Independent Spirits: Female Gold Miners

(Images or photographs of women in the California Gold Rush actually mining
are virtually nonexistent. However, this rare photograph shows a woman standing near a group of '49ers running a long tom in Auburn ravine.)

Independent Spirits

Although small-scale or recreational gold mining is still a male-oriented enterprise for the most part, in the three decades plus I’ve been swinging a pick and swirling a gold pan I’ve seen quite a few female miners out there doing their thing as well. Sometimes these ladies were wives, daughters, or sweethearts and sometimes they were unencumbered independent spirits with a love for mining and the ability to shovel, crevice, dredge, drywash, sluice, and highbank every bit as hard and effectively as any male out there, myself included.

Women gold miners have probably been around since the dawn of mining history but the details of their activities have remained pretty much in the shadows. It wasn’t until the California Gold Rush of 1849 that accounts of women in the goldfields first started to be disseminated, mostly in the form of journals, diaries, and other first-hand accounts.

A World Turned Upside Down

Let me clarify something here first. Very few women were physically present in California’s Motherlode region in the first year or two of the Gold Rush and those that were typically engaged in mostly “non-mining” occupations such as laundering, baking, clerking, and of course, prostitution.

Gold Panning Kits
Gold Concentrators
Metal Detectors

Eventually though, a few women took off their aprons and set the little ones down nearby under their watchful eyes and then set to helping their spouses dig for gold. Although this appeared highly unusual to other miners initially (and perhaps a bit out of character for the time), these female miners were accepted as a matter of course in a world that had essentially been turned upside down by necessity.

Examples of Hardy Souls

Unfortunately for posterity, most of these female miners have faded into history without a name or face. We do have a few examples of these hardy souls however:

Charlotte (“Charlie”) Parkhurst: Although she didn’t remain in the mines for long, instead taking steadier employment as a teamster, many of her fellow miners in the diggings respected “Charlie” as a hard-working, no nonsense type who could be relied upon in a pinch. Imagine their surprise after the fact when “Charlie” turned out to be Charlotte….she had deliberately masked her gender in order to avoid the sexism of the day.

Jane Guerin: Like many other Argonauts, Jane Guerin left a husband and children in St. Louis, Missouri to “see the elephant” and recover her share of the golden treasure lining the Motherlode’s streambeds. Jane did very well as a miner and became adept and recovering large amounts of placer gold….as one ‘49er put it, “she had a nose for gold.” After accumulating a small fortune, Jane departed the goldfields and returned to her family.

Lucena Parsons: Many ‘49ers in the southern Motherlode near Angel’s Camp became used to seeing married women like Lucena Parsons working right alongside their husbands, tending rocker boxes and feeding bucket after bucket of gold-bearing gravel into long toms. “This morning my gold fever raged so high I went out and dug with the rest, but got very little gold. Came home tired but in good spirits,” wrote Lucena in her journal at one point. Like many of the men around her in the mines, Lucena’s work garb included roughly woven duck pants, a red flannel shirt, and a wider-brimmed version of the ubiquitous Panama hat.

To you women out there mining step-for-step with your husband or male counterpart or taking up pick, pan, and shovel on your own, I say welcome. I also encourage you not to let anyone or anything deter you from getting your share of the gold out there.

After all, you’re following the footsteps of those remarkable women who preceded you.

Good luck to one and all!

© J.R. 2010

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