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Guest Post by Cheryl Anne Stapp: Sacramento Women in the Pioneer Era

      Today's guest writer is Cheryl Anne Stapp. She is the author of Before The Gold Rush - The Sinclairs of Rancho del Paso 1840-1849, and Disaster & Triumph: Sacramento Women, Gold Rush Through the Civil War. I am currently reading Before the Gold Rush, and I find it fascinating! In this guest post, she writes about stories of pioneer women that settled in Sacramento. I hope you find these stories captivating and that it will give you some insight into her novel. Thank you, Mrs. Stapp!

 Sacramento Women in the Pioneer Era

     I don’t write fiction. I tried, but soon found that I have no talent for plotting. My first and only
attempt at a historical romance was actually pretty far along when an editor friend pointed out there was more historical matter than romance in the manuscript…and as far as a well-constructed storyline with surprising plot twists, well… 

     But in 2009 I found my niche, largely inspired by a true tale of the California Gold Rush. Since then I have published four books, most recently Before The Gold Rush – The Sinclairs of Rancho del Paso 1840-1849. Like my first book Disaster & Triumph: Sacramento Women, Gold Rush Through the Civil War, this is a biography of a courageous, resilient woman. 

     Sometimes, today, we harbor stereotyped notions about the individuals who emigrated to the West Coast in the mid-nineteenth century, to wit: the wives and daughters were just a group of subservient, calico-clad creatures appreciated for their virtues of piety, purity, domesticity, and submissiveness. While it’s true that this ideal of “true womanhood” took up permanent space in most men’s minds and hearts, the real truth is that a great many of these ladies were headstrong and smart, qualities that modern-day women can relate to. 

     For example:

     When the gold excitement swept through their small Missouri community, Luzena and Mason Wilson figured they had nothing to lose: they were only scratching out a living, and a fortune might be made in California. Abandoning their log cabin, the Wilsons traveled overland in 1849 with their two small sons, arriving in Sacramento at the end of September. Selling their oxen, they used the proceeds to buy an interest in a ramshackle, one-room hotel with bunks built into its walls. Within days, Luzena was earning money by cooking meals for the homesick miners who passed through town. After two months they sold out, investing their profit in sacks of barley—but the grain was ruined in the winter flood of 1849-50. Near destitute, the family moved to Nevada City, a newly-established mining camp on the western slope of the Sierra. There, from a hastily-constructed shelter of pine boughs, Luzena again served meals on a crude plank table. Her business was profitable for several months until a fire destroyed the town, but this time the couple had some meager savings. Luzena and Wilson decided to relocate to the lovely Vaca Valley, about halfway between Sacramento and San Francisco Bay. 

     Luzena set up her kitchen beneath an oak tree and once more offered hot meals, this time to travelers on their way to and from the coast and the inland mining districts. Over time the Wilsons prospered, eventually acquiring land and a comfortable house.  Despite a later separation from her husband, Luzena Wilson successfully operated her own hotel for 25 years.

     Margaret Frink and her husband Ledyard were so electrified by the gold discovery that they headed west in 1850, intent on becoming gold miners. They didn’t need the money. He was a successful merchant in Martinsville, Indiana, and they lived comfortably. Margaret—clearly a warm, self-confident, capable, observant, down-to-earth lady with an irrepressible sparkle—kept a trail diary. It is one of the most articulate, informative, delightful accounts of the covered wagon era. The couple, married eleven years and childless, suffered freezing storms, blazing deserts, icy rivers, blinding dust clouds; and fatigue and hunger to get to California. Did they strike it rich in the gold fields? No. For reasons Margaret never quite explains, they settled in Sacramento, some 40-odd miles from the mining districts, as soon as their wagon rolled into town. However, they struck in rich in other ways, and were content. Margaret was a founding member of the First Baptist Church in still-developing Sacramento city, and helped her husband establish one of the first dairies. 

