JSNH&B home • Spring 2012 • vol. 4 no. 2

From Luzena Stanley Wilson, ‘49er; Memories Recalled Years Later for her Daughter Correnah Wilson Wright

Luzena Stanley Wilson

Mills College, Oakland, California: The Eucalyptus Press, 1937.
500 copies were printed from a type-written manuscript in the Mills College library

Luzena Stanley Wilson came to California from Missouri with her husband and two children in 1849. The family first settled in Sacramento, where they were hotel proprietors. After the monumental Sacramento flood of 1849, they moved to a rude mining camp then called “Nevada” (later renamed Nevada City), where the Wilsons ran another hotel until 1851. After their eighteen months in Nevada City, the Wilsons journeyed to their new farm near modern day Vacaville. Luzena Stanley Wilson, ‘49er (1937) contains reminiscences of her overland journey and early years in California dictated to her daughter in 1881. This book is particularly valuable in describing the lives of women in Gold Rush California. Women were exceedingly rare in the goldfields and their experiences were frequently left out of histories of the period through the 1960s. Recent publications on Gold Rush history have done an admirable job in rectifying this unfortunate oversight – Wilson’s memoir has been an invaluable resource in this regard.

In this passage, Luzena Stanley Wilson describes her life, mining, and a devastating fire in Nevada City plus her family’s return to Sacramento and a violent incident in that river city.

Nevada City

quoteThere were twelve ladies present and about three hundred men. unquote

After we had been in the town of Nevada City three or four months, the first ball was given. There were twelve ladies present and about three hundred men. The costumes were eccentric, or would be now. At that time it was the prevailing fashion for the gentlemen to attend social gatherings in blue woolen shirts, and with trousers stuffed into boot-tops. Every man was “heeled” with revolver and bowie-knife. My own elaborate toilet for the occasion was a freshly ironed calico and a plaid shawl. The dresses of the other ladies were similar. A few days before the ball, word came into the town that a family of immigrants, including several grown young ladies, had moved into Grass Valley. The news was hailed with rapture by the young men, and two of them, Messrs. Frinx and Blackman, prominent merchants, procured horses and rode over, with testimonials in hand, to engage the presence of the young ladies, if possible, for the forthcoming ball. They were cordially received, and their request gracefully accorded. On the day of the ball, they procured what they could in the form of vehicles, and drove over the mountains to bring back their prizes. It was already dark when they arrived at the little log house, and a knock at the door ushered them into the one room of the residence. The old lady answered their inquiries for the young ladies by saying, “Not much. If your ball had been in the daytime, and the gals ‘ud be home by dark, I wouldn't mind; but my gals don't go traipsing ‘round in the night with no young men. No siree.” Map of location of Nevada City CA

There was nothing left for the discomfited beaux but to come back alone. When they returned, they gave us a mournful description of their wild-goose chase. They told us how, as they stepped into the room, the clothing on two beds gave a sudden jerk and exposed the symmetry of two pairs of feet. They were at first mystified by the strange sight, but afterwards concluded that these were the dainty pedal extremities of their missing inamoratas. However, the ball went on, notwithstanding the lessening in number of the expected ladies. A number of the men tied handkerchiefs around their arms and airily assumed the character of ball-room belles. Every lady was overwhelmed with attentions, and there was probably more enjoyment that night, on the rough pine floor and under the flickering gleam of tallow candles, than one often finds in our society drawing-rooms, where the rich silks trail over velvet carpets, where the air is heavy with the perfume of exotics, and where night is turned into a brighter day under the glare of countless gas-jets.

