In 1848, while gold was being discovered in Northern California, France was going through much political strife. The two major French parties, the republicans and the royalists, feuded in the streets, which led to many bloody riots. This was a major reason why many French people left their homeland for California in search of their fortune. In 1849 boats began leaving France destined for California. Although the large majority of people on the boat were men, a small number of French women also decided to take the voyage. Some of the women accompanied their husbands, and supported their decision to move and plans of getting rich. However, the ones who made the greatest waves, both on land and sea, were the single women, who observers said intended to mine for gold second-hand. While traveling to California, these women were disrespected by the men on board and called “ribaudes” or “dissolutes.” Still, these women provided much scandal as men argued, fought, and threatened each other in order to win their favor.
In the gold rush, the ratio of men to women wasn’t much better. It was believed that in August 1849 there were only 89 women, compared to 3,806 men. As soon as the boats dropped anchor, men would swarm to the women to be the first to offer them a job at almost any price, as long as they were young or pretty. The descriptions of most of the French women do not suggest that they were especially beautiful, intelligent or charming, but the laws of supply and demand were firmly in place. French women were much more preferred by the men, than women from America or any other country. This was because their graceful walk, their supple and easy bearing, and charming freedom and manner irresistibly attracted American men. The French women also had a tendency to dress to seduce, no matter what their occupations were.
Although prostitution was a common occupation for women during the gold rush, most French women avoided it and instead seduced men on their own terms. Rather than charge men for sex, they would seduce the men into allowing them to move into their large homes and share their earnings. The French women who did go into prostitution often hid it behind a business front of a dressmaker or milliner. Others chose to simply write their names and reception hours in big letter on their doors.
Early in the year 1850, the first woman began working as a dealer at a card table in a gambling hall; not surprisingly she was a French women. Before long, women worked out a system to make good money in these gambling halls. One woman would stand at the bar where she would attract customers with flirtatious looks, while another would sit at a table attracting gamblers, yet another would cells cigars, while another would fill the room with lovely music on the piano. At the end of the day, both the women and the owner of the hall would walk away with a good day’s pay. Eventually, French women made enough to open their own private gambling circuits. There were rumors of French women who made so much money that after a few months they were able to return to France with their fortunes.
The entertainment business was another niche that French women found could make them money. Three French actresses teamed up with five other actors and on November 12, 1850, performed in the first show of the gold rush era. This business was one of the most profitable, and it elevated these performers to the stature of goddesses. Fans adored both French actresses and musicians alike.
Although the entertainment business provided all the glamour, the French women entrepreneurs were not to be outdone. These women worked as dressmakers and milliners, teachers of French or music, or operated hotels, boarding houses, or restaurants. They made whatever they wished, because just the site of them would draw much business their way.
There were two particular French women-adventurers whose lives have passes along quite a legacy. First, Lucienne Carpentier was considered to be decent looking, mean spirited, and untalented back in France, but was a hit among the men whom she charmed daily at The Polka Saloon where she worked. She also did some acting, which was received with rave reviews, even by critics who were harsh on her back in France. This transformation shows the redemptive power that California offered.
The second woman, Francoise de Saint-Amant, was a direct opposite of Lucienne Carpentier. She set out to California before her husband because the King temporarily detained him. She suffered through a rough sea voyage to California, only to find most of the products she brought with her to sell in California were spoiled. While looking for a new way to make money, she noticed that the lifestyle in California was primitive, so she tried to tame the wild society. She opened a “Frascati” Club where the elite of the society would meet for uninterrupted social intercourse. Francoise, however, was extremely unlucky. First, her club burnt down in a fire. Then, after raising the funds to buy more buildings in town, they burned down as well. Next, she moved to Sacramento where she owned a café, which met the same fate after only a few months.
Claudine Chalmers. “Francoise, Lucienne, Rosalie: French Women-Adventurers in the Early Days of the California Gold Rush.” California History, Vol. 8 (Fall 1999), pp. 138-153.