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Mary Ballou's View of the Gold Rush—Historical Letter

We can learn how people lived and thought in the past by reading historical letters. Such letters sometimes provide historians with information that is very difficult to find anywhere else. The letter below was written by Mary Ballou to her son, Selden. In it, she provides many interesting details about what it was like to live and work in a mining camp during the Gold Rush in California.


Primary Source

October, 30, 1852

My Dear Selden:

. . . Well I suppose you would like to know what I am doing in this gold region. Well I will try to tell you what my work is here in this muddy Place. All the kitchen that I have is four posts stuck down into the ground and covered over the top with factory cloth no floor but the ground . . . .

. . . Well sometimes I am washing and Ironing sometimes I am making mince pie and Apple pie and squash pies . . . . Sometimes I am feeding my chickens and then again I am scareing the Hogs out of my kitchen and Driving the mules out of my Dining room. You can see by the description of that I have given you of my kitchen that anything can walk into the kitchen that choeses to walk in and there being no door to shut from the kitchen into the Dining room you see that anything can walk into the kitchen and then from kitchen into the Dining room so you see the Hogs and mules can walk in any time day or night if they choose to do so . . . . Sometimes I am taking care of Babies and nursing at the rate of Fifty Dollars a week but I would not advise any Lady to come out here and suffer the toil and fatigue that I have suffered for the sake of a little gold neither do I advise any one to come . . . .

. . . There I hear the Hogs in my kitchen turning the Pots and kettles upside down so I must drop my pen and run and drive them out. So you [see] this is the way that I have to write—jump up every five minutes for somthing and then again I washed out about a Dollars worth of gold dust the fourth of July in the cradle so you see that I am doing a little mining in this gold region but I think it harder to rock the cradle to wash out gold than it is to rock the cradle for the Babies in the States . . . .

. . . I must close soon for I am so tired and almost sick. Oh my Dear Selden I am so Home sick . . . . It seems as if my heart would break when I realise how far I am from my Dear Loved ones. This from your affectionate mother,

Mary B. Ballou

Excerpted from an 1852 letter by Mary B. Ballou published in Early American Women: a documentary history, 1600–1900. Nancy Woloch, ed. Belmont, California: Wadsworth, Inc., 1992.


Background

In 1848, gold was found in a river valley west of the Sierra Nevada. News of the discovery spread quickly, starting the California Gold Rush. Between 1848 and 1854, about 300,000 people came to California in search of gold. Thousands of these newcomers were women. Most came with their husbands or fathers, but a few came by themselves. After arriving, many of these women lived in town and took jobs as cooks or running hotels. Mary B. Ballou was one woman who traveled to California with her husband during the Gold Rush. She became a boardinghouse cook at a mining camp. According to this letter, on at least one occasion she also helped search for gold. (Her comment about washing out gold dust “in the cradle” describes one of the techniques for panning for gold.)