"Becoming California, a series that brings the California Gold Rush alive with the people who lived it."
Gold Rush Women Were More Scarce Than Nuggets

by Don Baumgart

Gold was plentiful compared to women during California's Big Rush. Mark Twain had this to say about the situation:

"It was a driving, vigorous, restless population in those days. It was a curious population. It was the only population of the kind that the world has ever seen gathered together, and it is not likely the world will ever see its like again. For, observe, it was an assemblage of two hundred thousand young men."

When word spread about that glittering yellow stuff, California's population exploded. In 1839 there were 2,000 white Americans in all of California. By 1850 the census showed more than 35,000 living in just what would become Nevada and Placer counties.

And women were only a tiny fraction of the population. Susan Lamella and Hank Meals -- in their book Yuba Trails -- report miners were so starved for the presence of a woman that in 1850 Jenny Lind was offered 3,000 ounces of gold to sing in San Francisco. At $18 an ounce, her one-performance fee was $54,000!

So, if this story is true, it may have been the gold miners who started the trend of making millionaires of show business performers.

In 1850 the federal census showed that more than half the population of California was made up of young men in their twenties. And only eight percent of the residents were women.

Two years later the count showed more than a quarter million inhabitants, more than half of them miners. Women made up 15 percent of the population.

It wasn't just young men who came to California to make a fortune. Some more worldly young women left Australia, France and South America to capitalize on the shortage of females; 200 of the Aussie lasses arrived in San Francisco on board a single ship.

They found their gold in the ornate bedrooms of the city's flourishing bordellos. The best evening in town included dinner, music, conversation and sex, and cost six ounces...plus tip.

After all, what better thing did a gold-totin' miner have to do with his dust than spend it on a fancy San Francisco lady.

Up in the gold fields, Twain told how word went 'round one camp like a raging fever that a woman had arrived. A calico dress had been seen hanging out of an immigrant wagon. Another time he stood in a long single file of miners to patiently await his chance to peep through a crack in a cabin wall to get a sight of a "genuine, live woman!" She was cooking flapjacks.

Back in San Francisco, a shipment of women's bonnets arrived at a dock, causing a panic by female-starved men eager to see the feminine garments.

The women of the Donner Party who survived the horrible mountain winter of 1846-47 were enthusiastically welcomed to California. Farming, not gold hunting, was the region's main attraction then, and women were needed desperately. George Stewart wrote in Ordeal by Hunger, "As always in the early West, women were scarce, and almost before the frostbite was out of their toes, the girls [who lived through the Donner catastrophe] were receiving advances and accepting suitors."

Donner survivor Virginia Reed wrote back to her home in the east, "Tell the girls that this is the greatest place for marrying they ever saw and that they must come to California..."

Only a year later the discovery of gold would send the proportion of eligible young men skyrocketing.

Along with gold, California offered land. A man and his wife could get a homestead a mile square under the 1850 Land Act, and the opportunity to settle down. Young men rode as far afield as Oregon, leaning down from their saddles to knock on doors, inquiring after unmarried women. Widows just back from the graveyard and young girls barely finished with their dolls were quickly courted. A divorce granted in the morning became a wedding by sundown.

It became a thing of shame to have land and still be called a "bachelor."

Most of the West's women came overland with wagon trains, an experience only for the brave. One woman jerked a tent pole from the ground and dispatched Indians who had their eyes on the immigrant camp's gleaming cook pots and colorful quilts. Next morning the tribe's chief came to apologize...and to offer $500 for the woman who had fought his men with a stick.

— end —
(Copyright 2001, Don Baumgart)

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