They Saw the Elephant: Women in the California Gold Rush

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"The phrase ’seeing the elephant’ symbolized for ’49 gold rushers the exotic, the mythical, the once-in-a-lifetime adventure, unequaled anywhere else but in the journey to the promised land of fortune: California. Most western myths . . . generally depict an exclusively male gold rush. Levy’s book debunks that myth. Here a variety of women travel, work, and write their way across the pages of western migrant history."-Choice

"One of the best and most comprehensive accounts of gold rush life to date"ˆ–San Francisco Chronicle

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“The phrase ‘seeing the elephant’ symbolized for ’49 gold rushers the exotic, the mythical, the once-in-a-lifetime adventure, unequaled anywhere else but in the journey to the promised land of fortune: California. Most western myths . . . generally depict an exclusively male gold rush. Levy’s book debunks that myth. Here a variety of women travel, work, and write their way across the pages of western migrant history.”—Choice

“In a lively, truly delightful style, JoAnn Levy traces the neglected history of women’s experiences in the California gold rush. This is no familiar retelling of the usual gold rush narrative, but a totally new story with women responding vigorously and positively to crisis both on the trail and in California. Ms. Levy’s fine narrative is enhanced by revealing quotations from so many little-known women diarists and from guide books that it serves as a source and reference book as well. For those interested in women’s history and in western history, this volume is a must.”—Howard F. Lamar, editor of ?The New Encyclopedia of the American West

They Saw the Elephant is beautiful, brilliant, funny and brave. It’s hard to read this book without laughing out loud—or choking back tears.”—Carolyn See, author of Golden Days

“One of the best and most comprehensive accounts of gold rush life to date.”—San Francisco Chronicle

Levy explains the meaning of the expression "seeing the elephant" during the California gold rush and then tells about the experiences of women, interspersing her text with excerpts from diaries and journals and concluding with brief biographies of 17 women participants. Many of the women shared the same eagerness for adventure as the men (in contrast to the conventional image of the long-suffering martyr accompanying her husband). Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780806124735
  • Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
  • Publication date: 9/28/2014
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 981,842
  • Product dimensions: 8.92 (w) x 10.92 (h) x 0.74 (d)

Meet the Author

JoAnn Levy is a free-lance writer born and raised in California. She lives in Los Angeles, but is most at home in a mountainside cabin near the Old Okum mine in the Sierra Nevada Mother Lode.

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Read an Excerpt

They Saw The Elephant

Women in the California Gold Rush

By Joann Levy


Copyright © 1992 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-2473-5



The country was so level that we could see the long trains of white-topped wagons for many miles ... it appeared to me that none of the population had been left behind.... And, when we drew nearer to the vast multitude, and saw them in all manner of vehicles and conveyances, on horseback and on foot, all eagerly driving and hurrying forward, I thought, in my excitement, that if one-tenth of these teams and these people got ahead of us, there would be nothing left for us in California worth picking up.

—MARGARET A. FRINK, Nebraska Territory, May 20, 1850

In 1849 some 25,000 people crossed half a continent to look for gold. They required wagons, horses, mules, oxen, camping supplies, foodstuffs, clothing. Merchants in "jumping-off" towns along the Missouri River did a land-office business in everything from harness to bacon. If you sold mules or blankets or kettles in St. Joseph or Independence that year, you did business you never dreamed of. And you did well, too, if you sold books—guidebooks to the trail.

A bestseller in 1849 was Joseph Ware's The Emigrants' Guide to California, assuring "every point of information for the emigrant—including routes, distances, water, grass, timber, crossing of rivers, passes, altitudes, with a large map of routes, and profile of country ... with full directions for testing and assaying gold and other ores."

Among prospective buyers of that list of promises in 1849 was lawyer Craven Hester, fifty-two, heading west with his wife Martha, two sons, and daughter Sallie. Newlywed Catherine Haun and her lawyer husband may have bought a copy for the journey they envisioned as "a romantic wedding tour." So might Luzena and Mason Wilson or Sarah and Josiah Royce.

In 1850 nearly twice as many overlanders headed west as the year before. The guidebook business boomed, with Franklin Street and Fayette Robinson, among others, offering competing titles. Honey-mooners Lucena and George Parsons probably bought one or more; Sarah and Zeno Davis, too, as well as Margaret and Ledyard Frink.

