within a week. The gambling houses sent for fifty more and specified that they be “more professional.”

  2. I’m enjoying reading your blog!! Such a fascinating look at history.

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