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Wild Women Of The West: Luzena Stanley Wilson

Love and the Gold Miner.

January 14, 2020

Luzena Stanley Wilson stood in the center of her empty, one-room, log home in Andrew County, Missouri, studying the opened trunk in front of her.  All of her worldly possessions were tucked inside it: family Bibles, two quilts, one dress, a bonnet, a pair of shoes, and a few pieces of china. Mason Wilson, Luzena’s husband of five years, marched into the house just as she closed the lid on the trunk and fastened it tightly.  They exchanged a smile, and Mason picked up the trunk and carried it outside. Luzena took a deep breath and followed after him. In a few short moments they were off on a journey west to California. It was May 1, 1849, Luzena’s birthday. She was thirty years old.1

The Wilsons were farmers with two sons: Thomas, born in September 1845, and Jay, born in June 1848.  Three payments had been made on the plot of land the Wilsons purchased in January 1847. Prior to news of the Gold Rush captivating Mason’s imagination, the plan was to work the multi-acre homestead and pass the farm on to their children and their children’s children.2

Rumors that the mother lode awaited anyone who dared venture into California’s Sierra Foothills prompted Mason to abandon the farm and travel to the rugged mountains beyond Sacramento.  In addition to Luzena, her husband, sons, her brothers, and their wives had committed to travel to California as well. A train of five wagons was organized to transport the sojourners west.  On the off-chance Mason never found a fortune in gold, the couple left behind funds with the justice of the peace to make another payment on their homestead. In the event the Wilsons were able to stake out a claim for themselves in the Gold Country, they would sell their Missouri home and use the proceeds to aide in their new life.3

“It was the work of but a few days to collect our forces for the march,” Luzena recorded in her journal shortly after they left on the first leg of their trip.  “We never gave a thought to selling our section [of land], but left it. I little realized then the task I had undertaken. If I had, I think I should have stayed in Andrew County.”  It would take five months for the Wilsons to reach their westward destination. Most of the belongings Luzena packed in their prairie schooner would be lost or left behind on the trail because they proved to be too burdensome to continue hauling.4

Luzena described the long journey west in her memories as “plodding, unvarying monotony, vexations, exhaustions, throbs of hope and depth of despair.”  Dusty, short-tempered, always tired, and, with their patience as tattered as their clothing, the Wilson family and thousands like them plodded on and on.  They were scorched by heat, enveloped in dust that reddened their eyes and parched their throats; they were bruised, scratched, and bitten by innumerable insects.5

Luzena’s Quaker upbringing in North Carolina had not prepared her for such a grueling endeavor.  Her parents, Asa and Diane Hunt, had relocated from Piedmont, North Carolina, to Saint Louis in 1843, but the trip was comparatively easy.  After the Hunts arrived in Missouri, they purchased a number of acres of land at a government auction. Luzena lived on the family farm until she and Mason wed on December 19, 1844.6

The first day of the Wilson’s journey to California was without incident.  It wasn’t until the sun began to slowly sink in the sky and Mason announced it was time to make camp that Luzena became terrified.  “Our first campfire was lighted in Indian Territory, which spread in one unbroken, unnamed waste from the Missouri River to the border line of California,” she shared in her journal.  “Around us in every direction were groups of Indians sitting, standing, and on horseback, as many as two hundred in the camp. I had read and heard whole volumes of their bloody deeds, the massacre of harmless white men, torturing helpless women, carrying away captive children the most precious in the wide world, and I lived in an agony of dread that first night.”7

Luzena noted in her memoirs that the Indians never posed any threat to her or her family.  She admitted they were in more danger of the elements and terrain than any Native Americans they encountered along the way.  Torrential downpours, swollen rivers, prairie fires, and knee-high snowdrifts impeded their progress and at times exhausted their resources.  “The winter rains and melting snow saturated the earth like a sponge, and the wagons sunk like lead in the sticky mud,” Luzena wrote in her journal.  “Sometimes a whole day was consumed in going two or three miles, and one day we made camp but a quarter of a mile distance from the last. The last days were spent in digging out both animals and wagon, and the light of the campfire was utilized to mend broken bolts and braces.  We built the fire at night close to the wagon, under which we slept. To add to the miseries of the trip it rained, and one night when the wagon was mired and we could not shelter under it, we slept with our feet pushed under it and an old cotton umbrella spread over our faces. Sometimes we went down the mountains, they were so steep we tied great trees behind to keep the wagon from falling over the oxen; and once when the whole surface of the mountain side was smooth, slippery rock, the oxen stiffened and their legs, and the wagon and all literally slid down a quarter of a mile.  But the longest way has an end. At last we caught a glimpse of the miners’ huts far down in the gulch and reached the end of our journey.”8

