Luzena Stanley Wilson
“The rags and tatters of my first days in California are well nigh forgotten in the ease and plenty of the present. The years have been full of hardships, but they have brought me many friends.”1
When gold rush fever came to the prairies of Missouri in 1849, Mason Wilson caught the bug. He couldn’t leave quickly enough, and he told his wife that he would get to California, make a fortune, then send for her and their children. But Luzena wouldn’t hear of such a proposal. She later recalled, “I would not be left behind. I thought where he could go I could, and where I went I could take my two little toddling babies. . . . I little realized then the task I had undertaken. If I had, I think I should still be in my log cabin in Missouri.”2
Luzena Stanley Wilson, nee Hunt was a California Gold Rush entrepreneur. Wilson came overland to California from Missouri with her husband and two small children in 1849. Wikipedia
The couple spent a handful of days preparing a wagon with bedding, clothing, and food supplies before setting off on the two-thousand-mile journey to California without bothering to sell their land. Based on reports and rumors, the thought of encountering Native Americans terrified Luzena; but in spite of the accounts, her initial meeting with Native Americans proved uneventful. Still nervous, however, Luzena begged to join the first group of settlers they encountered, thinking their company would offer additional protection. The all-male Independence Company refused the Wilsons’ companionship, saying they didn’t want to be burdened with a woman and children on their way to California. Luzena wrote, “My anger at their insulting answer roused my courage, and my last fear of Indians died a sudden death.”3 The fast-moving company soon disappeared in the distance, but they left behind a woman even more determined to succeed.
Like most pioneers, Luzena found the journey to be more difficult than anticipated. Recounting the journey years later to her daughter, she wrote, “Nothing but actual experience will give one an idea of the plodding, unvarying monotony, the vexations, the exhaustive energy, the throbs of hope, the depths of despair, through which we lived.”4 The travelers soon tired of unvarying and scanty food, frequently broken wagons, and dangerous river crossings. Luzena recalled hastily dug graves and men who abandoned their wagons to return home.
The Wilsons discarded pots and pans and other superfluous items early in the journey, but, faced with the difficulty of mountain passages, Mason insisted they needed to remove more. Looking over their supplies, Luzena declared the only items they could do without were three slabs of bacon and a dirty calico apron, which they laid by the roadside. While her husband repaired the wagon, Luzena washed the apron and rendered the fat out of the bacon, sliced it, and reloaded the items without telling Mason. The next day he remarked several times that the oxen were doing much better and it was a very good thing they had left the “discarded” items behind.
During one of the most difficult sections of the trail, the Wilsons came upon the same group that initially refused their company. Many of the group had died; others had returned to Missouri. The few that remained were dying of hunger. Luzena didn’t hold a grudge against the men and brought the sufferers food and water. She certainly didn’t need to say “I told you so,” since the grateful men fell on their knees and begged her forgiveness for refusing her presence. The California Trail proved a surmountable challenge for any person, male or female. That Luzena survived it with a baby and small toddler demonstrates the extent of this woman’s strength and tenacity.
Arriving in Sacramento, Luzena found a “city” comprised of three or four wooden buildings and hundreds of canvas tents and campfires. The Wilsons sold their oxen and used the proceeds to buy two rooms which they operated as a hotel. The inhabitants marveled at Luzena “as at a strange creature” and passed around her babies as a novelty.6 In the first six months they spent in Sacramento, Luzena recalled seeing only two other women. In a town filled with a lot of homesick men, the arrival of mail by stagecoach provided the highlight of each day. Food items and imported goods sold for outrageous prices, and coins were scarce, so gold dust served as currency—one pinch equaled a dollar. More immigrants poured daily into the city, arriving by both wagon and ship.
Luzena’s main memory of the following years was one of endless work. “We did things that our high-toned servants would now look at aghast, and say it was impossible for a woman to do. . . . It was a hand to hand fight with starvation at the first.” Whatever needed to be done, Luzena found a way to do it.
After a few months, the Wilsons sold their interest in the hotel and invested the profits in barley. The couple had a thousand dollars of the grain waiting to go to market when it started to rain. Unfortunately, the rain didn’t stop. For days, the downpour continued until the streets ran with water. One afternoon, the town crier galloped through town with the disastrous news: “the levee’s broke!”7 and all available men rushed to raise sandbags.
