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Gold Fever! The Lure and Legacy of the California Gold Rush

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Silver & Gold: Cased Images of the Gold Rush

Natives & Immingrants


The Crucible Women on the Overland Journey
by JoAnn Levy

For the past 150 years, the near-mythic forty-niner has dominated Gold Rush history. Any schoolchild can conjure his image: boots, red flannel shirt, slouch hat, a pick balanced on his shoulder, a gold pan dangling from his mule’s pack.

His long shadow, in its majority, has shrouded a host of ‘minority’ gold seekers. Adjust history’s focus and we see Chileans and Chinese, Europeans and Canadians, indeed, the whole world heading for California in response to her siren call—including women.

Thousands of women journeyed overland during the Gold Rush with husbands and fathers, and even some few without. John Banks, for instance, traveling with the Buckeye Rovers, a company of young men from Ohio, noted in his diary for June 28, 1849, that he had seen “an Irish woman and daughter without any relatives on the way for gold. It is said she owns a fine farm in Missouri.” Two weeks later, their paths converged again: “Last night the Irish woman and daughter were selling liquor near us. . . . Fifty cents a pint, quite moderate.”

Although the precise number of women heading west in 1849, 1850 and 1851 is not discoverable, nearly every trail diary mentions their presence. For 1852, the Fort Kearny register offers hard data. By July 13 of that year, a fort subordinate stationed on the road had tallied the passing by of 7,021 women and 8,270 children.

Intrepid entrepreneurs like the Irishwoman and her daughter differed little from other women heading for California’s gold. While a few undoubtedly made reluctant companions to adventurous husbands, most shared in the eagerness to make a “pile” from the golden promises of the distantly beckoning land.

Catherine Haun, for instance, and her lawyer husband “longed to go to the new El Dorado and ‘pick up’ gold enough with which to return and pay off our debts.” They departed Clinton, Iowa, with high hopes: “Full of the energy and enthusiasm of youth, the prospects of so hazardous an undertaking had no terror for us, indeed, as we had been married but a few months, it appealed to us as a romantic wedding tour.”

Margaret Frink and her husband Ledyard left Indiana with similar anticipations. Upon seeing the “long trains of white-topped wagons for many miles,” Margaret observed: “It seemed to me that I had never seen so many human beings in all my life before . . . and I thought, in my excitement, that if one-tenth of these teams and these people got ahead of us, there would be nothing left for us in California worth picking up.”

The journey’s scenic splendors captivated many women emigrants. Lucena Parsons found Chimney Rock a special attraction: “It has been seen 30 miles off on a clear day. Three of us went to it. I was struck with amazement at the grandeur of the scene.” Lucy Cooke, on seeing the Sweetwater River rushing through Devil’s Gate, wrote: “It is a grand sight! Surely worth the whole distance of travel.” And Harriet Ward, even after four months of travel, observed in a letter to grown children left behind in Wisconsin: “Were you all with us and our horses fresh it would notwithstanding all its hardships be to me a perfect pleasure trip. There is so much variety and excitement about it, and the scenery through which we are constantly passing is so wild and magnificently grand that it elevates the soul from earth to heaven and causes such an elasticity of mind that I forget I am old.”

But for some, the hardships left devastating memories. Mary Medley Ackley saw her mother felled by cholera and buried near the Platte River: ”I remember every detail of her death and burial.” Lodisa Frizzell “saw a fresh made grave, a feather bed lying upon it, we afterwards learned that a man & his wife had both died a few days before, & were buried together here, they left 2 small children, which were sent back to St. Joseph by an Indian chief." Eliza McAuley witnessed a fearful accident: “In coming down a steep hill a woman attempted to jump from the wagon with the child in her arms. Her dress caught in the wheel and she was drawn under and crushed to death."

Whatever the individual pleasures and tragedies, all shared the fearful experience of the desert crossing, the penultimate barrier to California’s riches. The rugged Sierra Nevada, the emigrants’ final obstacle, exacted its toll in wagons smashed or abandoned, but it was the 40-mile desert that threatened death. By the time overlanders reached this desert described by guidebooks as a distance that “must be performed in one stretch, as there is no grass nor good water on the road,” they had already traveled 1,800 miles. Their oxen, mules, and horses were worn, their spirits and bodies fatigued, their provisions frequently reduced to starvation levels.

Few gold rush diaries record events more frightening than the desert crossing. Luzena Stanley Wilson, who refused to be left behind when her husband Mason caught gold fever—”I thought where he could go I could, and where I went I could take my two little toddling babies”—captured the horror in 1849:

It was a forced march over the alkali plain, lasting three days, and we carried with us the water that had to last, for both men and animals, till we reached the other side. The hot earth scorched our feet; the grayish dust hung about us like a cloud, making our eyes red, and tongues parched, and our thousand bruises and scratches smart like burns. The road was lined with the skeletons of the poor beasts who had died in the struggle. The ‘Independence Company’—like hundreds of others had given out on the desert; their mules gone, many of their number dead, the party broken up, some gone back to Missouri, two of the leaders were here, not distant forty yards, dying of thirst and hunger. I took food and water and found them bootless, hatless, ragged and tattered, moaning in the starlight for death to relieve them from torture. They called me an angel. . . ..”

