Monday, June 1, 2015

Women in Mining Camps, Part 2

Part 2 of my post on Women in Mining Camps, the seminal (light) research from about ten years ago that inspired my upcoming novel, When Doves Fly.

(Yes, it's been longer than a week since Part 1. My apologies, I ran into a band of outlaws who kidnapped me and forced me to finish editing a manuscript. P.S. The writing is a rough ride.)

Westward expansion, and the rise of industry and increased need for steel and minerals, meant mining towns grew in number and often consisted of the first "civilization" in a remote area. As the East grew more urbanized, the West remained a savage and isolated place. "Cornish immigrants James and Mary Bennett were among the first settlers in Mineral Point [Wisconsin] in the late 1830s, and Mary begged her husband to take her away from that 'hardly discovered wilderness,' where 'Indians and wild animals were numerous,' and back to civilization in England. 1 Many women who followed their husbands to the mining towns had recently immigrated and had little or no experience in an undeveloped, wild land, coming from Europe where even the remote areas had long since been explored and mining was well-established. "As John Rowe observed, 'In Cornwall it was the miner who was old before he was thirty-five; on the early American mining frontier, it was his wife.' 2 These difficulties came on top of the inherent risks involved in mining that left many miners injured or dead and their wives without income.3 These women didn't all stay home, but whether married, single, or widowed, history rarely recognized the woman's occupation. Most census records did not record a woman's occupation, even if single, unless it was unusual, so we often don't know how many women worked as servants, milliners, or proprietors of stores or parlors.4 However, simply from population records, we can infer that women were as influential and indispensable in the mining towns as elsewhere. In St. Clair, Pennsylvania, a well-established mining town, in 1850 there were only a little over 100 more men than women and more than 700 children in a population of over 2,000. 5 Thus, these women formed the backbone of the community, maintaining their families and providing support for the miners. However, changing times and cultural attitudes brought change to the mining towns as in the rest of America.


Group of mine workers...and one woman. c. 1895-1905

By the mid-1800s, with westward expansion at its height and new mineral and metal resources discovered farther west, women experienced new-found freedoms. They were encouraged to work outside the home to help their families before marriage and often found themselves widowed and forced to provide financial support, particularly in an industry such as mining. Many women left the mining camps and returned to their families once widowed, but some stayed and developed their own businesses to support themselves and their families until remarrying or moving on. 6 The need for women in budding mining camps was sorely felt. New mining camps had a great demand for single women, particularly in areas of rapid expansion such as California during the 1849 gold rush. "…In the West, a woman could make money and have the boldness to call the money her own. Women who had never worked in their lives discovered that the drudgery of work was sweetened by the freedom to earn and save money in their own names." 7 In the wild, uncivilized areas where mines sprang up quickly and few men (the men being occupied with mining, which paid much more) could provide such services as waiting tables in hotels or saloons, women found new occupations available. The positions were socially unacceptable for women in the East, but they opened to women in the West out of necessity. Strict social rules followed in the East were set aside for women in these "social" setting positions, where men had previously ruled, such as the requirement that a woman be introduced to a man before speaking to him.  

Along with the need for women in service sectors, the men needed companionship. It wasn't until the latter 1800s that mining towns, and the country as a whole, saw the development of brothels on a large scale, and usually only once a town was well-established.9 Most often, women operated them (if not owned them) and "at late hours provided 'nice young men' with drinks and the social services of a small bevy of female boarders." 10 In the East, these establishments were less tolerated and the operators were fined or jailed if discovered.11 But in the west, they thrived and often remained legal until well into the 1900s.

