Women During the Gold Rush
The Gold Rush was one of the most influential times in California History. During the four years from 1848-1852, 400,000 new people flooded into the state. People from many countries and social classes moved to California, and many of them settled in San Francisco. All this diversity in one place created a very interesting dynamic. California during the Gold Rush, was a place of colliding ideals. The 49ers came from a very structured kind of life to a place where one was free to make up her own rules.
“Freedom was in the very air Californians breathed, for the country offered a unique and seductive drought of liberty. People were free from censure, from Eastern restrictions, from societal expectations.”1
California society, and people as individuals, could not decide whether they relished their newfound freedom or despised it. Some people attempted to recreate the lives they knew at home, while many others threw off the shackles of their old proper lives. Victorian culture emerged in the 1820’s and 1830’s in America. At 1850, the time of the Gold Rush, it was at it’s high point. Anyone who came to California from the states, no matter what their position, would have come from a place influenced by the Victorian way of life. This included strict ideas about the roles of men and women, taboos on drinking and gambling, high value set on hard work, Christian ethics, and ethnic prejudices.2 People who came to California experienced something quite different.
“In the years which followed the gold discoveries, society was not stratified. Moral and religious principles were often disregarded, and all kinds of irregular situations could be found.”3
Americans who came to California had never lived with such freedom from the strict confines of traditional Victorian society. This freedom affected and changed all those people who experienced it. Letters, journals, and reminiscences written by adventurers during the Gold Rush vividly illustrate the internal struggle which people experienced.
This is especially true of the writing by women of the time. It is a long held myth that the gold rush was almost completely male. Yet, most trail diaries mention the presence of women.4 Still, they were quite a minority. The 1860 census reveals that in San Francisco that year, men outnumbered women three to two. Lopsided though this ratio may be, there were enough women in California to have quite an influence, and perhaps they struggled even more with their new freedom than the men. More restraint was expected from women, and it was their duty to keep their husbands and children proper. How they chose to deal with their new surroundings would have greatly impacted their families. Women offer an interesting perspective, as women were traditionally the epitomes of Victorian morality. Historian Lillian Schlissel writes that unlike the men, “...women did not always see the venture in the clear light of the...