Luzena’s First Day

Luzena Wilson got up on her first day in Sacramento and went right to work. There was no time to lose. There was money to be made feeding hungry miners.

There was no credit in ’49 for men, but I was a woman with two children, and I might have bought out the town with no security other than my word. My first purchase was a quart of molasses for a dollar, and a slice of salt pork as large as my hand, for the same price. That pork, by-the-by, was an experience. When it went into the pan it was as innocent looking pork as I ever saw, but no sooner did it touch the fire than it pranced, it sizzled, frothed over the pan, sputtered, crackled, and acted as if possessed. When finally it subsided, there was left a shaving the size of a dollar, and my pork had vanished into smoke.

Every second man in the city, it seemed, kept a store, and any of them were willing to give credit to a woman. All it took to set up shop was a barrel of flour, a barrel of salt pork, a sack of onions and what other few provisions were available. Whiskey was always a good seller.

Luzena was astounded at the prices. “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.” Coin was scarce, but a pinch of gold dust equaled a dollar, and an ounce was worth sixteen dollars.

She was critical of the quality of the provisions. Vegetables were scarce. The best to be had were “beans and dried fruits from Chile, and the yams and onions from the Sandwich Islands.” Beef was local; everything else came around the Horn: brown, rancid butter, sour flour full of long black worms, and corned beef “with the texture of redwood.”

She could provide an excellent meal to any man willing to pay.

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.

To give you an idea of prices in Sacramento, here is a receipt for purchases John Bidwell made in July 1849:

It reads:

Sacramento City July 25th, 1849

Mr. Jn Bidwell

                        Bot of Priest Lee & Co.

3 Cases Vinegar                      @$6                18.00

1 cask Brandy  24 ½ Gal.       @$4                98.00

5 cases Ale                              $15                  75.00


2 casks Brandy 24 ½ 23 ½ 48 gals  @$4       192.00

2 cases 4 doz. Pickles                          $18        72.00

½ doz. Lemon Syrup                          $24        12.00                                                


Rec’d Payment

                        Priest Lee & Co.

                                    pr A. Hadley

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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