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¡§When the Okies left Oklahoma and moved to California, it raised the I

Gold Diggers: Women in the California gold rush Alex Gilman


Jo Ann Levy is a writer who considers women¡¦s influence on California history through both fiction and non-fiction.  She was born and raised in Los Angeles, and now lives in Sutter Creek, California. While researching another project, she noticed the absence of references to women¡¦s involvement in the Gold Rush.  She has since published 4 books on California history (2 winning the WILLA award for best historical fiction) and numerous journal articles.



When one thinks of the California gold rush, the turbulent image of the west at its wildest comes to mind.  One conjures up images of cowboys, claim jumpers, and criminals dueling on Main Street in a world completely devoid of women, save the occasional prostitute or damsel in distress. But They Saw the Elephant: Woman in the California Gold Rush by Jo Ann Levy addresses the idea that women were nearly nonexistent in the gold rush, a misconception that is not only common in the minds of the public, but one which many historians believe as well.1 Levy asserts in her title that women saw the elephant, too.  ¡§Seeing the elephant¡¨ was a phrase that described the average Forty-Niner¡¦s experience: to have seen the elephant was to have experienced a great adventure and, despite hardship and losses, felt fulfilled. Men were certainly not alone in catching a glimpse of the glorious pachyderm for, as Levy states, ¡§in 1849¡K nearly every trail diary records the presence of families¡Xwives, mothers, sisters and daughters.¡¨ 2 And these women experienced the same hardships, if not more, as their male companions.

The book is divided into ten chapters, each describing a specific area of women¡¦s experience and impact. The chapters move chronologically through the settlement of the west, beginning by describing the journey to California, and ending with post-gold rush society. The first chapter explores Argonauts that came to California over land, and consists almost entirely of excerpts from traveler¡¦s diaries and a guidebook for California immigrants. To put the national impact of the gold rush in perspective, the bestselling book of 1849 was Joseph Ware¡¦s The Emigrants¡¦ Guide to California3, but according to Levy, ¡§none of the guidebooks had prepared travelers for the hardships they wrote home about.¡¨4 The chapter guides the reader along the pioneer¡¦s journey by comparing the guidebook¡¦s description to that of women on the trek. The guidebook reads like a Monopoly rule book and advises emigrants to start at a town on the Missouri River, most likely Independence or St. Joseph, where one would prepare for the journey, and once ready, begin the harrowing expedition on the California Trail. The guidebook then immediately advises emigrants to be wary of the Indians, whereas all of the diary excerpts comment on the kindness and civility of the Native Americans encountered early in the journey. The first month of the expedition felt like a nice vacation to many gold rushers, but things would quickly turn for the worse. Soon after the first month, the emigrant could expect to have many in their party become sick or dead from dysentery and other water-borne diseases. Emigrants would continue  battling the elements, disease, and occasionally hostile Native American tribes, such as the Apache, until they reached Salt Lake City. At Salt Lake City, many decided to either defer their journey due to fatigue, or give up all-together and quit, seeing only the tracks of the mythical elephant. Those that continued on would face the most devastating part of their odyssey, either the Sierra Nevada or Death Valley, depending on which route was taken. The most notable horror story of the Sierra Nevada, if not the entire gold rush, is that of the Donner Party, who attempted to cross the mountains in the winter of 1846. 5 The unfortunate Donner Party was made up of five women and ten men¡Xall five women survived, but only two of the men left the Sierra Nevada alive. While there is no story of equal infamy associated with Death Valley, it certainly lived up to its namesake. Whichever route overland travelers took, if they made it, they began to tame the elephant they had heard so much about. The second chapter describes the experience of the seafaring Forty-Niners, the first to leave for California. The nautical journey provided three routes: facing the cold storms at Cape Horn; portaging across Nicaragua; or sailing to Chagres and traveling across the Isthmus to Panama City where their oceanic journey would continue. The route around Cape Horn was an established trading route, but was thought to be less efficient for mass transit, and rightfully so due to the Arctic storms encountered along the voyage. The Isthmusian and Nicaraguan routes proved to be much less demanding than any overland route, although not completely free of danger. The vessels used were either steamboats or classic sailboats. Sailboats often carried cargo of bituminous coal which, as coal does, tends to burn. Many ships carrying the coal ended up smoldering and were slowly destroyed. One family sailed on four different boats to complete their voyage, three of which caught fire due to their dangerous cargo. 6 The family apparently had learned their lesson when they chose their fourth vessel, because they chose a steamboat. Steamboats, however, were just as dangerous. Steamboats take advantage of the propulsion steam can create under high pressure, but the pressure often was uncontrollable in early steamboats and could cause ships to explode. A steamboat explosion, of which there were many, was nearly impossible to survive. Those that survived the dangers of the ocean arrived at California with gold on their minds.