Meanwhile, Luzena was at home cooking dinner with her children when small rivulets of water began trickling over the ground. Soon the water rushed across the floor of her house. She snatched up her children and placed them on the bed, then packed up clothes and valuables. After carrying her children to the hotel across the street, she returned to grab bedding and the dinner she had been cooking. By the time she reentered the house, water six inches high streamed across the floor, and when she made her way back to the hotel, water surged around her knees, nearly knocking her over with its force. Others joined Luzena in the hotel, where they watched the water continue to rise as boat owners navigated the flood, rescuing the stranded and sodden.
The deluge forced evacuees to higher and higher floors of the hotel, until at last they huddled on the top floor, terrified the entire building would be swept away. Trapped with forty people in a large storeroom for seventeen days, hanging blankets provided the only two women with a scant measure of privacy. For food, they “caught the sacks of onions or boxes of anything which went floating by” or took a rowboat out to look for provisions.8 To pass the time, the captives told stories, sang, and played cards. For the rest of Luzena’s life, she could not hear the sound of relentless rain without “creeping over me the dread of the rising waters.”9
Among the earliest gold rushers, Luzena encountered few other women along the trail, a fact that brought her a certain amount of notoriety and respect. She realized how powerful this notoriety could be as they made camp for the last night, and she prepared a simple supper over the campfire. When she pulled a pan of biscuits from the heat, a hungry miner approached and said, “I’ll give you five dollars, ma’am, for them biscuit.”5 The amount sounded like a fortune to Luzena, and she looked at him in surprise. Seeing her hesitation, he quickly countered that he would “give ten dollars for bread made by a woman” and laid a piece of gold in her hand. Marveling at the good fortune (ten dollars then would be more than three hundred dollars in today’s currency), she handed over the biscuits and started making another pan for her family. In that moment Luzena discovered that there was more than one way to strike gold in the mining towns of the West.
When the waters finally subsided, settlers emerged from the hotel to an unrecognizable town covered with decaying animal carcasses, slime, and sediment. Remarkably, the Wilsons found their rusty stove and tent canvas, which they used to build a shelter. The barley harvest had been washed away, and the family was once again penniless. Afraid the floodwaters might return, the Wilsons decided to start over in Nevada City, where gold had recently been discovered. The only problem was they lacked a way to get there.
Ever-resourceful, Luzena managed to find a teamster willing to take her family, stove, and two sacks of flour to Nevada City for seven hundred dollars. Though she had no money, she promised to pay the driver back and “go security for the money,”10 so they started on the difficult journey of sixty miles that lasted twelve long days due to horrific road conditions. They arrived in Nevada City completely covered in mud, and Luzena recalled that she had to scrub the children until her arms ached before returning “the children back to their natural hue.”11
Lacking a tent, Mason built a hasty construction out of branches and left to find sturdier building materials. While he was gone, Luzena considered what she might do to help improve the family finances. Noticing a canvas tent with a sign that said: “Wamac’s Hotel—Meals $1.00” across the way, she decided to start a competing business. She chopped stakes and drove them into the ground, then used some of the family’s remaining funds to buy a few boards of lumber, which she set across the stakes for a table. Finally, she bought provisions and set about cooking a meal. “When my husband came back at night he found, mid the weird light of the pine torches, twenty miners eating at my table. Each man as he rose put a dollar in my hand and said I might count him as a permanent customer.”12 In six weeks, Luzena paid back the seven hundred dollars she had promised.
Luzena called her hotel El Dorado; soon the couple built a frame home and added on to it several times as business expanded. At the height of the hotel’s popularity, Luzena hosted 75 to 200 boarders a week, and she soon hired a cook and waiters to assist. Operating a bustling hotel on the frontier was never dull. One night, while sitting snuggly by the kitchen fire, Luzena heard the sound of knocking from all sides of the frame house. Picking up a candle, she discovered angry faces pressed up against each of the windows, while voices shouted, “Burn the house!”13 Terrified, she cracked open the door to find an angry mob congregating on her property. The sheriff explained that a murder had been committed by one of Luzena’s boarders at a gambling hall; now the dead man’s friends wanted revenge. Shaking with fear, Luzena let the men search her house, though the search proved fruitless. The next day, Luzena learned that the murderer had been in the crowd all along, disguised as a member of the mob.
