Updated: Oct 26
By Scott Belser, Groveland Yosemite Gateway Museum/Southern Tuolumne County
Throughout history many wise people have commented on the importance of both women and men to the well-being. of a nation or a culture. Even Mao Zedong noted that “women hold up half the sky.” Certainly the skies over Tuolumne County have been supported by strong individuals of both genders to the benefit of all.
Since the early days of the European presence in Groveland and Big Oak Flat, there have been a number of strong women who have played major roles in our community. This might not be a surprise since getting to southern Tuolumne County in those early times was a demanding test for anyone, man or woman. Coming to California for the Gold Rush required an arduous journey of many months and significant dangers. Each of the three principal routes to the gold strike areas – overland, around the Horn of South America, or across the Panama Isthmus – posed severe hardships and even death. An estimated 10% of those who started the journey didn’t complete it due to injuries or disease. You had to be tough to even think of going to California, much less arrive there and start a new life in a new land.
Almost all gold adventurers in the first years after the discovery of gold in California were men. California’s population according to the 1852 California Census was 90% men. The Gold Rush’s hard labor, brutal weather, and a violent society meant a prevalence of men in the gold fields.
Gradually, however, the strenuous life in Gold Country moderated, and women began to arrive in increasing numbers. The easy gold of the 1850s ran out, and migrants had to turn elsewhere for their livelihood. Harsh gold prospecting was replaced by farming, ranching, and commerce.
With this changed environment, many men sought women to marry and start families. By 1860 women were 28% of California residents (US Census). In many cases they were the wives or companions of men immigrants. To be sure, some women came as “entertainers” of varying propriety. However, as time passed, more and more women became wives, and also sisters, mothers, and daughters. Moreover, they had the opportunity to create their own lives connected to but independent from the world of men around them.
Southern Tuolumne County illustrated these economic and demographic changes. Big Oak Flat was a classic Gold Rush “boom town” in the 1850s and early 1860s with a population of nearly 3000 and a lively town of hotels, clubs, businesses of all types – even an opera house. Unfortunately, a devastating fire in 1863 nearly destroyed the town completely.
However, even in Tuolumne County, the first signs of a sustainable alternative to mining became evident by the 1860s: namely, tourism to Yosemite. The threat to Yosemite from rapacious over-development was so dire that President Lincoln felt compelled to declare Yosemite Valley a “preserve” in 1864. The Big Oak Flat Road to Yosemite opened in 1874. The appearance of tourism and commerce opened up new opportunities for all, including the area’s women residents.
A survey of southern Tuolumne County history highlights the stories of four women who were part of these demographic patterns. They also illustrate the positive role of strong characters (who happened to be women) in the development of the area. There were many other individuals, of course, but these four stories are emblematic of the challenges facing women and their drive to overcome them.
Emanuella Antonini was born in Genoa, Italy, in 1847 and migrated to America to marry Luigi Marconi in 1862. Long-distance arranged marriages were not uncommon in that era, including many in the Italian community. Luigi had an established bakery and store in Big Oak Flat, and the couple apparently worked together in their businesses. The couple went on to have six children. Luigi Marconi died in 1876, and Emanuella raised the children as a single mother until her marriage to another prominent local businessman, Joseph Raggio (also from Genoa, Italy), in 1883.
For many years Emanuella and Joseph ran the well-known “Raggio Store” in Big Oak Flat located in what is now the Wells Fargo Gamble building. A stone structure, the building had been built in 1852 and, as such, survived the devastating Big Oak Flat fire in 1863. It housed a series of businesses over the years, including the post office where Emanuella was the Postmaster from 1896 to 1902. The Raggio store remained in business for many years until Joseph’s death in 1920. Emanuella died only 3 years later after a lifetime of contributions to her community.
Margaret Kirkwood Priest came to California from Scotland in her mid-teens to marry Alexander Kirkwood in 1853. In 1855 the Kirkwoods founded a store and hospitality establishment at the top of the canyon called “Grizzly Gulch” that rose steeply from the settlement of Moccasin to the flatter lands above. In 1855 the trail from Moccasin to “Rattlesnake Creek” at the top was so steep and rough that passengers reportedly had to get out of their coaches and walk in certain stretches. By the late 1850s, fortunately, the County upgraded the Grizzly track to a government-maintained road. Coach travel up the grade became more common.
The Kirkwoods’ business was successful despite its hurdles. Margaret Kirkwood was credited by local historian Margaret Schlichtman (“The Big Oak Flat Road,” 1955) as the “mainspring and motive force” behind the lodging’s success.
After 17 years of marriage Mr. Kirkwood died in November 1870. Still in her 30s, Margaret Kirkwood was very eligible woman in a region with very few women, much less one with clear ability and presence. Reportedly, she had sixty offers of marriage. The lucky winner was William Priest, a local engineer and businessman. The two married in December, 1871 and continued the successful hospitality business at the top of the grade.
“Priest’s Station” was the first and among the best of the “stations” (as the early hotels were known) on the road to the eastern gold camps and Yosemite. Early tourist accounts of Priest Station were very positive about the high-quality lodging. Margaret Priest was the driver of this success, including a “Lady’s Parlor” for women customers, an offering that imparted a level of refinement and quality to the hotel. Ms. Schlictman’s book quotes a local John Ferretti to say, “It was a high class establishment…The cuisine was excellent.”
Priest’s Station was a centerpiece of the local economy and a source of employment for many local residents. In particular, it was a place for young women to safely work as domestic staff or cooks.
The coach “road to Yosemite,” opened in 1874, involved the collection of tolls from passing coaches. Margaret Priest was often responsible for the aggregation of tolls for financial accounts. She was well-known for carrying a Derringer pistol for self-protection as she pursued her duties. (One of her Derringers is on display at the Groveland Museum.)
William Priest died in 1900. By then the Yosemite tourist business was on the cusp of a major change from horse-drawn transport to the automobile. (The first car arrived in Yosemite in 1902.) Margaret Priest – as the owner of a prominent hotel – began a community campaign to enable motor cars to climb the scarp from Moccasin to Big Oak Flat using a more gradual slope that could be handled by the weak automobile engines of the day. Unfortunately for the community, Margaret Priest died in 1905, but her initial campaign for a “new road” was ultimately successful in achieving the construction of a winding, but more gradual, highway in 1914. In her honor Margaret’s road is called the “New Priest Grade.”
Watch for Part 2 of Strong Women of Tuolumne County.
Taking You Back in History is provided by the Southern Tuolumne County Historical Society (STCHS) and the Groveland Gateway Museum. The Museum is open Friday - Sunday 10a - 2p