Margaret and Ledyard Go West: 1850 (Part 2)

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

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Sacramento, California, December, 1849. You’re looking up J Street, the main street, nine months before the Frinks’ arrival. That’s a long time in the life of this fast-growing Gold Rush boomtown, where hammering is part of the daily soundtrack.

Margaret and Ledyard’s Excellent Adventure

Continued from Margaret and Family Go West, 1839-1850

I’m Annette Laing. Here at Non-Boring History HQ, I write a big variety of posts, in a wide variety of styles. This story is written like fiction, but is based on a very (very!) close reading of a real Gold Rush journal, and supported by the work of my fellow historians. My retelling of Margaret and Ledyard’s story is as accurate as possible, for those who care, but most importantly, it’s written in a form busy people like you can read and enjoy. Like it? Please share and subscribe. —Annette Laing, The Non-Boring Historian

The Story So Far: Margaret and Ledyard Frink, a couple in their early thirties, are successful, mostly happy, and deeply bored. After five years, they have exhausted the charms of Martinsville, Indiana (pop: 334). And, just maybe, they’re feeling a little hemmed in by Margaret’s family, the Alsips.

So, in 1849, with all the amazing news of gold, opportunity, and eternal sunshine in California, the Frinks grab their family of choice, Robert Taylor, an eleven year old orphan they have fostered since he was seven, and Aaron Rose, a 20 year old employee/surrogate son. They kit out possibly the most luxurious wagon ever to go on the trail until RVs were invented, and start out west by land.

After an exciting and sometimes scary journey, the family arrives in California. Aaron, now 21, immediately heads for the gold mines. But Margaret, Ledyard, and Robert don’t bother looking for gold. Instead, they take up residence in booming Sacramento, CA, a major stop for goldseekers who come by ship and boat, and a place for miners, rolling in gold, to spend their riches.

The rootless and restless Frinks immediately put down roots. Even while they’re still living out of their wagon, Margaret helps a Baptist minister plant a church. She and Ledyard open a no-frills hotel (their word) in the rented former retail store-turned-home that was all they could find (or afford) in this crazy real estate/rental housing market. At the end of their first month, on October 20, the Frinks clear a profit, $200 after rent and expenses.

But now, something is about to go very wrong. And even before the Frinks add up their accounts, the wheel of fortune is already turning.

Read on:


Last night, a man checked into the one-room (not a typo) Frink Hotel, owned and operated by recent Indiana transplants Margaret and Ledyard Frink. They live upstairs in another single room with their adopted son, Robert, age 12. They’re far from poor, but Sacramento in 1850 brings new meaning to the word “unaffordable”.

The new guest is on his way from a California cattle ranch, where he's been working as a ranch hand, to try his luck in the gold mines. Checking out this morning at the counter, he settles the bill, and then asks the Frinks if he could please have pen, ink, and paper to write a letter before he heads out.

Two hours later, Ledyard returns from an errand to find the man still at the hotel. He never finished his letter, and he is seriously ill. He has already been seen by a doctor, called by Margaret in Ledyard's absence. But now, desperately unwell, he asks Ledyard to fetch the physician again.

The anonymous doctor sits with his patient into the late hours.

There is nothing much he can do to treat cholera.

But he stays with the poor fellow to the very end. Because he would want someone to do that for him. Or maybe the patient pays him his expensive fee to stay. We will never know. The patient dies at midnight.

Neither the doctor nor the Frinks knew his name.


You may be wondering: Why was the sick man at the Frink Hotel not in hospital? There are already hospitals in Sacramento. The first, Sutter’s Fort Hospital, was opened just last year, in 1849, as miners began to pour into the new city. It took over an adobe building at the abandoned Sutter’s Fort. The nurses are men, and amateurs: Nobody has yet heard of Englishwoman Florence Nightingale and Jamaican-Scottish Mary Seacole (voted Greatest Black Briton (so far) in 2004). Nightingale and Seacole will invent professional nursing in the field hospitals of the Crimean War in the 1850s. But that hasn’t happened yet.

In Sacramento’s hospitals in 1849, care by qualified doctors and unqualified nurses costs a stunning $10-16 a day, most of it going to the doctors. But with so much gold floating about Sacramento, this is cheap. Doctors have to make a living too, right?

