The Wild West of Yester-Year

Mary Jane Megouier
By Rachel Kovaciny

An apron full of gold—that’s what Mary Jane Megquier wrote home that she expected to bring back from the California gold fields.  


When the California Gold Rush started in 1849, Dr. Thomas Megquier of Winthrop, Maine, caught gold fever. He planned to leave his wife and their children safely at home while he sailed for California. Most married men who headed for the gold fields did this, as reports from California suggested a gold rush is not a healthy environment for women and children. Too many claim jumpers, outlaws, and other ne’er-do-well types roaming around. Not to mention the difficult journey just to get there. But Mary Jane and Thomas kept hearing about how desperate miners were for someone to do the cooking, mending, and laundry—all the skills they had relied on womenfolk for back East. Anyone willing to do such work could make a hefty profit, and maybe even get richer than those who struck a vein of gold. At the last minute, Mary Jane decided to go with her husband. The Megquiers entrusted their children to relatives and set off for California. 

To get there from Maine by ship before the Panama Canal (not built until sixty-five years later) was a difficult and lengthy trip. You could travel across the entire continent by horse, foot, or wagon, which took months. That overland route also held dangers like deserts, bad weather, and possible American Indians attacks. If you didn’t want to go by land, you could go by sea, but you might stop at Panama and go overland across the isthmus on foot, canoe, mule, or whatever else you could arrange. A waiting boat would pick you up once you reached the Pacific Ocean and take you to California. The other option was to go all the way around the tip of South America and back up, which often involved weathering terrible storms.  The Megquiers went by sea and crossed the Isthmus of Panama. Mary Jane wrote many lively letters home about their travels. She did not complain about the discomforts she endured caused by insects, heat, and bad food, but kept her letters full of enthusiasm for her adventures. Reading them, you get the sense she thoroughly enjoyed the new sensations every day brought to her. She marveled at the new wildlife, plants, languages, and kinds of people she encountered.

When Mary Jane and Thomas reached San Francisco, Mary Jane left the gold prospecting to her husband. She opened a boarding house and made her fortune, just as she had planned. Miners flocked to her establishment, where they could get good meals, have their laundry done, and indulge in the ultimate luxury: a bath. To men who didn’t know how to cook or wash clothes, Mary Jane and other boarding house operators like her must have seemed like ministering angels from heaven.


Between 1849 and 1855, the Megquiers made multiple trips between California and Maine. They would return home to visit their children, then go back to the gold fields—presumably so Mary Jane could manage her boarding house while Thomas did more prospecting. In 1855, Mary Jane made the trip to San Francisco alone, and Thomas’s health failed while she was gone. He died in Maine before she could return. Eventually, Mary Jane Megquier gave up her boarding house. She returned to Maine in 1856 for good to live with her children, none of whom wished to move to California. She lived there until her own death in 1899, at age 86. You can peruse Mary Jane Megquier’s letters from the California gold fields, and letters she wrote during her journeys, in a book called Apron Full of Gold. They provide a rare female eyewitness account of the Gold Rush, and most are just plain fun to read, too.