With Great Hope: Women of the California Gold Rush

Eliza Withington

Photo Artist

There before her was a panoramic view of the snow-caped Sierra peaks – jagged and folded, thrusting upward from steep, forested hills – taller than what they called mountains in the East. The California sky was a blue vault overhead. The sun, she noted, was at the perfect angle to highlight the features of the rugged landscape for her camera.

Eliza Withington pulled away the skirt-tent wrapped around her bulky camera and tripod, reversed the lenses she’d turned into the camera box, reset the screw, and anchored the contraption in the rocky soil of the Amador County foothills, slipped it into place and exposed the plate.

The camera, covered with one of her heavy, black dress skirts, then became her darkroom. Eliza slipped beneath the dark skirt with water, lamp, and developer, developed the negative, then washed and replaced the glass in the plateholder for a more convenient time to fix and varnish the picture.

Packing up her precious equipment, she scrambled back down the steep, rocky trail to the dusty road, using her cane-headed parasol for a walking stick. There she waited for a fruit wagon to return and carry her back to Ione City and the appointment for portraits at her studio.

Eliza Withington described how she photographed the Sierras in an article for the Philadelphia Photographer in 1876. “How a Woman Makes Landscape Photographs” detailed her methods of working in the field. The article provided a complete description of her equipment, how she packed it to survive torturous overland journeys to scenic locations, and how she improvised, using her skirts, shawls, and parasol to process the five-by-eight-inch glass plates in the field.

Eliza loved her work – in particular the time she spent on the road, camping out in the rugged foothills of Amador County. Born in New York around 1825, Eliza W. Kirby married George Withington in 1845. They had two daughters, Sarah Augusta in 1847 and Eleanor in 1848. George set out for the gold fields in 1849. Eliza, Sarah, and Eleanor followed him to Ione City in 1852. During the overland trip from St. Joseph, Missouri to Dry Creek, California, Eliza and her daughters were the traveling companions of Dr. Fred Bailey and his wife, Mary Stuart Bailey. Traveling overland for six months was difficult, and according to Mrs. Bailey’s journal, Eliza’s daughter Sarah, then about five years old, had a miserable time of it. Mary wrote that Eliza suffered on her daughter’s account and was ill herself with dysentery.

By August, one of a span of horses Eliza was bringing to her husband had been stolen, along with two horses belonging to the Baileys. Although disappointed at the loss, Eliza and the Baileys had to continued on, and on October 5, they finally met up with George. The Withington family moved to a farm and by mid-October, they were busy sending hay and barley to market in Volcano, a nearby town.

In July 1857, five years after she arrived in the Gold Country, Eliza opened an ambrotype gallery. The opening was advertised in the small Gold Country newspaper, the Amador Ledger. According to the paper, the gallery was located on Main Street, at the “first door west of the bridge” in Ione City, a mining town in the foothills of the Sierra, southeast of Sacramento. In the tradition of the day, the advertisement touted all the advantages of the shop, including the skylight, and the business hours, which were Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday. The advertisement closed with a reminder of the fleeting passage of time and the need to “secure the Shadows, ere they fade away.”

Established as a portrait photographer, Eliza Withington was not content with artful poses of families, individuals, and children. Expanding her subject matter, she also recorded the busy mining camp workings and scenic vistas for the stereopticon viewers that were popular at the time. In order to shoot these stereopticon photographs, two photographs were taken with a special camera equipped with lateral twin lenses. When the two pictures were mounted side by side and viewed through the stereopticon, they provided a realistic, seemingly endless, three-dimensional image.

Eliza Withington soon became one of the most well-known female photographers working in the Gold Country at a time when the physical effort required to produce photographs was daunting, to say the least. She often used the process called daguerreotype, invented in 1839 by Louis Jacque Daguerre. In this process, used by most commercial photographers in the mid-nineteenth century, the photograph was created with a light-sensitive, silver-coated plate developed by mercury vapor. Equipment was cumbersome and the processing labor-intensive, but many individual and family portraits as well as buildings and natural wonders were captured using this method.

The infant craft of photography sustained many frontier females and provided them with both financial security and independence. Despite the difficulties of this method, which included cumbersome equipment and labor-intensive processing with dangerous chemicals, women ventured into this burgeoning industry. Many began as assistant to their photographer husbands, while others started out mounting photographs.

Another woman photographer who established a permanent presence in the Gold Country was Julia Swift Randolph, whose Nevada City gallery operated for thirty-six years. Unlike Eliza Withington, Julia Swift Randolph spent her time producing portraits exclusively.

Other female photographers traveled extensively taking photographs. The San Francisco Examiner featured the unusual lifestyle of Mary Winslow in a story published in March 1895.

“She travels in a buggy, alone, and thinks nothing whatever of driving her own horse over any road where someone else’s horse has been driven. She is twenty-five years old, shrewd, self-reliant and not afraid of anything. Her only arms are a revolver and a man’s hat, and she goes wherever she pleases. She makes views and outdoor portraits, and they are good ones too.

“When the weather grows warm in the spring, she dons a short, plain traveling suit, hitches up her horse and bids farewell to home and friends, to return only when she happens to feel like it. She has been three times to San Jose over three different routes, stopping everywhere on the way. She has been once to Marysville, once to Yosemite, once to Los Angeles, and has done all the country bordering the San Francisco Bay.

“Sometimes she stays four or five weeks in a lively town, where business is good, and at other times she drives, day after day, through mountainous country places where the coyotes stand at the side of the road and look at her in astonishment. When night finds her a long way from any place where she can get a bed and board, she puts on a man’s hat and a black alpaca ulster as a sort of disguise for her sex, sees that her revolver is in good working order and feels perfectly at home.”

The work and methods of Eliza Withington and other early female photographers are still acclaimed today. The copies of their photographs that exist today provide glimpses of the past and the people who secured a future with their bare hands and the sheer determination to succeed.