Nevada City couple, Aaron and Ellen Sargent, helped change course for American women

Like many other figures in local history, the author of the 19th Amendment found his way to Nevada City during the Gold Rush.

Aaron Sargent is credited with introducing the 29 words that would eventually become the first paragraph of the Women’s Suffrage Act ­— but the role of his wife, Ellen Clark Sargent, cannot be overlooked.

Ellen founded Nevada City’s first women’s suffrage group in 1869. She was also involved with the suffrage movement at state and national levels, becoming friends with Susan B. Anthony.

“It was very typical of women of that time period who came West to be interested in civic reform,” said author Gary D. Noy, a historian who teaches at Sierra College’s Rocklin campus. “The West offered new opportunities. Women could often reinvent themselves.”

“Ellen Clark was way ahead of the curve in terms of women’s voting rights, and when her husband became involved in politics, she began to follow her political interests, as well.”

Ellen and Aaron grew up together in Massachusetts. Before getting married, Aaron came West without her in 1849, ending up in a gold-mining camp that would later become known as Nevada City.

“He didn’t do very well as a miner, and he ultimately became involved in newspapers,” Noy said.

Aaron Sargent worked for, and ultimately came to own, the Nevada Daily Journal, an early local front-runner to The Union. Sargent became a lawyer and was admitted to the California bar in 1854.

He served as Nevada County’s district attorney from 1855 to 1856, when he was elected to the California State Senate.

The man later pursued a career in national politics, running the convention that nominated Abraham Lincoln and serving in the 37th, 41st and 42nd Congresses.

In 1873 he started a six-year stint in the United States Senate, and in 1878, Sargent first introduced the language that would ultimately be ratified as the 19th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

“The right of the citizens of The United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex,” it read.

Suffrage was reintroduced to Congress annually for decades before American women won the right to vote, but Aaron and Ellen Sargent did not live to see it.

Aaron Sargent left the Senate in 1879. He died in 1887. He was originally buried in San Francisco, but his tomb was later moved to Nevada City’s Pioneer Cemetery.

His remains might not actually be there, however.

“I think he was cremated, and his ashes were spread over some of his mine holdings somewhere in Nevada County,” Noy said. “That’s what I heard.”

Ellen remained active in the suffrage movement for decades after her husband’s death, acting as a leader and role model for suffragettes to follow. She died in 1911 in San Francisco. Flags were flown at half-staff by order of the mayor, and a ceremony was held in honor of her accomplishments.

“More than a thousand people showed up at Union Square,” Noy said.

“Then, just a few months after she died in 1911, California passed a proposition allowing women’s suffrage in the state,” Noy said. “In 1920, nine years after she died, the 19th Amendment was finally ratified. And it used the exact same wording as Aaron Sargent introduced 40 years earlier.”

A ‘mixed’ legacy

Modern academics have argued that the struggle of oppressed women is inherently linked to the struggle of oppressed minorities, including African-Americans or Chinese immigrants. But the man credited with writing the 19th Amendment is also remembered for supporting a piece of legislation targeting early Asian Americans.

“He was a strong, ardent supporter of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which was one of the most discriminatory acts ever passed by the American Legislature,” Noy said.

That act prevented Chinese labor immigrants — including mine laborers — from entering the United States.

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 remained in place until 1943. To date, it remains a subject of academic criticism.

Sargent also authored the Pacific Railroad Act authorizing the transcontinental railroad. That was crucial in the development of the American West.

“We all have good and bad in what we do, but (Sargent’s support of Chinese exclusion) is a pretty serious negative mark in his legacy. But his support of women’s voting rights and transportation improvements are strong positives.”

“It’s a mixed bag. And it’s hard to reconcile that,” Noy said.

Gary D. Noy is a historian, professor and author. His upcoming book, “Sierra Stories: Tales of Dreamers, Schemers, Bigots and Rogues,” which is slated for release in April, includes a chapter titled “Power Couple” that features the story of Aaron and Ellen Sargent. Noy is also a member of the Nevada County Historical Society and a former columnist for The Union.

To contact Staff Writer Dave Brooksher, email dbrooksher@theunion.com or call 530-477-4230.


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The Union Updated Mar 22, 2014 10:32AM Published Jul 17, 2014 05:40PM Copyright 2014 The Union. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.