Margaret and Ledyard Go West: 1850 (Part 1)

ANNETTE TELLS TALES: Stories from the Past That Resonate with Now, Retold

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OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA, 1897: The Widower

Since his wife’s death, Ledyard Frink has been preparing to self-publish the travel journal Margaret kept of the journey that brought them to California nearly a half century ago. His friends and family often tell him that they would love to have their own copies. They promise to read it. And besides, the project gave him something to do. Now he’s ready to go to press.

He’s excited, but also sorry to be done. Reading, transcribing, and editing Margaret's words has made Ledyard feel close to her. He misses her so very much. Reliving the greatest adventure of their lives through the pages of Margaret's journal has helped him get through these past four years alone.

MARTINSVILLE, INDIANA, 1849: Meet the Frinks

Ledyard and Margaret Frink have already been married more than a decade, and for five of those years, they have lived here in Martinsville, Indiana (population: 334).

Together with Margaret’s brother, A.B. Alsip, they own a store called (not surprisingly) Frink and Alsip. The store makes them a very good living, because Martinsville draws farmers and their families from the rural area all around town.

None of the Frinks or Alsips are originally from Indiana. Margaret and A.B. grew up mostly in Maryland, which is where they met Ledyard. He’s from New York state. He first moved west with the entire Alsip family ten years ago. He and Margaret Ann Alsip married in Kentucky, but they didn’t stay long. Soon, the Alsips and Frinks crossed the border to Ohio, and settled near Cincinnati.

That didn’t last either. Don’t be surprised: This sort of thing isn’t new. It’s a very American story. Americans have always moved a lot. Once you cut ties to a place, it becomes easier to do it again. And again.

Within five years of arriving in Ohio, the Alsips and Frinks decided to up and leave Cincinnati, and move West again. This is how they landed in Martinsville, Indiana, and this is where Ledyard and A.B. have established Frink and Alsip.

After five years in Martinsville, they are making an excellent profit.

But there are limits to Margaret and Ledyard Frink’s happiness. Now in their early thirties, and married more than ten years, they have been unable to have children.

Still. They have made a family all the same. Three years ago, Ledyard hired Aaron Rose, an ambitious teenager, to be the store's trusted “confidential clerk”. That means Aaron manages the accounts and handles the money. Now 20 and on the verge of legal adulthood, Aaron has become close to Ledyard and Margaret, and thinks of them as second parents. In fact, Ledyard and Margaret are only about ten years older than he is.

And then there’s eleven year old Robert, whom Margaret and Ledyard informally foster. Unlike Aaron, who is close to his parents, Robert is an orphan. Although his extended birth family and his legal guardian live in town, he won his way into Margaret and Ledyard’s hearts and house four years ago, when he was only seven, and he has lived with them ever since.

Despite settling down in Martinsville, Margaret and Ledyard are not really settled. Now, like everyone else in 1849, they are excited by the incredible news from California: This new land, they learn, has a great climate . . . Oh, and unimaginable riches in gold for anyone who cares to come collect it. This is an irresistibly appealing combination, and the couple can’t stop thinking and talking about it.

In December, 1849, Margaret and Ledyard Frink finally decide: They will leave for California in the spring, taking the journey by land. This time, their trip West will take them all the way to the Pacific.

Margaret's mother and A.B., her brother, will stay in Indiana. Only Ledyard and Margaret are making this journey.

But what about the boys? Robert must, of course, stay with his guardian and his own relatives. Aaron has hinted a time or two that he would like to come with them, but A.B. needs him at the store. And anyway, Aaron’s parents are wealthy, and they only have one other kid. They won’t want him moving all the way to California, will they?

So that’s that.

MARTINSVILLE, INDIANA, Spring, 1850: Plans Change. That’s Why They’re Called Plans.

Only a few days to go before Margaret and Ledyard’s Big Adventure. Everyone’s telling them not to risk a journey to California. It’s too dangerous, they say. The mountains and deserts are a nightmare. Indians will attack them . . . and so on. And on.

