Women In Nineteenth-Century Western Mining Towns, Women In The Mine Towns

Part of the American Women series, this essay contrasts the experiences of various women who left their homes to put down roots in California during the last quarter of the eighteenth century to the mid-nineteenth century.

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Author:Patricia Molen van Ee, Geography & Map Division,Retired

Note: This guide is adapted from the original essay in “American Women: A Library of Congress Guide for the Study of Women's History and Culture in the United States,” 2001.

Created:December 2001

Last Updated:March 29, 2019

Abstract:In this essay Pam Van Ee contrasts the experiences of various women who left their homes to put down roots in California during the last quarter of the eighteenth century to the mid-nineteenth century. She discusses women who were part of Juan Bautista de Anza's overland expeditions in 1774-75 from the Spanish provinces of Sinaloa and Sonora in what is now Mexico to the San Francisco Bay area; women who lived in California when it was under Spanish (1769-1821) and Mexican (1822-46) control; and women who were drawn to the area following the discovery of gold in 1848.


Charles Drayton Gibbes. A new map of the gold region in California. 1851. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.


E. McD Johnstone. The unique map of California. 1888. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.


Jose M. Narvaes. Carta esferica de los territorios de la alta y baja Californias y estado de Sonora. 1823. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.


Currier & Ives. Yosemite Valley–California: “The Bridal Veil” Fall. 1866. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.


D.D. Morse. View of San Gabriel, Cal. 1893. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.

Mapa de toda la frontera de los dominios del rey en la America septentrional. 1816. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.

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The picture that comes to mind for most Anglo-Americans when women are discussed in the context of historical travels to California is that of the overland wagon trains moving westward, peopled by sturdy and daring pioneers who arrived in California after the discovery of gold in 1848. A few might also mention that some of the women came by ship, interrupting their voyage with an arduous trek—on foot or by mule—across the Isthmus of Panama, all the while with small children in tow. Even fewer people are aware that these women were relative latecomers to the Golden State, as California came to be known.


Emigrant party on the road to California. <1850>. Library of Congress Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

At the time Anglo-Americans began arriving in California in large numbers during the nineteenth century, they were part of the third wave of migration to the Pacific Coast. The first immigrants were Native Americans who had lived in California ten to fifteen thousand years before the region was visited by Old World explorers.1 A prevalent myth that the rich land was empty, ripe for colonization, is refuted by recent studies indicating that “at the time of Euro-American contact, California was more densely populated than any area of equal size in North America, north of central Mexico . . . . What is labeled ‘wilderness’ in today's popular imagination . . . harbored human gathering and hunting sites, burial grounds, work sites, sacred areas, trails, and village sites. Today's wilderness was then human homeland.”2

Our understanding of the native peoples of California is limited by the absence of written cultural artifacts, except for a few drawings on cave or canyon walls, and is further hampered by a lack of understanding of the ecology of California's landscape before European contact, which took place over several centuries. A map produced by August Wilhelm Kuchler, Natural Vegetation of California, in the Geography and Map Division, provides the best information available at this time regarding the native vegetation as it existed before the arrival of Spanish explorer Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo in 1542.

What is clear, however, is that the Indians altered the physical environment through planting, pruning, irrigating, and periodically burning vegetation and that Indian women played major and very specific roles in these activities.3 The illustration at the left shows one type of gathering activity. Other examples are available in the online collection, Edward S. Curtis's the North American Indian. Although new information about Indian life in California is emerging, the complete story of their journeys and experiences has yet to be told.4


Edward S. Curtis, photographer. Gathering Seeds–Coast Pomo. c1924. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

There is, however, an abundance of written source material about the second wave of immigrants who settled the borderlands in the northernmost portion of the Spanish empire. Incursions by the British and Russians, and the fear that others might attempt to claim additional areas of the North American continent, motivated Spain to create a strong military and human presence along the California coast. Between 1769 and 1821, twenty missions, four presidios (forts), and three civil communities known as pueblos were built, stretching from San Diego to just north of San Francisco.5

From the beginning, families were sent to these outposts for the express purpose of increasing the population of Spanish citizens. In addition to the relatively few people who could be considered Hispanic, having been born in Spain or of solely Spanish ancestry, the vast majority of the colonists came from Mexico, where some of their families had lived for at least two generations. Included were many mestizos who were part Native American and part Spanish or Mexican and mulattoes and blacks.6 California, already populated by multiple Native American cultural groups, with the arrival of these newer immigrants became a model of diversity that continues to the present day.

