Friday, September 13, 2013

Luzena Stanley Wilson

By Anna Kathryn Lanier

Luzena Stanley Wilson was someone who didn't let opportunity pass her by.  When she and her husband moved from Missouri to California in 1849, she was just following his dreams of striking it rich in the gold fields. After the typical rough journey to reach the promise land of Nevada City, California, a tent city set in two ravines. The streets teemed with men, and a woman was such an unusual sight, they’d come by just to see Luzena and her two boys.

The family couldn't afford a tent, so they set up house in their wagon under some trees. Her first task was to wash the dirt and grime off her boys, “I scrubbed those children until my arms ached before I got them back to their natural hue.” In her own washing, she emptied the washbasin three times and knew she still didn't look as she had before the journey began. She was sunburned, her bonnet shabby, the hem of her dress ragged above her ankles and the sleeves were tattered.

After cleaning herself and her boys, she set about fixing dinner.  As she cooked, a miner approached. “I’ll give five dollars for one of those biscuits, ma’am.”  It wasn't much for her to add a bit more flour to her mix and make five dollars on the spot. She then studied the market and learned that the local hotel charged one dollar per meal. As her husband spent days trying to strike it rich in the gold fields, Luzena went about her own way to earn riches.

She set up simple plank tables and bought supplies from the local store.  She then cooked enough food to feed a small army. When Mason trudged home after a long day of work, he discovered 20 miners eating at his wife’s ‘hotel.’ Each man had paid a dollar for the meal and promised to be return customers.  Luzena knew that she had hit pay dirt.

Within six weeks, she’d made seven hundred dollars.  With the money, she improved her building with a roof and added more tables. Eventually, she built a bare wooden building, and charging twenty-five dollars a week, served between seventy-five and two hundred boarders a week. Eventually, she hired cooks and waiters.

Luzena then decided they could make even more money if they opened a dry goods store.  After six months, the couple’s hotel was worth ten thousand dollars and the stock in their store worth even more. Luzena’s next enterprise was to become a bank—loaning out money at ten-percent.

Banks were scares in Nevada City, so Luzena often used her oven as a vault.  She later remarked that she’d” closed the oven door on two milk pans piled high with bags of gold dust.”  She’d sleep with her mattress lined with riches, at one time having more than $200,000 hidden in her bedroom.

Fire! Fire! rang through streets of Nevada City in the middle of night.  Residents, including Luzena and Mason, only had time to toss on a robe and rush outside.  Within a few hours, most of the city lay in ashes.  The El Dorado Hotel and the dry goods store were nothing but piles of dust. The Masons were destitute.  They sold their city lot, packed up their children and left Nevada City with a mere $500.

There’s not anything else mention in WITH GREAT HOPE: Women of the California Gold Rush by JoAnn Chartier and Chris Enss about the Masons. I don’t know what they did after losing their livelihood. But Luzena is quoted as saying, decades later, “The rags and tatters of my first days in California are well nigh forgotten in the ease and plenty of the present.”  So, the family must have done well for themselves.

For further reading:

Anna Kathryn Lanier
Never let your memories be greater than your dreams. ~Doug Ivester 


  1. I always enjoy reading about enterprising people, especially women, who found a way to increase their fortune while pioneering. Thanks for another interesting post, Anna Kathryn.

  2. Five dollars for a biscuit! She could have made a fortune on biscuits alone. Interesting post, Anna Kathryn. I always enjoy reading about pioneering women. I can't imagine going that long with a bath!!!

  3. I've read that more riches were made by people like Luzena than the men digging for gold or silver. Interesting stuff. I know this, I'd been sick to death knowing all that money in my mattress went up in flames just like the bed did.
    Thanks for telling us about yet another pioneer character--this time, a woman.

  4. Nevada City is an awesome gold mining town built on the side of quite a steep hill. My grandparents lived there and I loved spending parts of summers there. Loved reading this story, Kathryn.

  5. Hi, all. Thanks for stopping by. I love stories like this, too and there are a lot of stories like Luzena's.


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