Fire Sweeps the Town

We had lived eighteen months in Nevada City when fire cut us adrift again, as water had done in Sacramento. Some careless hand had set fire to a pile of pine shavings lying at the side of a house in course of construction, and while we slept, unconscious of danger, the flames caught and spread, and in a short half hour the whole town was in a blaze. We were roused from sleep by the cry of “Fire, fire” and the clang of bells.

quoteThe fire howled and moaned like a giant in an agony of pain… unquote

Snatching each a garment, we hurried out through blinding smoke and darting flames, not daring even to make an effort to collect our effects. There were no means for stopping such a conflagration. Bells clanged and gongs sounded, but all to no purpose save to wake the sleeping people, for neither engines nor firemen were at hand. So we stood with bated breath, and watched the fiery monster crush in his great red jaws the homes we had toiled to build. The tinder-like pine houses ignited with a spark, and the fire raged and roared over the fated town. The red glare fell far back into the pine woods and lighted them like day; it wrapped the moving human creatures in a fiendish glow, and cast their giant shadows far along the ground. The fire howled and moaned like a giant in an agony of pain, and the buildings crashed and fell as if he were striking them down in his writhings. When the slow dawn broke, and the sun came riding up so calm and smiling, he looked down upon a smouldering bed of ashes; and in place of the cheerful, happy faces, which were wont to greet his appearance in the busy rushing town of yesterday his beams lighted sad countenances, reflecting the utter ruin of their fortunes. The eight thousand inhabitants were homeless, for in the principal part of the town every house was swept away; and most of them were penniless as well as homeless. Like ourselves most of them had invested their money in buildings and goods, and scarcely anything was saved. The remnant of our fortune consisted of five hundred dollars, which my husband had in his pockets and had neglected to put away, and with that sum we were to start again. For months my health had been failing, and when this blow came in the shape of the fire, my strength failed and I fell sick. Some generous man offered us the shelter of his cabin in the edge of the woods. For weeks I was a prisoner there, bound in the fetters of fever. When, at last, my returning health and strength permitted it, we moved from Nevada City nearer to the valley.

Gold Under the Streets

The mines around Nevada City were wonderfully rich. Miles and miles of flume carried the water from mine to mine, to flow on through more miles of sluice-boxes. Claims were staked off in every ravine for hangers about the city. Men dug for gold in the very streets of the town and under the very foundations of the houses. Not infrequently the digging of a well would develop a rich claim and make the owner rich in a few weeks.

quoteMany men made fortunes, for thousands of dollars were taken out in a single day. unquote

After the fire we let our city lot go for a few dollars and the man who bought it took thirty thousand dollars out of the gravel part of it, which sloped down to the ravine. The streams ran muddy with the tailings from the diggings. Wherever pick and shovel disturbed and water washed the soil, a color could be found. Many men made fortunes, for thousands of dollars were taken out in a single day. The fever and uncertainty of mining made the people grow old and haggard. They might dig, dig, dig, fruitlessly for days, making scarcely enough to keep body and soul together, and then disheartened, sell the worthless claim for enough provisions to last till they struck another camp. Perhaps the first day's work on the old claim by the new owner would yield hundreds of dollars. Not a half block from my house, a young man took out sixteen thousand dollars, and then gave his claim to me. I had no way to work it, and my husband was opposed to mining on general principles, so I sold the property for a hundred dollars. The man who bought it took out of it, before we left the town, ten thousand dollars.

Nevada City Rises From the Ashes

Nevada City sprung, Phoenix like, from its ashes and grew up a more substantial and permanent town and with more consideration for appearances. The streets straightened themselves, the houses, like well-drilled soldiers, formed naturally into line. The little city was more rushing and prosperous than ever. The green valleys, however, seemed to offer us a pleasanter home, so we adhered to our plan of removal, and bade a rather sad farewell to the bright, spicy little snow-bound town where we had found so many friends.

The road we followed back to Sacramento had greatly changed since we had traveled over it eighteen months before. Where we had climbed up and down steep mountains, and cut down obstacles in our path, we now rose and descended by easy grades. The woods, which had then closed around dark and thick, had been charred or burned away, and the giant arms, scorched and blackened, pointed out the new way. Substantial bridges spanned the streams. Every turn brought us face to face with wagons loaded high with building materials and supplies for the city of the mountains. Instead of the twelve dragging days we spent in our first trip over this route, the journey was performed in two. Instead of sleeping in discomfort on the cold, wet ground, we enjoyed the hospitality of a comfortable house, the property of Mr. James Anthony.

