Mining history by Harold Hough Aug/Sept 2010
“Transgender” rights seem to be the latest politically correct issue. However, transgender issues aren’t new. It seems that there were more women posing as men during the Western gold rush than many thought. One such case was that of Mountain Charley, who hid her gender for thirteen years in the gold fields.
Mountain Charley was born as Elsa Jane Forest in Louisiana in the early 1830s under circumstances that would do a modern, steam,y romantic novel justice. She lived on a fabulous plantation with as “uncle” who was really her father. She was the result of her father’s romantic tryst with a woman he was unable to marry.
Elsa was twelve and attending an exclusive boarding school when she eloped with a riverboat pilot and moved to St. Louis. Despite warnings from her father that the marriage would fail, the newlyweds settled down to a happy life and started a family. At that time, it seemed that the story would end with a, “They lived happily ever after.”
Elsa’s life was shattered at the age of 16 when a river hand murdered her husband. Not only was she a widow, her husband left her little money.
At that time, there were few professions open to women, especially for ladies educated to be the mistress of a large plantation. She was too stubborn to go back to her father, so she took on the name of Charlie and traded in her woman’s garb for that of a workman. She became a river rudderman, while her children went to school. Once a month she would dress like a woman to visit her kids.
But, the gold fields of the West were beckoning and promising more money. In 1855, she bought a prospecting outfit and joined a party a party of men heading towards California.
Unfortunately, Elsa had little mining luck in California. She and the party she had travelled with had purchased a claim on the Feather River. Although it was hard work, she joined the men in digging a shaft down to bedrock and digging drifts in search of a paystreak. But the claim only provided enough money for grub and she soon moved to Sacramento where she went to work in a saloon.
As many were to discover, working in saloons was a better paying opportunity than breaking one’s back as a miner. Charley made enough money with this job to buy a team of mules and go into the transportation business. Two years later she sold her business for $30,000 and went back to St. Louis.
By this time, the adventure bug had bitten her so, when she heard about the Colorado Gold Rush, she was back on the trail. Mountain Charley arrived at Pikes Peak in 1858 and prospected for three months until John Gregory found gold on the north fork of the Cache la Poudre River. She and thousands rushed there to stake their claim, but like most of them was too late. Instead she set up a bakery and salon and made more money than most miners. A year later she did buy a nearby claim and worked it for a season. However, by this time she knew that future mining required large amounts of capital, so she sold out and moved to Denver. There, she bought the Mountain Boy Saloon. At the same time, she continued to travel out into the mountains to prospect.
One day, while traveling, she thought she recognized an approaching man as the murder of her husband (He had been tried, and convicted, but released on a technicality). She pulled out her revolver and shot him off his horse. She then jumped off her mule and was prepared to finish him off when two hunters approached and stopped her. They fixed up a litter and took the murderer, Jamison, back to Denver.
Jamison’s appearance caused Elsa’s story to unravel. He revealed her sex, admitted to killing her husband, and exculpated her from any blame in trying to kill him. Since he had already been tried, he was released when he recovered. He left for New Orleans and soon died of yellow fever.
Elsa and her story became national news. She was the subject of an article by Horace Greeley in the New York Tribune. In 1860, she married her saloon partner H. L. Guerin, sold their interests in Colorado, and moved back to Missouri, where she was reunited with her children for the first time in years. She also changed her attire and dressed like a lady for the rest of her life.
Elsa Forest was one of many women who dressed as men so they could join the gold rush. Unfortunately, we don’t know most of their stories because many left the gold fields, quietly married back east and settled down. Many never told their husbands or neighbors about their “scandalous” past. However, their trailblazing efforts contributed towards western states becoming the pioneers in woman’s suffrage.