Craven Hester, a lawyer, took his wife Martha and his children to California in 1849. Daughter Sallie’s diary gave eloquent testimony to the desert’s hardship:

Had a trying time crossing. Several of our cattle gave out, and we left one. Our journey through the desert was from Monday, three o’clock in the afternoon, until Thursday morning at sunrise, September 6. The weary journey last night, the mooing of the cattle for water, their exhausted condition, with the cry of ‘Another ox down,’ the stopping of the train to unyoke the poor dying brute, to let him follow at will or stop by the wayside and die, and the weary, weary tramp of men and beasts, worn out with heat and famished for water, will never be erased from my memory.”

Josiah and Sarah Royce and their two-year-old daughter Mary crossed a month behind the Hester family. Late starting, beset by difficulties, the Royce family lagged far behind the other emigrants. By traveling the desert at night they avoided the heat, but in the dark they missed the fork to the meadows the guidebooks instructed as essential for cutting grass for the crossing. The Royces were far into the desert when they realized their mistake. Wrote Sarah:

So there was nothing to be done but to turn back and try to find the meadows. Turn back! What a chill the words sent through one. Turn back, on a journey like that; in which every mile had been gained by most earnest labor, growing more and more intense, until, of late, it had seemed that the certainty of advance with every step, was all that made the next step possible. And now for miles we were to go back. In all that long journey no steps ever seemed so heavy, so hard to take, as those with which I turned my back to the sun that afternoon of October 4th, 1849.”

Margaret and Ledyard Frink endured 37 hours on the “frightful desert.

For many weeks we had been accustomed to see property abandoned and animals dead or dying. But those scenes were here doubled and trebled. Horses, mules, and oxen, suffering from heat, thirst, and starvation, staggered along until they fell and died on every rod of the way. Both sides of the road for miles were lined with dead animals and abandoned wagons. Around them were strewed yokes, chains, harness, guns, tools, bedding, clothing, cooking-utensils, and many other articles, in utter confusion. The owners had left everything—and hurried on to save themselves. But no one stopped to gaze or help. The living procession marched steadily onward, giving little heed to the destruction going on, in their own anxiety to reach a place of safety. In fact, the situation was so desperate that, in most cases, no one could help another. Each had all he could do to save himself and his animals.”

In 1850, starvation faced half the people on the lower Humboldt. William Waldo, captain of a relief party, wrote from the Humboldt River on September 12:

Many women are on the road with families of children, who have lost their husbands by cholera, and who never will cross the mountains without aid. There are yet twenty thousand [emigrants] back of the Desert. Fifteen thousand of this number are now destitute of all kinds of provisions.”

Alternate routes offered nothing more than hardship in a different direction. In 1849, more than 7,000 emigrants headed north from the Humboldt sink in hopes of an easier crossing near the Oregon border. They succeeded only in exchanging the 40-mile desert for the Black Rock desert and in adding 200 miles to their journey. Newlywed Catherine Haun and her husband took that road:

The alkali dust of this territory was suffocating, irritating our throats and clouds of it often blinded us. The mirages tantalized us; the water was unfit to drink or to use in any way; animals often perished or were so overcome by heat and exhaustion that they had to be abandoned, or in the case of human hunger, the poor jaded creatures were killed and eaten. One of our dogs was so emaciated and exhausted that we were obliged to leave him on this desert and it was said that the train following us used him for food.”

This was the crucible. Women found they could do things, must do things, they’d never done before. Catherine Haun, reared in a slave state, “had yet to make my first cup of coffee” when her journey began. Now she baked bread to keep their horses alive, giving “half a loaf each day to each horse until the flour gave out.”

Juliette Brier’s test lay to the south. Her husband, the Reverend James Welsh Brier, opted for a southern route in hopes of avoiding the desert and mountain crossings facing travelers of the overland trail. The Briers, with their three young sons, attached themselves to a large wagon train led by a man familiar with the Old Spanish Trail into Los Angeles. While en route, a member of a passing pack train shared a map purportedly showing a cut-off into California. The temptation of short-cut proved irresistible to the Reverend Brier, three other families, and a company of young men from Illinois who called themselves the Jayhawkers. These were the people who named Death Valley.

On November 4, 1849, they entered the desert valley in which they soon lost their way and were in imminent danger of losing their lives. Four Jayhawkers did. The Briers followed the Jayhawkers in a desperate search for a way out. One young man suggested to Juliette that she remain behind with her children and they would send help for her. She wrote:

I knew what was in his mind. ‘No,’ I said, ‘I have never been a hindrance, I have never kept the company waiting, neither have my children, and every step I take will be toward California.’ Give up! I knew what that meant; a shallow grave in the sand.”

Juliette Brier earned the Jayhawkers’ great respect by nursing their sick and dying, and by her devotion to her family. In walking nearly a hundred miles through sand and rocks, she frequently carried one of her children on her back and another in her arms. By the nightmare journey’s end she was assisting her husband, who lost a hundred pounds during the three-month-long ordeal.

The other three families—the Bennetts, Arcans, and Wades—also eventually found their way out of the desert and into California.

After the grueling hardships of getting to this promised land, what awaited these intrepid adventurers? Margaret Frink, for one, had heard wonderful tales of California, “that they kept flour-scoops to scoop the gold out of the barrels that they kept it in, and that you could soon get all that you needed for the rest of your life.”

In the face of such expectations, California was bound to disappoint. Or was it? For Margaret Frink, for Sarah Royce and Luzena Stanley Wilson, for Catherine Haun and Harriet Ward, and a host of gold-rushing women who journeyed around the Horn or across the Isthmus in answer to California’s call, the adventure had but begun.

JoAnn Levy is the author of They Saw the Elephant: Women in the California Gold Rush (University of Oklahoma Press, 1992) and Daughter of Joy: A Novel of Gold Rush San Francisco (Forge, 1998).

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