Women Miners Shared Gold Rush Hardships
by Don Baumgart
In the beginning the Gold Rush was a males-only adventure. Only two percent of the California-bound immigrants in 1849 were female. By 1857 women made up half the population of some westward-bound wagon trains, as whole families yielded to the lure of gold. Some of the Gold Rush women found life easier if they hid their femininity. Elsa Jane Guerin led the life of "Mountain Charley" and became a prospector. She/he eventually did well enough in the gold fields to buy a ranch in Shasta Valley, where pack mule trading became a money-maker. After collecting a sizeable bankroll Mountain Charley disappeared and Elsa Guerin returned to St. Louis, her children and life as a woman. "Women used the disguise sometimes to make better wages at jobs reserved only for men," Jensen and Lothrop write in their book California Women, "other times for the excitement of male jobs, or to avoid harassment by men, or because they preferred to lead the life of a man."Charley Parkhurst was a stagecoach driver whose skills were well known. What was not known was that "Charley" was born Charlotte.
It was the last day of April, when Sarah Royce, her husband and a baby girl set out from Iowa to follow a guide book to California. The day looked like rain. "I would not consent to delay our departure for fear of the weather," she later wrote in her book A Frontier Lady. "Had I not made up my mind to encounter many storms? If we were going, let us go, and meet what we were to meet, bravely." Sarah Royce arrived in her first mining camp in October of 1849. Behind lay fears of Indian attack, possible disaster from want or cold, deserts and mountains. Royce sang as she set up housekeeping under canvas, then she began to feel insecure about having "...only a cloth wall between us and the out of doors."
Men in the camp were polite and considerate toward the woman and one day a miner stopped as he passed the tent. "Excuse me madam, may I speak to the little girl? We see so few ladies and children in California, and she is about the size of a little sister I left at home." The man was a young physician who had barely set up practice in the East before he chucked it all and went prospecting. His partner was a lawyer and a third man had scientific training. "Here, then, was a party of California miners, dressed in the usual mining attire, and carrying pick, shovel and pans to and from their work; who yet were cultured gentlemen," Royce wrote. Women were a rare sight in the mine fields but the army of beginning gold diggers were still living under the influence of the social customs and courtesies of their former communities. They still remembered how to tip their hats.
Estimates vary, but between 1,000 and 3,000 women crossed the plains to California in the first year of the Gold Rush. One woman baked and sold $18,000 worth of pies to miners hungry for a taste of home. Washing, mending and other domestic skills brought their reward in gold dust. As boards replaced canvas, women opened boarding houses at major mining sites, providing both food and lodging. There was another way women could collect pouches of dust and one source estimates that the ratio of respectable women to prostitutes in the gold fields was five to one. The women who stand out were the ones who shared the male passion for finding the yellow metal. One was observed at Angel's Creek feeding buckets of water to the rocker her husband was working. She wore boots, white duck pants, a red flannel shirt, black leather belt and Panama hat. "This morning the gold fever raged so high that I went again to dig with the rest but got very little gold," Lucena Parsons wrote in her journal. "Came home tired tonight. Still in good spirits." Like men, women suffered the hardships of mining; wet feet, torn clothes and chilled fingers.
Forty-Niner Mary Megquier summed up the spirit that drew women to the Gold Rush: "It is all the same whether you go to church or play monte. That is why I like California."
(Copyright 2002, Don Baumgart)