What is more appealing than money? Refinement.

In my previous blog post, I explained through an evolutionary perspective why smart is the new sexy. Unlike 20 years ago, nerds now have become popular dates, thanks to the tech boom that brings more wealth and status to intellectuals. As a result, techies have become more desirable as they can provide for their families.

Looking back in history, there’s also a time when hordes of rich bachelors were looking for wives, and that’s the California Gold Rush. Although many may assume that women are always attracted to men with money, stories of the gold rush showed us that women actually value refinement over material wealth.

Because of the imbalanced gender ratio, women in the gold rush were as precious as gold. They could start businesses, achieve high social status, and easily marry rich. However, many wives were unhappy with their wealthy husbands. In fact, during the Gold Rush, California had world’s highest divorce rate in the history.

Vulgarity was one of the main reasons of dissatisfaction towards wealthy California men. It’s easy to imagine what a typical gold rush miner is like: poorly educated, from a humble family, unrefined, but hard-working. Although some of them earned fortune, they couldn’t become real upper-class men.

“Well-dressed” men in the California Gold Rush


According to women in the gold rush, California men routinely swore. For example, Dame Shirley wrote to her sister that “profanity prevails in California”, and “here swearing is absolutely the fashion”. Astonished by the popularity of swearing in California, she said “during the short time that I have been at Rich Bar, I have heard more of it (swear) than in all my life before”. A missionary, Israel Lord, wrote in his diary that “Four tables… the whole swearing out of all time and measure, so that one might readily imagine himself in the ‘purlies’ of hell.”

Spending large portions of their income, California men indulged in drinking and gambling. In a California sermon’s speech, he said “If they (families and friends) heard that your evenings were passed in the saloon, and that all the proceeds of your labor and the profits of your businesses were swept into the coffers of gamesters, deceptive, deft and adroit, could they receive it as true?” JoAnn Levy wrote in her book that bars attracted countless miners, and men drawn to drinking and gambling “drew the ire of respectable women, clerics, and temperate brothers”.

Because there were few women on the mining frontier, prostitution had become a fashion. Julie Jeffery pointed out in her book that bars were filled with prostitutes – “the whores with hearts of gold”. Prostitution was common and they were actually appreciated by many men, given the costs of finding a good wife. Women were irritated by this, of course. In Martha Hitchcock’s letter to her sister, she said she was “out of patience and disgusted with them (men) – they are rather worse too, in California than in anywhere else – this is the paradise for men”.

As men slipped further away from cultivated behaviors, it is easy to see from a social perspective why these rich bachelors weren’t liked by women. Most gold rushers were from humble families, therefore although they obtained enough money to become upper-class men, they did not have the behavior of the aristocracy. Moreover, theories of evolutionary psychology provide us with reasons that are rooted in human genes.

According to evolutionary psychologists, mate selection is all about reproductive success, in other words, the quantity and quality of offspring. Women select men who can offer the most resources and support to the family. That explains why strength was desirable in ancient times and socio-economic status has become more desirable in civilized societies. However, offering support is not just about money and status. Time spent with family, ability to educate children and create a happy family environment all affect children’s growth.

When we take another look at the new rich from the gold rush, we can tell that when they spend almost all of their time and money on gambling, drinking, and prostitution, these men are naturally not desirable husbands. An English proverb reminds us that it takes three generations to make a gentleman. Miners in the gold rush needed good manners and taste to defeat their rivals and win women’s hearts.


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