Rough-and-tumble Nevada City sprang up overnight as highly productive mines poured money into the town. The Wilsons soon added a profitable store to their real estate holdings. Even the digging of a well frequently brought about a new discovery of gold. The town lacked a bank, however, so many of Luzena’s boarders trusted her with their gold diggings. She stored them in her oven and underneath her bed in bags and pans, at times going to sleep with two hundred thousand dollars hidden in the home. In her kitchen she hung a purse of silver coins earned from sewing. One day the purse went missing; after a search, she found her youngest son in the street, busy building houses with coins in the dirt. Passersby smiled at the boy, but no one in the gold-rich town had touched the money.
On a night that began like any other, the Wilsons heard one of the most terrifying sounds ever heard in a frontier settlement. The clanging of bells and shouts of “Fire!” drove the Wilsons from their bed. The couple grabbed their clothes, children, a small amount of money, and fled for their lives. They joined the rest of the town’s inhabitants in the streets to watch as the blaze spread from one wooden building to the next. Luzena described the moment: “We stood with bated breath, and watched the fiery monster crush in his great red jaws the homes we had toiled to build.”14 By dawn, the town lay in smoldering ruins. Eight thousand people became homeless, the Wilsons among them. Out of the tens of thousands of dollars they possessed when they went to sleep for the night, only five hundred remained by morning. Fortunately, a generous man allowed them to stay in his nearby cabin temporarily. In this borrowed bed, Luzena tossed and turned, ravaged with fever and discouragement.
She eventually rallied, as she always did, however, and once she was better, the Wilsons decided to return to Sacramento. Though they stayed only a few months, they found the town dramatically rebuilt since the flood. Buildings made from brick and stone had replaced the canvas tents, and sidewalks lined the streets. They set up house for a short time in a deserted hotel infested with rats, a problem that extended throughout the city. Even dogs and cats could do little to stop the growing pest population, and Luzena said, “[The rats] snapped at our heels as we passed. They bit at each other, and gnawed the legs of chairs where we sat. At night I put the bedding upon the tables, lest in our sleep the fierce creatures would be tempted to make their raids upon our bodies.”15
After a few months of city life, the Wilsons found themselves longing for the beauty and solace of the country. They journeyed into the foothills, passing antelope and elk along the ridges. Coming upon a lovely valley named Vaca after its Spanish owner, the hills and wildflowers entreated them to stay, so they set up tent under the wide and reaching branches of a great old oak tree. Mason found work cutting hay, and once more, Luzena set up her stove. Making a table from the bed of the wagon, she printed “Wilson’s Hotel” on a board with a piece of charcoal, and found herself in business.
For the whole summer, the family slept out of doors under the canvas wagon cover. Luzena said, “A row of nails driven close in the tree trunk held my array of culinary utensils and the polished tin cups which daily graced my table.”16 She loved the simplicity of their life and the ease of keeping house when there were no carpets or windows to be scrubbed. In the fall, the Wilsons constructed a frame house, though Luzena said at first it was difficult for her to sleep in the home as she had become so accustomed to sleeping in the open night air.
Spanish colonists and ranchers comprised most of the family’s neighbors, and the Spanish adobe colony of Laguna Valley thrived nearby. They had been in the valley two months when Señor Vaca rode over to invite the family, with the help of an interpreter, to a ball at his house. In her diary, Luzena remarked on the “Mexican character of slothfulness,” but admitted she knew very little of their customs. After she attended the ball at Señor Vaca’s home, she wrote of the dazzling beauty of the adobe house lit by candles, and further commented on the guitar and tambourine music played for dancers who “fluttered their silken vari-colored scarfs, and bent their lithe bodies in graceful dances which charmed my cotillion and quadrille-accustomed eyes.”17 The brilliant colors of silk petticoats, and the men’s velvet jackets decorated with gold braid also drew her praise. The food, served at midnight, included “savory Spanish stews, hot with chilies, great piles of tortillas, and gallons of only tolerable whisky.”18
Luzena’s nearest English-speaking neighbors were twelve miles away. After six months in the valley, she saddled her horse, packed a lunch, tied her boys behind her “with a stout rope,”19 and set off for a visit. Lacking the benefit of a road, she headed in the general direction of the neighbor’s house, which lay on the other side of herds of Spanish cattle. Luzena said the cattle, with their sharp, pointed horns, were “dangerous to encounter, even mounted, and to any one on foot they were certain death.”20 In the midst of this intimidating herd, a gust of wind blew the hat from her young son’s head. Not wanting to lose the hat, but aware that she could not dismount without risking a stampede, Luzena knotted handkerchiefs together as a stirrup for her son to use as he quickly climbed down, snatched the hat, and returned to safety. The Wilsons paid their visit, and Luzena became good friends with the Wolfskills.
