Females who lived in Northern California during the early years of the Gold Rush could name their ticket. The census of 1850 places the female population, by that time increasing, at less than eight percent of the total inhabitants of the country, while in mining counties the proportion fell below two percent. Calaveras County showed only 267 women in a total of 16,884; Yuba, 2221 in a total of 9,673; Mariposa, 108 in 4,379, yet here only 80 were white women; Sacramento 615 in 9,087. Likely, in those days, women who were not Caucasian were only spottily counted. Not until 1855, when a railroad across the Isthmus of Panama was completed—thus making travel through this disease-infested region somewhat safer—did more women venture west.

Women in those days were either “good” or “bad.” The “good” ones were virtually enshrined. The arrival of the first “good” woman in the mining town of Columbia was marked by a parade complete with brass band. Here, class distinction was typical of the gold camps, as exemplified when Big Annie, a well-known madame, pushed the town schoolmarm into the street. The town’s firemen, incensed by this rudeness, dragged their watercart to Annie’s place and washed her out of the building.

One young man in Nevada city wrote, “Got nearer to a woman this evening than I have been in six months. Came near fainting.”

Widows didn’t remain that way for long. Sonora storekeeper told of a widow who buried her husband one day, then married the chief mourner the next.

Women were in much demand in those early days. Steamboat agents would cry out, “Ladies on board” to draw customers. Men conspired with relatives at home to bring out women who had not found husbands. A mercenary groom in Shasta advertised admission to his wedding, charging $5.00 a ticket, enough to set up a fine household.

In a camp near Coloma a miner happened to own a woman’s fashionable boot. Occasionally he exhibited his treasure, charging a dollar a person. He had plenty of takers. “The chunk ain’t found that can buy this boot! ‘Taint for sale, no-how!”

One forty-niner discovered the print of a woman’s slipper in the mud. He followed the print for miles and came finally upon a camp, which he did not dare approach very closely. But peeking through the brush, he saw protruding from beneath the edge of the tent that very pair of slippers, with feet in them. However, great crude boots in the vicinity also contained feet, and the miner quietly left the camp without trying to acquaint himself with the slippers’ owner.

Vive L’Amour

Word of the shortage of women made its way to France, and several companies of girls of good character landed in San Francisco. Here they were hired by gamblers and saloonkeepers at the then-outrageous wages of $250 a month to sit beside the croupier and rake in the winnings, or to dispense drinks at the bar. Their employers guarded them vigilantly, for their presence assured an establishment increased custom; nevertheless, within a week or two they all had husbands. News of their success sped back to France, and women of a less-savory sort set sail for the gold fields.

“Nine hundred of the French demimonde are expected,” the Pacific News, a San Francisco newspaper, reported in October 1850. That shipment dwindled to only fifty. Then they began to flock in from all parts of the world—the Marquesas, Peru, Australia—and they were the first women to go to the river camps in any number, and they prospered wherever they settled; one noted prostitute claimed to have earned $50,000 in a few months. Native American women were victimized, freely passed around at the camps.

Enos Christman, an early-day newspaperman wrote on August 9, 1851: I feel that I am a rover, a wanderer on the face of the earth. In a land flowing, not with milk and honey, but with flapjacks and gold dust, far from home an kindred, and surrounded by the offscourings and scum of society, from all parts of the habitable globe. All selfish, each for himself, and his Satanic Majesty for all. I have scarcely met with half a dozen respectable women, or men with their families, since I left the Atlantic States. The women of other nations, what few there are, are nearly all lewd harlots, who are drunk half the time, or sitting behind the gambling table dealing monte. To see a woman who can read and write is a curiosity. Indeed, the majority of our females are a disgrace to woman. All, all ruined!

Dedicated to the Ones They Loved

On Valentine’s Day, 1968, the town council of Jackson gathered to honor the members of the world’s oldest profession, a profession—legalized in the town in 1854—that had thrived there until 1952, when the houses of prostitution were closed.

Town leaders set a heart-shaped plaque in a cement slab near several deteriorating buildings that had once housed the prostitutes. Many tourists stopped by; one visitor, however, smeared the monument with red paint. Town residents argued the merits of the plaque, and one was heard to say, “Next, we need a plaque to commemorate bootlegging in the city.”

Finally, the plaque disappeared.

And Let’s Hear It for the Cooks & Laundresses

Even women of good reputation made big money. One woman was said to have made $18,000 by baking pies.