Once the emigrants became Californians, mining towns appeared all over the golden state. These towns could become a sea of canvas tents and log cabins in weeks, only to be deserted as little as six months later. The life of a prospector and his family was almost nomadic. One would mine in an area until there was no more gold and then move on to the next rumored hotspot. However, Men were not alone in this search. Some women who had either lost their husbands during the voyage or were unmarried prospected, but in general searching for gold was a family affair. Miners were often joined by their wives and children in their search for gold ore, since mining¡¦s technological advancements favored groups. The large population of miners caused cities such as San Francisco and Sacramento to grow exponentially, and many emigrants realized that the same services provided in Eastern cities were necessary and began to set up shop. The gold rush did not only increase population¡X the mortality rate increased dramatically as well. The often-fatal journey to California, along with high fatality rates after arrival, caused a peculiar desensitization to death in early gold rush California. Estimates state that as much as twenty percent of Forty-Niners died from illness six months after arrival.7 Many died from accidents in the mines and in steamboat explosions. In the words of Luzena Wilson, a female pioneer, ¡§death was too commonplace, too familiar.¡¨8 Death was everywhere in California, and as death became more unremarkable, murder rates rose.  Since the government had not yet adjusted to the population boom, no government body was able to enforce any laws passed. This caused the creation of many vigilance committees, not all of which were as just as they attempted to be. But as time went on, Californian society, along with its inhabitants, began to settle.

The middle of the book focuses on women¡¦s labor in California, and Levy shows that many women migrating to gold rush country quickly discovered ways to make significant money without getting anywhere near a gold mine.  Men were willing to pay very well for women¡¦s cooking. One woman began her cooking business after she was offered ten dollars for a homemade biscuit.9 Women running boarding houses and restaurants were frequently earning much more money than their husbands. The author states ¡§California¡¦s gold seduced thousands of women.  They could and did cook for it, sew for it, clean, iron, wash, dance, pour drinks, or do whatever was required and returned the most.¡¨10 The work these women did was often backbreaking and unrelenting.  One woman reports making eighteen thousand dollars worth of pies, though she had to drag her own wood off the mountains and cook over a campfire.  Although the work of the gold rush was strenuous, many women recorded their delight with the freedom they experienced in journals and letters.   One emigrant from the East coast wrote home that California society was    ¡§freed from the multitude of prejudices and embarrassments and exactions¡¨ that controlled Eastern cities.11 In this new society women were free to mine for gold, and many women did just that with great success. They were also free to enter careers that would not have ordinarily been open to women. One woman was employed by Wells Fargo to carefully observe bandits that routinely robbed their stage coach, and her testimony helped convict multiple thieves.  Other women worked as doctors, photographers, barbers, even bullfighters.   There were great monetary rewards for women with musical or theatrical talent. Additionally, Male audiences were very eager for entertainment and willing to pay large sums to be charmed by female entertainers.  When the lovely songstress Catherine Hayes was finally ready to leave California, it was estimated she had earned a quarter of a million dollars.

According to the census of 1850, women made up only eight percent of California¡¦s population, most of which were already married.12 This massive amount of lonely men allowed for the world¡¦s oldest profession to become an industry in California. Prostitution prospered during the gold rush, and was completely unprosecuted.  Many women became prostitutes because of the large amounts of profits it offered, but not all courtesans chose their lot in life. In China, many men sold their daughters into slavery, and they continued the practice in  California. Chinese women were considered extremely exotic, and could cost up to $3000 for a lifetime of service. But every dollar that the women earned went to their masters, who bought them in China for $30-$90. California also became the most lenient state on divorce, and held the highest divorce rate of any state. California law also allowed women to keep all property they owned before the marriage or had received during the marriage. However, Californian society was not completely carnal. Many Californians sought to reform their new home. The key to reform was in the hands of women, and according to California¡¦s first governor, Peter Burnett, women¡¦s presence encouraged stability.13 Many churches were founded by women. Reforms such as the Sunday gambling law were brought about by women.  California had started on the road to becoming the economic powerhouse it is today, a feat accomplished by both men and women.

Levy¡¦s writes this novel as ¡§a belated acknowledgement of women¡¦s participation in¡K the California gold rush.¡¨14 Levy shows that women shaped the California gold rush, as well as California, just as much as men did. Women not only saw the elephant, they nurtured it to its full grandeur. From the showgirl Lola Montez, to the abolitionist Mary Ellen Pleasant, Levy goes on to show that women left their distinct mark in California history. However, as the book progresses, it becomes apparent that the relationship between California and its women is symbiotic. Levy states that ¡§people [in California] were free from censure, from Eastern restrictions, from social expectations.¡¨ 15This new frontier of unprecedented freedom and opportunity allowed the opening for women to begin another journey: down the path to equality. 