And then, in October, 1850, a man is found collapsed by the river, right on the levee, the embankment that holds back (or tries to hold back) the Sacramento River from flooding the city of Sacramento. The man is a traveler. He came by ship to San Francisco, and from there by riverboat to the Sacramento waterfront. By the time he arrived, he was dangerously ill.

He has brought a traveling companion from San Francisco: Cholera. Cholera has traveled much farther than he has. All the way, in fact, from India, from another river city, Calcutta (later Kolkata) on the banks of the River Ganges, where the little bacteria was born in 1817, and promptly infected thousands. Since then, Cholera has traveled the world. It wasn’t hard: The world is smaller than you think in 1817. The British lead world trade, and little Cholera stows away on British ships. Eastern Africa! Asia, including China and Japan! The Middle East! If Cholera owned a passport, she would have a lot of stamps in it. But passports haven’t been invented yet.

And everywhere Cholera goes, so does sickness, and death. She gets away with it because nobody even knows what Cholera is, much less how to treat it.

And now Cholera is in Sacramento. Those who can, flee the city. Those who have nowhere to go are quarantined: The streets are practically empty. Little gold dust is changing hands. The hospitals, especially the nurses, are overwhelmed. Hustlers sell useless miracle drugs to frightened people. Concerned doctors, the CDC of Sacramento in 1850, warn people against junk remedies, to no avail.

But Sacramento’s doctors, with their high fees, now also look like grifters. California has more doctors than any other state, but many physicians have been cashing out and going home as soon as they made a fortune from the miners.

Their high charges are no longer acceptable. People who arrive in Sacramento and came down sick before they have a chance to go collect gold are destitute: They can’t afford to fill doctors’ pockets with $10-16 a day. Sacramento’s Dr. Bryant had explained in 1849 (which now feels like a long time ago) that it’s only reasonable he should charge $15 a day, and take on so few charity patients, when so many men in Sacramento are rich, and the gold flows so freely.

Which made sense in 1849. But now, the gold has dried up, people are dying, and Dr. Bryant’s bill looks like price gouging.

Among the first to identify this problem are the members of an all-male, all-white fraternity, founded just last year, with the memorable name of The Odd Fellows. In Sacramento, where most people are men, with families thousands of miles away, fraternities are a big deal. At their meeting, the Odd Fellows make a decision:

to call upon any member to nurse the sick, free of charge.

That’s right. They’re planning to nurse the sick themselves, even people who aren’t members. For free. And they do, or they pay others to do the dangerous and unpleasant work, but either way, free universal healthcare has arrived in Sacramento, for as long as the pandemic lasts. Sacramento’s Freemasons decide to do what the Odd Fellows are doing, and even more. The Freemasons pay thousands of dollars to buy the coffins for cholera victims, so that strangers, new arrivals, as everyone is in Sacramento in 1850, can be buried with dignity, not just flung into an open grave.

Let’s be clear: These two organizations are exclusionary, private, discriminatory, and wealthy. Among them, likely, were the ruthless men who destroyed John Sutter’s rival city, Sutterville.

Of course, they are invested in Sacramento’s future success, once the pandemic ends.

But perhaps we should not be quite so cynical about the fraternities. These men do care about the fate of this ramshackle embryo city in which they live, and the strangers whose gold keeps everything afloat, from grocery stores, to gambling halls. These rich men, just maybe, are better than they have to be. And the coffins are the evidence, because it’s hard to see how the coffins-for-strangers program gave the city a marketing edge back East. One resident wrote from cholera-stricken Sacramento:

The two noble orders contributed money and exertions as freely as if their lives had been devoted to the exclusive function of human kindness.

Sacramento, 1850: Meanwhile, Back at the Frink Hotel

Another act of kindness is taking place in the Frink Hotel. Seeking clues to their unfortunate guest’s identity, so they can notify his next of kin, hotel keepers Ledyard and Margaret read over the three-page letter he left behind, handwritten on the paper they had provided him only hours earlier. But he leaves no clues to who he was: No addresses, nor names, not even his own. He’s just another man who vanished in the West.

They knew cholera was in Sacramento. They had just hoped and prayed it wouldn’t come to the Frink Hotel.

