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“This Muddy Place”: Mary Ballou, a Boardinghouse Keeper in the California Gold Rush, 1852

by Mary Ballou

Mary Ballou and her husband ran a boarding house in the gold mining town of Negro Bar, California. While most of the “Forty-niners” who rushed to California went to pan gold, others, like Ballou and her husband, went to reap high profits by providing services to the miners. Ballou’s letter to her son, written in 1852, evoked the rough housing, violence, and high prices (from which the Ballous profited) in California during the gold rush. She also described the limited number of women among the flood of male miners, and how important they were to each other for companionship and consolation. Ballou’s references to “the States” are an expression of how far from home California must have felt since California was a state—it had been admitted to the union in 1850.

California Negrobar October 30 1852

My Dear Selden

we are about as usual in health. well I suppose you would like to know what I am doing in this gold region. well I will try to tell you what my work is here in this muddy Place. All the kitchen that I have is four posts stuck down into the ground and covered over the top with factory cloth no floor but the ground. this is a Boarding House kitchen. there is a floor in the dining room and my sleeping room coverd with nothing but cloth. we are at work in a Boarding House.

Oct 27 this morning I awoke and it rained in torrents. well I got up and I thought of my House. I went and looket into my kitchen, the mud and water was over my Shoes I could not go into the kitchen to do any work to day but kept perfectly dry in the Dining so I got along verry well. your Father put on his Boots and done the work in the kitchen. I felt badly to think that I was de[s]tined to be in such a place. I wept for a while and then I commenced singing and made up a song as I went along. my song was this: to California I did come and thought I under the bed I shall have to run to shelter me from the piercing storm.

now I will try to tell you what my work is in this Boarding House. well somtimes I am washing and Ironing somtimes I am making mince pie and Apple pie and squash pies. Somtimes frying mince turnovers and Donuts. I make Buiscuit and now and then Indian jonny cake and then again I am making minute puding filled with rasons and Indian Bake pudings and then again a nice Plum Puding and then again I am Stuffing a Ham of pork that cost forty cents a pound. Somtimes I am making gruel for the sick now and then cooking oisters sometimes making coffee for the French people strong enough for any man to walk on that has Faith as Peter had. three times a day I set my Table which is about thirty feet in length and do all the little fixings about it such as filling pepper boxes and vinegar cruits and mustard pots and Butter cups. somtimes I am feeding my chickens and then again I am scareing the Hogs out of my kitchen and Driving the mules out of my Dining room. you can see by the descrption of that I have given you of my kitchen that anything can walk into the kitchen that choeses to walk in and there being no door to shut from the kitchen into the Dining room you see that anything can walk into the kitchen and then from kitchen into the Dining room so you see the Hogs and mules can walk in any time day or night if they choose to do so. somtimes I am up all times a night scaring the Hogs and mules out of the House. last night there a large rat came down pounce down onto our bed in the night. sometimes I take my fan and try to fan myself but I work so hard that my Arms pain me so severely that I kneed some one to fan me so I do not find much comfort anywhere. I made a Bluberry puding to day for Dinner. Somtimes I am making soups and cramberry tarts and Baking chicken that cost four Dollars a head and cooking Eggs at three Dollars a Dozen. Somtimes boiling cabbage and Turnips and frying fritters and Broiling stake and cooking codfish and potatoes. I often cook nice Salmon trout that weigh from ten to twenty pound apiece. somtimes I am taking care of Babies and nursing at the rate of Fifty Dollars a week but I would not advise any Lady to come out here and suffer the toil and fatigue that I have suffered for the sake of a little gold neither do I advise any one to come. Clarks Simmon wife says if she was safe in the States she would not care if she had not one cent. She came in here last night and said, “Oh dear I am so homesick that I must die,” and then again my other associate came in with tears in her eyes and said that she had cried all day. she said if she had as good a home as I had got she would not stay twenty five minutes in California. I told her that she could not pick up her duds in that time. she said she would not stop for duds nor anything else but my own heart was two sad to cheer them much.

now I will tell you a little more about my cooking. somtimes I am cooking rabbits and Birds that are called quails here and I cook squrrels. occasionly I run in and have a chat with Jane and Mrs Durphy and I often have a hearty cry. no one but my maker knows my feelings. and then I run into my little cellar which is about four feet square as I have no other place to run that is cool.

