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  • By their own accounts, some women in gold rush towns experienced far more kindness than harassment from men. Tweet This
  • In the late 1800s, miners and other men in the far northwest liked being reminded of their civilization’s standards. Tweet This
Category: Women, Men

People respond to expectations. A professor who allows students to submit late papers is likely to receive late papers, even from students who ordinarily complete their work on time.

Perhaps something similar is true in moral life. When I was in the Navy, I noticed that many sailors were perfectly decent in some ports, while in other ports the same men did things they would never admit to back home. The difference was expectations. In ports where almost anything was acceptable, almost anything happened, and the consequences were degrading for all.

This came to mind as I read the diaries and memoirs of women who went to gold rush communities in Alaska and the Canadian Yukon in the late nineteenth century. Mary Hitchcock was a curious New Yorker; Elizabeth Robins an actress and writer.1 Martha Black arrived pregnant and estranged from her husband; Anna DeGraf was a seamstress.2

Gold rush lore evinces images of restless, grizzled miners and thriving saloons. Certainly, boom towns like Skagway (Alaska) and Dawson (Yukon) had their wild sides. Anna DeGraf saw “gold fever, greed, and lawlessness,”3 and she notes that she was harassed a few times by drunken men. Yet her story is mainly about cooperation and kindness. The same is true of the other women’s memoirs and diaries. Each of them ended up in situations where they would have been almost powerless against one man, let alone many. Yet their writings say little of vulnerability, even in areas beyond the reach of police.

DeGraf relates an interesting story. One evening, she stopped at a road house. Exhausted, she slept deeply, despite the cold. She didn’t hear seven men enter. When she awakened, she was warm. “I sat up…and looked around,” she wrote.

There was a candle burning on the crude table in the center of the tent. Around it were seven men…their heads buried in their arms…. They were all sound asleep—and not one of them had on a coat! It took me just a moment to discover that they had all taken off their coats and laid them over me to keep me warm.4

Martha Black’s memoir, like Hitchcock’s memoir and Robin’s diary, records no untoward episodes with men. But she does relate a time when, exhausted and despairing along a trail, multiple men stopped to ask how they could help.

This ordinary kindness was partly reciprocity. DeGraf writes about binding male travelers’ feet in strips of blanket and “wrapping them in gunny-sacks.”5 But something else was at work, too. Mary Hitchcock recorded one man telling her that it was “a fine thing” to have ladies around, for it “keeps us from getting demoralized.”6 The men liked being reminded of civilization and its expectations.7 Hitchcock was wealthy, DeGraf was not, but they both had a kind of power in their day-to-day interactions with men.

This is worth noting because there were other women, prostitutes and dance hall girls, whose experiences were dramatically different—not only for the obvious reasons associated with their employment but for the subculture that grew up around them. Tourist literature of the time promotes images of the happy hooker, but Dawson’s red light district was called “Lousetown,” and memoirs, men’s as well as women’s, tell of violence spurred by alcohol and a subculture that construed women as things.

These women were demeaned, sometimes beat up, and the subculture they lived in branched out. “Until the dance-hall girls came in,” DeGraf wrote, “the men as a rule were faithful and fond of their wives and children.”8 But in the summer of 1895, “some dance hall girls came down the Yukon River, and then the…men began to treat their wives badly [and] spent all their money on the dance hall girls and neglected the women who had been faithful to them.”9

It’s easy to understand why prostitutes and bar girls, dependent as they were on drunken customers, would be abused. It’s less obvious why the abusers’ wives would sometimes also pay while women elsewhere in the communities, like Robins, Black, and Hitchcock, didn’t.

One answer lies in expectations. DeGraf tells a story of a man who was confronted about his poor behavior and changed, while another man, not held to account, grew more violent.

Similar in spirit to soldiers in the First World War who walked miles just to hear the voice of a Red Cross nurse, miners and other men in the far northwest liked being reminded of their civilization’s standards. Some of them—perhaps many of them—took advantage of the trade in prostitution, but, of course, none (so far as I know) confesses to this in memoirs.

A man said to Hitchcock: “I like ladies as is ladies…. [How] can we have the same respect for women who…live like men, and talk like men, and act like men?”10 The man seemed to be asking how it was possible to respect women who did not hold men to a standard higher than acting on mere impulse.

It’s true, as we often hear, that men are responsible for their own behavior and should not blame depredation on women. But historical reflection and ordinary experience show that it is also true that society suffers when men, especially young men, are not held to clear standards.

When women do not hold men to high standards, men are less likely to hold one another to account. And when men are untethered, everyone nearby suffers.

Preston Jones teaches at John Brown University. He has published three books on early twentieth-century Alaska. He is currently writing a book on U.S.-British relations in the far northwest in the late nineteenth century.

1. Mary E. Hitchcock, Two Women in the Klondike (Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 2005; repr., 1899); and Victoria Joan Moessner and Joanne E. Gates, eds., The Alaska-Klondike Diary of Elizabeth Robins, 1900 (Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 1999

2. Martha Louise Black, My Ninety Years (Anchorage, 1976); Anna DeGraf, Pioneering on the Yukon, 1892-1917, ed. Roger S. Brown (Archon Books, 1992)

3. DeGraf, Pioneering, 4.

4. DeGraf, Pioneering, 61.

5. DeGraf, Pioneering, 56.

6. Hitchcock, Two Women, 113.

7. The Catholic missionary William Judge wrote that cabins with women living in them were always nicer and more comfortable than those lived in only by men. See Charles J. Judge, An American Missionary: A Record of the Work of Rev. William H. Judge (New York: Maryknoll, 1904), 164.

8. DeGraf, Pioneering, 22.

9. DeGraf, Pioneering, 35.

10. Hitchcock, Two Women, 113.