In the spring of 1849 Luzena and Mason Wilson packed their wagon and drove west from their log cabin on the Missouri frontier with their two young sons. Like 25,000 other Americans that year, the Wilson family was headed overland to California to seek gold. As a woman, Luzena Wilson would find herself a rarity in the adventure that lay ahead.
Initially Luzena Wilson thought going to California "a small task," but the journey was not to be taken lightly. Wagons moved at a pace of about two miles an hour and the trail was crowded with other 49ers. Water and food for the livestock was hard to find and the beasts grew bone thin. As the Wilsons moved west, they found the trail littered with household items discarded to lighten loads of the tired beasts. Cholera spread and the dead were hastily buried along the trail.
The Hardship of Heading West
"Nothing but the actual experience will give one an idea of the plodding, unvarying monotony, the vexations, the exhaustive energy, the throbs of hope, the depths of despair, through which we lived," Wilson recalled in her memoir.
The $10 Biscuit
The September evening before the Wilsons finally descended the Sierra foothills into Sacramento, Luzena Wilson got a taste of how she would make her fortune in California. A man approached her as she cooked supper and offered her five dollars for a biscuit. "I hesitated ... he repeated his offer to purchase, and said he would give ten dollars [about $240 in 2005 dollars] for bread made by a woman," wrote Wilson. Finally Wilson found her tongue and accepted the offer.
The Value of Domestic Arts
In the rapidly growing city of Sacramento, the Wilsons sold their oxen and bought an interest in a small hotel. Luzena Wilson cooked meals and quickly learned her own value. In the six months she lived in Sacramento, she saw only two other women. Her mere presence meant she could command top dollar for her meals. Miners flocked to her table and paid in gold.
Women in a Sea of Men
In 1850 women made up just three percent of the non-Native American population in California's mining region. In total, immigrant women numbered about 800 in a sea of 30,000 men. As a married American woman, Luzena Wilson reminded many miners of home, of their mothers, wives and sisters. She was treated, as she put it, like a "queen." Under a progressive provision of the 1849 California Constitution, her status as a married woman allowed her the right to own property separate from her husband.
Women Get Rich
Women came to California from many countries -- including France, Mexico, Peru, Chile and China -- to make money in the gold rush economy. Louise Amelia Knapp Smith Clapp, who wrote about the mining camps under the name Dame Shirley, observed a woman making $100 a week washing clothes at Rich Bar. In Sonora, Mexican women hawked tortillas and tamales on the street. French girls charged an ounce of gold just to sit next to a customer and a Swiss woman working an organ grinder made $4,000 in a few months.
Some women worked in the gold rush's notorious sex trade. Observer Albert Bernard wrote, "Nearly all these women at home were streetwalkers of the cheapest sort, but out here, for only a few minutes, they ask a hundred times as much as they were used to getting in Paris. A whole night costs from $200 to $400." The Alta California lamented, "We must confess our regret at the perfect freedom and unseemly manner in which the abandoned females ... are permitted to display themselves in our public saloons and streets."
Break in the Levee
One afternoon in late December 1849, after days of heavy rain, Wilson was cooking supper in Sacramento when she heard the cry "the levee's broke!" She, Mason and the children ran to the top floor of the hotel and stayed there for seventeen days as the floodwaters lapped outside. Their business was ruined. The Wilsons packed up and moved to the rough mining camp of Nevada City. Luzena Wilson opened another hotel and called it El Dorado. With a full table at every meal, they had ten thousand dollars invested in the business within six months.
Beneath an Oak Tree
Nine months later, a fire swept through Nevada City. El Dorado burned to the ground, taking with it the Wilson's fortune. The family moved toward the coast and settled beneath an oak tree in a little valley called Vaca, named after the property's Californio owner. Luzena etched "Wilson's Hotel" on a board and made chairs from stumps. Guests slept behind a hay bale. Mason Wilson farmed and the family prospered. As time went on, the area became more populated. Eventually, Luzena and Mason Wilson became substantial landowners in the town of Vacaville.
On Her Own
In 1872 Mason Wilson abruptly abandoned his family and moved to Texas. Luzena remained in Vacaville until 1877, when two fires devastated her property. She moved to San Francisco, where she spent the rest of her life. She resided in a hotel, living off real estate transactions. On her last known visit to Vacaville in November 1901, the newspaper noted her presence, calling her "one of the earliest settlers, coming here in 1851."
Luzena Wilson died at age 83 of thyroid cancer on July 11, 1902, at the Hotel Pleasanton in San Francisco.
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