«back to Anchor Brewing Blog

Only More So Women of the California Gold Rush

Posted by at 12:04 am | Category: Craft Beer History, San Francisco 0

By Dave Burkhart, Anchor’s Design & Graphics Production Manager and Brewery Historian

“California, noted Wallace Stegner, is like the rest of the United States—only more so.”–Kevin Starr
Most of the books written about the ’49ers might as well be called Men of the Gold Rush.

01-Men-of-California-525Men of California, Men Who Made San Francisco, California: Men and Events – Author’s Collection

The women of the California Gold Rush—not just exotic dancers like Lola Montez, actresses like Lotta Crabtree, or Chinese madams like Ah Toy—deserve far more attention than they get. Why not read the stories of Gold Rush women, written by women, who wrote with eloquence, humor, dignity, immediacy, personality, and individuality about their unique California experiences? Today, thanks to the dedication of a handful of women scholars and historians, exquisite firsthand accounts of women ’49ers are readily available at your local library or bookstore. They are well worth reading as both history and literature.

Mary Jane Megquier believed that California was “the place to enjoy life,” where the very air she breathed seemed “so very free.”

“I suppose you have heard,” she wrote in a letter in 1849, “one thousand and one stories of this land of gold and wonders, they may differ widely but still all be true…. It is all the same whether you go to church or play monte, that is why I like California, you very well know that I am a worshipper at the shrine of liberty.”

02-Pour-CalifornieA Satirical Drawing Relating to Gold Rush California. Pour Californie, M. Williaume exportant en Californie un article qui est excessivement demandé. Courtesy of The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley. BANC PIC 1963.002:0458–B

According to Eliza Farnham, who managed to tempt a handful of eligible bachelorettes to journey westward with her, California was also a place where you could reinvent yourself: “If he could blow a fife on training day he will be a professor of music here,” she wrote, “if he has a pig-sty or kennel at home, he will be a master-builder in California.”


J. W. Marshall and Mrs. Wimmer Testing Gold in Boiling Soap. (Yes, she really did smoke a pipe!) – Author’s Collection

It all started with Jenny Wimmer, who as a girl panned for gold in the auriferous streams of Lumpkin County, Georgia, site of America’s second gold rush (the first was in North Carolina in 1799). Little did she know that her firsthand knowledge of gold mining would one day play a pivotal role in the American history.

In 1846, just a little ahead of the Donner party, Jenny traveled overland with her husband Peter and their seven children. Her husband was soon hired to oversee the Indian workers constructing a sawmill for General Sutter on the south fork of the American River near Coloma. Jenny was the cook. James Marshall was the foreman.

On January 24, 1848, Marshall and Peter Wimmer went down to the millrace. Over the years, Jenny told her tale many times: “The water was entirely shut off and, as they walked along, talking and examining the work, just ahead of them, on a little, rough, muddy rock, lay something looking bright, like gold. Our little son Martin was along with them, and Marshall gave it to him to bring up to me. He came in a hurry and said: ‘Here, mother, here’s something Marshall and Pa found, and they want you to put it into the saleratus water to see if it will tarnish.’ I said, ‘this is gold and I will put it into my lye kettle…and if it is gold it will be gold when it comes out.’” Next morning, the proof of the pudding, thanks to Jenny’s savvy, was a shiny golden nugget, which became known as the Wimmer nugget. Today, it resides in the friendly confines of UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library.

04-Josey-and-Matilda                     Josey and Matilda Going to Colonise California. Courtesy of The Bancroft Library,                      University of California, Berkeley. BANC PIC 1963.002:0454–B

Like Jenny’s story, Sarah Royce’s story comes down to us as reminiscence. In the 1880s, her California-born son, Harvard professor Josiah Royce, asked her to turn her Gold Rush diary into a narrative for inclusion in his California: A Study of American Character (1886). For Josiah, California’s story—of discovery, then turmoil, then resolution—was America’s story both condensed and writ large. His mother’s story is perhaps the most moving account of the overland journey to California, a trek of some 2,200 miles at ten to fifteen miles a day.

