Meet the women who took part in the Gold Rush

April 12, 1998
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@

JoAnn Levy of Sutter Creek, Calif., has become a popular spokeswoman for an under-appreciated population in history: She is the voice of the women who took part in the California Gold Rush.

She has written two books on the subject, one is fiction, one is non-fiction. Her first book was "They Saw the Elephant: Women in the California Gold Rush" and her second book, "Daughter of Joy," is a novel about a real person, Chinese prostitute Ah Toy.

She has also appeared in four TV documentaries and at various commemorations throughout the state being held this year honoring the discovery of gold in 1849 and the recognition of California as a state in 1850.

"The California Gold Rush had many voices," she said. "It was one event if you found gold, a different event if you did not. And it was different if you were a woman."

How did Levy get started in this quest to tell the story of early California women?

"I worked as an editor and writer for a small publisher in Southern California, but quit in 1981 when Coldwell Banker hired me to write its corporate history. In that watershed year I read Dr. James Holliday's "The World Rushed In," touted by its publisher as an 'all-encompassing record of the gold rush as a national experience.'

"While reading it I consulted the index for the word 'women' and not finding it, I thought, how 'all-encompassing a record' is this, if there's no index entry for 'women' and even said aloud to myself: 'Hey, these are the '80s and women get included in history now.'

"I immediately started looking for a book about women in the Gold Rush, and finding none, eventually wrote it."

I also asked Levy why she found history so fascinating.

"I can't really answer that question logically. It's an emotional response. I really feel that the subject chose me, not the other way around. My enthusiasm for the Gold Rush, and particularly for women's participation, remains undiminished after 17 years."

The stories Levy unearthed are fascinating. The Gold Rush years saw a variety of women travel to California- not just prostitutes as common myths hold. Women who came to California were nurses, cooks, laundry workers, boarding house operators, schoolteachers, wives, restaurateurs, clerks and miners.

"Women in California realized that they had to work; it was a hand-to-hand battle with starvation initially," she said.

Levy said she spent eight years researching women in the Gold Rush. One of the books she found was "Let Them Speak For Themselves: Women in the American West, 1849-1900," published by a small press in Connecticut.

"I queried that publisher with a proposal and four chapters of 'They Saw the Elephant' and received a contract by return mail. I was so naive I didn't appreciate what a miracle that was. The hard cover (library edition) was published in 1990 to excellent reviews, and reissued as a trade paperback by the University of Oklahoma Press in 1992, where it has become a bestseller.

"The day after I sent in that manuscript, in September 1989, I started writing my novel, 'Daughter of Joy.'

Ah Toy, the Chinese prostitute, came to San Francisco in 1849. Accounts of the day call her "strangely alluring." And there are many accounts of her activities in those days because of her numerous court appearances. She not only was a frequent defendant, but a plaintiff, too.

"I began writing a story of what might have happended to her," said Levy.

"Three years of research, three rewrites, and an unrelenting search for a publisher finally culminated in publication this January, to very nice reviews (particularly in Publishers Weekly, and the SF Chronicle)."

Levy earned her bachelor's degree in psychology and a 1973 master's degree in English from San Jose State. She has lived in the Mother Lode town of Sutter Creek for the past five years and says: "It's like living in Disneyland it's so perfect and unreal."

Only a native of Southern California or New Jersey would be so enthusiastic about the foothills and it turns out that Levy was born and raised in Los Angeles.

"But I'm a Northern Californian by instinct and preference," she says.

To inquire about ordering any of the above mentioned books from an independent bookstore,
Bogey's Books [ Click Here ]

To Order "Daughter of Joy : A Novel of Gold Rush California" (Hardcover) from Amazon [ Click Here ] links.
To Order "They Saw the Elephant : Women in the California Gold Rush" (Hardcover) from Amazon [ Click Here ] links.
To Order "They Saw the Elephant : Women in the California Gold Rush" (Paperback) from Amazon [ Click Here ] links.

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