The picture that comes to mind for most Anglo-Americans when women are discussed in the context of historical travels to California is that of the overland wagon trains moving westward, peopled by sturdy and daring pioneers who arrived in California after the discovery of gold in 1848. A few might also mention that some of the women came by ship, interrupting their voyage with an arduous trek—on foot or by mule—across the Isthmus of Panama, all the while with small children in tow. Even fewer people are aware that these women were relative latecomers to the Golden State, as California came to be known.
At the time Anglo-Americans began arriving in California in large numbers during the nineteenth century, they were part of the third wave of migration to the Pacific Coast. The first immigrants were Indians who had lived in California ten to fifteen thousand years before the region was visited by Old World explorers.1 A prevalent myth that the rich land was empty, ripe for colonization, is refuted by recent studies indicating that “at the time of Euro-American contact, California was more densely populated than any area of equal size in North America, north of central Mexico . . . . What is labeled ‘wilderness’ in today’s popular imagination . . . harbored human gathering and hunting sites, burial grounds, work sites, sacred areas, trails, and village sites. Today’s wilderness was then human homeland.