The most poignant moment of their sojourn occurred on October 4, 1849, already incredibly late in the season, with winter fast approaching, when she realized that their little party (including Sarah, her husband, and their 2-year-old daughter, Mary) had missed a turn in the desert with not enough food or water to go on and perhaps not enough to go back. “Turn back!” she exclaimed. “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.” No wonder that Sarah viewed California as a new Canaan.

But it was a Canaan with very few of the so-called fairer sex. In 1850, for example, 300 men and just twelve women attended a dance in Nevada City—according to gold-rusher Luzena Stanley Wilson.


A Live Woman in the Mines. Charles Christian Nahl
Luzena was a wonderful writer, painting word-pictures of Gold Rush scenes that rival her male counterparts. Here is her vivid description of the two-room Sacramento hotel, in which Luzena and her husband had bought an interest for $600 (about $16,500 in today’s dollars) in 1849.

“That first glimpse into [our] Sacramento hotel was a picture which only loss of memory can efface. Imagine a long room, dimly lighted by dripping tallow candles stuck into whisky bottles, with bunks built from floor to ceiling on either side. A bar with rows of bottles and glasses was in one corner, and two or three miners were drinking; the barkeeper dressed in half sailor, half vaquero fashion, with a blue shirt rolled far back at the collar to display the snowy linen beneath, and his waist encircled by a flaming scarlet sash, was in commanding tones subduing their noisy demands, for the barkeeper, next to the stage-driver, was in early days the most important man in camp. In the opposite corner of the room some men were having a wordy dispute over a game of cards; a cracked fiddle was, under the manipulation of rather clumsy fingers, furnishing music for some half dozen others to dance… One young man was reading a letter by a sputtering candle, and tears rolling down his yet unbearded face told of the homesickness in his heart. Some of the men lay sick in their bunks, some lay asleep, and out from another bunk, upon this curious mingling of merriment and sadness, stared the white face of a corpse… They would bury him tomorrow to make room for another applicant for his bunk.”


A Charming Girl of New-York, in the Gold Region.
John: “I am almost exhausted my dear Mary! I cannot do any more! Truly it is to [sic] much work for a miserable little hole!!!”
Mary: “Dig, Dig dear John, you must know that a little hole in the Gold region Cost a great-deal more than a large one in New York! go a head, John dig-on.”
Courtesy of The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley. BANC PIC 1963.002:0453–B

Louise Amelia Knapp Smith Clappe came by sea around Cape Horn, and her description of life in the mines (on the north fork of the Feather River) may be the best ever written by man or woman. Josiah Royce calls her “the right kind of witness to describe for us the social life of a mining camp from actual experience.”

Louise’s twenty-three letters to her sister Molly in 1851-52 first appeared in print in the Pioneer, a California literary magazine. Frederick Ewer, who later became rector of Grace Church, the Episcopalian forerunner of today’s Grace Cathedral, was the publisher. Louise’s husband was a doctor, a rare and distinguished profession in the gold fields, which gave her the means to devote time to the study of nature, the study of human nature, and writing. Her letters were published under the nom de plume Dame Shirley, perhaps—and this is being proposed for the first time—after the leading lady in Charlotte Brontë’s novel Shirley.

Shirley (Title Page) Charlotte Brontë AKA Currer Bell

(Title Page)
Charlotte Brontë AKA Currer Bell

In the mid-nineteenth century, Shirley was a man’s name. In Brontë’s 1849 novel, Shirley got her name from her parents, who, after eight years of marriage without a male heir, named their daughter Shirley (I know, don’t call me Shirley). All grown up, Brontë’s Shirley exclaims, “I am indeed no longer a girl, but quite a woman and something more. I am an esquire! Shirley Keeldar, Esquire, ought to be my style and title. They gave me a man’s name; I hold a man’s position. It is enough to inspire me with a touch of manhood.”

