A Mine of Her Own: Women Prospectors in the American West, by Sally Zanjani, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, 1997, $32.50.
Hear the words “gold rush” and a mother lode of images surges into the heads of those who love Western history and/or the thought of becoming rich. No mere reviewer can be so bold as to suggest that all these images are similar, but one might assume that few of them involve women–
at least not women rushing, panning, digging or defending a claim with a six-shooter. Yet there were women prospectors 150 years ago during the grandaddy of them all–the California Gold Rush–and women prospectors (yes, gold diggers who really dug) in the gold rushes that followed, from Nevada to Nome and beyond. As Sally Zanjani writes in her introduction: “For years the presence of women prospectors has remained a lost piece of history, as thoroughly misplaced as the lost Cashman Mine, which some fortune seekers believe a woman discovered. But unlike many lost mines, the women prospectors unquestionably existed, and they plunged with zest into all aspects of the prospecting life.” Few of these women prospectors left detailed accounts of their activities, and old mining camp newspapers rarely went into any great detail, either. Still, the author mentions more than 100 women prospectors by name, telling at least parts of their stories. As expected, the author has a chapter about Nellie Cashman, probably the most famous woman to ever stake a claim in gold country. But she also introduces Marie Pantalon, who came to California from Paris in 1850, made a fortune mining, and then apparently lost most of it through bad investments and reckless gambling. Marie Pantalon certainly had a mine (and mind) of her own, and one only wishes there was more available information to be mined about her, as well as some other 19th-century female prospectors.