Sarah Royce, one of the first women in the gold fields, described the change in a country woman who was there with her miner husband: “She was probably between thirty and thirty-five years of age, and the idea of ‘shining in society’ had evidently never dawned upon her mind, when I first used to see her cooking by her outdoor camp fire, not far from our tent. Ordinary neighborly intercourse had passed between us, but I had not seen her for some time, when she called one day and in quite an exultant mood told me the man who kept the boarding house had offered her a hundred dollars a month to cook three meals a day for his boarders, that she was to do no dishwashing and was to have someone help her all the time she was cooking. She had been filling the place some days, and evidently felt that her prospect of making money was very enviable. Her husband, also, was highly pleased that his wife could earn so much. Again I saw nothing of her for some time, when again she called; this time much changed in style. Her hair was dressed in very youthful fashion; she wore a new gown with full trimmings, and seemed to feel in every way elevated.”

And then there was the inveterate bachelor who married a spinster because she refused to wash his clothes for him. He was determined she should do it at any price, as he was a great lover of cleanliness; in this dilemma he resolved to pay her all he was worth, rather than forego his habit of cleanliness.

Solving the Big Shortage

Amid much fanfare, a Mrs. Elizabeth W. Farnham, a former matron at Sing Sing prison and widow of a pioneer on the Oregon Trail. published an open letter in New York newspapers soliciting 100 to 130 “intelligent, virtuous and efficient” women to accompany her to California, “believing that the presence of women would be one of the surest checks upon many of the evils that are apprehended there.” Applicants had to provide testimonials from their clergymen as to their characters, and also bring $250 to cover the cost of the sea voyage and of getting settled in California.

Although many women inquired, only three women ultimately made the voyage around the Horn with Mrs. Farnham.

Revolving Spouses

An actress known as Mrs. Kirby could have set a precedent for Elizabeth Taylor. Her first husband, whose name she retained at this time for professional purposes, was an English actor so noted for his dramatic death throes that a phrase coined by bored theatre-goers, “Wake me up when Kirby dies,” became popular. Kirby was so good at his death throes that he did the act for real when he was only twenty-nine, offstage and for keeps.

When she arrived in San Francisco in January, 1850, she brought husband number two, a Mr. Wingate. Fortunately she did not take his name, for in the autumn of that same year Mr. Wingate met his end on a murderous horse. Poor Mrs. Kirby took a leave of absence from the stage for a whole week and stayed out of the marriage business for six months. Then she married James Stark, a leading actor and manager in San Francisco. Stark survived, but divorced Mrs. Kirby, now Mrs. Stark, some years later; placing third in a husband series of five. She outlived the other two.

While crossing the plains in 1846, a young woman named Lucinda entered the sacred state of matrimony with a fellow emigrant for exactly ten hours. During that time the young man found he’d made the worst bargain of his life and promptly ended the marriage. Before the overland journey’s end, Lucinda tried and failed to interest a second member of the party in marriage. When she finally arrived in California, however, she was overwhelmed with marriage offers. She finally accepted the most promising offer, only to have her husband die soon after. The next husband, a sailor, also soon died.

Gold Rush humorist Alonzo Delano made wicked fun of the long-distance relationships of the time:

Last year a young man came to California on a golden voyage across the plains, leaving a disconsolate and almost heart broken wife at home, who hardly yielded an unwilling consent to their painful separation. After an arduous journey of five months, during which he experienced many hardships, he arrived safely in the land of Ophir, and went to the mines. We all know how difficult it was last year to send or receive letters. Our hero went sturdily to work, and in a few months dug by hard knocks, a thousand dollars. Although he had not heard a word from home, he availed himself of an opportunity, and purchasing a draft, he sent it all to his beloved wife, anticipating the rapture with which she would receive it as an earnest of his luck, and his love. Eels are slippery things to hold—at least they were in my boyhood, and so are wives, sometimes now; pardon me ladies, I don’t mean you.

The heart broken wife at length began to recover her spirits, and wonder why Joe didn’t write to her as he promised, and then to pout at his neglect, and then to vow and declare she didn’t care anything about it. If Joe had forgot her, she would forget him. He had left her, and he might go, and finally she looked upon herself as an injured woman, and on another man, as one who could fill—Joe’s place. Spunk there, dear girls! So she applied for a bill of divorce, and obtained it (of course the western States do queer things sometimes,) and solaced herself for all her sufferings, in the arms of a new husband. But the cream of the catastrophe is yet to come. The very day after her second marriage, the draft for a thousand dollars arrived from her first love, but she could not touch a dollar. It had been sent to Polly Smith’s order; but alas! she was not now his wife, but Polly Brown, and Polly Brown could not endorse the draft.

Articles and photos © Betty Sederquist

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