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A tragedy unfolds in a Gold Rush brothel

While on a recent trip to northern California I visited one of my favorite nature spots, the town of Coloma in the foothills of the Sierra mountains. Coloma is famous as the place where in 1848 California entrepreneur John Sutter hired James Marshall to build a sawmill along the banks of the American River. Marshall was studying the terrain one day in January 1848 when he discovered some genuine gold nuggets. Soon the news was out, the gold rush was on, and California soon became a state.

Hundreds and then thousands of miners, virtually all men, all arrived in the Coloma area to prospect for gold. Soon merchants opened various stores, saloons were full of thirsty imbibers, and there was at least one brothel. It is at this brothel that my story begins.

I was walking through Coloma’s ancient and very quaint cemetery when I chanced upon a small burial stone covered with coins. It read:

Ellen Wilson
“Texas Ellen”
Shot and died on March 14 1855 in Coloma
Proprietor of the “Lone Star of Texas”
(A House of ill-fame)

The grave was covered with coins and it is that which attracted my attention. A little research soon gave me a lot more information about Ellen Wilson.

It is said that Ellen was quite beautiful. She was born in eastern Canada, but at a young age moved to New England and then to Texas where she allegedly entered the dark world of prostitution. Why is not clear but she proved to be a good business woman who was very good at her work. How she arrived in Coloma is unclear. One story has her coming with a gold seeker who abandoned here there. Another says she arrived as a full-blown madamen looking for a propitious place to open a brothel. In any case, sometime in 1850, she rented a large two-story, seven bedroom house in the middle of town which she promptly opened as a brothel which she christened “The Lone Star of Texas.” This earned her the nickname of “Texas Ellen.” Her employees included five young women, a bartender and a cook.

When the gold in the Coloma region began to run out, many of the miners left town for greener pastures, but Texas Ellen was happy in Coloma and remained there even though her business was no longer as profitable.

Despite her less than illustrious career, Ellen was very civic minded and gained the respect of the people of Coloma. In 1852 and 1853 there were widespread outbreaks of Cholera and Smallpox in the Coloma region. These deadly diseases killed many people, but Ellen spent many hours comforting the dying and nursing the survivors back to health just as Rosa May did later on in Bodie, California. Wilson even went so far as to close her business and open the house as a hospital. At a time when many miners were living in canvas tents, Wilson provided a warm, dry place for them to recover—or perhaps die.

But the good times could not continue. When the epidemic subsided, Wilson resumed her business but her life ended tragically as a result of a brawl inside her business. On March 16, 1855, a paragraph in the local paper noted the “unintentional killing” of Wilson. According to the article, a quarrel occurred between three or four vagabonds. Several shots were fired, “one of which took affect in the breast of Ellen Wilson.” A romanticized version puts the pistol in the hands of a man named York who was infatuated with Wilson. He became enraged when he saw her dancing with another and tried to shoot his competition. Unfortunately, he missed and killed her. York fled and it is said that he was never punished for his dastardly deed.

Ellen’s death was deeply mourned. Because she had performed so many good deeds for the sick and dying during the recent epidemics, she was allowed to be buried in the southeast corner of a Christian cemetery in an unmarked grave. At her funeral, “a sermon was preached and a number of persons followed her remains to the grave” in the southeast corner of the Pioneer Cemetery on Cold Springs Road.

Ellen’s grave remained unmarked for nearly a century when a local restoration group cleaned up the cemetery and placed small new stones on many of the unmarked graves including Ellen’s. It was at this time that she earned her own grave stone.

The story of Ellen Wilson is only one of many found in Coloma’s Pioneer Cemetery. Many of the graves hold the remains of many of the original miners, many of whom died young far from their homes. Coloma is a living museum that provides a living history of the great gold rush that utterly changed the American West forever.

Legend has it that the town of Coloma – now a state park – is one of the most haunted in California and that there have been many ghostly sightings in the Pioneer Cemetery—especially the ghost of the young woman pictured above. However, I have visited the cemetery many times but have never seen anything supernatural. However I shall return again and again hoping to meet Ellen Wilson—who sounds like a delightful person.

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