In 1851 emigration dropped to a fraction of the two previous years. None of the guidebooks had prepared travelers for the hardships they wrote home about, discouraging would-be overlanders. Nonetheless, in 1852 another fifty thousand headed west, including the sizable Cooke family, Lodisa Frizzell, Mary Bailey, Angeline Ashley, the Medleys, Eliza McAuley, and Mariett Cummings.

By 1853, although most of the surface gold had been picked up already, families still headed west, many to join members emigrating earlier. Harriet Ward, a grandmother, went west with a husband and daughter to join a gold-rushing son. The Hite and McDaniel families went, too.

Nearly everyone outfitted at the river towns, as the guidebooks advised.

We will leave you to choose your own starting-point, simply stating that Westport, Independence and St. Joseph have facilities peculiar in themselves, for the outfitting of the Emigrant—every requisite for comfort or luxury on the road, can be obtained at either of those places, on nearly as low terms as at St. Louis.


It took us four days to organize our company of 70 wagons and 120 persons; bring our wagons and animals to the highest possible standard of preparedness; wash our clothes, soak several days' supply of food—and say good bye to civilization at Council Bluffs. Owing to the cheapness of eggs and chickens we reveled in their luxuries, carrying a big supply, ready cooked with us.

Catherine Haun, 1849

We got into St. Joseph at 10 o'clock this morning. The whole country around the town is filled with encampments of California emigrants.... They have gathered here from the far east and south, to fit out and make final preparations for launching out on the great plains, on the other side of the Missouri River.

Every house of entertainment in the city is crowded to its full capacity. This has been a backward spring season, and thousands are patiently waiting for the grass to grow, as that will be the only feed for their stock, after crossing to the west side and getting into the Indian country.

Margaret Frink, 1850

Father & mother went into St. Joseph's bought another tent, heavy canvas for the boys and men to sleep in, using the other tent for an eating place. They also bought a small sheet iron stove, cut a hole in the tent for the pipe, then when it was raining, we could warm up a pot of beans, make a kettle of soup or a pot of coffee, sometimes a pot of mush.

Mary Hite, age 13-1/2, 1853

In the evening William got the tent ready for us to occupy, so I took up my abode there.... Pa bought it for $10. It is a government tent, second hand, but very strong.... This Kanesville is a poor little mean place. I don't think there's a brick house in it.... We move out tomorrow (May 6th) and drive to the bottom about ten miles off, where there is a ferry across the river (Missouri).

Lucy Cooke, 1852

You now are in the Pawnee country. Watchfulness is required to prevent their stealing your stock.


I think none of us have realized until now the perils of this undertaking. During the past week not much has been discussed but the Indians and their doings. Printed circulars have been distributed informing the emigrants of many Indian depredations. Now I begin to think that three men, one woman, and one eleven-year old boy, only armed with one gun and one Colt's revolver, are but a small force to defend themselves against many hostile Indian tribes, along a journey of two thousand miles.

Margaret Frink, 1850

I had read and heard whole volumes of their bloody deeds, the massacre of harmless white men, torturing helpless women, carrying away captive innocent babes. I felt my children the most precious in the wide world, and I lived in an agony of dread that first night. The Indians were friendly, of course ... but I, in the most tragi-comic manner, sheltered my babies with my own body, and felt imaginary arrows pierce my flesh a hundred times during the night.

Luzena Wilson, 1849

... saw our first Indian. We children stayed closer to camp that night, but Father said the Indians were civilized. The Indians were nude save for a throw over one shoulder, & a strap around the loins. The leaders of the tribe would wear a band of feathers around his head—when a young Indian would kill his first bird, it would be tied to his hair and he would wear it for a few days.

Mary Hite, 1853

the strangeness of the scene & the wildness of the place, made me conjure up in my mind all the indian massacres of which I had ever read or heard, but ... my fears were dispelled with the darkness. Seated outside the tent I was amused watching the indians shoot with their bows & arrows for 5 or 10 cts that some men would put up for the purpose of seeing them shoot, or looking at them ride on their ponies in a manner that none but indians can; it is a novel sight to see them....

