San Francisco Chronicle/Examiner
November, 9, 1997
Literary Nuggets From Women of The Gold Rush Era
Pioneers Recount Adventure in a New Land
Reviewed by Karen Peterson Liberatore

Men outnumbered women by ridiculously high ratios in the Gold Rush camps and in San Francisco well into the 1880's, but it is a welcome fact that a number of those intrepid few female pioneers were skilled wordsmiths.

In Ida Rae Egli's No Rooms of Their Own, a collection of short stories, poems and reminiscences, we meet the known — Jessie Benton Fremont, California Poet Laureate Ina Coolbrith — as well as the forgotten. To a woman, these writers have a style of their own, yet all portray what Egli identifies as "images of California's exciting newness, its promise and its challenge."

There is the riveting first-person account of the journey west in Sarah Royce's diary, "A Frontier Woman." This is an edge-of-your-seat, true-grit story of crossing the plains, desert and mountains. Royce's accounts range from facing the ravages of cholera — "The destroyer seemed let loose upon our camp. Who would go next?" — to the heartfelt camaraderie between woman and beast:

"I watched anxiously the heads of the two leading cattle. They were rather unusually fine animals, often showing considerable intelligence, and so faithful had they been, through so many trying scenes, I could not help feeling a sort of attachment to them; and I pitied them, as I observed how low their heads drooped as they pressed their shoulders so resolutely and yet so wearily against the bows."

The book spotlights Shirley Louisa Amelia Knapp Smith, who followed her physician husband to the mining camps and wrote of their life in letters to her sister in Massachusetts in 1851 and '52. Immensely popular in their day when published in the San Francisco journal the Pioneer, Smith's letters provide the needed alternate view, as shown in this passage about a man who was lynched for the crime of stealing $1,800 in gold dust.

"The body of the criminal was allowed to hang for some hours after the execution. It had commenced storming in the earlier part of the evening; and when those, whose business it was to inter the remains, arrived at the spot, they found them enwrapped in a soft, white shroud of feathery snow-flakes, as if pitying Nature had tried to hide from the offended face of heaven, the cruel deed which her mountain children had committed."

A contrary view of white versus native life is powerfully advanced by Lucy Young in her oral history, "Out of the Past: Lucy's Story." A member of the Lassik tribe of Round Valley in today's Mendocino County, Lucy lived into her 90s and tells of the beginnings, as prophesied by her grandfather.

"My grandpa say: 'White Rabbit' — he mean white people — 'gonta devour our grass, our seed, our living. We won't have nothing more, this world. Big elk with straight horn come when white man bring it.' I think he meant cattle. 'Nother animal, bigger than deer, but round feet, got hair on neck.' This one, horse, I guess." She concludes, "I hear people tell 'bout what Inyan do early days to white man. Nobody ever tell what white man do to Inyan. That's reason I tell it. That's history. That's truth. I seen t myself."

In their day, all but a few included in this collection were writers to be reckoned with, yet we know nothing of them now. A century ago, their literary voices, their insight, were as eagerly awaited by the readers of the celebrated journals published in San Francisco (and circulated around the world) — the Golden Era, the Overland Monthly — as were the outpourings of their male counterparts.

Indeed, it is a matter of historical record that Bret Harte "borrowed heavily," Egli writes, from Shirley Smith's letters in writing the seminal "The Luck of Roaring Camp" (Harte had never been a forty-niner). Notable, too, is the fact that Harte's writing career was promoted in large part by the financial sponsorship of Jessie Benton Fremont. And he was encouraged to write "The Luck of Roaring Camp" by another woman whose words are included here, Coolbrith, his peer as one of the editors of the prestigious Overland Monthly.

Harte's female tutelage is part and parcel of the story behind the stories in No Rooms of Their Own. Thanks to Egli, the doors have been flung open for delicious rediscovery.