California: The Not-So-Wild West —– by Keli Gwyn

If you hear the words “California history,” what’s the first thing that comes to mind? For many of us, that would be the Gold Rush.

As a native Californian, I first learned about James Marshall finding those famous gold nuggets when I studied our state’s history in fourth grade. Little did I know then that I’d end up living just seven miles from the site of Sutter’s Mill in Coloma, where Marshall made the discovery that launched one of the world’s largest mass migrations.

In the early days of the Gold Rush, things in this untamed land were wild. My town of Placerville, first known as Dry Diggings, earned its most notorious moniker, Old Hangtown, when three men accused of robbery in January 1849 met their fate at the end of a rope following an impromptu trial.

 The heyday of the Gold Rush lasted from 1849 to 1852. After that, mining was done primarily by large operations making use ofhydraulic methods, since the easy-to-find gold had played out. The number of businessmen, farmers, and those in other occupations soon exceeded the number of miners, and refinement replaced roughness.

You might think culture was centered around San Francisco and Sacramento City—as it was called then—but that was not the case. While doing research for my stories set in the heart of the Gold Country in the 1870s, I unearthed many interesting facts, some of which I worked into my debut novel, A Bride Opens Shop in El Dorado, California.

At one point in the story, the hero, mercantile owner Miles Rutledge, tells newly arrived widow Elenora Watkins, “I think you’re in for some surprises. California is no longer the Wild West. Over in Placerville the hotels have running water, the streets are lit with gaslights, and they have a Philharmonic Society.”

Miles relayed only a few facts. Placerville also boasted a brass band, a roller skating rink, and a 1,500-seat theater. And it wasn’t the only town with quality entertainment. Many of those up and down the Mother Lode had theaters, musical groups, skating rinks, etc. as well.

 The presence of culture in itself doesn’t tell the whole story. The lack of crime was another factor that proved how quickly the state had been tamed. There were still outlaws and crimes, but as the stagecoach driver reassures Elenora following an unsettling encounter upon her arrival in California, “I hear tell the papers back East are full of stories about outlaws and Injuns attackin’ travelers, but them things are more likely to happen in open country. Not here where folks has settled.”

Many stories set in the West include a sheriff’s office in a town of any size. A Bride Opens Shop is no exception. However, the inclusion of Sheriff Hank Henderson is pure fiction. El Dorado didn’t have a sheriff. The nearest one would have been located in Placerville, which was nearly ten miles away. Law and order were well established within a few years of California’s statehood.

In the span of one generation, California had left behind her ignoble beginnings. While settled by an influx of people eager for instant wealth, a shift took place. The hardworking people who chose to stay put their energies into creating a forward-thinking state in the not-so-wild West, one that continues to make significant contributions to the U.S. and the world today.

Thanks so much for having me as your guest at Petticoats & Pistols. Spending time with you and your blog’s visitors is a pleasure.

I’d like to end with a question for all of you. When you think of California and the many things it’s known for today, which are the first to come to your mind?

One commenter who answers the question will win an autographed copy of my debut novel, A Bride Opens Shop in El Dorado, California.

The book is available for pre-order at:

Barnes & Noble


Widow Elenora Watkins looks forward to meeting her new business partner, Miles Rutledge, who owns a shop in 1870s El Dorado. But Miles is shocked to see a woman step off the stagecoach. His rude behavior forces Elenora to reconsider—so she becomes his competition across the street. Can Miles win her heart while destroying her business?

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33 thoughts on “California: The Not-So-Wild West —– by Keli Gwyn”

  1. Hi Keli! Welcome to Petticoats & Pistols. California rocks . . . My hubby and I left in 1996, but my heart is still there. Since I’m a native, my list of California things could be a mile long. Here are the top three: Venice Beach, the San Andreas Fault and El Tarasco in Manhattan Beach–great Mexican food!

    Your book looks delightful 🙂

  2. Hi, Keli! What a wonderful post! California is rich and history and offers a wealth of fascinating stories. It is such a delight to see you here, celebrating the publication of your first book!!! I so look forward to reading “A BRIDE OPENS SHOP IN EL DORADO, CALIFORNIA”, and I can’t wait to see what you have coming up next!

  3. California I think of :

    the San Francisco earthquake during the World Series in the 80’s
    Hollywood and it’s movie industry
    Yosemite National Park
    San Diego’s beauty and climate
    Redwood Forest
    49er’s Gold Rush
    Pacific Coast Hwy
    Beach Boys
    Flower Children 60’s Haight-Ashbury

  4. When I think of California, I think of Hollywood and all the movies and TV shows that were made and are being made out there.