Lodisa Frizzell, 1852

You would be surprised to see me writing so quietly in the wagon alone ... with a great, wild looking Indian leaning on his elbow on the wagon beside me, but I have not a single fear except that they may frighten the horses.

Harriet Ward, 1853

Monday, June 3. In the afternoon we passed an Indian encampment numbering seventy tents. They belonged to the Sioux tribe, but were quite friendly. The squaws were much pleased to see the "white squaw" in our party, as they called me. I had brought a supply of needles and thread, some of which I gave them. We also had some small mirrors in gilt frames, and a number of other trinkets, with which we could buy fish and fresh buffalo, deer, and antelope meat. But money they would not look at.

Margaret Frink, 1850

Indians came around us in numbers, and begged all the time. Ma gave one old fellow some molasses in a tin cup, he telling her by his signs that he had three papooses. Ma tried to make him understand to bring the cup back, but he failed to do so. Our camp was quite liberal in gifts to the Indians, wishing thereby to keep friendly with them.

Lucy Cooke, 1852

288 miles. FORT KEARNEY.—Good camping place, and good grazing for stock.... The Fort is situated near the head of Grand Island.


All pass through Fort Kearney. We left letter there. It is a military post & quite a stirring place the government built up. The residences of the officers are very fine, some small framed buildings, others built of sod or turf laid up like brick, with windows & doors.... We went into the register office & I looked over the names of those who had passed before us. Some 20,000 men, 6,000 women, besides cattle & horses, mules & sheep to almost any amount.

Mary Bailey, 1852

The trail across Nebraska Territory was one immense highway jammed with wagons, animals, and people. At Fort Kearny, passed by most emigrants jumping off from Missouri and Iowa, the commandant recorded their numbers, either keeping a subordinate on the road to tally the passing masses or requiring emigrants to report to a clerk their destination, place of origin, number of people and animals in their companies. By July 13, 1852, the Fort Kearny register had recorded 25,855 men, 7,021 women, 8,270 children, 8,483 horses, 5,853 mules, 90,340 cattle, and 2,166 wagons.

You have now been out more than a month, and experienced all the perils and hardships of life on the Plains.


I think what is often termed suffering is merely a little inconvenience, for I had so often read and heard of the difficulties and dangers of the overland route to California, and I find from experience that the pleasure thus far quite over-balances it all.

Harriet Ward, 1853

I do not get tired of the journey, on the contrary, I like it better every day.

Angeline Ashley, 1852

When we left St. Joe my mother had to be lifted in and out of our wagons; now she walks a mile or two without stopping, and gets in and out of the wagons as spry as a young girl.

Sallie Hester, 1849

Many are no doubt down with sickness, mostly bilious complaints; many with rheumatism, contracted by being in the water much of the time.


we camped on the north fork of the plat river and sarah was very sick their was one woman died in the camp of the colera and was buried the next morning when I went to Sarah she was no better and I soon saw she would die and she did die before noon

Sarah Davis, 1850

June 23 ... The boy that was sick died about noon.

June 24 ... Last evening there was 3 more died out of the same family.

June 25 ... This morning the mother of the 5 children that have died was taken sick and died at evening.

June 28 ... We have some very sick in camp to day....

June 30 ... Mrs. Crandalls daughter died to day.

July 2 ... we stopt & buried a girl, daught of Capt. Coon.

Lucena Parsons, 1850

While we were traveling along the Platte River ... cholera broke out among the emigrants. Mother was among the first victims. On June 24 at 2 o'clock in the afternoon mother died.... I remember every detail of her death and burial.

Mary Medley Ackley, 1852

We again met with the sick woman.... She said her husband had just died of cholera.... About an hour after a man rode past us and informed us that she was almost dead then, and that the men in whose company she was were stopping to dig her grave, before she was dead! There's humanity on the Plains!

Lucy Cooke, 1852

saw a fresh made grave, a feather bed lying upon it, we afterwards learned that a man & his wife had both died a few days before, & were burried together here, they left 2 small children, which were sent back to St. Joseph by an indian chief.

... it must be expected that from such a number, some would die; but it is very sad to part with them here....