Levy writes this book not only from a feminist perspective, but as a New Left historian; she writes from the perspective of the women, Native Americans, and other disenfranchised participants in these events. She identifies the role of women as vital to California and says the book ¡§celebrates the thousands¡Xthe women who saw the elephant.¡¨16 The issues that Levy discusses include the unjustified savage image of Native Americans, participation of minorities in the gold rush, and the minimization of women¡¦s participation in previous historical works. Levy¡¦s perspective remains historical throughout the book¡Xat no point does she comment on any current events or politics.

There are few reviews of this book available, and those published have surprisingly little to say.  Wasden, writing in The Western Historical Quarterly, mainly recounts the general outline and thesis highlights. Wasden notes that Levy¡¦s writing style was to contrast the descriptions in the widely circulate guidebook with anecdotes she found in women¡¦s journals and diaries. Wasden notes that whether or not the points of view are similar, ¡§they are always interesting.¡¨17  However, she does summarize the book by writing that Levy shows that ¡§these women not only saw the elephant--they tamed and clothed it.¡¨18   A second review, written by R.E. Leveque and published in the now defunct Whole Earth Review, had even less to say.  Leveque is interested in the traditional gender roles of women in Gold Rush California, including noting that ¡§ ¡§a parade of talented women performed in gold rush theaters.¡¨19

Levy accomplishes something unusual in a work consisting primarily of cited sources: she creates an account that is entirely engaging and readable. Every anecdote has a point, many are simply amusing, and all are used to carefully build her arguments.  She includes many anecdotes of events that changed reflected the importance of women in this transformation, to dispute the assertions by some that there were only 15 women in San Francisco at that time.

Levy shows that California was distinct from the rest of the United States.  Life in the Eastern United States was becoming increasingly socially rigid. California became a land of new freedom and the truest ¡§melting pot¡¨ of the time. However, Americans were not the only ones who came in search of fortune. Many South Americans came, as well as Chinese, Irish, Norwegian, and others.  No other place in America had seen such diverse population growth in such a short amount of time. In the words of Mary Jane Megquier, ¡§The very air I breathe seems so very free that I have not the least desire to return to [Maine].¡¨20 This new California environment allowed women unprecedented freedom to pursue economic and other independence.

Levy shows throughout the book that California was a not a microcosm. While it did experience issues that were unique, it also experienced the same issues affecting others in America. The antebellum period was a time of great national tension, which California endured along with the rest of the nation. Slavery, the issue haunting the rest of the United States, became controversial in California.  Although abolitionist by constitution, California was not free of slavery. Female slaves brought from China were common in San Francisco. There was also an active African-American slave trade in the state, illegal though it was. Neither was California free of prejudice. Legislation was debated during California¡¦s constitutional convention of 1849 that would have prevented free Blacks from moving to the state. Only one delegate argued against that on constitutional grounds. Many women in California worked side-by-side with men as slave abolitionists, often buying slaves in order to give them their freedom.

It is clear that women played a vital and largely undocumented role in the California gold rush. They were essential in supporting families heading west through that perilous journey. Additionally, they filled a wide variety of essential roles in California, not only in traditionally female roles, but also in many trades, professions, and as prospectors themselves. These latter opportunities were new for women in America and were the foundation for a socially progressive climate that still persists in California. Levy¡¦s abundant descriptions of primary historical sources bring tangibility and authenticity to this unique record of women¡¦s active participation in the great rush for California gold and leaves the reader without a doubt that women had indeed seen the elephant.


1. Levy, JoAnn. They Saw the Elephant: Women in the California Gold Rush. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press. 1992

2. Levy xvi.

3. Levy 1.

4. Levy 2.

5. Levy vxiii-xxix.

6. Levy 31-32.

7. Levy 77.

8. Levy 72.

9. Levy 92

10. Levy 92.

11. Levy 108.

12. Levy 176.

13. Levy 174.

14. Levy xxii.

15. Levy 108.

16. Levy xxii.

17. Wasden, Winifred. "Book Review: 'They Saw the Elephant." The Western Historical Quarterly 22 (1991): 487-488.

18. Wasden 488.

19. Leveque, R.E. "Book Review: 'They Saw the Elephant." Whole Earth Review Spring, 1993. Accessed at http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1510/is_n78/ai_13526637. Last accessed 6/1/2008.