Eureka! Women of The California Gold Rush

Women in the California Gold Rush, which began in Northern California in 1848, initially included Spanish descendants, or Californios, who already lived in California, Native American women, and rapidly arriving immigrant women from all over the world.

Some of the first people in the mining fields were wives and families who were already in California. A few settler women and kids worked right alongside the men but most men who arrived left their wives and families home. The number of women in California changed very quickly as the rich gold strikes and lack of women created strong pressures in the new Gold Rush communities to restore sex balance.


The census of 1850 showed that only 8 percent of the population in California was female. In fact, women were so scarce in the mining regions that a young man in Nevada City wrote,

Got nearer to a woman this evening than I have been in six months. Came near fainting

Women were particular rare in the mining counties. Even while cities like San Francisco grew women still only made up around3 percent of the inhabitants. In larger towns such as Grass Valley and Nevada City only one in ten men was married in 1860, and among miners only one in twenty-five was betrothed.

In 1848, right before the Gold Rush began, migrant families encamped near the diggings and undoubtedly women panned for gold. However, there is little evidence that women participated in the diggings in significant numbers for very long.

While not active on the dig sites, the women in the mining towns did find work to sustain themselves and their families. Some women worked as prostitutes in the mining towns, while others were employed in the entertainment industry as dance hall girls and singers. Employed women also cared for boarders, worked as servants, seamstresses, dressmakers, shopkeepers, cooks, bakers, washerwomen, and by 1870 in a few cases, as schoolteachers.

Land of Golden Opportunity

The opportunities that called women towards California went beyond the gold men were mining for. Freedom, independence, and the chance to forge a living and identity separate from male family members beckoned women towards the west.

“At the bottom of this valley are some very singular rocks. It appears sublime to me to see these rocks towering one above the other & lifting their majestick heads here in this solitary spot. Oh, beautiful is the hand of nature.” - Lucena Parsons

Gold Miners found themselves confronted with the hard labor of "women's work" after putting in a long day panning for gold. Men had to learn a wide range of domestic skills such as sewing, washing, cooking, and cleaning due to the large absence of women at the gold sites. The lack of skills the men had to survive daily life created a supply and demand for anyone capable of cooking, sewing, and cleaning. This meant that women who chose to migrate to California had the opportunity to continue doing the domestic arts they had done back home but for profit.

Women forged a path in California and became business owners and small entrepreneurs as newspaper editors, booksellers, saloon and shop keepers, and entertainers.

“A smart woman can do very well in this country—true, there are not many comforts and one must work all the time and work hard, but there is plenty to do and good pay. If I was in Boston now and know what I now know of California I would come out here – if I had to hire the money to bring me out. It is the only country I ever was in where a woman received anything like a just compensation for work.”

Domestic work offered opportunities for African American women also. Many of these women came to California as slaves, although there are little known records on the exact number, and history has remained silent on this issue . However, records indicate that these slaves were able to purchase their 35 Freedom Papers after working for a period of time for their owners in California.

Sex Work during the Gold Rush

At the beginning of the Gold Rush, the ratio of men to women in San Francisco averaged fifty-to-one. Of the forty thousand immigrants who arrived by sea in 1849, only seven hundred were female, the majority of whom were Latin American prostitutes.

The shortage of women made sex work a recognized and increasingly lucrative business. In a sellers’ market, women who had subsisted as common streetwalkers in New York or Paris found that they could earn $200 to $500 a night. San Francisco’s most famed courtesans, white women who had come to the territory on their own accord, went to the opera, attended dinner parties, and walked the fashionable promenades, both to advertise their services and enjoy San Francisco society.

The less celebrated, mostly Mexican and Chinese women who had been brought to the city, occupied a lower, but still highly demanded place in the complex racial and social hierarchy that defined the booming prostitution business.

