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Women Pioneers in American Memory
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In the course of U.S. history, people have migrated to different parts of the country seeking new opportunities. Strong and determined women were an integral part of these migrations. The discovery of gold in California in 1849 enticed thousands of fortune seekers to the West. There were no airplanes or cars to speed the journey. The arduous trip had to be made by wagon or ship, passages which often took months to complete.

wagon train

'49er, Luzena Stanley Wilson, Chapter One,
California as I Saw It: First-Person Narratives, 1849-1900

California as I Saw It: First-Person Narratives, 1849-1900 contains journals, letters, and diaries of many pioneers who made the dangerous and difficult trip West.

In January of 1851, Elizabeth Gunn and her four children set off on an ocean voyage around Cape Horn bound for San Francisco. There she was to meet her husband, Lewis Gunn, who had gone to California two years earlier seeking gold. During the six month journey, Gunn wrote many letters to her husband describing the grueling experience. On March 29, 1851, she wrote of rough seas and seasickness:

The Captain was up all Tuesday night, and it was very rough. You could not lie still a minute, and when you feel sick is the time you want to keep quiet. Now my head was nicely fixed in one way, and in an instant it was turned right over. Now my feet were up, and now my head, now I would roll on one side, and now on the other--and feeling sick all the time. What with the noise of the men pulling the ropes and taking in sail, and the dashing of the sea as it came over the vessel with great violence, there was of course no such thing as quiet sleep.

Records of a California Family, Lewis and Elizabeth Gunn, Part 5,
California as I Saw It: First-Person Narratives, 1849-1900

Search on frontier life, pioneer life, and overland journeys to find more writings by these pioneer women.

From 1938 to 1940, ethnographer Sidney Robertson Cowell collected the folk music of different ethnic groups that immigrated to California seeking their fortunes. Her work is documented in California Gold: Folk Music of the Thirties, a multiformat collection which includes sound recordings, photographs, drawings, and written documents. Browse the Subject Index or the List of Performers to find items relating to the many women Cowell recorded.

Women were also part of other migrations in American history. In the 1930s, drought and over-farming led to environmental disaster in the Great Plains of the U.S. Wind storms blew away the overworked topsoil, and the region came to be known as the Dust Bowl. Families abandoned their farms and fled west looking for work. Many became migrant workers on California farms. Laborers on these farms performed backbreaking work for little pay, and lived in poor conditions in migrant worker camps. Mrs. Frank Pipkin

Mrs. Frank Pipkin, 1941,
Voices from the Dust Bowl

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Our Mothers,
performed by Mrs. Mary Sullivan,
Voices from the Dust Bowl
Voices from the Dust Bowl contains sound recordings, photographs, and other items that describe the everyday life of these migrant workers.

Search on woman, mother, and family to find songs performed by or written about women. For example, Our Mothers tells of the hardships of migrant worker life.

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Last updated 09/26/2002