French Women in
Gold Rush Days
The vast majority of people who poured into San Francisco during the early days of the Gold Rush were men. They had only one goal in mind: to strike it rich at the mines and then return to their families. In reality, few of them earned enough money to buy a boat ticket home. It was not long before this disproportionate male population attracted women--most of them prostitutes--from all over the world. According to a memoir left by Frenchman Albert Benard de Russailh, the most sought after women were those from France.
I first arrived here [March 1851], there were only ten or twelve French
women in San Francisco, but quite a number of American women had been
here for some time, and were living in attractive houses with a certain
amount of comfort and even luxury. They all had come from New York, New
Orleans, Washington, or Philadelphia and had the stiff carriage typical
of women in those cities. Men would look hopefully at them in the
streets, at least men who had just come to California, but they much
preferred the French women, who had the charm of novelty. Americans were
irresistibly attracted by their graceful walk, their supple and easy
bearing, and charming freedom of manner, qualities, after all, only to
be found in France; and they trooped after a French woman whenever she
put her nose out of doors, as if they could never see enough of her.
the poor fellows had known what these women had been in Paris, how one
could pick them up on the boulevards and have them for almost nothing,
they might not have been so free with their offers of $500 or $600 a
night. A little knowledge might have cooled them down a bit. But I'm
sure the women were flattered by so much attention. Some of the first in
the field made enough in a month to go home to France and live on their
incomes; but many were not so lucky, and one still meets a few who have
had a bad time and who are no better off financially than the day they
stepped ashore. No doubt, they were blind to their own wrinkles and
faded skins, and were too confident in their ability to deceive
Americans regarding the dates on their birth-certificates.
ships have reached San Francisco during the past three or four months,
and the number of women in town has greatly increased, but a woman is
still sought after and earns a lot of money. Nearly all the saloons and
gambling-houses employ French women. They lean on the bars, talking and
laughing with the men, or sit at the card tables and attract players.
Some of them walk about with trays of cigars hanging in front of them;
others caterwaul for hours beside pianos, imagining they are singing
like Madame Stoltz. Occasionally, you find one who hides her real
business and pretends to be a dressmaker or a milliner; but most of them
are quite shameless, often scrawling their names and reception-hours in
big letters on their doors.
above is an extract of an account in Malcolm E. Barker's book, San
Francisco Memoirs 1835-1851: Eyewitness accounts of the birth of a city
(Londonborn Publications, San Francisco 1994.