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  • Writer's pictureCheryl Anne Stapp

Civilizing Influences

In 1849, California’s Gold Rush population, statewide, was 92% male. As reported in the Eastern press, the state of affairs in that faraway region was tumultuous, and women were sorely needed, but the earliest organized attempt to bring a number of marriageable ladies to the land of promise was a bitter disappointment.

That first attempt began taking shape when Mrs. Eliza Farnham, after learning of her husband’s sudden death in San Francisco the year before, and the real estate he had purchased in Santa Cruz, was obliged to travel to California in 1849 to settle the estate. Mrs. Farnum, a known philanthropist and formerly the reform-minded matron at New York’s Sing Sing prison, hatched an audacious plan to bring up to 200 respectable ladies from the East Coast along with her.

For this, she created the California Association of American Women; her advertisements for this bold venture specified single or widowed women not younger than 25, who could produce sufficient testimonials of good character. Each woman who signed up was expected to contribute toward the purchase of the vessel Angelique, and its cargo, part of which was articles to furnish a store.

Mrs. Farnum’s plan was well publicized, and endorsed by prominent men such as Horace Greeley, publisher-editor of the influential New York Tribune, several judges, and the clergy. As the Boston Journal reported, gold mania was such that the scarce females already in California were finding ready employment in making clothing or foodstuffs for the gold diggers, at a great price. Furthermore, the ladies who signed with Eliza were practically guaranteed to find men to marry, which were in short supply in the East now that so many thousands of men had swarmed to the western gold fields.

Confident that her plan held wide appeal, she anticipated a full subscription to her association. Yet, when the Angelique (now merely leased), bound for San Francisco, sailed out of New York harbor on May 19, 1849, it held just 22 passengers, among them one spinster and two widows who had subscribed to the California Association of American Women—and a very disappointed Eliza Farnum.

As it turned out, Eliza herself wasn’t aboard the Angelique when it docked at San Francisco in December, having been abandoned in Valparaiso by a vengeful sea captain she had angered. However, publicity via the eastern newspapers, previously delivered by ship, that up to 200 women were to be expected, had preceded the Angelique’s arrival, and hundreds of angry bachelors waiting at the San Francisco harbor nearly started a riot when just three “women of good character” disembarked in December.

It was her first and only attempt—and for a long while the only attempt—to bring women to offset California’s widely reported evils of drunkenness and gambling, vices said to profligate in the absence of good women’s civilizing influence.

Eleven years later a similar scheme promoted by Asa Mercer to bring respectable women to Oregon Territory met with similar disappointment when only eleven ladies disembarked. He tried again in 1866 with slightly more success.

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