By Roberta C.M. DeCaprio
When we hear the word gold rush, we envision our forefathers hurrying to California to pan for gold, hoping to strike it rich and have a better life. But what about the women and how did they fit in this era? They not only endured the hardships and privations of a new country, but were obligated to endure the forefathers too.
When January of 1850 dawned upon California her population was approximately 100,000 people. Nearly all of them were men and nine-tenths of them gold-fever immigrants. After these adventurers rushed to mines and staked a claim, they sent for their wives, girlfriends and daughters.
Caravans of women were led over trackless plains and mountains for months on end. Great rocks, waist high, made it difficult for the oxen to pull the wagons. To lighten the load and save the wagon wheels from being destroyed, the women walked beside the carriages, crossing the plains with their little children tugging on their skirts and babies at their breasts. They lived with the daily threat of Indian attacks, or dying in child birth. The wagon masters used simply the sun and stars as guides, coming west almost as straight as the crow flies. Each day, no matter the weather conditions, three hours of travel was insisted upon to keep the oxen in good condition.
Once the women reached their destination they were made to live in tents instead of framed dwellings. The men gambled and drank so there was a lot of shooting, cursing and yelling going on in the camp. The uproar frightened children and many clung to their mothers for solace, becoming another problem for women to conquer, as well as teaching them their school lessons.
The women toiled daily to support their families, since mining wasn’t always a certain means of livelihood. There were no bake shops, so the women made apple pies from common dried apples and sold them for a dollar apiece.
It wasn’t until 1860 that the Pony Express was started, so there was no mail. The women couldn’t receive news from or about the loved ones they left behind, nor could they send news out. If they lost a parent or sibling, or they themselves passed, either side didn’t obtain the information for several years later.
The only source of social amusement was dancing. If a dance was held at one mining camp, other mining camp occupants would travel miles on horseback to attend the festivities. The only music for these pioneer balls was the fiddle.
When next we give praise and credit to the forefathers of our country who were struck with gold fever strong in their blood and came west across the mighty mountains to make their homes beside the Pacific waters . . . we can’t forget to honor the women.
The gray hairs upon their heads at a young age tell in cipher of their silent sufferings. The deeply graven lines etched upon their face explain a noble story. They were our nation’s backbone, the foremothers who kept the home fires burning under primitive conditions and the matrons of the commonwealth.