     Lavinia Waterhouse came to California from New York, partly by river, partly by covered wagon. She and her husband and children arrived in Sacramento in 1853. The children were young. Nellie, her oldest, was thirteen. Addison was ten, and Frank a two-year-old in diapers. Lavinia was a midwife and also a “water-cure” practitioner, a popular nineteenth century homeopathic treatment. When her husband died in 1856, Lavinia became her children’s sole support. By working hard (and flouting a few conventions), she became very well-to-do. She was out-spoken, confident of her opinions and abilities, and behaved accordingly. As Nellie once complained in her diary, her mother was a “forceful lady of high spirits.”  In the 1870s, Lavinia was active in the Sacramento Woman Suffrage Association, and a member of the board of directors for the California State Woman Suffrage Educational Association in San Francisco.  

     Luzena Stanley Wilson dictated her memoirs to a daughter; both Margaret’s and Lavinia’s lives are explored in Disaster & Triumph. Of course, not all stories end as happily as theirs. While many pioneer women lived into their eighties and nineties, others died young. Still others lost their husbands or children through disease or tragic accidents. Yet these women, who came to California in the midst of a lawless, chaotic, gold-greedy environment, saw to it that churches and schools and libraries were established. They formed organizations to aid the sick and the destitute. They demanded, and got, safe streets for their children. 

     Nevertheless, the pioneer era was definitely a man’s world, and few women achieved distinction on their own until later decades. Yet as California historian Theodore Hittell wrote, “When respectable women became more numerous…tastes and habits altered; there was less low conduct and less coarse conversation …more neatness of dress and more refinement of manners; more civilization. Without them…the country never could have advanced in the path of progress or amounted to anything worth the name.”

     That is their legacy, and the reason we need to hear their voices.

Before The Gold Rush – The Sinclairs of Rancho del Paso, 1840 – 1849

Genre: History, nonfiction
Publisher: Create Space Independent Publishing Platform
Release date: March 13, 2017
ISBN 978-1-542-98316-7 
Pages: 144

     They met by chance in Mexican-owned California. They married and settled on a 44,000-acre Sacramento Valley ranch, located at a geographic crossroads which put the Sinclairs square in the middle of turbulent, history-making events: the American conquest of California, and the California Gold Rush. They lived through it all and died long ago, yet their Rancho del Paso lives on in street and neighborhood names to the north of modern Sacramento. This is the true story of a couple whose lives and experiences are part of the Golden State’s pioneer past.

About the Author:

     Cheryl was born in Sacramento, California, in bygone days an important gold rush town and the largest stagecoach center in the nation. After growing up there she moved to Los Angeles, where she graduated from California State University, Northridge, earning a B.A. while working full-time in the entertainment industry. Besides her day job, Cheryl was a contributing editor to Working World, a regional magazine. In 2000, she “came home” to marry a great guy she had known since high school. Like all writers, Cheryl knew some disappointments…like that short-short mystery story that was almost accepted by a national magazine. Today she exclusively writes nonfiction California history.

     Cheryl Anne Stapp is the author of self-published Before The Gold Rush - The Sinclairs of Rancho del Paso 1840-1849, and the award-winning Disaster & Triumph: Sacramento Women, Gold Rush Through the Civil War. Her other two titles, Sacramento Chronicles - A Golden Past, and The Stagecoach in Northern California: Rough Rides, Gold Camps, and Daring Drivers, were published by the History Press, now merged with Arcadia Publishing. For more information visit Cheryl’s website, “California’s Olden Golden Days”.  


  1. Very interesting! I may be kin to some of the Saint Clairs she mentions!

    1. Cheryl Anne StappJune 3, 2017 at 3:59 PM

      Hundreds of Sinclairs entered America from Scotland in the early 19th century. Spelling wasn't always standardized then, even names! My research found Sinclair, St. Clair, St. Clare, even, in one instance, Cinclair, (but I'm confident that the people I'm writing about spelled their name Sinclair). So, yes, maybe you are related? BTW, Before The Gold Rush is a nonfiction biography, not a novel. Hopefully, though, it reads like one, with a bit of suspense.


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