January 24th 1848: The California Gold Rush

‘In a cavern, in a canyon, excavating for a mine

Lived a miner forty-niner and his daughter Clementine’

Attributed to Percy Montrose 1884

There is an old story in my Dad’s family that in the early 1850s one of his ancestors, who was a jockey, ran off to America to join the California Gold Rush. Failing to find gold – or maybe not even getting as far as California, he married a lady hot air balloonist and floated away into obscurity. I’ve never been able to track down who he might have been, or whether the tale is true and sadly there is no one left to ask. Maybe the jockey saw an advert like this...

The California gold rush started on January 24th 1848, when James Marshall found a gold nugget at Sutter’s Mill in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The gold was so easy to find you could pick it up off the ground and not surprisingly by 1855 over 300,00 hopeful prospectors had made the long and often perilous journey to the gold fields. Some lucky people became millionaires, and many fortunes were made, not just from gold but also from servicing the needs of the miners. In fact, more fortunes were made from the miners than by them.

I’ve been reading recently about the significant contribution that the madams of brothels made to the opening up and civilising of the American west, and very surprising it was too.*

In 1860, the census taken at Comstock Silver Lode in Nevada recorded the town's population as 2,306 men and only 30 women, and in 1879 in Leadville Colorado there were 120 saloons, 19 beer halls, 188 gambling houses and just 4 churches. There were so many official and unofficial 'cat houses' it was not possible to record them. Most concert saloons had rooms upstairs that were used by professional girls.

A considerable number of brothel keepers were clever businesswomen and many madams became very influential. Most prostitutes were mature women and they earned more in one night (about $5) than most other women earned in a week. Those who rose to the top of the industry owned more wealth than any other women in America. ‘Diamond Jesse’ Hayman started as a prostitute in the gold fields and became one of the richest women in San Francisco where she owned a luxurious building for her workers and her clients. Jesse was notorious for always carrying a pistol. She said ‘I keep my customers close and my gun closer. It’s helped me settle many an argument’

Several madams helped open up the west by funding irrigation and road building projects. Eleanora Dumont, another pistol packing madam, bought huge amounts of real estate in the boomtowns of the Rockies and Sierra Nevada. Mary Ellen Pleasant, a brothel keeper who was born into slavery, was one of the most influential women in the early days of San Francisco. Mary Pleasant made many canny investments in property and operated as a financier to numerous local business projects. The madams founded schools and hospitals, often gave their girls free health care, pioneered contraception, smoking and sexual freedom. I’m sure that many of them were also downright unpleasant, grasping and violent but they were undeniably tough and brave.

So I've started the third year of the blog and I hope it it will be more varied than ever. I've got a new year's resolution to post every week, the manuscript of Cornish F & F has gone to the publishers so I can spread my geographical wings a bit. There will still be some folk lore and traditional festivals but lots of anniversaries and commemorations too. We've got a major festival in the UK this summer and the Olympic torch virtually passes my front door, so I'll certainly have to make something for that! Anyway I hope you find the blog as much fun to read as I do to write. Thanks for keeping me company. Leave a comment do...

Here’s a dish for a hungry miner or the sort of thing the Chinese cook in charge of the chow wagon might have made...

Smoked bacon and beans

500g dried white beans, it really doesn't matter which sort- I used haricots, soaked overnight

1 large onion chopped small

3 sticks celery ditto

2 bay leaves and a sprig or half tsp of savoury

vegetable oil or bacon fat

1 piece of smoked dry cured bacon about 500g in weight (or even better a ham shank but I couldn't get one)

2 fat cloves garlic finely chopped

10ml (1dsp) Tabasco sauce

Parsley or chopped wild garlic leaves

or/ a piece of stale good bread blitzed with the rind of a half lemon, parsley and a knob of butter

Saute the onions and celery gently in the oil/fat until the onion is soft but not brown - I like to keep this pale looking.

Add the bacon and garlic and cook for about 5 minutes. Add the bay leaves, the beans and the tabasco. Cover with water. Bring to the boil then lower the heat and cook for about 3 hours until the beans are soft and creamy. Stir it now and again.

Serve with the herbs sprinkled over or alternatively sprinkle the herby-lemony breadcrumbs over the beans and brown under the grill or in a hot oven. Cut the bacon into pieces and serve with crusty sourdough.

PS The Tabasco makes all the difference to this, it gives the whole thing a lift.

Fear no more the heat o' the sun,

Nor the furious winter's rages;

Thou thy worldly task hast done,

Home art gone, and ta'en thy wages:

Golden lads and girls all must,

As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.

From Cymbeline by William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

* 'A Renegade History of America: How Drunks, Delinquents and Other Outcasts Made America

by Thaddeus Russell (pub 2010).


Pete Thompson said...

Fascinating! Here's a song about Karen Kane, a Klondike prostitute:

Karen Kane

Written by: Rachel Harrington

A shovel, a pick, an axe and a hoe
Cast my lot with the Yukon gold
Pockets full of greed and lust
Angels in the devil's dust

Cross Quilkoot Pass with an old pack mule
Miners and men call me a fool
A woman like you shouldn't break no sweat
A woman like me just running to forget

Karen Kane come back again
The bed you left unmade is cold
Oh, that child, taken so young
A life unlived, a song unsung

Got me a job at old Dutch Kate's
Keep a deck stacked full of aces and eights
I keep every last dime on a two dollar dance
And fifteen cents on whiskey romance

Strut your stuff when you flash that loot
In your Mukluk shoes and your Makinaw suit
Pockets deep on a Klondike King
About enough to make a harlot sing

Karen Kane come back again
The bed you left unmade is cold
Oh, that child, taken so young
A life unlived, a song unsung

That midnight sun in Dawson town
Is all I want for a wedding gown
So give my best to Napoleon Jack
But tell him I ain't never coming back

Must try the recipe.

Grazing Kate said...

didn't know about those madames being so successful. Makes sense when you think about it. Welcome back to blogging!! Ooh, how funny, my verification word is 'focki'...!

Choclette said...

Liz, congratulations on getting the book in, what a relief that must be. Love this post and branching out into other areas is a god start to your next year of blogging. Love the story of your ancestor running off with a hot air baloonist. Also good to hear a different spin on brothel keepers.