Many of you may know the lyrics of Kanye West’s Gold Digger in which he sings about women who use men for their money. Although there were gold diggers of the modern colloquial sense in the late 19th century, I’ll save that for another post.
Women miners were few and far between in the gold rush days. These women were the true pioneers – real entrepreneurs with a hard-working spirit.
How do I know? Well, these women weren’t born anywhere near the gold mines or California for that matter. They traveled, many times with their husbands or looking for their husbands with children in tow, across the treacherous terrain of the west for months and SURVIVED.
These women were hardy and determined which ultimately contributed to their success.
So who were these women?
Although I couldn’t find any names of women miners, there are a few accounts of their stories. There were rumors of women dressed as men possibly to ward off lonely males, cutting their hair, or changing their names. There was an account of two 70-year-old women mining, as well as daughters mining with their fathers, or friends working together as pairs.
Those who chose the mining life often slept on the ground, in tents or shacks as each destination’s profitability was unknown. If there was little or no gold found, they would up and move to the next claim. Once they landed on a profitable lot, cabins were built, but typically they had no windows and often had a dirt floor.
Other jobs often done by women
Because of this, there weren’t many women miners. Most of the women either stayed in the city or watched over the camps cooking, cleaning, and sewing to provide for the hard-working men. Still, they were quite profitable in their own right. The women’s services were appreciated and thus recognized financially because of it. As a miner, James Rawls said, “The real chance for success in the Gold Rush was not in mining the gold but mining the miners.”
One account submitted anonymously to the Merchant’s Magazine and Commercial Review in 1852 stated:
I have made about $18,000 worth of pies – about one-third of this has been clear profit. One year I dragged my own wood off the mountains and chopped it, and I have never had so much as a child to take a step for me in this country. $11,000 I baked in one little iron skillet, a considerable portion by a campfire….I bake about 1,200 pies per month and clear $200….
So let’s do a little math here. According to this inflation calculator, $18,000 in 1852 is $600,718! It’s unclear of the size or how long it took to make these pies, but even at a profit of 1/3, that’s still over $200,000. And to “clear” $200/month, that’s $6,700/month in 2020 dollars. Not a bad living for sure.
Not all that glitters is gold
Not everyone experienced the high that many profitable miners did upon finding gold. One particular woman, Mary Ballou, wrote to her son Selden on October 30, 1952,
Somtimes I am making soups and cranberry tarts and Baking chicken that cost four Dollars a head and cooking Eggs at three Dollars a Dozen. Somtimes boiling cabbage and Turnips and frying fritters and Broiling stake and cooking codfish and potatoes…somtimes I am taking care of Babies and nursing at the rate of Fifty Dollars a week but I would not advise any Lady to come out here and suffer the toil and fatigue that I have suffered for the sake of a little gold….
Get this woman some help over here! Poor thing must have been exhausted.
Gold diggers or not, the California gold rush thrived because of women. Not only because they took care of the homestead but also because of the strong will and entrepreneurial spirit these women possessed.
No Place for a Woman? – Patricia Cronin Marcello
Roles of Women During the California Gold Rush – Theresa Hupp
Tahoe Tales of Historic Times & Unforgettable People – Don Lane
They Saw the Elephant: Women in the California Gold Rush – JoAnn Levy
Weaving a Different World: Women and the California Gold Rush – Nancy J. Taniguchi