“When we talk of history in California this year and in the two years to come, there will be an unremitting emphasis on the Gold Rush. We have already “discovered” this magic metal, capable of transforming men and nations. The 150th anniversary of that event was celebrated on the spot, in Coloma, near Placerville, in January.

Those who are keeping a careful chronology can tell you that just about now, the ides of March 1848, 150 years ago, a sometime-Mormon, sometime-scoundrel, always-schemer named Sam Brannan, who had a mercantile business in San Francisco with a “branch store” at Sutter’s Fort in Sacramento, had figured out that there was gold in the hills. Brannan’s awakening to Sutter’s “secret” came with the astonishing amount of purchases being paid for with pure gold dust or nuggets. His awareness would make a big difference in what happened to California thereafter.

We’re going to hear a lot more about Sam Brannan in months to come. And about John Sutter and William Swain and all the brave men of the “companies” that crossed the plains to seek their fortunes. We won’t even have to listen closely. Every event will be celebrated, up to and including the anniversary, in September 2000, of the precipitous admission of California to statehood.

But, if you want to know about women’s place in this monumental even, this greatest movement of people in our nation’s history, this birth of a state sprung full-grown from the head of the god of greed, you’ll have to listen more closely, work a little harder. 

Which is why, today, in the spirit of Women’s History Month, I choose not to regale you with the story of how shrewd Sam Brannan bought up all the picks and shovels in California and moved them to his Sacramento store to get rich. I choose instead to tell you about Ida Rae Egli and her good works.

Ida Egli is a writer and a teacher, currently chair of the English department at Santa Rosa Junior College. She is, she will tell you, a writer of fiction whose interests lie mainly in rural California of the 1950s and ’60s, times and places not unlike Potter Valley in Mendocino County, where she grew up.

So what’s she doing, sticking her nose into this crowded Gold Rush field? It’s the “voices,” Egli will tell you, the seldom-heard voices of women who were watching and listening and writing in early California.

She started “hearing the voices” of the women writers at Sonoma State University, guided into her research by Professor J.J. Wilson, who has set a great many of her students on paths that celebrate women’s accomplishments.

Egli came back to Sonoma State last month to lecture in a series called “Writing California,” to talk about her first anthology of early California women writers, No Rooms of Their Own, published in 1992, and to share her excitement over the impending re-publication (end of Many) of  Women of the Gold Rush, New Penelope and Other Stories, by Frances Fuller Victor, written in the 1860s.

The introduction to this new edition of Victor’s work is written by her 20th century champion, Ida Rae Egli.

Egli liked Victor as soon as she “met” her. “In her,” she told the SSU audience, “I found a voice similar to my own.”

Victor was a writer in the East, before she came to California – a published novel in 1848, a book of poetry in 1851, three dime novels, a Pocket Novel. She had plenty to write about. She and her first husband homesteaded in Nebraska in 1853. In 1863, with her second husband, she came to San Francisco.

She is one of those writers that California seemed made for. “What I learned, reading these women’s works,” Egli told me, “is that this was a time when the sign that was hanging over California said ‘Opportunity!’

“The 1860s was a bonanza decade. There were lots of opportunities for women, especially women writers. It was boom time. There was a huge audience crying out for literature, women particularly, since they were still outnumbered four to one. They were lonely, listening for the voices of other women.”

“And it was fun,” Egli said. Victor was writing stories about women who had come in the Gold Rush. “She was having a great time.”

In the introduction to Victor’s work, Egli writes that her novella, “The New Penelope,” and her short stories “present pictures of the Gold Rush and West Coast life that are astonishingly accurate in detail. While the women who populate other stories of the Gold Rush – Bret Harte’s for example – often seem like simple literary devices, the women of Victor’s works are wonderfully alive, sassy, troubled, conflicted and intelligent.”

“For many years,” Egli writes, “readers have been content with the romantic and trite images of the Gold Rush: single-minded miners consumed with gold, strait-laced merchants trying to make a buck, prostitutes with hearts of gold, and dutiful wives tending to their children and homes.”

