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  • James Wheeling

Eliza Farnham and the California Association of American Women

Social reformers are not, by nature, passive nor necessarily polite. They have a vision, a calling, to right wrongs and at the cost of some of their lives, to try to make a change. I was a child during the civil rights and the modern feminist movements but as an adult, I’m witnessing the passion reformers have for two significant societal shifts. First, the calling to recognize climate change as a fact and the fossil fuel industry’s role in the atmosphere’s degradation and climatic volatility. The second crusade is society’s acceptance of the LGBTQ equality movement. Both have had passionate and determined supporters and antagonists.

As I did my story’s research, social movements that set the stage for all of today’s efforts were everywhere in 1849. From abolition and temperance to women’s rights and prison reform, people were taking a stand for what they believed were injustices that had been happening for years. My story touches on several of these movements, albeit lightly, as they relate to the overall atmosphere in which my characters find themselves. But, in at least one case, I had to include it as one of my female protagonist’s major influences.

At that point in our history most reformers were aligned with the abolition of slavery. The Northeast was a hotbed of abolitionists, which I have touched on in other blogs. As the abolitionist movement matured, many saw the tools and techniques used as very applicable to the women’s rights movement. As Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott were getting organized for the Seneca Falls Convention, held in July of 1848 (I will have a blog about that in the future), the reformer who caught my eye was a woman of iron-clad intention and bold action. In this blog, I’d like to focus on her life’s passion and one grand adventure. While there are many volumes for research, I used Hearts West: True Stories of Mail-Order Brides on the Frontier by Chris Enss as my main source.

Eliza Woodson Burhans Farnham was born to a Dutch Quaker family in Rensselaerville, Albany County, New York in 1815. Her mother passed when she was six and, separated from her siblings, she spent her childhood in difficulty with abusive and depriving adults controlling her young life. Undaunted, she read everything she could get her hands on until being reunited with her sister, joining her at a Friend’s boarding school. She qualified to become a teacher and at the age of twenty, in 1835, made a buggy trip to the Santa Cruz mountains, wanting to experience the West first hand after having read about it. At this point, I’d say she’s got a pretty stout soul. While I’d love to know more about that trip, I had to force myself to focus!

Once Eliza returned East, she moved to Illinois with her sister and brother-in-law. There she met a young Vermont lawyer, Thomas J. Farnham. Eliza didn’t view herself as attractive given her deep-set, bespectacled eyes, thin physique and dark, shoulder-length ringlets but Thomas made her feel special. After a brief courtship, they were married in 1836. In 1838 they had a son but lost him, and Eliza’ sister, to yellow fever a year later.

The child’s death dealt a severe blow to Thomas who, saying he needed to heal, accepted the role of an Oregon-emigrant train’s leader, leaving Eliza behind to manage her own grief. She used this time to travel around Illinois and gather stories for a manuscript she hoped to publish.

When he returned, they moved to New York where he wrote several guidebooks about his western travels, including Travels in the Great Western Prairies, while Eliza gave him two more sons. Eliza was also busy writing and published an essay in 1843 opposing political rights for women on the grounds that those rights would reduce women’s influence in society. Rather, she pondered the importance of a woman’s role as a civilizer in frontier society. While she shocked the establishment with her profound announcements, her work prompted an offer of employment from Mt. Pleasant (modernly known as Sing Sing Prison) as the women’s section matron.

As Eliza changed the prison’s cruel culture toward women, her reformer ways made her a popular figure, which irritated Thomas enough that he decided to make another western trip in 1847. While in San Francisco a year later he fell ill with pneumonia and died. Eliza, with her nine and eleven-year-old sons, sailed for California to settle his estate.

By this time the California Gold Rush was in full swing, 1848-1849. Eliza, at 34 years old, was scandalized by the men’s shocking behavior when the simple act of her walking down the boomtown’s streets caused an uproar, doorways filling instantly with admiring men, throngs surrounding her as she tried to make her way. With a ratio of men to women that was easily 12 to 1 (and that one woman was usually soiled beyond reform), and her mantra about women’s role as frontier society civilizer combined with her experiences at Mt. Pleasant, Eliza saw an opportunity. Her hypothesis became that there were women in the East who had nothing to lose, other than “losing their self-respect through prostitution.” This place offered all manner of financial opportunity for self-motivated, moral, educated, plucky, single women.

Returning back to New York, she quickly organized an aid society for destitute and single women, its premise that they would be escorted to California where they would be a part of civilizing the rampant chaos. Calling it the “California Association for American Women,” she proposed that single women, who could produce character references and finance their way, form a group, charter a ship and sail for California.

With the endorsement of some of New York’s leaders, including Horace Greeley, W. C. Bryant and Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, she published a broadsheet in a New York newspaper on February 2nd,1849 and organized a gathering. She chartered the ship Angelique for the trip, scheduled its departure for April 15th,1849 and proposed to take 100-130 young women on this voyage. Unfortunately, after 200 women answered her advertisement, on the date she had scheduled their organizational meeting, she fell ill and could not attend. Later, unable to recover her earlier momentum, and facing pushback from the social elite that hers was a scandalous plan, controversy reigned. She didn’t fill the ship. Only three women sailed with her on the Angelique on April 15, 1849.

Eliza had a strong personality, as you might expect, so when she challenged the ship’s captain for not having enough fresh water, he figured out a way to lure her and her charges, including her boys, off the ship in Valparaiso, Chile. Stranded there until another California-bound ship arrived a month later, Eliza and her courageous souls arrived in San Francisco in early 1850.

And, along with all of this drama, here’s another big bummer. Frontier newspapers had advertised the arrival of “hundreds of marriageable women” arriving with Eliza. Miners were coming out of the woodwork and when she arrived with only three women, well, the men kind of lost their minds. A miner, Dashel Greech, reported of the scene: “I verily believe there was more drunkenness, more gambling, more fighting, and more of everything that was bad that night, than ever before occurred in San Francisco within any similar space of time.”

Eliza bought a farm in Santa Cruz, married another man before divorcing him four years later and returning to New York in 1856. She wrote California, Indoors and Out and My Early Days during this time. She also wrote Women and her Era, in two volumes, heralded as her most important work, which were published the year she died, 1864. A novel, The Ideal Attained, was published, posthumously, in 1865.

Since Eliza Farnham doesn’t play a key role in my story, I didn’t go too much further in my research of this account but I do want to go down as feeling like there are a few holes in her story that don’t quite add up. This biggest, and the one that directly applies to my story, that has bothered me is this: if the Angelique’s ship captain put Eliza off in Valparaiso, what ship picked her up and how did the miners know she had arrived if she arrived on a different ship? Maybe someone out there can solve that mystery for me, if you have the passion to follow through with the research.

After it is all said and done, Eliza Farnham was something else. A buggy ride to California in 1835? A women prisoner’s matron in Sing Sing prison at 27 years old? Facing down a mob of angry miners in San Francisco after the arduous Cape Horn sailing trip in 1849? Writing about women’s superiority in civil society in the mid-1800’s?

All I can say is, dang, Eliza Farnham had some kind of grit!

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Apr 17, 2020

Very very interesting Thank you JJ!

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