The memory of Ellen Clark Sargent’s arrival in Nevada City, California, stayed with her all her life. Long after she had left the Gold Country, she recalled: “It was on the evening of October 23, 1852 that I arrived in Nevada [City], accompanied by my husband. We had traveled by stage since the morning from Sacramento. Our road for the last eight or ten miles was through a forest of trees, mostly pines. The glory of the full moon was shining upon the beautiful hills and trees and everything seemed so quiet and restful that it made a deep impression on me, sentimental if not poetical, never to be forgotten.”
In the newly formed state of California, shaped by men and women who had endured unbelievable hardships to cross the plains, Ellen saw an opportunity to gain something she passionately wanted – the right to vote. Despite defeat after defeat, she never gave up.
Ellen Clark fell in love with Aaron Augustus Sargent, a journalist and aspiring politician, in Newburyport, Massachusetts, when they were in their teens. Both taught Sunday school in the Methodist Church. Upon their engagement, Aaron promised to devote his life to being a good husband and making their life a happy one. But several years passed before he had a chance to make good on that promise.
In 1847, Aaron left Ellen in Newburyport to go to Philadelphia, where he worked as a printer. His interest in politics intensified with the new friends he made. Aaron, an ardent opponent of slavery, closely followed arguments of free-soilers and antislavery forces.
He worked as a print compositor and as a newspaper writer. However, the trade paid poorly. With word of the gold strike in California, Aaron borrowed $125 from his uncle and sailed from Baltimore on February 3, 1849, leaving Ellen with a promise to return and make her his wife.
Aaron arrived in the gold camp called Nevada in the spring of 1849 and was moderately successful in his search for gold. He then became a partner with several others in the Nevada Journal newspaper. But with a promise to keep, Aaron obtained the help of a friend and built a small frame house near the corner of Broad and Bennett Streets – right in the center of town. In January 1852, he returned to Newburyport to claim his bride. Aaron and Ellen were married on March 15 and returned to Nevada City in October of that year.
Ellen Sargent had no notion of the home she would find, but she was agreeably surprised. She later wrote an account of her arrival in Nevada City: “My good husband had before my arrival provided for me a one story house of four rooms including a good sized pantry where he had already stored a bag of flour, a couple of pumpkins and various other edibles ready for use, so that I was reminded by them a part of the prayer of the minister who had married us, seven months before, in faraway Massachusetts. He prayed that we might be blessed in basket and in store. It looked like we should be.”
Ellen set up housekeeping in a town where the cost of everything was astonishing. Eggs sold for three dollars a dozen, chickens for five dollars apiece.
“It did not take long for thrifty housewives to make a very good sweet cake, corn bread, and pudding without eggs,” she wrote. Canned chicken and turkey were substituted for fresh, and women making homes in the gold camps used dried apples as well as dried fish. Beans and salt pork were plentiful. Eggs, fresh meat, even vegetables were in short supply, and very costly.
Despite the preponderance of saloons and the raw nature of the town, Ellen loved her little home. Her one frustration with the housekeeping was in sharing space with the other tenants of the house – the four-footed ones. The ceilings were covered in muslin, which easily betrayed the presence of large sized rats. “We did not like their hills and dales, or the coloring of their landscapes, but they were no less happy on that account, if we may judge by the oft-repeated quadruple swellings downward which were visible as they scampered like mad across the floor.”
While Ellen was creating a comfortable home, her husband was equally busy, vigorously arguing the political campaign of 1853 in his newspaper, the Nevada Journal. Aaron favored the policies of the Whigs, an early Republican-style party. An opposing point of view was enthusiastically espoused by the newspaper Young America which heralded the views of Democrats.
Ellen worried in 1853 when the printed attacks on her husband became so heated he expected to be challenged to a duel. However, a friend, Judge David S. Belden, came to Aaron’s defense before a challenge was issued. Editor R. A. Davridge of the rival newspaper Young America was threatening to shoot Aaron because of his strong political views. A crowd gathered. Judge Belden stepped in, drew his pistol, and announced he wanted to give a demonstration of his shooting skills. Using cards as targets Belden shot rapidly until the gun was empty, hitting a card with each shot.
He then announced he’d be happy to talk to anyone who didn’t like Aaron Sargent, a man who had a family which he himself did not, and thus had nothing to lose if the discussion ended in an exchange of bullets. No one accepted.
In 1854, Aaron Sargent began the study of law. He studied alone, and in August of 1854, was admitted to the Bar of the District Court. He later served as District Attorney and was the first resident of the county elected to the House of Representatives, serving three terms. He was also the first elected to the Senate and the only Nevada County resident to be appointed minister to Germany.
While her husband made his mark in the political world, Ellen Sargent was raising two children and building her own quiet legend. In addition to founding the first women’s suffrage group in Nevada City in 1869, she served as president of similar organizations and presided at conventions called to gather women together to encourage them to continue the fight for the right to vote.