Lodisa Frizzell, 1852

Estimates for trail mortality during the early emigration years range as high as 6 percent, with cholera the paramount killer. The disease, of course, was not exclusive to overlanders. In 1849 cholera raged throughout the States, killing four thousand in St. Louis alone, and President Zachary Taylor declared a day of prayer against the "fearful pestilence."

The trail lies up the south fork of the Platte.... There is no fixed crossing place; it changes frequently during the season; cross where you can.


Have again struck the Platte and followed it until we came to the ferry. Here we had a great deal of trouble swimming our cattle across, taking our wagons to pieces, unloading and replacing our traps. A number of accidents happened here. A lady and four children were drowned through the carelessness of those in charge of the ferry.

Sallie Hester, 1849

... you find a steep hill to ascend and descend; the road is rough, rocky and crooked—half way over, there is a sudden turn in the road that is dangerous, if great care is not used.


In coming down a steep hill a woman attempted to jump from the wagon with the child in her arms. Her dress caught in the wheel and she was drawn under and crushed to death.

Eliza McAuley, 1852

a boy of Lovells ... fell from the waggon & broke his leg & died soon after. This is the second child that has broke a leg and died soon after....

a little boy of Captain Maughns, 3 years of age, fell from the wagon. The 2 wheels run over his stomach & he died in about an hour.

Lucena Parsons, 1850

524 miles CHIMNEY ROCK.—From here there are two roads to Scott's Bluffs....


Came opposite Chimney Rock... It has been seen 30 miles off on a clear day. Three of us went up to it. I was struck with amazement at the grandeur of the scene.

Lucena Parsons, 1850

The road we took led us close to the base of Chimney Rock, where we stopped for some time to satisfy our curiosity. The base is shaped like a large cone, from the top of which rises a tall tower or chimney, resembling the chimney of a manufacturing establishment.... It is composed of marl and soft sandstone, which is easily worn away. Mr. Frink carved our names upon the chimney, where are hundreds of others.

Margaret Frink, 1850

554 miles SCOTT'S BLUFFS.—This is one of the most delightful places that nature ever formed.


Passed Bluff Ruins, most beautiful, too. I made a rough draft then I was so charmed that I could not gaze enough. Made our noon halt opposite Scott's Bluff, altogether the most symmetrical in form and the most stupendous in size of any we have yet seen. One of them is close in its resemblance to the dome of the Capitol at Washington.

Mariett Cummings, 1852

604 miles FORT LARAMIE.—This place is situated in the valley of the Laramie river, on the north side, and about a mile and half above its junction with Platte river.


At four o'clock we arrived at the place we have so long been anxious to reach,—Fort Laramie. This outpost formerly belonged to the American Fur Company, who built it as a protection against the savages, then very numerous and hostile. After the United States Government bought it, they sent regular troops to protect the emigration.

The fort is one hundred and eighty feet square, having adobe walls fifteen feet high, on the inside of which are rooms built against the walls all around, of the same material. The parade-ground in the center is one hundred and thirty feet square. On top of the wall are wooden palisades. Over the front gateway is a square tower with loopholes for rifles.

As it is not our intention to go by Salt Lake, this is the last human habitation we shall see until we reach Fort Hall, five hundred and thirty miles further on.

Margaret Frink, 1850

This morn went to the Fort to get some blacksmithing done but could not they have so much work. This is a very pretty place to look at, it is so clean.... There are 250 soldiers & some 12 families. They have a saw mill, one publick house, one store. They hold goods high & work is also high. They offer for carpenter work 60 a month & find them, & a woman to cook 20 a month. Flour is 18 per hundred & whiskey 8 per gallon in the emigrants store. They are now building severall fine frame buildings. They say there have 75 thousand pass here this season & some days there were 1500 here.

Lucena Parsons, 1850


Excerpted from They Saw The Elephant by Joann Levy. Copyright © 1992 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
1. Over the Plains,
2. Across the Sea,
3. Home Sweet Home,
4. Ashes to Ashes,
5. Working Women,
6. Free to Be,
7. All the World's a Stage,
8. Improper Society,
9. Love and Marriage,
10. Weaving the Social Fabric,

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