In spite of the overwhelming challenges the Wilsons faced en route to California, many travelers before them considered them to be fortunate.  Gravel markers lined the wagon trail west. Burials were common, especially when cholera struck. Some died in battles fought with Native Americans trying to protect their lands, but more succumbed to illness, accidents, and to violence among wagon train members.  Women died during childbirth along the way, and their children fell before all manner of disease and fatal mishaps.

Luzena, Mason, and their children were among the more than twenty-five thousand people who came west in 1849.  The journal she started at the beginning of their harrowing trip did not end when she arrived in California on October 1, 1849.  Luzena wrote about her time at the immigrant campsite in Sacramento where the family initially settled. “The population was about two thousand wood buildings, forty-five cloth and tent, three hundred campfires, etc., in the open air and under trees,” Luzena recorded in her memoirs about the Gold Rush town.9

Given the daily growth of the area, Luzena determined there was a great need for a boarding house.  Mason agreed, and the two decided to go into the hospitality business. They sold their oxen for $600 and purchased a hotel called the Trumbow House.  The majority of boarders at the Trumbow House were men. There were few women in Sacramento or the outlying gold mining camps. Luzena’s homemaking skills were well received and in high demand.  Guests were charged $17.50 a week for a clean room, laundry services, and savory meals. During the two months she operated the boarding house there was never a vacant room. Everyday more and more immigrants poured in from the plains or got off the steamers that brought them to California via the Isthmus of Panama – each one was eager to get to the mountains to hunt for gold. “The world will never see the like again of those ‘pioneers of 49,’ Luzena recalled in her journal.  “They were, as a rule, uptight, energetic, and hard-working, many of them men of education and culture whom the misfortune of poverty had forced into the ranks of labor in this strange country.”10

A major flood in Sacramento, combined with a flurry of excitement about gold nuggets lying in the streets of Nevada City, prompted Mason to uproot his family again and head for the hills in March 1850.  Nevada City was sixty miles from Sacramento. The Wilsons lacked the funds to purchase a wagon and team to get to the boomtown. A miner with a vehicle and horse was on his way to Nevada City and offered to take Luzena, Mason, her boys, a stove, and two sacks of flour with him for $700.  “This looked hopeless, and I told him I guessed we wouldn’t go as we had no money,” she explained in her memoirs. “I must have carried my honesty in my face, for he looked at me a minute and said, ‘I’ll take you, Ma’am, if you will assure me the money.’ I promised him it should be paid, if I lived, and we made the money, So, pledged to a new master, Debt, we pressed forward on the road.  It took twelve days to make it to the bustling mining camp. A row of canvas tents lined each of the two ravines leading to the tent city, and the gulches were crawling with men panning for gold. Donner Pass, a seven-thousand-foot barricade of naked rock lay beyond the camp.11

Mason was in a hurry to start his search for gold.  After he built a crude shelter to help keep his wife and children warm and dry, he hurried off to stake out a claim.  Luzena quickly went to work unpacking, making beds, and firing up her stove. As she worked, she contemplated how she was going to help make good on the cost it took to transport her family to the area.  “As always occurs to the mind of a woman, I thought of taking in boarders,” she wrote in her journal. “So, I bought two boards from a precious pile belonging to a man who was building the second wooden house in town.  With my own hands I chopped stakes, drove them into the ground, and set up my table. I bought provisions from a neighboring store, and when my husband came back at night he found, mid the weird light of the pine torches, twenty miners eating at my table.  Each man as he rose put a $1 in my hand and said I might count him as a permanent customer.”12

Within six weeks of opening her business, Luzena had earned enough to pay the money owed to the miner who brought the Wilsons to Nevada.  She also expanded and renovated the hotel and purchased a new stove. By the end of the summer in 1850, Luzena had an average seventy-five to two hundred boarders living at the establishment, each paying $25 a week.13

She named her establishment El Dorado after the fabled kingdom in Spanish America supposedly rich in precious metals and jewels, which had lured sixteenth century explorers away from their homes.  In addition to the clean accommodations offered at Luzena’s were her biscuits. It was not uncommon for men who survived on a regular diet of beans and bacon to offer Luzena $5 for one biscuit. The hotel’s reputation grew, attracting more and more customers.  Late in 1850, Luzena expanded her commercial enterprise, hiring cooks and waiters.14

It was clear to Luzena that the best way to strike it rich in a gold camp was to provide the necessities of life to the miners swinging pick axes and dumping dirt into rockers and gold pans.  Mason agreed and abandoned his quest for a strike. Luzena then made him her business partner. The couple expanded their holdings. They built a mercantile and furnished it with all the supplies prospectors needed.