Among the best documented expeditions in North American history are the two overland journeys led by Juan Bautista de Anza in 1774 and 1775. How colonists from the Spanish provinces of Sinaloa and Sonora in what is now Mexico migrated as families to the San Francisco Bay area—traveling from the Tubac garrison on Sonora's northern frontier; traversing the Sonoran desert, the treacherous Gila and Colorado Rivers, and rugged mountain ranges; and then moving up California's Central Valley—is one of the most amazing and least known stories in American history.7

Anza established for the first time an overland route across the desert, connecting established portions of New Spain with the California outposts, six hundred miles of which required blazing a new trail. His first expedition in 1774 transported forty soldiers, twelve women, and several children. By the time he returned to Monterrey, Mexico, to report his success to his superiors, he had covered over two thousand miles.8

The opening of the trail was maintained by preserving friendly relations with the Indians in its vicinity. A continuing need for settlers to protect Spanish interests in the region led to his most stunning success—shepherding 240 men, women, and children, including seven infants under the age of eight months, across the desert and up the California coast.

The expedition left Tubac on October 23, 1775. Winter came unusually early that year; it was unseasonably cold with a record-breaking amount of snow and ice and the colonists, used to the warm climate of Mexico, were unprepared for the hardships they faced. Rations were short, finding potable water was difficult, people and livestock sickened, and many of the animals weakened or died.9

Despite the adverse conditions, Anza arrived at Monterey, California, with two more people than he had enlisted for the long journey to Alta California, three of whom were born on the trail. He lost only one person the entire trip, a mother of six, Señora Felix, who died in childbirth the first night. All of the rest of the party, including the newborns, survived.10 Such a successful outcome overland to California was never equaled—before, during, or after the Gold Rush—and had the thirteen diaries penned on his two expeditions been written in English rather than Spanish, Anza would today be known throughout the world as a famous leader and the names of some of the remarkable women who traveled with him would be remembered.


Sarony, Major & Knapp. Papagos. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Although none of the women traveling north from Mexico left written journals of their thoughts, feelings, and experiences on the trail, fascinating vignettes can be extracted from the diaries kept by the men who accompanied them. For example, we know that, because the primary purpose of the 1775 expedition was to populate Spanish California, Anza actively recruited young married couples and that three marriages took place along the way. The ideal of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century womanhood influenced the recruitment of suitable colonists from among the poorer Mexican families. Spanish expectations for women were by and large those that crossed national and cultural lines: westering women were to be pious, pure, domestic, and modest, whether they were English, French, or Spanish-Mexican.11 There were, however, some exceptions to the general patterns of behavior and family composition expected of all women regardless of their social class.

The women who accompanied Anza were primarily from the lower classes of Mexican society. One of them, however, was not from that social stratum. Maria Feliciana Arballo was born into a wealthy family in Spain and was only twenty years old when she and her mestizo husband signed on to travel with Anza. In part, the journey to California would have helped them to escape the rigid class society in established parts of the Spanish empire that denigrated her husband on the basis of color and race. His sudden death prior to the journey did not deter her from insisting that she and her two young daughters be permitted to accompany Anza to California. Perhaps the persuasiveness of her arguments convinced Anza, despite strong objections from Father Pedro Font, to make an exception to his policy that all women be accompanied by male family members. She and her daughters, one riding in front of her, the other behind, traveled on horseback all the way to California. Once there, she again asserted her independence by leaving the group in San Gabriel, where she entered into a second marriage. The man she chose was also a mestizo soldier.12

Apparently Arballo was a high-spirited young woman, because Father Font was repeatedly annoyed with her and with Anza, who had permitted her to go to California against the priest's adamant opposition. Font confided in his diary, as translated and published by Herbert Eugene Bolton, that she drank alcohol to excess one evening when the group was celebrating, having completed an arduous portion of the journey. Font also noted her unseemly behavior, commenting that the “very bold widow . . . sang some verses which were not at all nice, applauded and cheered by the crowd.”13 She refused to play the submissive and modest role required of women of her time and, by performing in public, she resisted the social controls normally governing Spanish women's actions. She also defied, not once but twice, the class and color constraints of Hispanic culture by marrying common soldiers who were mestizo when she herself was of Spanish birth. In marrying beneath her class and caste, defying her priest's advice, resisting male authority, and acting boldly in the public sphere, she subverted the gender requirements of proper behavior for women of her time.14