  5. Victoria,

    Thanks for the warm welcome!

    Sounds like you were a SoCal gal–and still are at heart. My in-laws built a house in Manhattan Beach, and my hubby lived there until he was three.

  6. Laurie,

    I live in the Sierra Foothills and love the area. South Lake Tahoe is only an hour away.

    Gwynly and I had moved from the San Francisco Bay Area to Germany a few months before the huge earthquake of ’89 hit. I remember watching the news on the Armed Forces Network with tears streaming down my face, praying our many friends were all right. They were, but I ached for all those who lost loved ones and sustained property damage.

  7. So glad to have you here today, Keli. Love your California perspective. Reminds me of my growing up years in the central coast area. We had La Purisima mission, Solvang, Vandenburg AFB, and the beach all within 10 minutes. What I miss most about California is the weather, the mountains, and the trees. I’ll be in Anaheim/Disneyland next week though for RWA and a Disney vacation, so I’ll get a little taste of California again soon.

  8. Karen,

    California has so much to offer, doesn’t it? I hope you have a wonderful time at Nationals. Wish I could go this year, but I’ll be at the ACFW conference instead. Say hi to Mickey for me. 🙂

  9. I have visited California a few times and loved it. So when I think of California I think of holidays, sun, beaches,shopping and California Dreaming. Good luck with your book Kelly. I am impresed with your marketing efforts.

  10. I have visited California a few times and loved it. So when I think of California I think of holidays, sun, beaches,shopping and California Dreaming. Good luck with your book Kelly. I am impressed with your marketing efforts. (Not sure why this showed up under your name Keli)

  11. Keli, welcome to P&P. We’re so glad you’ve come to visit. You have an interesting blog. I did not know that about Placerville. I once had an uncle who lived there. It’s so pretty. I was younger at the time and wasn’t that interested in digging into the history of the town. I need to go back. California has so many fascinating places to visit. Lots of history for sure.

    Wishing you lots of luck with your book.

  12. When I think of California, I think of the beautiful wine country of Napa Valley.. It is on my bucket list of place I want to visit…

  13. Keli,wecome,when I think of California,I get scared,,,been there one time an did not like the subway at all was terrifed,,loved Alcatraz though it was interesting,,but not one of my favorite states to go too,,im a country girl an that was too many ppl an traffic

  14. Mostly I think of Hollywood and movie stars when I think of California. Then the towns of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Pasadena and San Diego. And the Rose Bowl/Parade. The list could go on and on but those come to mind first.

  15. Hi Keli, I’m a native Californian living in the “other side of the mountain” part:Eastern California. From Tahoe south, we live in an area most of the rest of California doesn’t know exists. We were supposed to be part of Nevada at one time, but the politicians got greedy and added us so they would get more money with more land mass. Oh, well. That’s more history. The state is so diverse, with ocean, mountains, desert, city and everything inbetween. I love my mountains, though, but I do like the ocean, and the desert–ah, heck, I love the whole state!!!
    Good luck with your new book. Love Placerville. My son lived in Mt. Aukum for a number of years.

  16. Congrats on your debut novel! 😀
    When I think of California, I think of Hollywood, the beaches, Disneyland, etc.

  17. Wow! So many wonderful comments. Thanks for sharing in my excitement.

    Darlene, we do have great beaches. Miles and miles of them. And the shopping? Truly amazing!

    Linda, how cool that your uncle lived here in Placerville. It’s a town steeped in history. As you can tell from the post, some of it is rather, um, interesting. Not every town has a dummy in a noose on Main Street. Gruesome though it is, that’s one of the most photographed spots in town.

    Kathleen, the Napa Valley is beautiful. I hope you make it there one day. We have a number of vineyards and wineries here in El Dorado County, too. There is a humorous bumper sticker sometimes seen in our area that reads, “Napa sells auto parts. El Dorado County sells wine.”

    Vickie, I can understand your fears. There are certain areas in our large cities that I’m uncomfortable visiting. It sounds like you might have been in San Francisco and riding BART. If you were to get away from the metropolitan areas, you would find many small towns. I live in one. Placerville’s population is only 10,000. We definitely have a small town atmosphere. There are places in the state where people still feel safe enough to leave their doors unlocked. 🙂

    Jackie, I started school in the town next to Pasadena: La Cañada. My husband lived in Southern Californian when he was growing up, and he and his high school band performed in the Rose Parade one year.