But the enterprising young couple are ignoring them.

Everything has been arranged. Ledyard has bought a very large wagon, and filled it with supplies, or at least his best guess at what supplies they would need. Almost everyone else who makes the long overland trip to California roughs it, sleeping under wagons or in tents, because the wagons are packed to the ceilings with stuff: food, gold-mining equipment (most of it useless, sold to them by grifters), clothes, medicines, and the family’s heirloom chest of drawers or dining room table: Wagons are typically the equivalent of today’s moving trucks, not our RVs.

But Ledyard and Margaret, a prosperous and (mostly but not always) practical Midwestern couple, are the exception. They are going to California in style, with two wagons, one large, one small. Ledyard has made room in their extra-large wagon for a little bedroom, complete with a rubber mattress that can be filled with air or water each night, and a feather bed and pillows to go on top. The wagon is lined with stylish green cloth, with built-in storage pockets for little toiletry items, like mirrors, brushes and combs.

Ledyard, it's safe to say, would have loved IKEA.

They buy all the equipment and supplies they think they will need for the journey: Margaret hired a seamstress to outfit them both with a whole new wardrobe. Ledyard has bought Margaret a small stove, which he has tied to the back of the big wagon, so she won’t have to cook crouching awkwardly over a campfire. To pull the wagons, Ledyard has opted for horses. Mules are reliably sturdy, and will eat anything on the prairie, while oxen are slow but cheap. But Ledyard is a man of means, and so he splurges on horses.

Ledyard’s expensive horses will be choosy about what they eat. All the same, he buys four of them to pull the main wagon, two to pull the small wagon, plus two riding horses for himself and Margaret, who will ride side-saddle, as ladies always do in 1850.

There’s food on board, too, as Margaret (edited by Ledyard) explains in the published journal:

Our outfit for provisions was plenty of hams and bacon, covered with care for the dust, apples, peaches, and preserved fruits of different kinds, rice, coffee, tea, beans, flour, cornmeal, crackers, sea biscuit, butter and lard. The canning of fruits had not been invented yet — at least not in the West, so far as we knew.

And there’s yet more to the Frinks’ elaborate plans: Ledyard has learned that a wholesale lot of lumber that costs only $3 in Indiana will cost him a whopping $400 in California. So he has an idea: He will arrange to ship a wooden cottage kit to Sacramento that can easily be put together. This is just in case things don’t work out with finding gold, you understand.

Ledyard's kit house will travel south by river to and down the Mississippi, and from New Orleans to the Gulf, and then south around the tip (or “horn”) of South America, and north through the Pacific to San Francisco, and then by river to Sacramento, where the Frinks will collect it.

In theory.

But by now, with four days to go until departure, their plans have changed: Little Robert Parker is coming with them. The 11 year old was heartbroken when he learned his foster parents were moving to California without him. The Frinks did try to persuade him that staying in Martinsville with his guardian and his natural family would be best for him. But he kept pleading with them not to leave him behind. Ledyard and Margaret are young enough to have underestimated how close to them Robert has become. Now, though, they get it.

When Ledyard asks him, Robert’s legal guardian gladly agrees to allow the boy to go to California. But Robert’s relations are absolutely opposed. Negotiations follow, and finally, reluctantly, they give their consent. Robert’s foster parents are now, for all purposes, his adoptive parents.

The evening before they are to leave, Ledyard, Margaret, and Robert are excited to depart for California, and all the Frinks and Alsips gather for a bon voyage party. Eager to hit the road, Margaret is soon fed up with her family’s negative attitude about this road trip of a lifetime: All of them, including her mother, look miserable, more ready for a funeral than a celebration. It doesn’t take long before Margaret tires of them all raining on her parade. She jumps to her feet, tells everyone she’s going to bed, and announces that the trip is postponed until they all start looking more cheerful about it.

