Whole Earth Review

They Saw the Elephant: Women in the California Gold Rush.

They Saw the Elephant: Women in the California Gold Rush. – book reviews

R.E. Leveque

One day, while sweeping the dirt floor of her boarding house, a young woman of Downieville took from the kitchen earth five hundred dollars’ worth of golden lumps. Forgetting about the miners’ dinners, she continued to scratch away long enough to pay her debts and make a pile. This sort of early California lottery tale lured many from the East. More gold was found by women during the Rush in boarding houses, business, property, theaters, and overabundant men than in the mines, but prospectors came in both sexes.

Elephant continues the stories of westward-journeying women once they hit the Golden State. Like the farmer who didn’t care that his frightened horses overturned his wagon at the circus parade because he had at last seen an elephant, they came to see at least a glimpse of the fantastic, no matter what.

In the spring of 1853, sailing from New Orleans, [Lola Montez] crossed the Isthmus to extend her tour to far-off California. She was preceded by her notoriety as a king’s mistress, a stunning beauty, a political revolutionary, and as a performer of a near-scandalous dance. Jennie Megquiet, one of the thousands intrigued by Lola’s risque reputation, on May 31, 1853, wrote: “Lola Montes is making quite a stir here now but many say that her playing is of that character that it is not proper for respectable ladies to attend but I do want to see her yen/much. Mr Clark said in dancing the spider dance a favorite play of hers Where she performs the antics of one with a tarantula upon their person and some thought she was obliged to look rather higher than was proper in so public a place …..”

Mrs. R. earned a hundred dollars a week washing clothes, and Louisa Clapp heard one unnamed man heap praises on the woman for her industry: “‘Magnificent women that, sir,’ he said, addressing my husband; ‘a wife of the right sort. she is. Why, he added, absolutely rising into eloquence as he spoke, ‘she earnt her old man,’ (said individual twenty-one years of age, perhaps) ‘nine hundred dollars in nine weeks, clear of all expenses, by washing! Such women ain’t common, I tell you; if they were, a man might marry and make money by the operation.”‘

A parade of talented women performed in gold rush theaters, including Lola Montez, famed for her titiltalating “spider dance.”

They Saw the Elephant

(Women in the California Gold Rush) Jo Ann Levy, 1992; 288 pp. $12.95 ($14.45 postpaid) from University of Oklahoma Press/Order Dept., P.O. Box 787, Norman. OK 73070-0787; 800/627-7377

COPYRIGHT 1993 Point Foundation

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group