[HISTORY] Quirky Women Lured West During Gold Rush Included Ah Toy
- A Rich Vein of Quirky Women Lured West
Few females got caught up in the Gold Rush, but those who prospered
were shrewd, bold and resourceful. Some posed as men to get ahead.
By Cecilia Rasmussen, Times Staff Writer
Women were a rarity in Gold Rush California, but the ones who got
here and prospered were doozies formidable women as well as a
They hauled freight and mined for gold. They lobbied to get equal
pay and the vote. They were missionaries, writers, madams and
mavericks. Some even passed themselves off as men to avoid the
inevitable harassments that women endured.
Eliza Farnham, a widow and former matron of Sing Sing Prison in
New York, came to California in 1849, donned overalls and built her
own ranch house in the gold country. She wrote books and ran the
women's wards at the Stockton Insane Asylum.
Charlotte "Charlie" Parkhurst, a drinking, tobacco-chewing, dice-
playing stagecoach driver, arrived in 1851 and, living as a man,
prospered near Watsonville. Still in male guise, she voted in the
election of 1868, decades before women were granted suffrage. She
almost went to her grave as a man until an autopsy revealed her
Elsa Jane Forest Guerin of New Orleans was another cross-dresser.
She was married at 12, a mother at 13 and a widow with two babies at
15. Afterward, she disguised herself as a man and headed west to
track down her husband's killer, making her way to the Sacramento
Valley in the 1850s. There, she mined for gold, ran a saloon and a
pack-mule station and bought a ranch near Shasta, becoming known as
Mountain Charley. Eventually, her secret came out and she wrote a
Los Angeles physician Mary P. Sawtelle, who condemned corsets and
advocated exercise for women, turned Gold Rush characters into a
novel about a maiden in the mining camps, "The Heroine of '49."
Mary Ellen "Mammy" Pleasant, a former slave, reputedly made $225
a day as a cook and boarding-house operator. She invested in mining
stock and a string of bordellos, lent money at high interest and,
when she was ejected from a streetcar because of her color, went to
court. Her victory in 1866 established blacks' legal right to ride
Adah Isaacs Menken, an actress and poet, brought her own kind of
sexual freedom to the wide-open town of San Francisco. She wooed
newly rich miners and men about town with a daring horseback act in
which she appeared in flesh-colored tights to simulate bare skin.
Ah Toy, the second Chinese woman in San Francisco, joined the
ranks of prosperous immigrant prostitutes who had such professional
names as Bowlegged Mary and Squirrel Tooth Alice (who got her
moniker posing for photographs with her pet squirrel). After a few
years in the Bay Area, Toy departed San Francisco in 1854, leaving
litigation in her wake. In one suit, she accused a client of trying
to pay her with brass filings instead of gold dust. She left before
it came to trial.
The Gold Rush era was a sellers' market for feminine companionship.
Women constituted only 2% of the passengers on the overland '49ers'
prairie schooners, according to historian Gloria Ricci Lothrop, who
wrote "California Women: A History." But by 1857, they constituted
half of the passenger lists.
They were lured west by more liberal laws and opportunities,
including the right to own businesses and property and take jobs
that some Eastern cities reserved for men.
Advertised marriage proposals also drew women west. When one man
advertised in Eastern papers that he wanted to share his lot with a
wife, a woman responded: "How large a lot?"
In Gold Rush California, where inflation drove the price of an apple
to $5 and an egg to 75 cents, a wife capable of canning, knitting
and cultivating a salad garden was an economic asset as well as a
With many mining towns having no women whatsoever, Saturday night
dances were held around ladies' bonnets. When one group of miners
spotted a woman's dress on a clothesline, they implored the owner's
husband to urge her to make a brief appearance. They paid for the
fleeting glimpse with a pouch of gold dust.
Towns boasted about having female barbers, cigar makers, cooks,
seamstresses and newspaper printers. But one who became posthumously
famous was the redoubtable stagecoach driver Charlie Parkhurst, who
until she died was believed to have been a man.
Born Charlotte Parkhurst in New England around 1812 and orphaned at
an early age, she ran away from the orphanage dressed as a boy and
found work mucking out stables. She came west around 1851, when she
was nearly 40, and worked as a stagecoach driver over the Santa Cruz
Mountains, with a reputation as one of the safest and fastest
After she was kicked in her left eye by a horse, Charlie wore a
black patch over it. But the vision in her other eye was as sharp as
a hawk's, and she was fearless; she often won stagecoach races.
Nearly half a century before California women were granted the right
to vote, Parkhurst cast a ballot in the 1868 presidential election
of Ulysses S. Grant.
Her disguise held out until 1879, when neighbors found her dead in
her cabin near Watsonville. When an autopsy revealed Charlie was a
woman, the news rendered all her longtime friends speechless.
Then there was the legendary "Mountain Charley," so renowned before
her death that many women claimed to be her so frontier papers would
Whether the Mountain Charley of legend was one woman or a composite,
it's hard to be sure. But much of what is known comes from the 1861
autobiography of Elsa Jane Forest Guerin, "Mountain Charley, or the
Adventures of Mrs. E.J. Guerin, Who Was Thirteen Years in Male
Attire." Another edition of the book was published in 1968.
According to her book, Guerin was married at 12 in the 1840s and
widowed at 15 after her husband was shot by a neighbor with a
grudge. Seeking revenge, she dropped off her children at a St. Louis
orphanage, cut her hair, dressed as a man and headed west to hunt
down her husband's killer and to make an honest living.
"Of my parting with my children, I will say but little," she
wrote. "That my soul was filled with poignant grief at thus leaving
them to penetrate the dangers of a distant state, can readily [be]
"A slight asthmatic affliction which had visited me while at school
had left a slight hoarseness in my voice that assisted materially in
completing my disguise."
On her first trip to California in 1855, Guerin wrote, she traveled
by wagon train with 60 men. She kept a diary, included in her
autobiography, of the 122-day trek.
After reaching the Sacramento Valley, she panned for gold on the
Feather River. But she made more money running a saloon and
transporting provisions to the mining camps on pack mules, all the
while posing as a man.
Lured by the Colorado gold rush, she headed to Pike's Peak, where
she finally tracked down and shot the man who had killed her
She didn't kill him, but he soon succumbed to yellow fever. Before
dying, he told everyone who she was. When her story appeared in
Colorado newspapers, New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley saw it
and made her famous.