A Lady Book Agent

If you were a respectable married woman in 1868 in San Francisco, and you needed to find work, what could you do?

Most women who had to work ran boardinghouses and cooked and cleaned for a living. Many women worked as seamstresses, dressmakers and milliners. Teaching school was another possibility, but unmarried women were preferred for that job.

Mrs. J. W. Likins found herself in just this quandary in the summer of 1868. She and her husband and daughter had come to California that spring, and soon Mr. Likins found work with the railroad as a baggage handler. Disaster struck when their hotel caught on fire (a common occurrence in young San Francisco) and they lost everything but their lives and Polly the parrot. Then Mr. Likins became ill, and soon they were in dire want.

AUGUST 11th, 1868.
Now begins the one great struggle of my life. I scarcely know where to turn or what to do. As I look around the room, I see nothing but want and poverty on every hand. Something must be done to get out of this place. Bidding my dear ones keep up courage, I start out. Never before did I know the meaning of the word poverty. Now I felt it in all its keenest pangs—everything looked dark and cloudy. I started for the Post-office. Not being able to pay car hire, I went on foot.

On my way I passed the book-store of H. H. Bancroft, then on the corner of Montgomery and Merchant streets. In the window I noticed a card, with the words “Agents Wanted” on it. Stepping into the store a gentlemen advanced to meet me. I asked him “Do you employ ladies agents?” “Yes”, he replied, “allow me to take you to the Subscription Department.”

And so began Mrs. Likins employment as a lady book agent. She was given an engraving of “Grant and His Family” and an order book, and told to go out and get orders for the print. Although she says that “It was a great trial for me to know just how to approach them,” she pressed on, talking to men on the street and in offices, and ladies in their homes.

grant &

This is probably the print that Mrs. Likins was selling

Taking them on my arm, order-book in my hand, I started up Montgomery street, calling on one and all, up stairs and down, in every room. Some looked at me curiously, others with pity, and some few with contempt, while I endeavored, in my embarrassment, and in an awkward way, to show the picture.

I admire the courage of Mrs. Likins. Selling anything is hard work, and she had never sold anything before in her life. But she pressed on, in spite of her fears and embarrassment, and became quite good at her job. And she was able to support her family.

I came across her account in a book called So Much to Be Done: Women Settlers on the Mining and Ranching Frontier (University of Nebraska Press, 1990). The excerpt in this book is taken from Six years experience as a book agent in California, including my trip from New York to San Francisco via Nicaragua, by Mrs. J.W. Likins, published in San Francisco in 1874. If you would like to read the complete book, you can download from the Library of Congress.

She never mentions her first name, but if the 1870 census is to be trusted, she was Amy Likins, married to James, with a daughter Lucy, and in 1868, when she began her book-selling career, she was 37 years old.

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More about Maggie Lafonso


Chico Record, Tuesday Morning, December 24, 1907

A couple of years ago I wrote about So-Wil-Len-No Avenue in Chico, which was named by Annie Bidwell in honor of her friend, Maggie LaFonso, whose Mechoopda name was So-Wil-Len-No.

Rian Farley sent me this clipping from the Chico Record, announcing Maggie’s marriage to Joseph Mitchell. This article tells the reader how well regarded Maggie was as “a leader in the social and religious life of the village.”

Maggie wanted Annie to marry them, but Annie told her she was not authorized to do that, and so they were married by the Presbyterian minister, the Rev. Willis G. White.

Sadly, two years after her marriage, Maggie Lafonso Mitchell died from complications resulting after childbirth. A son had been born on July 25, 1909, but the infant did not survive.



Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Mitchell

Maggie’s obituary appeared in the Chico Record on November 9, 1909.

Month NOVEMBER Issue Date NOVEMBER 09 1909 page 4


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On the Trail of Peter Lassen — 3

On to Greenville!

After leaving Susanville on Hwy. 36, we turned south on Hwy. 147 and drove along the east shore of Lake Almanor, then east on 89 to Greenville. In Greenville a left turn on Main St. (there’s a sign pointing the way) took us to North Valley Road, which circles the Indian Valley.

It’s a lovely place, as you can see.


About 5 miles out of town we came to a marker beside the road. This was the location of Peter Lassen’s trading post in the Indian Valley. He grew vegetables with his partner Isadore Meyerowitz in this valley to sell to hungry miners. Everything they grew sold for 15 cents a pound. His trading post was on the ridge behind, sheltered by trees.

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We were a little surprised to find some other people at this lonely monument. They had metal detectors and were climbing over the fence that was posted No Trespassing. Hmm, I wondered, who are these people?

They turned out to be entirely legit. One was the land owner, a rancher named (I think) Harry Rogers. He had invited a crew of archeologists to examine the spot and see what they could find.  And who should come walking up the road but Ken Johnston, the author of Legendary Truths: Peter Lassen & His Gold Rush Trail in Fact & Fable. What better person to meet when on the trail of Peter Lassen? And while we were standing there on the roadside gravel, he spotted a square nail on the ground. I picked it up and set it on top of the monument, along with a couple other nails he had spied.

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Talking to the rancher and Ken Johnston.

The perfect meeting on a perfect day for following the trail of Peter Lassen.

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On the Trail of Peter Lassen — 2

DSCF5803No visit to Susanville on the trail of Peter Lassen is complete without a visit to Lassen’s grave. He is buried in a small Masonic cemetery about 5 miles south of Susanville. The cemetery has a charming little turnstile gate next to a stone marking the site.  It’s a beautiful setting for a resting place, on the edge of the valley where sheep graze and the graves are shaded by tall Ponderosa pines.

