The Female Volunteer in Wrappers
Mexican-American War & the California Gold Rush
46. [BILLINGS, Eliza Allen (attributed)]. The Female Volunteer; or the Life, and Wonderful Adventures of Miss Eliza Allen, a Young Lady of Eastport, Maine. [portrait of Eliza Allen] Being a Truthful and Well-Authenticated Narrative of Her Parentage, Birth and Early Life—Her Love for One Whom Her Parents Disapproved—His Departure for Mexico—Her Determination to Follow Him at all Hazards—Her Flight in Man’s Attire—Enlistment—Terrific Battles of Mexico—Her Wounds—Voyage to California—The Shipwreck and Loss of Her Companions—Her Miraculous Escape—Return to her Native Land—Meeting of the Lovers—Reconciliation of Her Parents—Marriage, and Happy Termination of All Her Trials and Sorrows. [Cincinnati: H.M. Rulison, 1851]. [5-7] 8-68 pp. (text complete), 4 full-page wood-engraved text illustrations:  portrait of Eliza Allen in fancy female dress and holding a bouquet (on title);  Allen in soldier’s uniform wearing a cartridge pouch and holding a bayonet (p. 19);  Cerro Gordo battlefield scene showing Eliza and William wounded, signed in block “Telfer” (p. 27);  shipwreck scene at the Straits of Magellan on William’s voyage to the California Gold Fields (p. 45). 8vo (22 x 14 cm), original green pictorial wrappers with the engraved portraits of Eliza repeated on upper and lower wrappers (expertly re-stitched). Upper portion of spine supplied in sympathetic facsimile (barely detectable), wrappers washed and stabilized (small tears and voids repaired, no losses). Text block washed and stabilized. Occasional very light fox marks to text, overall a fine copy of an ephemeral, popular publication, seldom found on the market and likely read to death.
First edition, first issue, apparently published before publisher Rulison applied for copyright and inserted a copyright notice on title verso (p. ), as is found in the Library of Congress copy, which, as the battered type in that copy suggests, was set from standing type. See for example, on p. 7, line 12 the “w” in the word “war” is battered, as is the “s” in the word “sympathy” in line 18. Also, the illustrations on p. 27 and p. 45 have had their page numbers removed in the LC copy.
Baird & Greenwood 259. Bancroft Exhibit, “I am bound to stick awhile longer”: The California Gold Rush Experience (in the section “Gold Rush Women”): “Much of the time Eliza dressed as a man to avoid the many problems that faced women in the 1840s and 1850s.” Cowan II, p. 7 (under Allen). Garrett & Goodwin, The Mexican-American War of 1846-1848, p. 194 (under Billings). Holliday 12 (under Allen). Howes A132 (under Allen). Kurutz, The California Gold Rush 58 (under Billings). Sabin 5411 (under Billings). Smith, The War with Mexico, p. 534 (under Billings). Williamson, A Bibliography of Maine 1030 (under Billings). Wright II, 895 (under title). See also: Jessica Amanda Salmonson, The Encyclopedia of Amazons (Paragon House, 1991), p. 7; and Andrea Tinnemeyer, Identity Politics of the Captivity Narrative after 1848 (University of Nebraska, 2006), pp. 92-101.
In this story, Eliza Allen, scion of a wealthy Maine family, falls in love with William Billings, a man far below her station and whom her parents forbid her to see. William leaves in despair to join a military unit bound for the Mexican-American War, whereupon Eliza decides to change her appearance to a man and pursue the same course in hopes of discovering her love again. Eliza serves with General Scott during his march to Mexico City. She and her fiancé finally meet again after both are wounded at the Battle of Cerro Gordo, although Eliza, now known as George Mead, does not reveal her identity, which is apparently so changed that William does not recognize her. After the war, William and his companions gamble away all their wages in New York City to card sharks who get them drunk, whereupon they decide to go search for gold in California.
After several days alone, Eliza decides to follow and books passage around the Horn. In the Straits of Magellan, the wreck of William’s ship, the Omo, is discovered, and he is among the handful of survivors. Eliza helps nurse him back to health and sticks with him and a small group when they reach the gold fields, where they eventually strike it rich. Returning to Boston, the group puts up in a sleazy boardinghouse, where they are again subject to a card shark and other bad companions, who Eliza is sure will try to rob them. She changes back into female clothing, departs for the respectable Revere House, and eventually makes personal contact with William, who cannot believe his good fortune, especially since she had managed to save their gold by a stratagem. She is reconciled with her parents, and the couple live happily ever after, one supposes.
This is a strongly feminist work unusual in its purpose, which is to caution parents against intervening into or objecting too strongly to a woman’s choice of husband, no matter what his class, a lesson that sinks in on Eliza’s chastened and grieving parents. On the other hand, one must believe that in Eliza’s case, love is blind. Basically, William is feckless. Although deeply in love with Eliza and obviously a good soldier during the war, he lacks strength to a certain extent, has character flaws, and must repeatedly be saved from himself by his female love. He is cheated out of his earnings twice, gets drunk, is constantly physically ill and in need of Eliza’s nursing, and generally makes poor decisions. Eliza actually seems a more successful male than William, being more attractive to women (leading to some risqué-lite situations), better able to earn and retain money, stronger in every way. She tellingly comments that after she and William were finally together after their tribulations: “I was constantly returning to my former appearance, which as much interested the one I was now so happy with, as myself.” Had Eliza stayed home with her parents, William’s story would have no doubt ended quite differently and more tragically.
The question of whether this work is historical or fiction has never been satisfactorily determined, though fiction seems stronger than truth in this case. The enthusiastic cross-dresser was a staple of America history and fiction going back to the American Revolution, and in fact, Eliza refers to historical predecessors Deborah Sampson and Lucy Brewer. Female warrior narratives, even if fiction, are a subject of interest to scholars due to gender politics embedded in the genre, which destabilize culturally constructed gender lines by liberating women from the bonds of nineteenth-century “true womanhood.”
The four plates include one by “Telfer,” probably John R. Telfer, wood engraver and designer active in Cincinnati between 1850 and 1858. See Hamilton, Early American Book Illustrators and Wood Engravers 1670-1870, Vol. II, p. 139; and Groce & Wallace, p. 621. See Item 47 following for related handbill.
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Copyright Dorothy Sloan 2009