It’s been a while since I wrote about Luzena Stanley Wilson and her memoir about life in Gold Rush California, but I have been meaning to get back to it. Her recollections are full of striking detail about everyday life, just the kind of thing I want to know about.
So here is another excerpt from her memoir (not long after they arrived in Sacramento in 1849):
Half the inhabitants kept stores; a few barrels of flour, a sack or two of yams, a keg of molasses, a barrel of salt pork, another of corned beef (like redwood in texture) some gulls’ eggs from the Farallones, a sack of onions, a few picks and shovels, and a barrel of whisky, served for a stock in trade, while a board laid across the head of a barrel answered for a counter. On many counters were scales, for coin was rare, and all debts were paid in gold dust at sixteen dollars per ounce. In the absence of scales a pinch of dust was accepted as a dollar, and you may well imagine the size of the pinch very often varied from the real standard.
Just imagine corned beef “like redwood in texture.” It would take some chewing!
Nothing sold for less than a dollar; it was the smallest fractional currency. A dollar each for onions, a dollar each for eggs, beef a dollar a pound, whisky a dollar a drink, flour fifty dollars a barrel.
This was when eggs in the States sold for 2 cents each and flour for about 10 cents a pound, with 196 pounds to a barrel. Think how valuable a flock of hens would be.
One morning an official of the town stopped at my fire, and said in his pompous way, “Madame, I want a good substantial breakfast, cooked by a woman.” I asked him what he would have, and he gave his order, “Two onions, two eggs, a beefsteak and a cup of coffee.” He ate it, thanked me, and gave me five dollars. The sum seems large now for such a meal, but then it was not much above cost, and if I had asked ten dollars he would have paid it.
Luzena saw that this was the way to earn a living, and she and her husband soon sold their oxen and bought a hotel — a small wooden building where she cooked from morning till night.
More about Luzena and her hotel to come.