Unsettling the West: Eliza Farnham and Georgiana Bruce Kirby in Frontier California

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Santa Clara University, 2004 - Biography & Autobiography - 343 pages
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By the end of 1849, an estimated thirty-nine thousand gold-seekers had arrived in San Francisco by sea, and some thirty thousand others had crossed the continent on land. Another eighty-six thousand would arrive in 1850. According to the census for that year. there were twelve men for every woman in California. But who would want them? The words "gold rush" generate at best an image of raucous, all-male camaraderie, at worst a storm of lawless and irredeemable violence. Eliza Wood Burhans Farnham, a young widow who had already generated considerable attention for herself as the matron of Sing Sing prison, had a vision for California. "Woman, with all her kindly cares and powers, so peculiarly conservative to man under such circumstances," would bring a civilizing influence to the state. Farnham's vision went beyond gentility however, to a society in which individuals -- male or female -- could fulfill their potential, and virtues championed by free-thinking New England philosophers would reign supreme. The realities of everyday life in gold-rush California were daunting, but when Farnham's friend Georgiana Bruce (later Kirby) joined her the following year, hope returned in full measure: "She fills up a great place in my dark world and comes to me like a pleasant breeze or a bright sun after one of our long rains. We are going to be very independent and free...dashing about at our discretion." The stories of these "sisters on the way to the vast Beyond," as Farnham called them, could not be told separately. With insight, wit, and telling detail, JoAnn Levy relates the scope and outcome of their quest for human perfectibility in this account of two remarkable and redoubtable women in frontier California. Book jacket.

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