    Mary, I hear you about the diversity of our great state. We have so much to offer, including the dry side of the Sierras. Too bad we get all the rain over here on the western slope. At least you don’t have far to drive to enjoy the grandeur of the forests and Lake Tahoe.

    Colleen, Disneyland is definitely one of our most well-known attractions. I was a little girl when it opened. My mom has black and white pictures from that visit.

    I’m off to my very first book signing in downtown Placerville in just a few minutes, but I’ll be back to check in at Wildflower Junction when I get back.

  18. Cate, I got to visit one of the missions on a field trip when I was in the sixth grade: San Juan Capistrano. I have fond memories of that day.

  19. Keli, Can’t wait until I get A Bride opens a Shop in Eldorado. Once had an uncle that lived there.
    Only been in California briefly a couple of times while changing duty stations when my husband was serving in the USAF. Thinking of California the first thing that comes to my mind is the great San Francisco Fire. After that is gold mining, the Rose Parade,Wine Vineyards,China Town,Too much to list. Think there enough things about California to keep an author busy writing about. Good luck in your career. As an added idea, my native state, SC has a lot of interesting history if you should get the idea of checking out the East Coast of this mighty nation.

  20. California as it was in the 60’s. Lovely beach towns, Hollywood in its heyday, and the redwoods.

  21. The Gold Rush is the first thing that comes to mind but all of my memories of being in California center on Southern California and water…the ocean, a huge lake and my very first NEW swimsuit.

    I shall be looking for this book!

  22. I’m back from my signing and couldn’t wait to stop by Wildflower Junction once again.

    Estella, the Golden Gate Bridge is mighty impressive, isn’t it?

    Rosalind, how cool that your uncle lived in El Dorado. So did Linda’s. (See earlier comment in the trail.) Since El Dorado is a pretty small town, I wonder if your uncles knew one another. 🙂 California does indeed have a rich history, but I’m sure all the other states do, too. I’d love to see South Carolina someday.

    Ellie, the redwoods are magnificent. When our daughter was growing up, we went camping at Calaveras Big Trees State Park each summer. I loved being in the midst of those towering trees.

    Joye, you just introduced me to a new term: Zonie. What exactly is a Zonie? Wait! Maybe I figured it out. Could it be a person from Arizona? I’ll have to ask my pastor tomorrow. He grew up in Phoenix.

    Quilt Lady, I think many people think of the Gold Rush first. That event helped connect the East and West as well as drawing people from around the globe.

    Connie, the beaches of SoCal are quite nice, aren’t they? I’m guessing you enjoyed your time spent there–especially those made when you were wearing your first new swimsuit.

  23. My first thought is sunshine and beaches! Then I think of Hollywood. I lived in Palmdale for two years back in the early 80’s.
    Congratulations on your debut book!!! I really look forward to reading it. Enjoyed your post.

  24. The first thing that I think of about California is all the great hiking we did in the mountains both when I was there in 1967 for Peace Corps training and in 1985-87 when my husband was stationed at McClellan AFB. Our second favorite place, the Monterey Bay Aquarium. We made the trip from Sacramento as often as we could. The first time we went, they had the display of items from and information on the filming of Star Trek 5 – The Journey Home. Some of it was filmed there. It is a lovely and diverse state. From the desert area around Edwards AFB, to the naval yard & Old Town area of San Diego, to the farm and wine areas of the central valleys, to San Francisco, to Yosemite, to the mountain lakes, to the Jumping Frog Celebration in Calaveris County, there is something for everyone.

    Best wishes for a successful release of A BRIDE OPENS SHOP. I’ll be looking for it.

  25. Sharon, my husband spent most of his childhood in Lancaster, and my dad grew up in Acton. Lots of hot, dry, and dust there. I like your sunny way of looking at it better.

    Patricia, I’m glad you enjoyed your time in the Golden State. Sounds like you got to see a nice variety of sights while you were here. Monterey is a beautiful place, isn’t it?

  26. As a Native Californian myself, transplanted to Indiana 11 years ago, I would have to say the first thing that comes to my mind is “HOME”. I miss the mountains and ocean. I miss driving by Disneyland every single day and I do miss Knott’s Berry Farm. I love the old Ghost Town portion most of all. Using my creative mind I could imagine myself stepping back in time to the gold rush era and days of covered wagons.

    I really look forward to reading your book Keli. Thank you for the chance to win a copy! 🙂

    😀 Smiles & Blessings,
    Cindy W.


  27. Cindy, I would feel the same way if I were to move somewhere else. I’m a California gal through and through. I hope you’re able to visit from time to time.

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