After six months of hard work, Luzena’s El Dorado Hotel was estimated to be worth $10,000, and the stock of goods in the new store was worth even more.  “The buildings were of the roughest possible description,” Luzena noted in her journal. “They were to Nevada City what the Palace Hotel was to San Francisco.”15

Not long after the Wilson’s mercantile opened for business, Luzena recognized a need for a bank in the area and determined to provide for the growing community.  “There was no place of deposit for money,” Luzena noted in her memoirs, “and the men living in the house dropped into the habit of leaving their [gold] dust with me for safe keeping.  At times I have had a larger amount of money in my charge than would furnish capital for a country bank.” Luzena did provide capital for Nevada City residents at ten percent interest on loans.  Her kitchen was also her bank vault. “Many a night have I shut my oven door on two milk-pans filled high with bags of gold dust,” she wrote in her memoirs, “and I have often slept with my mattress literally lined with the precious metal.  And at one time I must have had more than $200,000 lying unprotected in my bedroom….”16

Luzena never worried about being robbed.  According to her journal entries, “lawbreakers were dealt with quickly and harshly.”  On July 22, 1850, she witnessed the severe punishment inflicted upon a man who had stolen a mule.  “He did not travel far before he was overtaken and brought before a jury,” the Sacramento Transcript newspaper reported on the scene.  “He was found guilty of theft, not only of the mule, but also the earnings of the young man who had placed confidence in him, [and who] gave him his bag of gold dust to take out….  The verdict of guilty was given…and his punishment twenty-five lashes on his bare back, and [he was] compelled to work at $5 per day….”17

Luzena enjoyed eighteen months of prosperity before she, Mason, and her sons, along with eight thousand other Nevada City residents, were left homeless and virtually destitute.  “Some careless hand had set fire to a pile of pine shavings lying at the side of the house in course of construction,” Luzena recorded in her memoirs, “and while we slept, unconscious of danger, the flames caught and spread, and in a short half hour the whole town was in a blaze.”  The Wilsons lost nearly everything they owned. Mason had $500 in his pocket he had forgotten to place in the stove the night before. The couple used that money to make a new start for themselves.18

Luzena found a few pieces of unburned canvas and some wooden planks; Mason pulled her stove from the ruins of the boarding house, and the pair set up another eatery.  Once everything was in place, Luzena wasted no time returning to what she did best, which was cooking. Her culinary skills were popular during the rebuilding of the mining camp.  She provided meals from dawn until dusk at prices she believed the struggling community could tolerate. In early July 1850, a prospector who appeared as though he could not afford anything gave Luzena a gold claim in exchange for one of her delicious dinners.  The gold claim was a half a block from where her business stood before the fire. He told her he had removed $16,000 from the mine the day before. She eagerly agreed to the payment, imagining the mine would be a quick way to renew the fortune she had lost. Mason was opposed to the idea, however, and didn’t want to work a claim.  He felt the painstaking effort seldom resulted in a rich find and that the prospector had probably located all the gold to be had on that spot. Luzena sold the property for $100 to a miner. A few days prior to the Wilsons leaving the area to move back to Sacramento, the miner pulled $10,000 in gold out of the diggings.19

Unlike the time it took for the Wilsons to travel to Nevada City, it was only a two-day journey returning to Sacramento.  During their stay in Nevada City the roads had been drastically improved.

