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A Boardinghouse Keeper Describes “Toil and Fatigue” in the California Gold Rush

Mary Ballou and her husband ran a boarding house in a California gold mining town. Ballou’s letter to her son, written in 1852, evokes the rough housing, violence, and high prices (from which the Ballous profited) in California during the gold rush. She also describes how the few women there provided each other with companionship and consolation. Ballou’s references to “the States” suggest how far from home California must have felt, since California had been a state, for two years when she wrote this letter. Spelling and grammar changes have been made to improve clarity.

Well, I will try to tell you what my work is here in this muddy place…. Sometimes I am washing and ironing, sometimes I am making mince pie and apple pie and squash pies…. Sometimes I am making gruel for the sick now and then cooking oysters, 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 cruets and mustard pots and butter cups. Sometimes I am feeding my chickens and then again I am scaring the hogs out of my kitchen and driving the mules out of my dining room…. Sometimes I am making soups and cranberry tarts and baking chicken that cost four dollars a head and cooking eggs at three dollars a dozen.... 

Sometimes 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’s wife says if she was safe in the States she would not care if she had not one cent… 

[O]ccasionally 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…. [today] 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 easily 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.

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.
Creator | Mary Ballou
Item Type | Diary/Letter
Cite This document | Mary Ballou, “A Boardinghouse Keeper Describes “Toil and Fatigue” in the California Gold Rush,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed October 17, 2021,

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