by Sheryl Rambeau
Gold, discovered in the tailrace of a mill under construction in Coloma, January 1848, set off a fever that eventually spread around the world as anxious gold seekers began to converge on the new western territory looking to make their fortunes. By ship, by wagon, by horseback, on foot — would-be miners from all walks of life and from multiple countries converged on the California Mother Lode, looking to make a fortune.
The 1849 California Gold Rush could be looked at as an early version of the state lottery: file a claim in the right spot, make a fortune.. Many prospective miners arrived in the gold fields thinking they would spend six months or so, get filthy rich, and return to civilization as wealthy men.
Some actually did. But while the odds of “finding the big one” were better than current odds of picking the right numbers, fate – or Lady Luck– often played a major role in the decision between instant riches and failure.
The find at Sutter’s Mill wasn’t actually the first time that someone had come across the precious metal in California:
In 1842, Spaniard Francisco Lopez was riding across one of the Spanish land grant ranchos forty miles north of Los Angeles when he stopped for lunch and dug up some wild onions to add to his meal. Gold particles were clinging to the onion roots. The word spread and a mini-Rush ensued.
Over the next two years approximately 1,000 gold seekers worked the general area, until the Mexican government saw a chance to capitalize on the industry and told the rancho owner he was required to collect fees from the miners and taxes from the sale of any necessities to these miners.
The patron was reluctant to risk collecting money from the would-be miners, so discouraged them as ‘trespassers’ instead. Available gold had greatly diminished anyway, and by 1845 the placer mines were deserted.
A wagon train coming to California from the Midwest in early 1847 stopped at a tributary stream of the Yuba River to allow their animals to graze and the immigrants to rest. Three women, Mrs. Adna Hecox, Mrs. Joseph Aram, and Mrs. Isaac Isbell were doing their laundry, when Mrs. Hecox noticed shiny specks clinging to her towels and sheets. When she showed them to her minister husband, he guffawed and told her she was a fool and it was no such thing. In a fit of temper, she tossed her flakes, determined to say nothing more.
Meantime, Mrs. Aram, working slightly downstream, reached into the water and picked out a small nugget. Unwilling to face the ridicule her friend received, she tucked the nugget away until the wagon train arrived at Sutter’s Fort. There the nugget was assayed and was indeed pure gold.
Some of the wagon train members recognized their missed opportunity and attempted to return to the spot after the news of the find at Sutter’s Mill spread, but found many others there ahead of them. None of the three ladies’ husbands were successful at searching for gold.
It should be noted that some of the early pictures of the placer mines sometimes show women carrying water for the operation of a rocker, or doing other light physical tasks in the recovery of gold, but no picture ever shows a woman panning, the final step in the separation of the valuable metal. Presumably, she could not be trusted not to spill some of the valuable mineral over the edge of pan while getting rid of the last few grains of the unwanted sand. Additionally, superstitious miners refused to allow any females to go into the lode mines, claiming it made for very bad luck.
Luck: The Only Lady Present – Part One is an excerpt from the article “Luck: The Only Lady Present” by Sheryl Rambeau.