When Lassen was murdered on April 26, 1859 in the Black Rock Desert, his friends went to investigate. They buried the bodies of Lassen and his partner Ed Clapper at the murder site. But this was deemed unbefitting so notable a pioneer, and in November 1859 his remains were brought back to the Honey Lake Valley.


Lassen was buried next to the mammoth Ponderosa pine that had been his shelter when he first came to the Honey Lake Valley. Over the years the tree died and was removed in 1961. Scientists studying the tree declared it to be some 600 years old, and probably the oldest and largest tree of its species in North America. The stump, nine feet in diameter, still sits next to the grave.


DSCF5795The grave marker is a handsome example of 19th century mortuary art, carved with Masonic symbols, such as an all-seeing eye and clasped hands, as well as crossed gun and arrow. The monument is fenced in and roofed to preserve it from weather and the the kind of vandals who like to carve their initials on anything handy.

The soft rock of the grave marker has weathered over the years, and a granite monument was erected in 1917. The inscription reads: In memory of PETER LASSEN the pioneer who was killed by Indians April 26, 1859 / Aged 66 years. The age is wrong — he was 58 when he was killed, and the attribution of his death to Indians is most likely incorrect as well.



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On the Trail of Peter Lassen

I am working on a picture book biography of Peter Lassen, the old Danish pioneer whose name is all over Northern California. I have written about his mysterious death previously on this blog.

Today I went to Susanville to find out more about Lassen. It was a beautiful day for a drive up into the mountains, where it was nice and cool compared to the Sacramento Valley.


Susanville has a fine historical museum, where all the artifacts are neatly arranged and well labeled. It is open Tuesdays through Friday 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., and Saturday 10-1.


There is a nice section on Peter Lassen and Isaac Roop, the founder of Susanville. The lovely young lady next to handsome Mr. Roop in the painting is his daughter Susan, for whom the town and the Susan River are named.


The display includes Lassen’s Danish Meerschaum pipe. It was fun to see that, a genuine item linked to Lassen. The docent at the museum was also kind enough to let me look through their files on Peter Lassen.


Behind the museum is Roop’s Fort, a log building that was once Isaac Roop’s trading post, but during the Sagebrush War of 1863 it became a stockade with the rather grandiose name of Fort Defiance. One of these days I will tell you more about the Sagebrush War.


After a visit to Lassen’s grave (more about that next time) we had lunch at the Pioneer Cafe and visited Margie’s Book Nook next door. I never could resist a bookstore, especially one with piles of used books.

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File this under “You learn something new everyday.”

Whenever I am looking for an article in an old newspaper (in the California Digital Newspaper Collection — a wonderful resource), my eye always strays to the advertisements. They are frequently entertaining and sometimes baffling.

puluThis ad announcing PULU! PULU! PULU! caught my eye because I had no idea what pulu is. Clearly from the rest of the ad — which gives you a good idea what people stuffed their mattresses with — it had something to do with bedding.

Wikipedia came to my aid.

Pulu is a silky material obtained from the fibers of the hapu’u pulu (Cibotium glaucum), a tree fern which grows in Hawaii. The Hawaiians used it for padding, dressing wounds, and wrapping the dead.

The ad appeared in the Sacramento Daily Union on 21 May 1863.

Wikipedia states:

For a period in the 19th century, pulu was collected, dried, and exported to California commercially as pillow and mattress stuffing.  A stone structure in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park known as the Old Pulu Factory was a site for drying and packing pulu. However, the discovery that pulu breaks down and crumbles into dust after only a few years led to the demise of the industry. Pulu was collected by cutting down the slow-growing ferns, an extremely unsustainable method. The industry shut down by the 1880s.

And now you know about PULU!

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A Grand Gala Day in Chico

Month JULY Issue Date JULY 05 1888 page 3It was a full day of celebration in Chico on July 4, 1888. As reported in the Chico Enterprise, Independence Day was packed with patriotic activities.

Yesterday morning Chico, the “City of Roses.” looked gay, and her citizens smiled in the most satisfactory manner as they gazed upon the beautiful, loyal, and patriotic decorations which were displayed in the most artistic manner from nearly every store and dwelling in the city.

The day began with a parade, featuring dignitaries, the Colusa and Chico Guards, the Native Sons of the Golden West, cars and floats “beautifully trimmed” featuring young ladies representing the different states of the Union, and much more.

The firemen and exempts with their gaily decorated engines and hose carriages were quite a feature in the procession, while the old veterans of Halleck Post G.A.R. [Grand Army of the Republic], were the admired of all admirers.

The parade was followed by a patriotic program of orations and music, and then a review of the troops.  A highlight of the afternoon was the “hose races” between the five fire engine companies, to see who could be the swiftest in unrolling their hoses and making their attachments on Broadway. Engine Co. No. 1 set a record time of 36 seconds and won a prize of $60.


The Barber Hose Team, winning team July 4, 1905

Next on the day’s agenda was the laying of the cornerstone at the Normal School building, presided over by Grand Master Hiram N. Rucker of the Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons of California. The newspaper report gave a full and lengthy list of the contents of the copper casket which was deposited in the cornerstone. I wonder what happened to the casket when the first Normal School building burned down?

This grand event was followed by the parade and performance of “horribles,” a “motley crowd of clowns, stump speakers, and brass band,” much to the amusement of all. The evening finished up with a ball, a “beautiful panorama of youth and beauty” in the Pavilion.

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