American Alchemy: The California Gold Rush and Middle-Class Culture

By Brian Roberts | Go to book overview
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Three
Husbands and Wives

In the midwinter of 1849, Harriet Dunnel ventured down to the New York City docks to watch her husband depart for California. Despairing but mindful of appearances, she had her carriage stop at an adjacent pier where she watched the departure from a distance, giving vent to her emotions in private, away from the boisterous crowd of spectators and well-wishers. John Dunnel's ship sailed. Harriet drove home, where in her words she “did little in the Afternoon but endeavor to compose myself.” Later, in a letter to John, she wrote that although she felt that her “spirit” was with her husband, she scarcely trusted herself “to look across the bed at night for fear that I shall realize more fully my loneliness.” 1 At about the same time, in Maine, Leah Rebecca Nash witnessed her husband's departure with a similar sense of despair. Returning to her home in Addison, she sat for the rest of the day with her two babies in her arms, “weeping bitterly” with the thought that her husband might never return. 2 Like thousands of women, Harriet Dunnel and Leah Nash were left in the East by their forty-niner husbands. They would not be left out of the experience.

Much of the focus on women's experience in the gold rush has been on the relatively few women who went to California, the rough and ready types who transgressed social conventions by entering a presumably male world of romantic adventure. 3 Far more commonly, women of the gold rush were like Harriet Dunnel and Leah Nash. They were on the perceptual margins of the event; left in the “states,” they waited, suffered, and worked; but they were still in the home, and the home, according to the standard view of things, was a place where very little of importance or interest could possibly happen. These onedimensional, binary images—fixed, dependent females contrasted with roving, independent males—are precisely the images that current

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