At the highest end of California's social spectrum, although not a member of Anza's party, was Eulalia Callis, born in Spain to an influential family. She became the wife of Alta California governor Pedro Fages. Despite her prominent position, she made private matters public in 1785 by openly accusing her husband of infidelity and refusing to sleep with him; in addition, she insisted on returning to Mexico City. The governor denied any wrongdoing and their priest advised her, when she consulted him about a divorce, to drop the matter. She refused to do so, and she was punished for her actions by imprisonment, isolation, the continual threat of flogging, and excommunication from the Church. Although her contemporaries were unsympathetic, Callis's actions in retrospect appear to have been motivated by a strong survival instinct for she had endured four pregnancies in six years, buried two of her children, and longed, understandably, to return to a safer and more comfortable life in Mexico City.15

Notably successful in exercising her independence was a third woman, Apolinaria Lorenzana, who arrived on the ship Concepcion with her widowed mother. In keeping with Spanish norms, which were clearly stated in the context of sending ten female foundlings to California in 1800, Señorita Lorenzana was supposed to marry and bear children to bolster the population of the northern borderlands of the Spanish empire.16 She never acquiesced in doing either, despite a proposal from a young Californian. Her strategy for avoiding marriage, “because I was not particularly inclined toward that state even though I knew the merits of that sacred institution,” was to perform valued work by cooking, nursing, and caring for the Native Americans who lived near the mission. “La Beata” was respected, admired, and loved for her life of service, and thus maintained control of her own sexuality and lived a life of independence, supporting herself by working for the Church. Her efforts resulted in her being one of very few women in California to receive a land grant in her own name.17

Source material for studying Anza's expeditions, Spanish California (1769-1821), and the Mexican period (1822-46) is available in a variety of formats at the Library of Congress. Although the original manuscript diaries are in Mexico, with additional copies in the archives of Seville and Madrid, the Manuscript Division has multiple copies of Anza material for those willing to translate them; they can be accessed by using several published and unpublished finding aids.18 Photographic reproductions of manuscripts and transcripts of the original materials in English and Spanish, bilingual published editions of primary source material, and translations of varying quality of the records associated with Anza are also in the Library's collections.19 Examples of information related to women's history contained in these works are census data on the members of the 1775 expedition, including names, ages, marital status, and the number of male and female children per family, and detailed lists of supplies and provisions that Anza procured for each man, woman, and child, including articles of clothing.20


William Redmond Ryan. Een waterplaats in Neder Californie: A watering hole in Lower California. 1850. Mexican mestizo women washing clothes and carrying water jars on their heads, by a watering hole, as man stands next to them, California. Library of Congress Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

In addition to the materials published by Bolton from Spanish and Mexican archives, copious sources supporting studies of women in Pre-Conquest California are available in several Library of Congress collections. The earliest written observations and visual images of California women were recorded by travelers and traders who visited the area before the Mexican War (1846-48). Contemporary American and foreign published accounts of that period are housed in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division, including works by Frenchman Jean-François de Galaup, comte de La Pérouse, who was there in 1786, and Russian Louis Choris, whose 1822 publication included drawings made in 1816 of California Indians.21

Life in California: During a Residence of Several Years in that Territory . . . By an American, recorded Alfred Robinson's views of Indian gendered roles. “They passed their time in play, and roaming about from house to house, dancing and sleeping and this was their only occupation . . . The women were obliged to gather seeds in the fields, prepare them for cooking, and to perform all the meanest offices as well as the most laborious. It was painful in the extreme, to behold them with the infants, hanging upon their shoulders, groping about in search of herbs and seed.”22

Richard Henry Dana Jr.'s extremely popularTwo Years before the Mast,published in 1840, included observations that he made in July 1835 while visiting California. His views were influential in shaping American attitudes in the eastern United States toward the Hispanic-mestizo population of the Southwest. “The men are thriftless, proud, and extravagant, and very much given to gaming; and the women have but little education, and a good deal of beauty, and their morality, of course, is none the best; yet the instances of infidelity are much less frequent than one would at first suppose . . . . The women have but little virtue, but then the jealousy of their husbands is extreme and their revenge deadly and almost certain.”23 His writing added to growing expressions of Anglo-Saxon superiority and belief in “Manifest Destiny” in the years leading up to the American conquest of California.

