by Anna Kathryn Lanier
Common businesses were laundries, baking, house cleaning, boarding houses, hotels, restaurants, seamstress, even post mistress. The men may have come West for freedom, but they still wanted clean clothes, fresh pies and a place to sleep.
Luzena Wilson, without her husband’s knowledge, built a table herself and set up an outdoor restaurant. When her husband returned that evening he found twenty miners sitting at her table, paying a dollar each for the food she cooked. Her business was so successful, she was able to build a hotel and lend money to others.
Mary Jane Caples decided to sell pies to the miners in the area. Using dried fruit, she sold the pies “for one dollar and a quarter a piece, and mince pies for one dollar and fifty cents. I sometimes made and sold a hundred in a day, and not even a stove to bake them in, but had two small dutch ovens.”
Another woman boasted, “I have made about $18,000 worth of pies—about one third of this has been clear profit. One year I dragged my own wood off the mountain and chopped it, and I have never had so much as a child to take a step for me in this country. $11,000 I baked in one little iron skillet, a considerable portion by a campfire, without the shelter of a tree from the broiling sun.”
Several women owned boarding houses, one made $189 a week within three weeks of opening her place.
But these occupations weren’t the only way for a woman to make her way in the west. The Historic Hwy 49 site offers a list of woman and their successful enterprises:
Other women took up more historically masculine jobs such as gold mining and muleskinners (someone who drove cargo using mules). And physician, hundreds of women practiced medicine in the West, where they were more accepted, too.
The possibilities for a woman were nearly as limitless as the wide open spaces of the Old West.
What occupation are you inclined to give your heroine if your story were set in the 1800’s American west? Leave a comment and you could win a copy of “Texas Chuckwagon Cuisine: Real Cowboy Cooking.”
Sites to visit:
Anna Kathryn Lanier
Where Tumbleweeds Hang Their Hats