“When we think of the gold rush in California we envision a boisterous, all-male society prospecting for gold in the hills and valleys surrounding the mighty Sierra Nevada mountains and the surrounding territory. For too many years, female students of California History asked, “Where were the women?”
Ida Rae Egli, who teaches English at Santa Rosa Junior College, answers with her 1992 book, No Rooms of Their Own: Women Writers of Early California, a charming and enlightening collection of prose and bits of poetry by several of these early Californians.
Browsing among the collected reminiscences, the reader occasionally mines nuggets of narrative gold as in the stories “My Grizzly Bear” and “Sierra Neighbors,” both delightful tales by Jessie Benton Fremont, beautiful wife of Colonel John C. Fremont, the first Republican candidate for the U. S. presidency in 1856.
Jessie Benton, daughter of Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton, had the Washington D. C. world at her feet when she eloped at age 17 with Fremont, a member of the Army Topographical Corps. She and Fremont lived an erratic life together on both coasts, in the nation’s capital and in Northern California. It is Jessie’s first-hand stories of life at Las Mariposas Ranch in Bear Valley that engage the reader in what it was like to be a pioneer woman struggling to establish a home in the newly developing state.
The brief “My Grizzly Bear” is written in a clear, adventurous style as Mrs. Fremont and her party face a mean grizzly on a day’s hike into the hills near her home. In “Sierra Neighbors” her descriptions abound of her difficulties with housekeeping. A task as simple as hiring a laundress to do the weekly wash is described in sympathetic detail as, first a “most beat out” young wife, with baby and surly husband in tow, is found and hired only to be lost when the husband is stricken once again with gold dust fever.
Next, Native American girls from the nearby village are engaged. “We are warned they would carry off anything they fancied, but they never did. Punctuality was not their gifts, but good humor was, and a genuine girlish pleasure in praise and rewards.” Jessie’s word pictures of the local natives conjure up “…one very old body, too old to pound acorns or gather sticks – she looks herself like a fagot of dried sticks..”
For young California History students, both male and female, Egli’s collection will serve as a tasty tidbit of writing this is both pleasant and personal. Think what all the women pioneers could have written if they had had the time and talent to put into words what there were experiencing each day, long ago.”