For Want of a Surname, Her Lifestory is Lost

Julia was one of thousands of Americans who made for California after gold was discovered in 1848.

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1/6th-plate daguerreotype of  Aunt Julia. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

This wonderful 1/6th-plate daguerreotype shows a plump, well-dressed, melancholy woman. An inscription in the case identifies her as “Aunt Julia. mothers [sic] sister that went to Calif. in 1851 or 52.” Unfortunately, the niece or nephew who penned this message to posterity left out Julia’s last name. Lacking it, we will never know Julia’s story, save that this daguerreotype almost certainly marked her departure west, as her fashionable clothing and coiffure can be dated to about 1851.

After the Gold Rush kicked off in January 1848, many thousands hurried west to seek their fortune or to provide goods and services for those allured by gold’s siren song. This mass movement lifted the nonnative population from less than a thousand to 100,000. Filled by newcomers and new wealth, the California Territory was quickly admitted as the U.S. 31st state on 9 September, 1850.

The society that Julia joined was only somewhat more than nascent. One new arrival, Jessie Benton Fremont, who came by sea to San Francisco in 1849, noted her first impressions from the deck of the vessel, “A few low houses, and many tents, such as they were, covered the base of some of the wind-swept treeless hills, over which the June fog rolled its chilling mist.” (A Year of American Travel, published 1878.)

Fremont, the daughter of Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton and the wife of military officer and politician John C. Fremont, was used to the finer things. Her account of society in early San Francisco and Monterrey makes for enticing reading. I quote her here at length not necessarily as a member of the social class that Julia represented but as one of the few surviving women’s voices from the Gold Rush era.

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