However, when San Francisco’s male miners and entrepreneurs decided to make the city their permanent home, to abandon speculation and turn to more traditional occupations, many of them longed for family, specifically the womenfolk they left behind. By the mid-1850s, the number of “respectable” women in San Francisco surpassed the once-dominant prostitution population, and by the 1860s, women occupied nearly 40 percent of the total population. As families unloaded on the docks in ever-growing numbers, gambling dens and brothels retreated into the darkness of the night.

Ah Toy came to the United States with her husband aboard a steam ship from Hong Kong. Widowed on the trip, Ah Toy befriended the ship’s captain, who showered her with gifts. Once in San Francisco, Ah Toy quickly made a name for herself as the first Chinese prostitute in the area. She recognized and capitalized on the fact that she was one of the few Asian women in the area, reportedly charging men an ounce of gold for just a look at her. Thanks to her unique business sense, Ah Toy flourished in the San Francisco sex industry.

Within two years of arriving in San Francisco, Ah Toy went from being a solo operator to owning two brothels. While expanding her brothel empire, she also helped other Chinese brothels expand. Ah Toy quickly became a well-known figure in San Francisco at the time, commonly described as “strangely alluring” by various newspapers. While successful in creating a name for herself—first as a prostitute and then as the Madame of a string of parlors—Ah Toy was often the victim of anti-Chinese laws and prejudice. She was frequently brought into court and charged with running “houses of disrepute,” even while her Caucasian counterparts were allowed to operate unobstructed. Eventually, the combination of new competition, anti-Chinese sentiment and new legislation led to the downfall of Ah Toy’s budding empire. In 1854, new laws were passed that outlawed prostitution and prevented Chinese people from testifying in court.

These laws prevented Ah Toy from protecting her interests as Chinese gangs began to dabble in prostitution rings. Ah Toy finally retired from the scene, living a quiet but comfortable life until 1928.

Marriage and Divorce

Some women were drawn to the Gold Rush in the hopes to find a suitable husband that could provide for their needs.

One woman made her ambition to find a placed what must have been the first personals ad in a California newspaper:

"A Husband Wanted"

The west not only brought financial independence to women but the freedom to escape abusive relationships as well. More than 70 percent of divorce cases filed were by women in California in the 1850s. Women took advantage of the laws in California that allowed them to seek an easier divorce. Marriage became more fleeting, as women, more than men, sought divorces to get rid of an abusive husband or to increase their financial well-being.

Notable Women of the Gold Rush

The Mother of Civil Rights in California

Mary Ellen Pleasent was a legendary woman of influence and political power in the California Gold Rush era, standing up to authority and challenging society’s norms in a time it was unheard of, especially for a woman, let alone a biracial woman.

Mary Ellen Pleasant was born a biracial slave on a Georgia plantation in 1814. After working for several different families she lived as an indentured servant to the Husseys. The Hussey family, Massachusetts Quakers and active abolitionists, adopted Mary at the end of her servitude and shared with her their beliefs about equality.

Pleasant married James Smith at the age of twenty-seven. Together they were deeply committed abolitionists, working to free slaves through the Underground Railroad. Pleasant inherited a large sum of money when Smith died four years after they married and continued the work they had begun together.

Mary frequently traveled to the South and crept onto plantations providing slaves information about safe escape routes. During these years Pleasant wrote for The Liberator, a weekly abolitionist newspaper published in Boston between 1831 and 1865. In 1848 she married John Pleasant; in the same year, slavers put a price on Mary’s head forcing the couple to flee to New Orleans.

Although she passed as white when she first arrived in San Francisco, Mary Ellen did not conceal her race from other blacks, and actively found jobs for those brought in by Underground Railroad activities.

Mary Ellen Pleasant was born a biracial slave on a Georgia plantation in 1814. After working for several different families she lived as an indentured servant to the Husseys. The Hussey family, Massachusetts Quakers and active abolitionists, adopted Mary at the end of her servitude and shared with her their beliefs about equality.

She left San Francisco from 1857 to 1859 to help abolitionist John Brown. She was said to have actively supported his cause with money and work. When John was arrested after the Harpers Ferry Armory incident a note from Mary was found in his pocket.

