From the archives of Kerby Jackson

When one thinks of the old timers who worked the rivers, creeks, gulches and hills of Oregon in search of illusive riches, we think of the iconic old grizzled prospector. Red shirted and bearded, with a pick over his shoulder, a .45 slung low on his hip and accompanied only by his trusty mule whose back is heaped high with gear, he is the traditional icon of the gold rush era. That image is so powerful and so well known that today, it adorns anything having to do with the word “gold” and like his cousin the cowboy, everyone recognizes him just by his outline. Yet contrary to that traditional image, he wasn’t the only fella who was out there breaking his back for a few bits of color. The patience and hard work of the Chinese and their contribution to the Southern Oregon Gold Rush are legendary, but even lesser known today were the efforts of Pacific Islanders (so-called “Kanakas”), Mexicans, Free Blacks and other groups of men who came to toil in Oregon’s creeks and gulches hoping to strike it rich. And as the following article, originally published over a century ago attests, not every person working in the gold fields of Oregon was necessarily “one of the boys”.

Grants Pass, Oregon. May 1904.

The gold fields of Southern Oregon mineral zone appear to be particularly attractive to women; at least this section has its fair share of women miners, and there is no gainsaying that it has profited thereby. A visitor to the Forest Queen hydraulic mine, near Grants Pass, will find a handsome woman busily engaged about the diggings, operating a giant, retorting gold or even “bucking” the boulders on the bedrock. This woman is Mrs. Wisenbacher, but she was formerly Miss Pipes and was one of the stunning “Sadie Girls” with the popular Anna Held company in “The Little Duchess”. Last year, Mrs. Wisenbacher quit the stage and became a full “partner” with her father and brother in the operation of the Forest Queen Mine. With a woman about to assist, the season has been a successful one at the Forest Queen.

“Though I had become fascinated with the life behind the footlights,” said Mrs. Wisenbacher to a Mining Review correspondent, “I am equally so with the life of a gold digger in Southern Oregon. There are few spots anywhere prettier than that where the Forest Queen is located.”

Mrs. Wisenbacher, being a “Sadie Girl” is, of course, handsome. She would have this season been a “La Mode” girl in the same popular company, but she was induced by her father, who is a prominent Colorado and Idaho miner, to give up the stage and live a life of greater ease and freedom in the Southern Oregon Mountains.

The Mining Review correspondent also came unexpectedly upon another woman miner, a woman “piper”, if you please, in a Southern Oregon mine. She is Mrs. M.E. Moore, and this lady, like the other mentioned is a full “partner” in a placer mine. Mrs. Moore is a piper, an expert piper – not the kind the Scotch Highlanders know so much about – but a hydraulic mining piper – the operater of a hydraulic giant. Every day this woman is at her post beside the giant, long before the sun is up, and she remains there throughout her shift. None know better than she how best to swerve the big nozzle to drive an avalanche of boulders down the gulch ahead of the giant’s stream, scattering them like a handfull of bullets shot from a catapult, or how to bring that long and deep growl to the monster as its cuts and gnaws deep at the base of the towering red clay bank till a great slab of a thousand tons topples and falls with a crash from the mountainside.

Mrs. Moore has been a “partner” of her husband in the mining business for nearly twenty years. She has followed the trails through the mining regions of Colorado, Montana, Arizona, California and Oregon, prospecting, pocket-hunting, digging, always on the lookout for a color, a strike, a bonanza. She has traveled hundreds of miles on pack pony and burro, through the snow and over the burning sands. Those twenty years, spent altogether out of doors, have been days of perfect health for her. “Yes,” said she, “mining is the life for me. I love it. I love the freedom of the mountains and the ozone of the pines. There is no other life like it; none as enjoyable for me, at least.”

The Mining Review, 5/18/1904
Ellen Jack, a female prospector from Colorado at the turn of the 19th century. Courtesy: Kerby Jackson archives

Ellen Jack in 1910

One of the best known female prospectors was Ellen Elliot Jack of Colorado, who is pictured at the left in a photo dated about 1910. Ellen was born in England, but came to the Far West in 1872 after the tragic death of her husband and children. In addition to mining, she was also an early woman business owner. Like her male counterparts who worked the gold fields, Ellen was one tough cookie. Everywhere she went, Ellen carried a pick axe and a six gun in her belt and she knew how to use both of them. She was also said to bear a severe scar that was the result of a tomahawk wound she received during one of the Gunnison Indian Uprisings. At the time this photo was taken, she had just written a semi-autobioghraphical novel entitled “The Fate of A Fairy” which was about a woman who loses her husband and becomes a female prospector.

Another lady prospector was Ferminia Sarras, who was a major mine owner in Nevada and was widely known as the “Nevada Copper Queen”. Ferminia’s story would have been lost to history had it not been for the research of historian Sally Zanjani, the author of “A Mine of Her Own: Women Prospectors in the American West, 1850-1950″

The article above is thought to have been written by Dennis Stovall who was an early author living in Josephine County. Stovall is best known for his novel “Suzanne of Kerbyville” which he wrote the same year as this article. His novel, though fictional, is one of the best sources for information on the early settlement of Kerby, Oregon, as well as the mining that went on in the vicinity of that early gold rush town. Though the novel really focuses on the exploits of a young woman named Suzanne , it is mentioned that Suzanne’s father was a “pocket hunter” and there is quite a good description of his methods.

The Forest Queen Placer, mentioned in this article, was located on Louse Creek, a few miles east of Merlin, Oregon. At the time, it was owned by J.P. Pipes and T. Weisenbacher (or Wisenbacher). The property was originally known as the Lance Placer and at the time of this article it consisted of 212 acres of ground that was worked with the assistance of two miles worth of ditch, 2500 feet of pipe with a pressure of 200 feet, three giants and a Ruble Rock Elevator.

~ Kerby Jackson, Josephine County, Oregon