In fact, the trip is postponed. regardless of how cooperative the family is in faking enthusiasm. Because the Frinks suddenly have doubts.

That night in bed, Margaret and Ledyard have a serious discussion. Can they really manage this epic journey, just the two of them and little Robert, without help? Maybe Aaron might like to come after all?

Around dawn, Ledyard Frink knocks on the Rose family’s door.

A surprised Mr. Rose meets him in the living room. Ledyard asks if Aaron has ever said anything to his father about wanting to go to California? According to Ledyard and Margaret,

“Yes," said the old gentleman. “And he has thought quite hard of you that you have never spoken to him on the subject. But he says he is determined to go when he is twenty-one years old.”

Then the mother came in weeping, saying, “If he ever does go, I want him to go with Mr. and Mrs. Frink, for I know he will have a father and mother in them.”

By the time Ledyard Frink leaves the Roses’ home at 6 a.m., the matter is settled: Aaron Rose is coming to California.

The Frinks delay three days to allow Aaron to get ready, and to say goodbye to his many, many young female admirers.

OAKLAND, California, 1897: Dreams of Gold

Ledyard never was convinced that riches would be theirs for the taking in California. It always did sound too good to be true. Sure enough, when he, Margaret, and Robert, on the way to Sacramento, stopped that day in September at Pleasant Valley in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, they weren’t impressed. The three of them had casually looked for gold, but found nothing. Margaret and Ledyard decided to carry on to Sacramento.

It had been quite a journey. But he and Margaret and both the boys made it despite a few hitches and scares on the way.

As Margaret wrote in the journal, the Frinks arrived in Sacramento five months and seven days after leaving Martinsville.

Two days later, a bill was passed into law, nearly three thousand miles away in Washington, admitting California to the United States. But the Frinks wouldn’t know about that for another month. On the very same day as Congress’s wheels were turning, they had more personal concerns: the family was losing a son. Aaron Rose, together with a friend he had made on the way across America, said their farewells to the Frinks, and left on their horses for the Yuba River, 25 miles to the north of Sacramento. There, they had heard, plenty of gold was to be found.

Ledyard and Margaret doubted it, and they were saddened to see him go, but they understood why he wanted to give mining a try. He was 21 after all, and Aaron always was ambitious.

And the boy did pretty well for himself, Ledyard thinks.

SACRAMENTO, California, September, 1850: Making a Go of Real California

Margaret, Ledyard, and Robert camp on the Sacramento River, two miles east of the city in Sutterville, near the now-abandoned and increasingly decrepit Sutter’s Fort.

The Gold Rush had swept the fort away, along with its owner, German-Swiss-Mexican Johann (John) Sutter, and the Old California that man and fort represented. Sutter had tried to hold back the tide, announcing the founding of Sutterville, along with great plans for his forthcoming town to attract business and real estate investment. But by the time the Frinks arrive, Sutter has already given up and moved away. The men who founded nearby Sacramento were drawn by his marketing of Sutterville, but probably had no intention of settling in it. Why would they enrich Sutter when they could start their own city? Ruthlessly competitive, Sacramento’s promoters quickly won the contest of two new cities for dominance, resorting to threats and violence as necessary. In the face of this onslaught, Sutterville withered and died.

Sacramento was probably always Ledyard and Margaret’s goal. In the bitter contest to attract people like the Frinks, Sacramento had won before they even left Indiana.

And now, even as they remain camped with Robert in what’s left of little Sutterville, long before their house kit is expected to arrive, Margaret and Ledyard start to become part of Sacramento.

This morning, Ledyard collects their mail in the city, only to discover that every piece has postage due. It costs him a steep $5 to retrieve their letters, most of them from the Alsips in Indiana.