Paper, Paint and Carpeting

quoteIt was a bachelor establishment, but, strange to say, was scrupulously clean and well conducted. unquote

This hotel, at the crossing of Bear River was, for the times, something remarkable. There for the first time in California I saw papered and painted walls. The floors were covered with China matting, and the beds rejoiced in sheets and pillow-cases. The carpeting was a real luxury, and I remember thinking if I could get a house carpeted with that beautiful covering I should scarcely care for anything else, for relief from the drudgery of scrubbing floors seemed the one thing worth living for. It was a bachelor establishment, but, strange to say, was scrupulously clean and well conducted. Had he known it, the genial proprietor might have resented my husband's speech to me, “Don't you think you had better go out and see if supper is all right?”

As we came down from the mountains we found the country stirred up with “squatter” troubles, rumors of which had reached us in Nevada. As we neared Sacramento we found ourselves almost in the midst of them. The trouble originated through the conflicting claims of the buyers and settlers. Almost all the land, from some distance below Sacramento far up into the Shasta region, was claimed by Sutter under a Spanish grant; and the towns of Sacramento, Brighton, Marysville, Coloma, and others, and the lands surrounding them, were sold by Sutter, or his representatives, under the grant title.

Numbers of the newcomers resented this claim and pre-empted land under the United States laws. Naturally there arose between the rival claimants a war which was often a bloody one. the first serious outbreak to occur was “the squatter riot of '51”. I believe the first real trouble took place near Sacramento, in the endeavor of the people on the grant side of the faction to dispossess the Madden brothers, Jerome and Thomas. The settlers gathered in a body, reinstated them, and paraded through the streets of Sacramento. The city turned out in force, headed by the sheriff, mayor and other officials in opposition, and a fight took place in which Bigelow, the mayor, Woodland, the assessor, and Maloney, the captain of the settlers were killed and several on both sides wounded.

Who Shot the Sheriff?

There were many episodes at that time that would be more thrilling than romance. One of the most talked of incidents was the killing of Sheriff McKenna at the house of William Allan, near Brighton. Allan, who was supposed to be in league with the squatters, had been heard to make sympathizing remarks to and about them, and by his course had incurred the wrath of the officials. A posse, headed by the sheriff returning from the funeral of the murdered mayor and assessor, rode out to arrest the suspected man. They knocked at the door, and were told that Mrs. Allan was very sick, perhaps dying, and were requested to retire.

quote…they saw dead upon the bed the poor mother, her features drawn and distorted … unquote

Allan promised to come to Sacramento and give himself up in the morning. But during the discussion some one fired a pistol, whether intentionally or not was never known; and the guard, thinking someone was resisting the sheriff, broke open the doors and fired upon the occupants of the room, killing Allan's son and wounding the old man himself in two places. A shot, inflicted by McKenna, wounded him in the right arm as he stood with revolver drawn. The weapon fell, but the determined old man grasped it with his left hand and fired the shot which killed the officer. When their leader fell, the posse withdrew to a distance, but, ascertaining his fate, returned in hot haste to the house. I was told by an eye-witness that, as they looked through the open door, they saw dead upon the bed the poor mother, her features drawn and distorted by the fright which had hastened her approaching end. Bending over her, apparently broken-hearted, was the daughter, with pale face and horror-stricken eyes, and dead at her feet, in a pool of blood lay the son. The sight of so much misery seemed to touch no tender cord in the bosoms of the enraged men and they searched with intent eyes and strained ears for a sound which might tell of their victim's hiding-place; but he baffled pursuit. They rode up and down the river for several miles, searched out-houses, and beat the bushes but failed to find him. It was not until years after that I heard the almost miraculous story of his preservation. He crept to the river, and hung to the willows in the water, with his face raised only to admit his breathing, while the pursuers passed and repassed at the distance of a few feet. At last when silence told of their withdrawal, he swam the river and sought shelter in a neighboring barn. It was not till five days after that he crept unobserved into Coloma, and obtained medical attendance for his wounds, which the hot weather had aggravated into a death-like torture. His friends came to his assistance and he was safely hidden from pursuit and helped out of the State, and it was many years before he dared openly to show himself in California. His life, however, ended peacefully a few years ago in the calm and seclusion of Lake County.