Life in the Old West

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One woman found creative profits in Old West mining camp

Women who traveled to the gold fields often found creative ways to profit in the mining camps of the Old West. In many cases, these were practical, hardworking wives and mothers who brought order to the chaos of the camps and turned hardship into gold of their own.

One such woman, written of in Lillian Schlissel’s wonderful book “Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey,” was Luzena Stanley Wilson. She and her husband and three children arrived in Nevada City, California, in 1849, finding two rows of tents lining two steep gulches, the gulches “alive with moving men.”

Luzena quickly discovered that there was a great need for decent lodging and a cook. The miners were spending their lives working their mining claims, living in flimsy lean-tos and poor tents, with all of them eating at a single hotel in the small settlement.

According to an excerpt from Luzena’s diary, she took quick action. Her husband went out that day to find some wood to build shelter and put a roof over his family. While he was gone, as Luzena told it:

“With my own hands I chopped stakes, drove them into the ground, and set up my table. I bought provisions at a neighboring store and when my husband came back at night he found … twenty miners eating at my table. Each man as he rose put a dollar in my hand and said I might count on him as a permanent customer. I called my hotel ‘El Dorado.’ ”

During the following months, Luzena and her husband made about $25.00 a week serving from 75 to 200 borders. In addition, the miners began to look to her as a trusted figure and leaving gold dust and gold nuggets in her keeping. She became not only an innkeeper but the nearest thing the mining camp had to a banker. “Many a night,” she wrote, “I have shut my oven door on two milk-pans filled high with bags of gold dust and I have often slept with my mattress lined … I must have had more than two hundred thousand dollars lying unprotected in my bedroom.”

Sadly, their prosperity came to an unhappy ending within 18 months: Fire swept through the mining camp, leaving some 8,000 miners and prospectors homeless and wiping out everything Luzena and her family had. According to Schlissel’s book, the Wilson’s moved on and were lost in the history of the Old West as Luzena’s diary keeping days came to an end.

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