In 1841, Nancy Kelsey, carrying her infant daughter Ann, crossed the Sierra Nevada on foot. She was the only woman in the first organized overland pioneer party to California. There were no maps or guides, and the wagons had to be abandoned to cross the mountains. In 1844 eight women came west to California in another organized party, and by 1846 hundreds were traveling the California Trail to America’s new frontier.
This course will explore the lives of some of the women who were part of the pioneer history of California. Through personal letters and journals, memoirs, historical fiction, and nonfiction, we will discover what life was like for these pioneer women and what their experiences meant to them. We will start with the letters of the Donner-Reed party and next look at the life of Jesse Benton Freemont, the wife of explorer John Fremont. Then we will learn about some of the women who “saw the elephant” – and what they experienced during the Gold Rush.
It is said that the California Trail ended in 1869, with the completion of the transcontinental railroad. We will study four women who were married to men who worked on that railroad and discuss whether the oppressive myth of genteel womanhood came west with the pioneers. We will also explore the cultural and economic factors affecting women in the West, specifically through the life of illustrator and writer, Mary Hallock Foote, whose life is fictionalized by Wallace Stegner in his novel Angle of Repose (1971). Finally, we will discuss the life of a California pioneer family as it was explored in Joan Didion’s memoir, Where I Was From (2003).
Note: This 5-session course begins Monday, October 3rd and will skip Columbus Day/Indigenous Peoples' Day October 10th.