California Historian
Spring, 1999

No Rooms of Their Own
Women Writers of Early California, 1849-1869
Edited by Ida Rae Egli, Forward by J. J. Wilson
(Heyday Books, Berkeley, California, 1997, 337pp)

The second edition of No Rooms of Their Own is an anthology of California Gold Rush stories, journals, and poems by women who experienced a span of three decades in the gold rush era. It is an excellent addition to California history libraries. It is ideal leisure reading material at the end of a day or mid-day rest period.

The editor of this anthology is Ida Rae Egli, a northern Californian and head of the English Department at Santa Rosa Junior College. Her introduction describes the Gold Rush period and the status of women authors. For each selection, Egli has written several pages introducing the author and the selection.

Like women of all the westward movements from the Atlantic Seaboard, they were strong, independent, courageous, adaptable and talented. Of the 15 authors selected, two were born in Europe, one in Mexico, and two in California (Lucy Young, 1846, Native American, and Ella Mighels 1853, Sacramento). The other authors were from the Atlantic States, the Midwest, and two were from the "deep South." The Southern writers, both in "Questioning Roles" are Adah Menken and Ada Clare. Editor Egli says Walt Whitman called both of them "women born too soon."

The "First Contact" authors are Sarah Royce, Lucy Young, Dame Shirley, Helen Carpenter, Frances Victor and Josephine McCrackin. Sarah Eleanor Royce (1819-1891) kept a diary of her 1849 wagon train overland route to the Golden Gate. Her son, Josiah Royce, Harvard Historian, encouraged her to edit the diary and it was published in 1932, A Frontier Lady. Lucy Young, Lassik tribe of northern California, describes her grandfather's memories as well as her own experiences. Louisa Amelia Knapp Smith Clapp (1819-1906) is Dame Shirley whose interesting letters to her sister describe mining activities in the Feather River region. These 1851 letters were first published in The Pioneer in San Francisco, 1855. Another First Contact author is Helen McCowen Carpenter (1839-1917). After arriving in California in 1857 and trying mining, the family moved to Grass Valley and Finally to Ukiah. Her story of "The Mitchells" is a story about a black man, his Indian wife, and their white neighbors and interesting warm relationships. It is easy to understand why Grace Carpenter Hudson, the author's daughter, became "The Painter Lady" giving us wonderful portraits of Pomo Indians and their children. Ida Egli says Frances Fuller Victor (1826-1902) is "perhaps the most scholarly of the women writers collected here" the only one to make her entire living by writing. She was hired by Hubert Howe Bancroft to research and write three of the 39 volumes of Bancroft's works. Frances Victors interesting selection is "How Jack Hastings Sold his Mine." The last one in the "First Contacts" is Josephine Clifford McCrakin (1839-1920) who "fictionalized the true histories of ordinary people caught in extraordinary times in the frontiers of Arizona and California." La Graciosa is the only story in the collection describing rancho life in the south central part of California after statehood.

"Making Room" includes Jessie Benton Fremont (1924-1902), Hipolita Orendain de Medina (1847-1922), Georgina Bruce Kirby (1818-1881), Ina Coolbrith (1841-1928), and Mary Hallock Foote (1847-1938). Of these, Ina Coolbrith is probably the best known. She was California's first poet laureate. She lived in the Bay Area and was librarian in Oakland where she helped young Jack London. However, the collection begins with Jessie Benton Fremont, daughter of a senator and wife of the famous Colonel John C. Fremont (Bear Flag Revolt). They were in California in 1848 during the end of the Mexican War and the discovery of gold, and then again in 1858. In "Sierra Neighbors" she talks about a visit from Richard H. Dana (Two Years Before the Mast). Georgiana Kirby wrote a journal in 1852 and the selection starts in December and ends in November 1853. She mentions the unusual amounts of heavy rainfalls. Right now in 1998, it is interesting to read accounts of the excessive rainy period of the 1850's and the floods which created an inland sea. This was followed by a great drought in 1862-64 which destroyed much of the pasture lands of the south, such as those described in "Graciosa" by Josephine Clifford. Mary Hallock Foote came to California in 1876. "In Exile" is a charming story of a young school mistress and a man in a mining settlement.

"Questioning Roles" includes "Affidavit of Oral Testimony" by Charlotte L. Brown, a black woman who was refused transportation by a conductor in San Francisco. Ella Sterling Cummins Mighels (1853-1934), native born Californian, was designated by the California Legislature "first historian of literary California." Her "Portrait of a California Girl" is set in the Sierra foothills where a love triangle plays out. The last two stories are those of Adah Menken and Ada Clare. Both were from the South, and arrived in San Francisco via New York. They were friends and associated with the same writers and publishers. Ada Clare was only in San Francisco a short while, but she managed to create a reputation and much gossip. Adah and Ada had similar reputations. Menken and Clare shared about the same life span- both died while in their thirties.

Reviewed by Jane B. Hunnicutt,
Professor Emeritus, Los Medanos College