Luzena and Mason purchased another boarding house in Sacramento.  “We took possession of a deserted hotel which stood on K Street,” Luzena wrote in her memoirs.  “This hotel was tenanted only by rats that galloped madly over the floor and made journeys from room to room through openings they had gnawed in the panels….  At the time, Sacramento was infested with the horrible creatures.”20

After three months, the Wilsons moved on to a valley north of Sacramento called Benicia.  The beautiful area was ideal for the pair and their children. Their goal was to purchase land and stay there for the rest of their lives.  “We were again penniless, however, and felt that we must get to work,” Luzena noted in her journal. “Hay was selling in San Francisco at a $150 a ton, so my husband, leaving me to my own resources, set hard at work cutting and making hay; and I, as before, set up my stove and camp kettle and hung out my sign, printed with charred fire-brand on a piece of board, it read Wilson’s Hotel.”21

Within six months of opening, Luzena had earned a substantial amount of money, and the Wilson’s Hotel had earned the reputation of being the best on the route from Sacramento to Benicia.  Mason supplied the variety of meat Luzena served to her boarders. Elk, antelope, geese, pheasant, cattle, and bear were all on the menu at various times. On April 21, 1851, the Wilsons were able to purchase two hundred acres of land along Alamo Creek.  Seven months later they bought three parcels in Vaca and another one hundred acres south of town.22

Mason’s hay business was as profitable as Luzena’s boarding house.  For a time, things were going very well for the pair and their sons, and then a heavy, substantial rain came and wiped out Mason’s crops.  Not long after that, government surveyors came to officially lay out the town of Benicia in Vaca Valley. They divided the valley including all the land the Wilsons had purchased.  Immigrants quickly moved in and squatted on Luzena and Mason’s property. “My husband was furious,” Luzena recalled in her memoirs. “He swore that he would either have the land or kill every man who disputed his ownership.  He left the house on an errand of ejectment, taking with him a witness, in case he should be killed or be forced to kill the squatters, many of whom knew and feared his reckless and determined purpose, would not have hesitated to dispose of him with a bullet.”23

The courts were called upon to intercede and settle the matter; in the interim, the Wilsons moved from Benicia to Vaca Valley.  Using the profits made from the Wilson Hotel, Luzena bought lumber and bricks to build the family’s home and a new boarding house business.  The wooden structure was the first one of its kind built in Vaca Valley. Luzena’s new business was as successful as her previous one. Well-respected judges, such as Murray Morrison and Justice Serranus Clinton Hastings of the California Supreme Court, were frequent guests at the establishment.24

In January 1855, Luzena and Mason welcomed a third son to their family, Mason Jr.  In May 1857, the couple welcomed a daughter, Correnah. The Wilsons continued to invest the money made from Luzena’s boarding house in real estate.  By the end of 1859, Luzena and Mason owned a considerable portion of the Vaca Valley town site and more than five hundred acres of surrounding lands.25 

By 1858, the Wilsons had outgrown the small, temporary hotel they initially built in the area and decided to have a new one constructed at a cost of $14,000.  The new business had two stories, a billiard room, and a large parlor. Mason became an agent for the Wells Fargo Company and operated the Wells Fargo office out of the hotel.26

In December 1872, after twenty-eight years of marriage, Mason abandoned his wife and family to travel to Missouri and Texas.  Luzena never saw Mason again. Rumors circulated during that time suggested that Mason might have been suffering from a mental illness.  Other people insisted that he had simply become miserable living with Luzena. Willis Jepson, one of Mason’s friends, wrote a letter to the Wilson’s oldest son Jay explaining why he believed Mason chose to leave his home and family.  “Luzena, Forty-Niner, was a determined and strong-minded personage – a woman of the real pioneer type,” Jepson noted. “But even so her husband, your father, became wearied. He could stand Luzena no longer and went away from Vaca Valley.  He put as much distance between himself and Luzena as well as he could.” Ten years after Mason left Luzena and California, word came from an attorney in Waco, Texas, that he had passed away.27

In 1881, Luzena’s daughter helped her compile her remembrances into a book entitled Argonaut: A Woman’s Reminiscences of Early Days.  Solano County historian Sabine Goerke-Shrode called Luzena’s book “an important historical source illustrating the Gold Rush from a woman’s perspective.”28

On July 11, 1902, Luzena died of thyroid cancer.  She was eighty-three years old. According to her obituary, that ran in the July 12, 1902, edition of the Woodland Daily Democrat newspaper, Luzena’s funeral service was held at her daughter’s home.  “Mrs. Wilson was a respected pioneer of Solano County, and was for many years a resident of Vaca Valley,” the notice informed readers.  “Mrs. Wilson was a noble woman and her death will be profoundly regretted.”29

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