She returned to San Francisco where she was convinced that financial success was essential to continue her abolitionist efforts. Mary with the help of Thomas Bell, a well-off clerk at the Bank of America, and the tips and gossip she overheard from wealthy men in the men’s establishments she ran, she invested her money. By 1875 they had amassed a whopping $30 million fortune between them ($55,500,000,000.00 GDP today). She became known as “Black City Hall” due to her financial assistance to other blacks in the city.

Pleasant earned the title of “mother” of California’s early civil rights movement, bringing several lawsuits, notably against the trolley companies after she and two other black women were ejected from a city streetcar in 1866.She filed two lawsuits. The first, against the Omnibus Railroad Company, was withdrawn after the company promised to allow African-Americans to board their streetcars. The second case, Pleasant v. North Beach & Mission Railroad Company, went to the California Supreme Court and took two years to complete. The decision outlawed segregation in the city's public conveyances Mary Ellen Pleasant died in 1904.


“…it is true, there are many disadvantages and privations attending life in California; but these I came prepared to encounter, and by no means expected to find the comforts and refinements of home….” - Anne Booth

Bridget "Biddy" Mason Born a slave in Georgia in 1818, Bridget was given as a wedding gift to Robert Smith and moved with the family to Mississippi. When the Smiths converted to the Mormon Church, Robert Smith chose not to free his slaves, although the Church encouraged members to do so. Smith and his family joined other members in a move to Utah in 1847 and later traveled with another group to San Bernardino, California in 1851.

Although California was a “free state,” Smith refused to free his slaves. In 1856, Smith planned to move to the slave state of Texas. Stopped by authorities as they were leaving California, Bridget and the other slaves were then taken back to Los Angeles, where they petitioned the court and were granted their freedom. Mason then worked in Los Angeles as a nurse and midwife. As a nurse, she risked her life to care for those affected by the smallpox epidemic.

Mason carefully saved her money, and became one of the first African Americans to buy real estate in the city. She continued to invest in land, amassed a substantial fortune of nearly $300,000 and became a philanthropist. Bridget Mason helped to found a traveler’s aid center, an elementary school for black children, and the First African Methodist Episcopal Church, the city’s first and oldest black church. She died in Los Angeles in 1891.

Mary "Mariana" Burton Williamson was the daughter of a New Englander who settled in Texas in 1837 and married Gertrude Roman, a Mexicano-Tejano. Mariana was born in San Antonio in 1851, the oldest of six children. Economic prospects after the discovery of gold moved the family to California in 1859, when Mariana was eight. Her father invested in real estate and mercantile interests. Bi-cultural and bi-lingual, Mariana adapted well to Los Angeles’s predominately Hispanic society. In 1873, she married Don Antonio F. Coronel, a prominent Californio who had served as the city's Mayor, with whom she traveled and collected Native American and Mexican artifacts. The Coronels were deeply interested in the Mission Indians of California and traveled as far as Mexico City to add to their collection. Together they developed one of the best private collections in Los Angeles. Her fluency in both English and Spanish and her familiarity with the cultures of the Southwest aided in their endeavors. After her husband died in 1894, Mariana supervised their estate, which included valuable property in Los Angeles, 650-acre ranch in Whittier and mining interests. She presented the artifacts they had collected to the city of Los Angeles. Since 1961 the valuable collection has been held by the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

Elizabeth Thorn Scott Flood, born a free Black woman in 1828, received her education in New Bedford, Massachusetts. She and husband Joseph Scott traveled west during the gold rush era and settled in Placerville, California. Unfortunately, Joseph died soon after and left Elizabeth with a young son. Mother and son soon moved to Sacramento, which in the early 1850s had a sizable black community. When her son was denied admission to public school, Scott opened a private school for her son and other black children in her home. That school, established on May 29, 1854 was soon open to Native American and Asian American pupils as well. The Sacramento School Board offered to assume administration of the school as a segregated institution, but without committing to financial support. Scott and other Black parents accepted the arrangement, and in 1855 the school became part of the Sacramento school system. Scott continued to teach at the school—the first African American public school instructor in California. That same year, Scott married Isaac Flood, one of the first African American residents of Oakland, California, who also fought for education and equality for blacks. The couple moved to Brooklyn, a community just outside Oakland, and Elizabeth began a second school for Black children in her new home. In 1867, the educational pioneer died at the age of thirty-nine.

