Her Side of the Story: Tales of California Pioneer Women

1 min
This unidentified woman is one of 40 Gold Rush pioneers featured in "Her Side of the Story: Tales of California Pioneer Women" at the Arbuckle Gallery in History Park San Jose through June 28th, 2020. (Courtesy of the Society of California Pioneers)

In an age that delights in ripping apart hackneyed origin stories, there remains the fact that the promise of gold really did launch an exodus from all over the world to a place the Spanish named California.

An estimated 300,000 people from the rest of the United States and abroad proverbially dropped their plows in the field, and left half-written sermons fluttering on church pulpits to join ships and wagon trains headed to a land where life-changing fortunes could be made.

Most of these bright-eyed fortune-seekers were men, but women came, too. They dragged with them trunks, sewing machines, laundry tubs, even wedding gowns half-way across the world in their zeal to start a new life in unfamiliar territory. A new exhibition tells Her Side of the Story: Tales of California Pioneer Women at History San Jose.

The California Gold Rush (1848–1855) began on January 24, 1848, when gold was found by James W. Marshall at Sutter's Mill in Coloma. The exhibit, produced in collaboration with the Society of California Pioneers in San Francisco, features 30 first-person accounts from women who came to California prior to 1854. Also: 40 portraits of unidentified women, whose stories were not recorded at the time, taken by photographers we'll never know either.

As preparations were made to commemorate California’s Golden Jubilee in 1900, the Association of Pioneer Women of California collected reminiscences of women, many of whom arrived here as children alongside their mothers 50 years prior. These stories, more than 800 of them, form the basis for the exhibition at History San Jose.

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What strikes me most reading them is the matter-of-fact way these women wrote about experiences most of us today would find traumatic. For instance, watching loved ones die on the way to California, or almost die.

"Mother was so ill from seasickness and exposure that she had to be carried off the steamer. After leaving Gorgona she was strapped on the back of a mule, but the mule refused to move. After some coaxing, he trotted off, passed all others on the way, reaching Panama far in advance." - Kathleen Cole, originally of Ireland

Rosa Reynolds Boyd came by steamer in 1853. The ship she was on got lost in heavy fog, and hit rocks off the coast of Marin County.

"My mother was the first to be lowered to the life boat. We spent two days and one night on the beach," Boyd wrote.

Rosa Reynolds Boyd survived her journey to California, but just barely.
Rosa Reynolds Boyd survived her journey to California, but just barely. (Courtesy of The Society of California Pioneers)

The party made it to shore, but just about everything other than the clothes on their backs sank with the steamer.

"The first step my mother made in S.F. was upon a bright shining silver quarter dollar, which she deemed an omen of good fortune. But not so. That very night, the Hotel we were in was burnt to the ground."

White men have hogged the headlines for generations. If you think of Gold Rush era women at all, it’s typically as exotified prostitutes, or dutiful wives. Many did come bound to serve others, dying as constricted as they were in the places they started in.

But others took advantage of the opportunities presented by fast-burgeoning settlements in desperate need of talent, charm and business acumen. Women were saloon keepers, chefs, seamstresses, journalists and even entrepreneurs who made fortunes, when there were fortunes to be made.

This unidentified woman is one of 40 Gold Rush pioneers featured in "Her Side of the Story: Tales of California Pioneer Women" at the Arbuckle Gallery in History Park San Jose through June 28th, 2020.
This unidentified woman is one of 40 Gold Rush pioneers featured in "Her Side of the Story: Tales of California Pioneer Women" at the Arbuckle Gallery in History Park San Jose through June 28th, 2020. (Courtesy of the Society of California Pioneers)

They came from China, Mexico, Chile, France, Italy and Ireland, as well as the Eastern Seaboard and the Midwest. My imagination yearns for the stories set down in languages other than English, or never set down at all.

We have today a wealth of newspapers, books, TV shows and movies to tell us the stories of the men who came to California, but those seeking enlightenment about women must sift through fragmentary evidence like untitled daguerreotypes and divorce records.

Artists like Bay Area composer John Adams have only just begun to mine the legacy, to reimagine our past from a perspective more sympathetic to and curious about women. His opera owes much to Louise Amelia Clappe, whose 1851-52 letters were published as The Shirley Papers. Perhaps exploring these first-person accounts, you'll be inspired to add to this genre, so rich with unrealized potential.

History San Jose’s exhibitions coordinator Dan Charm says Her Side of the Story "represents a part of history that has been under-told." To him, that's the very best kind of history to tell now.

Her Side of the Story: Tales of California Pioneer Women runs March 5 - June 28, 2020 at History San Jose. For more information, click here.