The new interest in the period occasioned by the sesquicentennial has brought scholars and readers to question the stereotypes and look for “what really happened,” says Egli, “not only to white men but also to women, the Chinese, the Indians, and the environment.”

The re-publication of Victor’s work, therefore, comes at a good time. “Although they are clearly fiction, these stories give us unforgettable women characters who represent a range of experiences in the West. These stories enlarge our view of history.”

The literary boom did not last. With the opening of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, the independent Californians became more influenced by Eastern publishing houses. “The voices died out, disappeared,” said Egli. “Victor is the only one who persisted.”

The success of her first book has been a source of satisfaction and surprise to Egli. “I was shocked,” she says, “at how well it took off. ‘Rooms’ has begun to change the way people look at women in that time.” It’s being used as a classroom text in several California colleges, including UC Davis.

“Not bad,” says Egli, considering that a professor (male) at San Francisco State, where she earned her master’s, told her, unequivocally, that there were no women who could “think well or write well” in early California.

“That set me on a course,” she says.

Her course led her directly to UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, where she “read 15 or 20 journals and memoirs for every one I chose (for inclusion in the book).” She found a treasure of good writing, but “a lot of bad writing as well. I must have read,” she told her SSU audience, “two thousand entries on sunset over the Golden Gate.”

Some of the women Egli “found” were already well-known. Jessie Benton Fremont was the daughter of a colorful U.S. senator and the wife of Col. John C. Fremont, a controversial explorer, would-be conqueror and political figure in the winning of the West.

“Dame Shirley” (real name, Louisa Amelia Knapp Smith Clapp) has long been acknowledged for the contributions to California history and literature made by the 23 letters written to her sister from the mining camps of Rich Bar and Indian Bar on the Feather River in 1851 and ’52.

A sample of Dame Shirley’s art: “I have become a mineress; that is, if the having washed a pan of dirt with my own hands, and procured there from three dollars and twenty-five cents in gold dust, will entitle me to the name. I can truly say, with the blacksmith’s apprentice at the close of his first day’s work at the anvil, that ‘I am sorry I learned the trade;’ for I wet my feet, tore my dress, spoilt a pair of new gloves, nearly froze my fingers, got an awful headache, took cold and lost a valuable breastpin, in this my labor of love.”

Others of Egli’s “finds” were in her own backyard.

Lucy Young, a Lassik Indian born near Alderpoint in 1846, lived to be almost 100, to the delight of scholars who took her on field trips to identify plants, recorded her language and encouraged her to talk about her life.

From “Lucy’s Story:” “Lotsa redwood tree stand there. I see hog got killed, laying there, neck and shoulder eat up. Hog warm yet. When I put foot on it, something came up behind me. Grizzly bear growl at me….” You’ll have to read it yourself to see how Lucy escaped the bear.

Another “neighbor” was Helen McCowen Carpenter, mother of painter Grace Carpenter Hudson, who crossed the plains to California as a new bride. In Potter Valley in the 1850s, her writings were influenced by what she saw in the native population, as were those of Jessie Fremont in Mariposa. Carpenter’s interest was transmitted to her daughter, who became famous for her sensitive paintings of Mendocino County Indians.

“These were strong women,” Egli reminded me. “Not women who followed their husbands across the plains, but women who walked with them; or, sometimes, ahead of them.”

What made them take the time to write? Life was so hard, the work days so long.

“California. That’s what made them write,” says Egli. “It was the blessed and horrific experience of coming here to this land of tremendous promise, the promise that tomorrow would be another day.”

(Egli is taking her tribute to these women writers on the road. She is part of the Oakland Museum’s National Gold Rush Symposium, and is scheduled to lecture June 14. On may 24 she will talk about her “friend,” Frances Fuller Victor, at North Light’s new book store in Cotati.)

–Interview written by Gaye LeBaron, author and newspaper columnist