Life in the Old West

True stories, tall tales, memorabilia of the American West

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Women prospectors were few in the gold fields, but they were there

Women prospectors in the gold fields of the Old West were few, but they were there. Modern portrayals in Western fiction of the 49ers and other well-known gold rushes work pretty hard at getting the gold prospecting supplies and other period details correct — but they leave out the women who worked at the backbreaking labor along side men, all of them caught up in the gold rush, all suffering from gold fever!

A fascinating little book by Chris Enss, titled “A Beautiful Mine: Women Prospectors of the Old West,” says there were something less than 5,000 women who took part in the California Gold Rush of 1849. He cites that number to point out the rarity of women prospectors. It seems to me that number shows there were far more women prospectors in the Old West than anyone normally portrays in books and films.

Enss says these women adventurers failed to fit into the common categories of women expected in the rough and tumble gold and silver fields of the time. They were neither prostitutes nor housewives/mothers looking after their families. But the male prospectors treated them with silent respect and there were very few incidents involving male-female conflict in the gold fields of the Old West, he suggests.

In his excellent book, Enss quotes from journals of women prospectors. Some of these women, such as Louise Clapp, were reluctant miners and regretted the decision to seek gold. In her journal Clapp wrote: “I am sorry I learned the trade, for I wet my feet, tore my dress, spoilt a pair of new gloves, nearly froze my fingers, got an awful headache, took cold and lost a valuable breastpin, in this my labor of love.” Other women, he says, “couldn’t envision life without mining. They trekked over rugged terrain, enduring below-freezing temperatures in the Alaskan wilderness and scorching heat in California’s Death Valley in order to reach outcroppings rumored to hold a treasure of yellow nuggets.”

Many of the men prospectors were always skeptical about women doing such hard labor. They tolerated the women grudgingly, convinced they would soon give up and go home, leaving the gold fields to real prospectors.

Enss’s book is a great tribute to those brave, and some not-so-brave, women who made up their minds to gather gold prospecting supplies and change their lives (hopefully) for the better. His narrative is fascinating as he tells the tales of a dozen women prospectors and would-be prospectors. The book has a wealth of great period photos, as well as a glossary of mining terms. I can’t recommend it highly enough for anyone wanting to learn more about women prospectors.

They were few and far between in the gold fields of the Old West, but women played an important role in this fascinating period of America’s history!

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