Dame Shirley the writer chronicles the gradual transformation of a mining community from bucolic innocence to the site of reckless drunken brawls, murders, and even lynchings. Her sincerity and eloquence of expression is readily apparent throughout her own transformation: “My dear Molly, have I not fulfilled my promise of giving you a dish of horrors? And only think of such a shrinking, timid, frail thing as I used to be.”


And, in her last letter: “My heart is heavy at the thought of departing forever from this place. I like this wild and barbarous life; I leave it with regret. The solemn fir trees here, the watching hills, and the calmly beautiful river seem to gaze sorrowfully at me, as I stand in the moon-lighted midnight, to bid them farewell.”

After returning to San Francisco, Dame Shirley divorced her husband and went on to become one of the City by the Bay’s great public school teachers. Ultimately, she returned to the East Coast, where she lived with Bret Harte’s nieces until her death in 1906.

The letters of Mary Jane (Jennie) Megquier are to life in Gold Rush San Francisco what Dame Shirley’s are to life in the mines. Jennie’s letters were never intended for publication, but their immediacy, candor, and humor assure them a lofty place in the pantheon of California literature.

Megquier made a total of three arduous round trips from Maine to San Francisco, coming by way of either Panama or Nicaragua. In 1849, her husband, a doctor in rural Maine caught up in “the gold excitement,” bought an iron house and $10,000 worth of medicine and goods for resale in San Francisco. At the last minute he wanted to bring her along, “as it is very difficult to get anything done in the way of women’s help.” She “decided to go,” as she says, for the sake of her children’s future, leaving their three children behind with friends. It was a heart-wrenching decision but, at least according to her letters, it was her decision. Once in San Francisco, Jennie took in boarders to help make ends meet as her feckless husband struggled with his business dealings.

08-Spending-It-Maynard-DixonSpending It – Maynard Dixon. Courtesy of The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley. BANC PIC 1963.002:0276–A

“I have cooked every mouthful,” she wrote to her daughter in 1850, “that has been eaten excepting one day and a half that we were on a steamboat excursion. I make six beds every day and do the washing and ironing you must think I am very busy and when I dance all night I am obliged to trot all day and if I had not the constitution of six horses I should have been dead long ago.”

Despite the heartache of being away from her children, who were just seventeen, fifteen, and nine when she left home, Jennie Megquier never lost her Mark-Twainian sense of irony, as in this gentle put-down of a San Francisco bride-to-be: “There is to be a wedding… to night one of the belles of the city. It will take place in church, all the town will be there to see the bride… She has eyes black as any dolls hair of the same hue, quite small in stature, skin like wax, but I think she is not burdened by more than one idea at a time.”

09-Adjusting-RoomAdjusting Room. (Working in the Assayer’s Office) – Harrison Eastman, Hutchings’ California Magazine

Like all great literature, the writings of Dame Shirley, Luzena Wilson, Sarah Royce, Jenny Wimmer, and Jennie Megquier inform us, transport us, and elevate us. On April 2, 1856, by then a grandmother and widow, Megquier writes to her daughter from San Francisco. She did not yet know if and when she would ever be able to return home back east. Eventually, she did go home, to a loving family, having already given them, their descendants, and now us, the rich legacy of her uniquely personal, firsthand Gold Rush chronicle. She should have the last word:

“And now,” Megquier writes with melancholy, “I would bring you here to this same window that I have before told you of, there are a dozen big clippers unlading their freight of boxes, and barrels, pails, and wash tubs, I see now a pile of pails as big as this house and who knows but they come from Turner, Maine. The Sacramento boats are just going out three of them and I can hear every revolution of the wheel as they pass the window. When the last steamer went to the states the Captain and Engineer stood on the wheel house and waived their handkerchiefs to us, we were ironing so we took a sheet and returned the salute.”


Great Excitement in San Francisco. Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Email Sign Up

Sign up to recieve the Anchor Brewsletter and become a brewery insider. We'll never share your email address, honest!

* required