California at Last

Luzena Wilson finally made it to the crowded tent city around Sacramento. There she encountered men who were lonesome for the comforts of home.

It was almost dusk of the last day of September, 1849, that we reached the end of our journey in Sacramento. My poor tired babies were asleep on the mattress in the bottom of the wagon, and I peered out into the gathering gloom, trying to catch a glimpse of our destination.

The night before I had cooked my supper on the camp fire, as usual, when a hungry miner, attracted by the unusual sight of a woman, said to me, “I’ll give you five dollars, ma’am, for them biscuit.” It sounded like a fortune to me, and I looked at him to see if he meant it. And as I hesitated at such a remarkable proposition, he repeated his offer to purchase, and said he would give ten dollars for bread made by a woman and laid the shining gold piece in my hand. I made some more biscuit for my family, told my husband of my good fortune, and put the precious coin away as a nest-egg for the wealth we were to gain.

It’s no wonder that Luzena was amazed when a miner offered her a $5 gold piece, “ma’am, for them biscuit.” According to Measuring Worth, $5 in 1849 was worth at least $157 dollars. A man might work a week for that much money. But everything in California was different than back in the States.

Luzena stowed that gold piece safely away, as she thought, in a little box in the wagon. But the day they entered Sacramento she discovered the box rolling empty on the wagon floor. Her nest-egg, the beginnings of their fortune, “lay hidden in the dust, miles back, up on the mountains.” She lad lost the first money she earned. Nevertheless, that coin was an intimation of the wealth to come from the employment of her womanly skills.

As the day faded they entered the tent city that was Sacramento.

All around us twinkled the camp fires of the new arrivals. A wilderness of canvas tents glimmered in the firelight; the men cooked and ate, played cards, drank whisky, slept rolled in their blankets, fed their teams, talked, and swore all around; and a few, less occupied than their comrades, stared at me as at a strange creature, and roused my sleeping babies, and passed them from arm to arm to have a look at such a novelty as a child.

Children were indeed a novelty in Gold Rush California, and young men who missed home and family and their younger siblings would go out of their way to see a young child.

We halted in an open space, and lighting our fire in their midst made us one with the inhabitants of Sacramento.

Luzena and Mason Wilson had arrived. What adventures awaited them in California?

Sherwood Crittenden c. 1949. Bancroft Library Photos of children in the Gold Rush are scarce.

About nancyleek

Nancy is a retired librarian who lives in Chico, California. She is the author of John Bidwell: The Adventurous Life of a California Pioneer.
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