Harriet Davis, an African-American pioneer in California, made the arduous journey from Philadelphia in 1854, via the isthmus of Panama. Raised as an Episcopalian and educated in a private school in Philadelphia, Davis reputedly had helped to free slaves along the Underground Railroad. In San Francisco, she joined Reverend Peter Cassey’s black church and worked with Reverend Cassey to assist freedom-seeking slaves. Later, she became the first matron at the Home for Aged and Infirm Colored People in the Oakland suburb of Beulah. African American clubwomen formed the Old People's Home Association in 1892, and five years later the Association had 100 members and a three-story house for the facility. Residents were charged a $500 lifetime membership fee, and they were banned from using alcohol or opiates. Separate living quarters were maintained for male and female residents. Ms. Davis also served on the Board of Directors for the Home.


“I make 6 beds every day and do the washing and ironing and you must think I am very busy and when I dance all night I am obliged to trot all day and if I had not the constitution of 6 horses I should have been dead long ago but I am going to give up in the fall, as I am sick and tired of work.” -Mary Jane Megquier

Julia Shannon, born in England around 1812, married Joseph Shannon and moved with him to New York City, where their three children were born between 1833 and 1840. The family moved to San Francisco in 1848 or 1849, where Mrs. Julia Shannon, as she called herself, became the first woman photographer in the state. In 1850, with the California Gold Rush expanding the population, Julia Shannon advertised her services in the January issue of San Francisco Alta: "Notice—Daguerreotypes taken by a Lady. Those wishing to have a good likeness are informed that they can have them taken in a very superior manner, and by a real live lady too, in Clay St., opposite the St. Francis Hotel, at a very moderate charge. Give her a call, gents.” Shannon clearly recognized the novelty of a woman photographer as a sales pitch. She likely was the only woman pursuing the profession of daguerreotypist in the city at the time. In 1851, a catastrophic fire destroyed a quarter of the city and took with it the two houses that Shannon owned on Sacramento Street. None of her daguerreotypes are known to have survived, and there are no records of her after the 1852 census.

Eleanor Dumont, the beautiful, dignified French lady born in France as Simone Jules—or in New Orleans to French Creole parents in 1829—arrived in San Francisco at the beginning of the Gold Rush and started working as a card dealer at the Bella Union Hotel.

While in San Francisco she was Simone Jules. A few years later, when she checked into Nevada City’s Fepps Hotel, she registered under the name Eleanor Dumont. In Nevada City, Eleanor Dumont opened up the gambling parlor named “Vingt-et-un” (21 in French). Her establishment was open only to well-kept men; women were not allowed, except for herself. Instead of beer, she served her customers champagne. Men came from all around to see the woman dealer. The parlor found much success, until the gold started to dry up, and she left Nevada City for brighter prospects. She moved around from city to city, gambling and building up her money again. As she aged, the beauty that once entranced miners faded. The famous mustache—a thin line of hair on her upper lip—began to grow. A drunk miner uttered the words “Madame Moustache,” and the nickname stuck. She added prostitution to her enterprises and became the madam of a brothel in the 1860s.To promote her business, she paraded her girls around the town in carriages, much to the chagrin of the town’s “proper’” women. Her last stop was Bodie, California. Bodie was known to be a tough town, and Madame Moustache ran out of luck and out of cash.

She died on September 8, 1879 from an overdose of morphine, a well-known frontier gambler in the mining towns of California’s Gold Rush. in the mining towns of California’s Gold Rush.