Fiery abolitionist and early feminist Susan B. Anthony visited the Sargent home in 1871. As a young Quaker, Susan Anthony had worked in the antislavery movement until passage of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1863 banned slavery in the United States. With that victory, she turned her attention to another case of unjust treatment in a land where all were said to be created equal – women’s rights.
An editorial in the New York Times summed up the prevailing view of the “rights” of women at that time. “As for the spinster, we have often said that every woman has a natural and inalienable right to a good husband and a pretty baby. When, by ‘proper agitation’ (flirting) she has secured this right, she best honors herself and her sex by leaving public affairs behind her and by endeavoring to show how happy she can make the little world of which she has just become the brilliant center.”
That editorial by Henry J. Raymond reflected the popular belief that employing her womanly wiles to catch a husband was proper for a female but employing her intelligence to decide civil matters like elections was not.
In a letter to a fellow suffragist in Palo Alto, Ellen reflected on the “great privileges and responsibilities of full American citizenship.” She asked, “Does not that apply to women as well as men? Why cannot women see their low estate in the scale of humanity! And to think they could change it if they would. How their condition argues against their mentality and self-respect. Why do they not blush and arise in their might and inaugurate a true republic keeping with this enlightened age?”
When Aaron was elected to the U.S. Senate, the Sargent family moved to Washington D.C. Susan B. Anthony described accompanying the Sargent family on their journey to Washington in 1872. A huge snowfall on New Year’s Day 1872 had brought the train to a standstill on the steepest upgrade of the Rockies. The trip from Laramie to Cheyenne, Wyoming, a distance of less than fifty miles, took five days. “Thankfully, the Sargents had brought along extra food and a spirit lamp for making tea,” Susan wrote. They served tea and crackers to the nursing mothers on the train and comforted the passengers. However, Ellen herself was soon in need of comfort. “At Cheyenne, young Georgie Sargent got out to explore, slipped on the snow and broke his arm. Watching the painful bone-setting of her little son’s arm, Ellen fainted.”
Ellen and Susan B. Anthony visited and worked together many times in the nation’s capital. In a letter to Mrs. Alice L. Park, a famous campaigner for women’s rights, Ellen recalled her life in Washington. “I have many very pleasant memories of the place and the people I have met there. Mr. Sargent and myself, with our family, lived there twelve years. I learned a great deal while there; dined at the White House many times with distinguished people; visited at the Public Buildings; met Miss [Susan] Anthony, [Elizabeth Cady] Stanton, Isabella Beecher Hooker, all the other great lights of those times: love to think it over and appreciate the privilege more as time goes on.”
Aaron died in 1887, after serving three terms in the House of Representatives and one in the Senate. He was best known for writing the bill that created the Transcontinental Railroad. After her husband’s death, Ellen Sargent continued to work for the rights of women. She was an honorary president of the California Suffrage Association and a board member of the National American Women Suffrage Association.
In 1900, at the age of seventy-four, she went to court in a test case to protect the payment of property taxes. Her son, George, represented her in court, where she argued that since she was not allowed to vote, it was an instance of taxation without representation. That was, she argued, exactly the claim that started the Revolutionary War which resulted in freedom from British rule. While the Declaration of Independence stated that all men are equal, suffragists argued that it was not meant to exclude women.
In the early twentieth century, Ellen was considered an influential, pioneer suffragist, giving her time, energy, and money to advance the rights of women. She closely followed events in the state and the nation until her death on July 13, 1911, at the age of eighty-five. Ellen died at her home in San Francisco just two days after touring the city via automobile with her son-in-law. She lived an active life and always enjoyed visiting with friends and family, particularly her five grandchildren.
On July 25, 1911, more than two thousand suffragists assembled in Union Square to pay tribute to the memory of the gracious rebel. A program, including band music, vocal solos, and speeches, drew several hundred men to the bandstand, and the windows of the hotels and office buildings facing the square were filled with onlookers. The band played several patriotic songs ending the interlude with “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” in which the audience joined.
According to the July 26, 1911, edition of the Oakland Tribune, Congressman Thomas E. Hayden made the opening address praising Ellen Sargent’s life and dedication saying, “She was one of the wise women who saw years ago that women could not attain her highest development until she had the same large opportunities and the same large chance as her brothers have.”
Ellen Sargent’s funeral was held at her son George C. Sargent’s residence at 251 C Broadway in San Francisco. The question of where Ellen is buried remains a mystery. Historians at the California State Library in Sacramento speculate that she was laid to rest beside her husband at Laurel Hill Cemetery in San Francisco. In 1923, the cemetery was officially closed and a municipal ordinance was passed requiring the deceased be moved from the plots there. Many bodies were relocated to a cemetery in Coloma. Aaron Sargent’s remains were moved to Nevada County, California, and a tombstone erected at Pioneer Cemetery. The location of Ellen’s remains are yet unknown.
Chris Enss is the COWGIRL Book Editor, and a New York Times Bestselling author who writes about women of the Old West. For more stories about these wild women, visit www.chrisenss.com for more information on her books.