Courtesy the Pikes Peak Library District.

The white world of the American West at the beginning of the California Gold Rush was overwhelmingly male, with estimates that for every woman in the territory there were over twelve men. Although this number gradually balanced out through the 1850s, and subsequent gold rushes such as the Klondike Rush in Alaska were never quite as segregated, women were seen as “other” in the West well into the 20th century. While many women capitalized on new, looser social mores to make their own destiny by working in the mines or operating businesses they could never have owned alone back east, most of the women who eventually made their way west did so as helpmeets to the men and symbols of a return to social order. A woman in the West could earn her husband a lot of money with her homemaking skills like laundry or baking, and men saw marriage as not only a necessary emotional or physical contract but also a good economic investment. As large numbers of women arrived in boomtowns, they formed groups very similar to those that existed back East, such as temperance societies and church social groups, and worked to tone down the social behaviors of rowdy miners. Prostitutes, who for a time were the most numerous female group in the West, were the one exception to this trend. By 1850, San Francisco alone had over 2,000 prostitutes, some of whom were elite and mixed with the city’s burgeoning high society, but most of whom were simply good-time girls, providing sexual favors to lonely and often violent miners in small tents or shacks for meager earnings. While the West was symbolic of opportunity and frontiers for many who travelled there, including thousands of white women, it was also bound by the morals of its time. Women were accorded many new freedoms as long as they agreed to abide by the existing social contract.