Lydia Flood Jackson was born in Brooklyn, California in 1862. She attended the private school for Oakland’s children of color that her mother began in their home. Her father, a member of the California Colored Convention Movement, challenged California’s segregation laws in the early 1870s, citing the recently enacted 14th and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution. His campaign proved successful when ten-year-old Lydia Flood became the first Black student to attend public school in Oakland. After attending night school at Oakland High School, she married William Jackson. Lydia’s successful cosmetic business, Flood Toilet Creams, manufacturer of toiletries, creams, and perfumes, established her reputation as entrepreneur and inventor. But, she was also known for her political activism. She traveled widely, rallying audiences with her calls for democracy and her questioning of white male supremacy.

Jackson was also a leader in the California Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs. During her years with the Federation she was the organization’s first legislative chairman and called on the organization to demand women’s suffrage. At the Federation’s 1918 state convention, she reminded the members, “Suffrage stands out as one of the component factors of Democracy.” On her 100th birthday, the City of Oakland honored their“oldest living native and daughter of the first Negro school teacher in California.” She died in 1963 at age 101.

Some men packed up and headed west, breaking the news to their wives that they were leaving to go off on an adventure of a lifetime while the wives stayed home and took care of the kids with little or no income. However, when Luzena Wilson’s husband told her that he wanted to leave Missouri and head to the goldfields of California Wilson packed up her three kids and the family made the overland trek. Arriving in Sacramento she found that as one of the few women there she had a special skill: her homemade biscuits. Wilson was just cooking dinner at her family's camp one night when a miner came along and offered her $5 for just one of her biscuits. At first she was too stunned to reply, $5 was an outrageous sum of money for a biscuit. But the guy thought Wilson was holding out for a higher price and upped the ante to $10. The Wilson's realized that more money could be made from selling biscuits than actually panning for gold. They sold their oxen and opened a hotel. Luzena turned a profit selling home-cooked meals to homesick miners.

San Diego’s Gold Rush

In 1869, A. E. “Fred” Coleman, a former slave, crossed over what is now known as Coleman Creek, just west of Julian. Seeing a glint of gold in the stream bed, he climbed down from his horse to investigate. Fred Coleman had been to the gold fields, so he used a frying pan to pan the sands of the creek. This was the beginning of Julian’s gold rush. Coleman established the Coleman Mining District. Learning of the find, others rushed to the district and tried to trace the gold to its source. On February 22, 1870 the first hard rock, mining claim was filed in the Julian area. Soon hundreds of men and families rushed to Julian to stake claims. Julian became a tent city overnight. In April 1870, the area's first sawmill was set up and Julian began to take on a more permanent structure. Attempts to build rival mining towns were defeated. While the miners tried to wrestle the gold from deep within the earth, James Madison brought a wagon load of young apple trees into the mountains. The fruit trees flourished in the clear, fresh air. Apples are still a big product in Julian, many of which are used for making the world-famous Julian apple pies.

America Newton arrived in California in 1872, three years after gold was discovered in a creek bed near the present town of Julian. Freed by the Emancipation Proclamation, the former slave traveled to the west coast from Independence, Missouri with the family of James Cole, a friend of her former master’s. Julian was having its own gold rush as many people headed there in a short amount of time. Like most former slaves at the time, Newton couldn’t read or write, so Cole helped Newton acquire land to homestead. He also provided her with a horse and buggy to help with the laundry business she established. America Newton was frequently seen driving her buggy through town to deliver clean laundry to her customers, a large portion of whom were miners. She gained a reputation for her chattiness and loved to gossip with her customers and anyone who passed by her home. However, since she was hard of hearing, a long and loud conversation with Newton wasn’t the easiest social activity. A census records Newton as a widow and mother of a daughter, but little is known of her personal life. She died in Julian in 1917 at the age of 81. “America Grade,” the part of state route 78/79 that leads to Julian, is named in her memory.