Sunday, March 11, 2007

Could you do it?

Do you think you have what it takes to have been a Gold Rusher?

First of all, you need a lot of greed. You’ve got to want to race out there and fill your pockets with gold.

Secondly, you need a certain amount of arrogance/fearlessness. Think for a moment about whether you’d be willing to undertake a seven-months journey to a land very few people you know personally (or maybe none) have actually visited. On the way:

Overland: You face being attacked and possibly killed by Native Americans protecting their land. You may get lost and perish, like the Donners. You may fall prey to the diseases that stalked the wagon trains: diptheria, smallpox and the like. You may die of starvation or thirst as your supplies run out and you can’t replenish them. You may die of heatstroke. Or pure exhaustion, since most emigrants, to spare the cattle already pulling a very heavy load, walked the whole distance.

By ship: You face the perils of being vulnerable to the sea: shipwrecks, mutinies, rogue waves. Wooden ships, paired with open flame lighting, introduce the very real danger of a ship fire. Plus there’s scurvy, rats, nausea… Oh, and there’s no Panama Canal built yet, so when you arrive in Panama, you’re going to have to deboard and keep watch of your trunk and belongings as you are canoed across the isthmus and then ride a mule to reach open sea on the other side.

And once you get there, you’re not sure what it’s going to be like. Will it be safe? Is everyone so gold-blind that they’ll kill you as soon as look at you? Will there be things to eat? Will you regret coming? (And if you do, can you face doing that same horrible long voyage in reverse?) Will you think of all the folks you left behind in the East and weep?

Based on all of this, I admire the Gold Rushers for their fortitude and brassiness, even while I admit probably a fair number of them were depraved and unprincipled.

And then, when you think of unescorted women making their way to the West Coast… well, the admiration becomes a little stronger, because this was an era when women (at least high class women) were not supposed to even step outside by themselves without a chaperone. This was the Victorian age, with all its rules for “protecting” females. Certainly, many of the women who came to California during that time did not arrive under their own steam (my novel talks about the deplorable plight of Chinese prostitutes brought over in cages), but those who did make the journey willingly and under their own power earn my respect.

Prostitution in the 1800s was a different undertaking, at least psychologically, than today. Women had so few options for employment, and so many real possibilities for starving to death, that embarking on prostitution was more of a put-food-in-mouth situation than today. Supermarkets did not exist. Many people grew their own food, or bought it directly from those who did. Same with meat: the same guy who owned the animals was the one who butchered them and sold the meat, at least in the very early days of San Francisco. In many cases, reform had not yet hit charity houses, so women shied away from the prison-like institutions that might be able to help them.

In 1869, the transcontinental railroad was completed, allowing faster and safer travel across the country. By 1900, 50 years after the Gold Rush, the Bay Area had significantly grown up. My city, Oakland, had a city hall built as a skyscraper. The landscape looked very different, with buildings galore and streetcars connecting the various neighborhoods. And while women were now permitted to gain employment in ways previously unheard of, they were still not making the wages that their male counterparts made (still the case today). In 1913, a prostitute told the Oakland Welfare Commission, “If working girls were paid living wages, there would be fewer prostitutes."

For more on Gold Rush prostitution--in fictional form--read my novel Woman of Ill Fame.


Michael Fuery said...

Can I have an autographed copy, Mrs. Mailman?

Michael Fuery said...

pretty please with a cherry on top

Erika M said...

Hi Michael! I'd be honored. Come to the Black Oak Books reading on April 4. Hope all is well!