Fortune Hunting in the Old West

By Linda Shenton Matchett

Thanks to the Homestead Act of 1862, the West was populated by farmers and ranchers who took their chances with 160 acres and a dream. But from 1828 in Georgia through the early 1900s in Alaska, thousands more flocked across the U.S. and its territories seeking their fortune.

Have you seen photographs of those intrepid miners: scruffy-looking, bearded men in dirt-encrusted garments, a man wearing a broad smile and holding a lump of ore, and men on mules or standing in a river gripping what looks like an oversized dinner plate? If you look further, you might stumble on pictures of women in these same poses.

You didn’t misread that last sentence. A small percentage of women worked alongside the men who converged on the the gold, silver, and copper fields. The reasons for the women’s presence are as varied as the women themselves. Some came with husbands, fathers, or brothers, then stayed after said male relative died. Other ladies were already in the area and decided to give mining a go. Still others heard about the possibilities for riches and were adventuresome enough to try mining on their own. A few came out of desperation.


However, men were not happy to have the women “horn in” on their domain, so many of the ladies dressed as men to blend in or fool their competitors. Apparently, the practice was so common during the California gold rush that when a newspaper photographer advertised for a “lad” to help him, he specified that “no women in disguise need apply.”

Widespread prejudice from the men made life as a female prospector difficult. Claim jumping and stealing by the men were common practices among themselves, but some reports indicate it may have been worse for the ladies. The women also had a tough time selling the claims they did keep. Then it became official when the United States National Bureau of Mines banned the women from mining in 1915. But still they persevered.

                           Fanny Quigley Home

Because of the lack of sources, it is unknown how many women prospectors were successful, but there are articles and books about some of the more “colorful” characters such as Fannie Quigley who started her career as a dance hall girl, then headed to the Alaskan gold fields to cook for the miners.

She eventually staked her first claim in 1907, going on to own twenty-five more. Her personal life was less successful-she left two husbands during her search for gold. Then there’s Lillian Malcom (also part of the Klondike rush) who was a Broadway actress. Several of her claims were stolen by men, so she moved to Nevada, acting out her Alaskan adventures along the way to fund her journey. The picture below is of a gold nugget in 1920.

Panning for gold the old-fashioned way is a simple, yet backbreaking process of scooping gravel from a river into a pan, swirling and dipping the pan to let the current carry most of the silt away, then repeating the action until there are about three tablespoons of sand from which to pick out the eyelash-sized flakes. And just in case you’re wondering, prospectors typically worked from sunup to sundown.

Would you have taken your chances as a prospector in the Old West?



Gold Rush Bride Hannah

(Book 1, Gold Rush Brides):

A brand-new widow, she doesn’t need another man in her life. He’s not looking for a wife. But when danger thrusts them together, will they change their minds…and hearts?

Hannah Lauman’s husband has been murdered, but rather than grief, she feels…relief. She decides to remain in Georgia to work their gold claim, but a series of incidents makes it clear someone wants her gone…dead or alive. Is a chance at being a woman of means and independence worth risking her life?

Jess Vogel never breaks a promise, so when he receives a letter from a former platoon mate about being in danger, he drops everything to help his old friend. Unfortunately, he arrives just in time for the funeral. Can he convince the man’s widow he’s there for her protection not for her money?

Purchase Link:  Linda Shenton Matchett, author of

History, Hope and Happily Ever After

Linda Shenton Matchett Website

+ posts

41 thoughts on “Fortune Hunting in the Old West”

    • Thanks for visiting. Patience is definitely on the top of the list of attributes one would need to be a prospector.

  1. I guess it would depend on my circumstances before I decided to go. If I was down and out I might go. If I had no husband or children. I probably would have disguised myself as a man. Thank you for sharing your time with us all.

  2. I doubt it. Although I might have enjoyed the adventure, I have never been one to focus on material possessions or amassing a fortune.

  3. I am not sure if I would have or not. It would depend on what was going on in my life and if I really needed the gold to live on. If things were really rough and I needed the money then I probable would have. It would be better then some of the other alternative ways to make a living.

    • Great point about prospecting being a better choice than some alternate ways folks had to make a living back then, especially the women who didn’t have anyone.

  4. Just getting to the gold fields was a risk and then claim jumpers. No thanks. Better to own the general store and accept gold as payment.

  5. I only choose to be outside when the weather is fairly mild. The cold is not for me, nor the hardships which are the biggest part of prospecting. I do love to read of the adventures these types of tales hold. Especially with the old west period. Money is not worth these kinds of hardships for me.

  6. Linda, thank you so much for visiting. The Homestead Act really changed a lot of lives and gave settlers that sense of worth that they didn’t have. To own a piece of land was really important. But I didn’t know a lot of women tried to pan for gold or work a mine. How interesting. Thanks for sharing that. Wishing you tons of success.

    • Thanks, Linda! I was stunned (and intrigued) when I learned about the female prospectors. Their stories are incredible.

  7. I don’t think I’d want to try my hand at prospecting! I’d find another way to make some money. I’ve never wanted to be “rich” materially, so it wouldn’t be worth it to me.

    • Hi Trudy: Thanks for commenting. Prospecting does seem to be a lot of work for what you get out of it, plus wondering if/when you were going to find enough to make it worth your while.

    • Hi Paula: Thanks for stopping by. I like my modern conveniences way too much. I’m glad I wasn’t born back then either.

  8. Hi, Linda, not entering for a book, as I’m an author, too, and I will leave that to the readers. But I really enjoyed your post about females “braving” the gold fields. Fascinating stuff, especially about the actresses and how prevalent it was for women to disguise themselves. Given how “tough” the goldfields were makes complete sense. Everything I’ve read about gold rushes show them to be very dangerous places for men or women.

    • Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I agree that the rushes contained much danger.

  9. Unless I was desperate and didn’t have a choice, I would not have tried gold mining. It’s sounds like back breaking work, in all kinds of weather, not for me!

  10. I don’t think it old have had any interest in working a gold mine. Seems like too much effort for such little pay off, for most anyway.

    • Thanks for commenting Megan. From what I’ve read, you are correct. Most folks did not make a lot of money, and many of those who did wasted what they made.

  11. Welcome Linda What a pretty cover. This books sounds fascinating. I loved your post. Thanks for sharing. No I wouldn’t pan for gold, but I would set up a small place where the men could come and get cooked meals and desserts.
    quilting dash lady at comcast dot net

    • Hi Lori: I love the cover too. The designer did a great job. I love that you would serve the men with food. You have a sweet spirit.

  12. When I was younger, I probably would have given it a try. I don’t know how long I would have lasted, probably not long. Most likely I would have ended up in town running or working in a cafe.

  13. I have never had a desire to be a prospector. I like to be indoors too much to want to spend all day outside!

    • Hi Stacey: Thanks for commenting. Being outdoors all day would be challenging, especially during inclement weather. I’d rather be out when it’s nice.

Comments are closed.