Coming to California: An Essay in Seven Parts on the History of this Land, Part 3

Posted on June 11, 2013 by Yvonne Lefort

Based on an interview with Louise Pubols, Senior Curator of History at the Oakland Museum of California, this column narrates the history of California through the personal story of someone who once moved to this area seeking new opportunities, just like we did. — Diana Gadaldi, international spouse of a postdoc at UC Berkeley

Episode 3: Being a miner’s wife in the time of the Gold Rush
(sequel of episode 2: The Arrival of the Spanish)

The third episode of Coming to California illustrates the challenging life of women in the early years of the Gold Rush, when over 90% of the population in California’s Gold Country was male.

By 1847, after the decline of the Spanish missions and the Mexican national period between 1821 and 1847, California’s population was characterized by a rather “local” mixture of Native Americans and an increasing number of California-born people, the so-called Californios, who had both Spanish and Latin American origins. This balanced demographic scenario radically changed as of 1848 when, almost simultaneously with the annexation of California to the United States, gold was discovered in the area between the site of the modern city of Sacramento and the Sierra Nevada mountain range, near the confluence of the American and the Sacramento rivers. Through the years that followed, tens of thousands of gold-seekers, also known as Argonauts, migrated to California from virtually everywhere in the world. They reached the gold fields by land as well as by sea, facing a strenuous trip, hunger, and risk of death from diseases. Once at their destination, they joined small mining camps and took up residence in ephemeral huts that—at least in the early years of the Gold Rush—hardly deserved to be called homes.

The so-called “Dikeman Kitchen” from the early mining town Rough and Ready displayed in  OMCA’s Gallery of California History. Photo by Rue Flaherty.

The so-called “Dikeman Kitchen” from the early mining town Rough and Ready displayed in
OMCA’s Gallery of California History.
Photo by Rue Flaherty.

As it turns out from the first of the video segments, Mary Hallock and her husband reached the Sacramento Valley after a five-day-long ride by train. The journey was not exactly first class: “In the one passenger car it was stuffy and filled with that underground smell which men who have worked in the mines for years cannot wash out of the pores of their skin,” says the woman in the video. When they arrived at the mining camp, Mary Hallock was shocked about how rudimentary home life was: “All pioneer women started housekeeping in rude shelters with no floors and cooked at the fireplace. The first stove in the neighborhood was an event, and looked at with awe. There was no fire-prepared food as now, all baking was done at home. Butchering done, lard rendered, soap made, water heated for bathing and washing clothes, irons heated for ironing, all on the stove,” explains the woman in another video segment. 

The seven different video segments on women’s life in California’s mining camps during the Gold Rush were added to the original “Dikeman Kitchen” after its
re-installation in 2010.
Photo by Diana Gadaldi.

Thanks to courageous women like Mary Hallock Foote who, especially during the early years of the Gold Rush, followed their men to California’s Gold Country and worked at their side without giving in to the many difficulties of a rootless life, mining shelters slowly turned into homes and mining camps into communities. The descendents of this generation of pioneers and entrepreneurs who left their native land in search of fortune were destined to play a decisive role in the future social and economic development of California.


In the next episode: New neighbors from the East: economic shifts and the rise of the largest Chinatown in the United States.

© Diana Gadaldi

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