October 21 well I have been to church to hear a methodist sermon. his Text was let us lay aside every weight and the sin that doth so easely beset us. I was the only Lady that was present and about forty gentleman. So you see that I go to church when I can.

November 2 well it has been Lexion day here to day. I have heard of strugling and tite pulling but never saw such aday as I have witnessed to day the Ballot Box was so near to me that I could hear every word that was spoken. the wind Blows verry hard here to day. I have three lights Burning and the wind blows so hard that it almost puts my lights out while I am trying to write. if you could but step in and see the inconvience that I have for writing you would not wonder that I cannot write any better you would wonder that I could write at all. notwithstanding all the dificuty in writing I improve every leishure moment. it is is quite cool here my fingers are so cold that I can hardly hold my pen. well it is ten o clock at night while I am writing. the people have been Declareing the votes. I hear them say Hura for the Whigs and sing whigs songs. now I hear them say that Morman Island has gone whig and now another time a cheering. now I hear them say Beals Bar has gone whig now another time cheering. well it is getting late and I must retire soon there is so much noise I do not expect to sleep much to night. there has been a little fighting here to day and one chalenge given but the chalenge given but the chalenge was not accepted they got together and setted their trouble.

I will tell tell you a little of my bad feelings, on the 9 of September there was a little fight took place in the store. I saw them strike each other through the window in the store. one went and got a pistol and started towards the other man. I never go into the store but your mothers tender heart could not stand that so I ran into the store and Beged and plead with him not to kill him for eight or ten minutes not to take his Life for the sake of his wife and three little children to spare his life and then I ran through the Dining room into my sleeping room and Buried my Face in my bed so as not to hear the sound of the pistol and wept Biterly. Oh I thought if I had wings how quick I would fly to the States. that night at the supper table he told the Boarders if it had not been for what that Lady said to him Scheles would have been a dead man. after he got his pashion over he said that he was glad that he did not kill him so you see that your mother has saved one Human beings Life, you see that I am trying to relieve all the suffering and trying to do all the good that I can.

there I hear the Hogs in my kichen turning the Pots and kettles upside down so I must drop my pen and run and drive them out. so you this is the way that I have to write—jump up every five minutes for somthing and then again I washed out about a Dollars worth of gold dust the fourth of July in the cradle so you see that I am doing a little mining in this gold region but I think it harder to rock the cradle to wash out gold than it is to rock the cradle for the Babies in the States.

October 11 I washed in the forenoon and made a Democrat Flag in the afternoon sewed twenty yards of splendid worsted fringe around it and I made whig Flag. they are both swinging acrost the road but the Whig Flag is the richest. I had twelve Dollars for making them so you see that I am making Flags with all rest of the various kinds of work that I am doing and then again I am scouring candle sticks and washing the floor and making soft soap. the People tell me that it is the first Soft Soap they knew made in California. Somtimes I am making mattresses and sheets. I have no windows in my room. all the light that I have shines through canvas that covers the House and my eyes are so dim that I can hardly see to make a mark so I think you will excuse me for not writing any better. I have three Lights burning now but I am so tired and Blind that I can scearcely see and here I am among the French and Duch and Scoth and Jews and Italions and Sweeds and Chineese and Indians and all manner of tongus and nations but I am treated with due respect by them all.

on the night of Election the second day of November was Burnt down and some lives lost. Adams express office was Broken open by a band of robbers a large quantity of money was taken. they took one man out of bed with his wife took him into the office and Bound him laid him on the floor and told him to give them the key to the safe or they would kill him. one of the robbers staid in the room his wife his face was muffled and Pistols by his side and told her that if she made any noise for so long a time he would kill her. only immagine what her feelings must be. I lived close by the office. I went in to see her the next morning she told me that she nearly lost her sences she was so frigtned.

I immagine you will say what a long yarn this is from California. if you can read it at all I must close soon for I am so tired and almost sick. Oh my Dear Selden I am so Home sick I will say to you once more to see that Augustus has every thing that he kneeds to make him comfortable and by all means have him Dressed warm this cold winter. I worry a great deal about my Dear children. it seems as though my heart would break when I realise how far I am from my Dear Loved ones this from your affectionate mother

Mary B Ballou

Source: Mary B. Ballou, “I Hear the Hogs in My Kitchen”: A Woman’s View of the Gold Rush, ed. Archibald Hanna (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962) reprinted in Christiane Fischer, ed., Let Them Speak For Themselves: Women in the American West, 1849–1900 (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1977), pp. 42–46.