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.
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?
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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