The Geography and Map Division has both contemporary cartographic material, including manuscript maps, and more recent thematic maps showing the extent of the Spanish empire, the routes taken by Anza and other Spanish explorers, the sites of presidios, pueblos, and missions, and the topography and geology of Alta California. Particularly useful for providing orientation to the Spanish Empire in North America is Mapa, que comprende la Frontera, de los Dominos del Ray . . . ,drawn by Joseph Urrutia and Nicolas de La Fora in 1769. A large and detailed map, it is the product of the 1766-68 expedition to survey presidios and defenses of northern New Spain, and shows administrative boundaries and selected European and Native American towns and settlements on the eve of the founding of Spain's first colony in Alta California in 24

In addition, there are many secondary works devoted to history and culture of the Spanish and Mexican eras of Alta California and individual communities in formats including monographs, bibliographies, journal articles, and doctoral dissertations. Subject headings that identify this material include “California–History–to 1846.”

The great watershed in California history began with the American conquest of the Mexican province, followed almost immediately by the discovery of gold in 1848, widespread immigration in the rush to the goldfields, and California's admission to the Union in 1850. Socially, economically, and demographically, California became unrecognizable almost overnight as San Francisco changed from a small town to a bustling port and mining camps and villages sprang up all along the eastern slopes of the Sierras. Among the eyewitness documents available are twenty drawings by Daniel Jenks, which include images of women as they traveled west.

Demographic information about women is helpful in understanding the magnitude of the social revolution. Census averages by brianowens.tvality are available for the age of married couples, the age difference between married partners, and the number of children per family in 1790, and can be used as a baseline of comparison for the period after 1850. Equally informative are statistics that reveal the relatively large numbers of male to female inhabitants, peaking at a ratio of twelve men to one woman in 1850. The number of foreign-born residents of both sexes also increased dramatically. Defining those born outside the United States (and outside California, before it became a state) as “foreign,” the number of foreign women increased from 19 to 28 percent between 1850 and 1860, whereas the figure for men for the same period jumped from 24 to 43 percent.25


Louis Choris. Jeu des habitans de Californie.

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. <1822>. Native women watching men play game, possibly related to gambling, at a mission near San Francisco, California. Library of Congress Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

Both American and foreign immigrants added to the diversity and complexity that already existed in California society. Several mulatto families had traveled to California with Anza, and intermarriage between races was so frequent that the racial classification system in colonial New Spain was highly formalized—including terms such as “castizo” and “morisco.” One scholar has noted that “approximately 55 percent of the Spanish-speaking population in California in 1790 was of mixed heritage” and 20 percent may have possessed some African ancestry.26

Forty-niners were drawn to the goldfields from all around the globe.27 Of particular interest—because the Asian population of North America before the Gold Rush was extremely low—are the number of immigrants from China who sailed to Northern California within a narrow time span, creating a unique community there. Relatively few Chinese women immigrated: in 1890, there were 69,382 Chinese men in California and 3,090 women.28 San Francisco customhouse records for 1852 show that 20,026 Chinese arrived by sea that year; soon thereafter the city's Chinatown included Chinese girls imported for prostitution, many of whom had been sold by impoverished parents or simply stolen off the streets in China.29

The vast majority of men and women on the move to California during the Gold Rush, however, came from east of the Mississippi River. Many of them had already rebrianowens.tvated once in their lifetimes to the old northwest, leaving for California from small farms in Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. Others, including Mrs. D. B. Bates, the wife of a sea captain who had three ships burn under her during her voyage around Cape Horn to San Francisco, departed from the eastern seaboard.30 Those whose journey overland consisted of crossing the Isthmus of Panama wrote in detail about their novel experiences, including riding astride mules, sometimes wearing men's clothing, sleeping on the ground or in Indian huts, and their horror at being served baked monkey for dinner. For some it was an adventure, for others an excruciating ordeal.31

Although the story of the trip overland from the east is well known to most, recent scholarship has helped us to understand more about the social and psychological effects of being uprooted from their homes and how life on the trail affected women. In her comprehensive workWomen's Diaries of the Westward Journey, Lillian Schlissel has identified and analyzed almost one hundred diaries and journals kept by women moving west in the decades between 1840 and 1870.32 Schlissel points out that the decision to move west was generally made by male members of the family and was only reluctantly accepted by women. The difference between men and their wives in their willingness to go to California was related to the life cycles of men and women: men were in the most active phases of their lives and were eager to break free and take whatever risk might make them wealthy. If their search for gold proved unsuccessful, they could obtain land and resume farming. The majority of the women, however, were in their childbearing years and at a stage in their lives where they wanted to put down roots and enjoy a sense of community and the company of other women and their families; many went to California reluctantly.33


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