In the afternoon, he and Margaret stop by the Methodist minister’s home, to introduce themselves. Margaret learns from him that a Baptist missionary is trying to start a church in Sacramento. The next day, the couple hear him preach a long sermon, and they like what they hear. Afterward, everyone is invited to lunch with the preacher and others at the home where he’s staying, and then to hear another very long sermon in the afternoon.

Ledyard suddenly remembers that he needs to get back to camp to keep an eye on things. But he encourages Margaret to stay, and enjoy the meal and the second service.

It’s not a large group for lunch, and Margaret finds herself eating in all-male company, with three clergymen, a lawyer, and the judge whose home it is. She is seated at the head of the table, invited to do so as the only lady present. But Margaret notes that she is not alone: A Black woman cooks and serves the meal she enjoys.

Margaret revels in the luxury of sitting in an actual (and rather impressive) house, enjoying the indoors for the first time in months.

A week later, Margaret and Ledyard have rented a house of their own, if you could call it a house. It's actually a former retail store, and it's unfurnished, but it's all they can find in Sacramento’s crazy housing market: one empty room upstairs, one room with a fitted shop counter downstairs, and an outside staircase. No furniture. And, says Margaret,

Nothing was finished but the sidings and the floor. I could put my hand through the cracks between the boards.

For this, they will pay an extortionate $175 a month, meaning thousands of dollars in 21st century terms. In 1850, Sacramento’s housing market brings a whole new meaning to “unaffordable” for most people. The Frinks have to find a way to pay the rent and furnish the house cheaply, or they will soon run through their savings.

Fortunately, Margaret and Ledyard know a thing or two about moving and starting new businesses. After all the time they and Robert have spent on the road, they have no problem roughing it, either. And, crucially, while they didn't find gold in the Sierra Nevada foothills, they do have plenty of money to get them started in Sacramento.

So this morning, Ledyard buys lumber, paying a ridiculous $180, even more than a month’s rent, and gets to work building the family the most basic and essential furniture: a dining table and benches. He buys a new stove ($50), since the useful one they brought from Martinsville did not survive the journey, thanks to a parking accident caused by an inattentive wagon driver. Ledyard also sets up a tent behind the house to serve as the kitchen, so they won’t asphyxiate themselves, and so that any stove accidents won't burn down their new home.

And then he puts up a sign out front: FRINK’S HOTEL. He and Margaret have already figured out that money can be made in California from selling goods and services to miners, who literally pay in gold.

While Ledyard hammers away, building the table and benches, two men spot Margaret through the window, and walk right in.

As we have already seen, women are rare in Sacramento. But, look, Sacramento in 1850 is already well on its way to being the Polite and Educated Middle-Class West, not the Wild West, and, in fact, the arrival of the Frinks and others like them are a big reason why.

So Margaret, Ledyard, and Robert are not in danger from these rough-looking visitors. The guys saw the hotel sign, and saw a woman inside. That means home-cooked food.

They ask politely for breakfast. Margaret, happy to have customers so soon, even as Ledyard is still making the benches, knocks out a meal in the makeshift outdoor kitchen. She serves the food on tin camping plates and the coffee in tin camping cups, because that’s all she has. Setting breakfast down on the counter, she apologizes to the men for the hotel’s lack of chairs. They don't mind standing, they assure her, as they tuck into their meals.

Margaret and Ledyard are in business. This first month, they make $200 in profit.

And then, suddenly, everything goes south.

Read Part 2 of Margaret and Ledyard's story

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My retelling of the story of Ledyard and Margaret Frink is based on a close reading of Margaret’s journal, as edited by Ledyard. I warmly encourage you to read the marvelous original, which you will find in VOLUME 2 (careful!) of a series: Kenneth L. Holmes (ed.), Covered Wagon Women: Diaries and Letters from the Western Trails, 1850, vol. 2 (1983) For background on early Sacramento, I relied on Mark A. Eifler’s excellent Gold Rush Capitalists: Greed and Growth in Sacramento (2002) It’s an academic book, but very readable, so if this is a subject that interests you, I do recommend it.