Unmarried women had other options, though, particularly in the West. In the chaotic mid-1800s, various industries and areas saw many boom and bust times, forcing single men to seek  new opportunities, often in mining towns. The areas they abandoned had a shortage of marriageable men, and unattached women frequently followed the migration to developing areas to find husbands and employment. 12 "John McCracken wrote to his sister telling of one such incident. 'I heard not long since of the arrival of an old Lady and her five daughters. They came in a wagon and seemed quite happy to think there were such chances to get well married' (Levy 175)." 13 Women would even advertise themselves for marriage, finding that with the abundance of men they could raise their expectations and demand a higher quality of mate. In one "advertisement from a Maryville newspaper of 1849…[a woman gives] self-qualifications for marriage and what she expects in return from the man: 'an old man need not apply, nor any who have not a little more education than she has, and a great deal more gold, for there must be $20,000 settled on her before she will bind herself to perform all the above' (Levy 176)." 14 In the mining camps, many men avoided the few prostitutes due to fear of disease or simple unavailability. As towns grew, "businessmen" opened more brothels and saw a new avenue for profit in mail-order bride services. They already had sources for women to supply to their brothels, so the "supply chain" of immigrant women was already in place. 15

Once they arrived in these often lawless, uncivilized western mining camps, women asserted their influence, utilized their skills, and developed new ones. "Many craved the amenities of civilization; they longed for social interaction and sought networks of family and friends for emotional support." 16 In newly formed mining towns, the few women were lonely and despaired of the conditions in which they lived. They attempted to create homes with canvas tents and dirt floors. Supplies were often slow in arriving, if they arrived at all, and they made do with whatever they found. Louise Clappe wrote her sister from California in 1851, "…Everybody ought to go to the mines, just to see how little it takes to make people comfortable in the world." 17 Out of this turmoil, women created social connections. While operating their boarding houses, laundry services, and stores, and being mothers and wives, women organized. They developed social organizations and helped to found churches, libraries, schools, and other civic institutions. They created communities in the wilderness. They insisted on social functions to help ease their homesickness while they adjusted to new climates, new cultures, and new occupations. "The Alta California periodical commented upon the positive influence of women in bringing order to chaotic new towns: 'Woman to society is like a cement to the building stone. The society here has no such a cement; its elements float to and fro upon the excited, turbulent, hurried life of California immigrants, or rather, we should say, goldhunters' (quoted in Levy 174)." 18

Perhaps the most neglected aspect of women's contributions in mining towns, and to some the most surprising, is that of women miners. Although a very small number, especially until the latter half of the 1800s, some women worked alongside men in the coal and lead mine operations. 19 They endured the same vile working conditions as the men in the deep shafts and dangerous quarries with toxic fumes and the constant risk of explosions and cave-ins. Later, a number of women aided their husbands or worked gold and silver claims alone in the West. Just as on the farms, they shouldered the burden of hard labor when necessary to support their families.

Three men and a woman

These examples show women in mining communities in the 19th century were vital to the operation not only of the mines, but the growth and development of the community and civic function of the town. They contributed in those capacities in addition to the customary role of wife and mother they continued to perform for their families in harsh conditions. In crude log cabins, and without food or supplies, they managed to create homes that provided for the miner's comfort and daily necessities. And they provided services and labor for the many businesses needed to maintain the mining towns. They were essential to their communities, both in founding them and maintaining them.

1. William E. Van Vugt, Britain to America, Mid-Nineteenth-Century Immigrants to the United States (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1999), 126.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid., 95.
4.  Anthony F. C. Wallace, St. Clair: A Nineteenth-Century Coal Town's Experience with a Disaster-Prone Industry (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1987), 131.
5. Ibid.
6. Suzanne Hilton, Miners, Merchants and Maids (New York: Twenty-First Century Books, 1995), 69.
7. Ibid., 62.
8. Ibid., 71.
9. Wallace, St. Clair, 166.
10. Ibid., 167.
11. Ibid.
12. Van Vugt, British to America, 90.
13."Here Comes the Bride", Women's Work in the Long 19th Century,

14. Ibid.
15. Ibid.
16. Philip J. Deloria, Patricia Nelson Limerick, Jack N. Rakove and David Burner, This Land: A History of the United States (New York: Brandywine Press, 2003), 263.
17. Hilton, Miners, 19.
18. "Here Comes the Bride", Women's Work.
19. Van Vugt, Britain to America, 126.

Images courtesy of Library of Congress - &