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Area couple fought for women’s rights; Sen. Aaron Sargent wrote words that became 19th Amendment to U.S. Constitution

Gary Noy

Aug. 26 marks the anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution that provides for unrestricted voting rights for women. Most likely, the amendment would not exist if it were not for the extraordinary efforts of one married couple – the Sargents of Nevada City.

Aaron Augustus Sargent and Ellen Clark Sargent were influential in the early history of Nevada County and California. Without question, they were major players in the history of votes for women, or suffrage.

Aaron Augustus Sargent was born in Massachusetts in 1827. There he learned the printer’s trade. While still in his teens, he met Ellen Clark. Sargent pledged to marry her when his circumstances and finances permitted. It would take the California Gold Rush to make his vow a reality. In his early 20s, he was a newspaper reporter when he was bitten by the gold bug. When gold was discovered in California in 1848, Aaron borrowed $125 from his uncle and sailed from Baltimore in 1849. Ellen was left behind. Aaron promised to return soon.

He arrived in the tiny gold camp then called Nevada in 1849, where he engaged in mining with limited success. He was more successful in publishing and establishing the Nevada Journal newspaper. Sargent soon gained a reputation as a strong advocate of Whig Party politics, a forerunner of today’s Republican Party.

In 1852, Sargent returned to Massachusetts to marry Ellen. They wed on March 15, 1852, and returned to Nevada City in October of that year. In her memoirs, Ellen Clark Sargent fondly recalled her first day in town:

“It was on the evening of Oct. 23rd, 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 10 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.”

Ellen was pleased to discover that her husband had provided housing near the intersection of Broad and Bennett streets on what came to be called Nabob Hill. It was a one-story, four-room abode with ceilings covered by muslin. Ellen loved the comfortable dwelling except for the rats that incessantly scampered on the fabric above their heads. Over the years, the home was significantly remodeled by the Sargents and others. Today the house is the elegant setting for Grandmere’s Bed and Breakfast.

Aaron Sargent resumed his newspaper career. Rival newspapers espousing opposing political viewpoints were established in Nevada City. One paper, Young America, had strong Democratic Party beliefs. Its editor, R.A. Davridge, even threatened to shoot Sargent. Cooler heads prevailed and Sargent started to consider alternative employment.

Sargent studied law while editing the Nevada Journal. He was admitted to the bar in 1854 and soon entered into a political career. He was elected district attorney of Nevada County in 1856. With the founding of the new Republican Party, Sargent became an important early leader in the party. In 1860, he was vice president of the Republican National Convention – the convention that chose Abraham Lincoln as its presidential candidate. Also in 1860, Aaron Sargent was elected to Congress. He would serve three terms – 1861Ð1863 and 1869 Ð1873. As chairman of the House Railroad Committee in 1862, Sargent authored the Pacific Railroad Act, which authorized the construction of the transcontinental railroad, completed in May 1869.

Ellen Clark Sargent was following her political interests, as well. In particular, she was interested in women’s voting rights, then virtually non-existent throughout the United States. In 1869, she founded the first women’s suffrage group in Nevada City. She attended many suffrage meetings and came to be a widely respected leader in the movement. Ellen Clark Sargent was friend and colleague to many of the important national suffrage leaders, most notably Susan B. Anthony, who was a visitor to the Sargent home. Ellen would ultimately serve six years as treasurer of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, the most influential women’s rights organization of its day, and as honorary president of the California Equal Suffrage Association.

In 1872, Aaron Augustus Sargent was elected to the United States Senate. He would serve one term.

In 1878, Sen. Sargent introduced the 29 words that later became the 19th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. The bill calling for the amendment would be introduced unsuccessfully each year for the next 40 years.

Following his Senate service, Sargent was the minister to Germany from 1882 – 1884. Aaron Augustus Sargent died in 1887 at the age of 59. He was buried originally in San Francisco’s Laurel Hill Cemetery but when construction took over the property, his ashes were scattered over his mining claims and his vault was moved to Nevada City’s Pioneer Cemetery on West Broad Street, just a few hundred yards from the Sargent house.

Ellen Clark Sargent continued her political activism. In 1900, she went to court to protest the payment of property taxes. Since she was not allowed to vote, Ellen argued, it was a case of “taxation without representation.” She lost.

Ellen supported the woman suffrage cause until her death in 1911. She was buried in San Francisco and more than 1,000 gathered at her memorial service in Union Square. Notables, such as California Gov. Hiram Johnson, sent condolences. San Francisco Mayor A.P. McCarthy ordered all flags flown at half-staff in her honor.

On Aug. 26, 1920, the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified. It used exactly the same wording that Sen. Aaron Augustus Sargent had introduced 40 years earlier.


Gary Noy is the director of the Center for Sierra Nevada Studies at Sierra College, 5000 Rocklin Road, LRC 442, Rocklin, 95677. (916) 781-7184. To reach Noy by e-mail, gnoy@sierracollege.edu.

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