More neighbors arrived soon enough, however, bringing land disputes with them. The rudimentary practices used to initially determine property boundaries only compounded the problem. Spanish claims frequently disagreed with United States boundaries, and corrupt officials profited from the errors. Though the Wilsons’ property lines were initially ruled to be valid, the decision was later reversed by a different commissioner. Meanwhile, a band of squatters took advantage of the Wilsons’ brief absence to take up residence on part of the property, throwing up a hasty cabin in support of their claim.
When Mason returned, he set out in a fury to force the squatters from the property, but Luzena, afraid for his life, insisted he bring a witness in case the squatters turned violent. Fortunately, Mason found the men sleeping, their guns loaded and waiting. Mason and his friend took control of the weapons and forced the sleepy intruders from their beds. While his companion turned a gun on the angry men, Mason made quick work of destroying the cabin and lectured them to never again attempt the unlawful seizure of someone else’s land. Though the squatters swore revenge, they disappeared without further complaint. However, the legal disputation over the property boundaries stretched into years and was such a frequent topic of conversation among their parents that the children would often “play at being ‘squatters.’”21
As time passed, Luzena helped start a school for the neighborhood children and also gave birth to a daughter. When a physician paid his hotel bill with a medicine chest, she became a “general practitioner and apothecary for the neighborhood.” Friends and acquaintances sought out her medical advice and counsel. She recalled, “I dealt out blue-mass, calomel, and quinine to patients from far and near; inspected tongues and felt pulses, until I grew so familiar with the business that I almost fancied myself a genuine doctor. I don’t think I ever killed anybody.”22
In front of the Wilsons’ eyes, the frontier of Vaca Valley became Vacaville, a thriving agricultural center with flourishing vineyards. It must have been difficult for Luzena when, in 1872, Mason abruptly abandoned his family and departed for Texas. The reasons for his departure were never entirely clear, but some reports indicate he struggled with mental illness.23 Luzena remained in Vacaville for five more years, but after another fire destroyed much of her property, she moved to San Francisco, supported by the profits of her real estate holdings.24 When she took up residence in a hotel, she enjoyed being a guest rather than a host. Luzena’s adult children lived busy and successful lives, inspired by their mother. Her oldest son graduated from Harvard Law School and daughter Correnah served on the board of Mills College.
In 1881, her beloved Correnah became quite ill. As Luzena cared for her sick daughter, she recounted the stories of their early days in California to pass the hours. In spite of her condition, Correnah wrote the stories down word for word as her mother recounted them,25 and the women later published the resulting manuscript. Luzena concludes her memoir with these words: “The rags and tatters of my first days in California are well-nigh forgotten in the ease and plenty of the present. The years have been full of hardships, but they have brought me many friends.”26
In many ways, Luzena’s life represents the quintessential pioneer experience. She lived her life on geographical and metaphorical borders and edges, without any of the modern safety nets of insurance and fire departments. Her story illustrates the pros and cons of tossing these social structures into the road. On the one hand, the lack of structure left her free from considerations of business licenses and food handling permits. Improving her financial situation involved nothing more than sticking a sign on her wagon, producing good food, and turning a profit—overnight success didn’t leave her owing large amounts of federal taxes, either. On the other hand, she could, and did, lose everything just as swiftly but as natural disasters devastated her homes time and time again, she didn’t call for the government to declare a state of emergency. She didn’t wait for a nonexistent insurance company to cut her a check. She started again with whatever she had—an iron kettle and a scrap of wood if that was all that remained.
Her stubbornness and grit is an impressive legacy. The fact that her children achieved education and success indicates that her tenacity became a family endowment. Scrappy Luzena did whatever needed to be done. If someone needed a teacher, she learned to teach; if they needed a doctor, she studied medicine. Although something is certainly gained in a world where people obtain credentials and certifications, something may be lost as well. Her inclination to learn what needed to be learned, figure out what needed figuring, and trust herself to gain the necessary skills and information to survive marks her as a true pioneer in every sense of the word. She refused to admit failure and doggedly endured in spite of relentless challenge. Luzena’s life reminds me that I should probably complain about the trivial annoyances of my daily life less than I am apt to do—and I definitely should never let them stand in the way of building the life I want out of whatever materials happen to be at hand. (Pg. 1023-1190)