Now that it has, Margaret and Ledyard might well wonder: Would anyone in Sacramento know to contact the family in Indiana if something happened to them?

And now, starting with Ledyard, the family starts coming down sick.

It might be cholera. But it might not. Cholera’s nasty symptoms, including diarrhea, are shared with other diseases, like typhoid, that come to a town without clean water and sewers. Whatever it is that sickens the family, it hits the Frinks hard: After Ledyard gets sick, so does little Robert, their adopted son. Margaret is the last to come down with this awful disease. By then, she and Ledyard have hired a teenager to keep the downstairs hotel/restaurant going, paying him a steep $75 a month. Margaret, less sick than Ledyard, weakly directs the boy’s work.

Perhaps a thousand people die in Sacramento before the pandemic is over. The Frinks, all three of them, survive. The Frink Hotel on K Street does not. The gold seekers who stream off boats from San Francisco at the riverfront never did linger very long in Sacramento. But now, they don't stay a moment longer than they absolutely have to in the cholera-ridden city, where coffins bearing the dead are carried alongside would-be gold miners walking and riding up J Street.

The pandemic plunges the Frink Hotel into crisis. From the riverfront, all the new arrivals now head straight up J Street, the main drag in downtown Sacramento. People stop only to buy food, supplies and mining equipment, or to grab a meal. If you look at the picture above, you’re looking up J Street. Keep going that way, and it will eventually take you to the gold mines. K Street, where the Frink Hotel is located, is a narrow sidestreet to J Street’s right. As you might guess, it’s not on the beaten track, which becomes a big problem in the pandemic. On K Street, business is dead. Cholera has killed commerce even faster than it dispatches human victims.

Be clear on this: The Frinks, like most people who went west, are definitely not poor. It costs a lot to come to California, and they are better off than a lot of other people. So Ledyard and Margaret's hotel business is not quite done for. They have money to fall back on. They decide to be proactive. On November 30, two weeks after Cholera starts to pack her bags, and the epidemic begins to end, the Frinks move. They quit the ramshackle building on K Street, and lease an equally ramshackle building right on J Street itself, six or seven blocks from the river, past the big tree at the top of the street in the picture above.

The new Frink Hotel is identical to the old Frink Hotel, except for one thing: it has stairs on the inside. This is really not much of an improvement. And now, on J Street, they are paying $300 a month in rent, nearly double the already outrageous rent they were paying on K Street before the pandemic hit.

The Frinks need to make more money fast. They need to come up with something.

So Margaret and Ledyard squeeze what income they can from the new building. They rent out the front third of the ground-floor room to a clothing store. That brings in $100 a month.

And Ledyard has another idea that’s worth a try: He buys three cows.

The cows are not a side hustle. Interestingly, even though milk fetches an extortionate $3 a gallon in Sacramento, he and Margaret decide not to sell their milk.

Instead, they serve glasses of fresh milk to all their guests, offered FREE with every meal that Margaret cooks in the hotel/restaurant.

It’s a brilliant bit of marketing. Many of the men (and they are all men) who come to eat or stay at the Frink Hotel haven’t enjoyed a glass of milk in a year, even two.

Complimentary milk takes the Frinks’ hospitality to a whole new level. Sure, their one-room inn, where all guests sleep together in the searing heat of a Sacramento summer, doesn't offer any privacy. But Ledyard, their friendly host, personally guarantees guests a warm welcome, hot meals (cooked by Margaret), and free glasses of fresh milk. It's the milk that gives the Frink Hotel an edge over the competition. Soon, the family has thirteen cows out back.

Thanks to the milk, or rather, thanks to the paying guests who drink it, Ledyard and Margaret can now easily cover the rent.

Mind you, hospitality has its limits. Guests begin asking the Frinks to keep their gold dust safe while they are out and about. On any given day, anything up to $10,000 in gold dust is stashed on the premises. With no safe to store it in, Margaret, Ledyard, and Robert literally sleep on mattresses stuffed with gold.

The hotel's safekeeping service ends abruptly one morning, when the Frinks learn that a neighboring store was robbed during the night. Ledyard hastily announces at breakfast that he can no longer safeguard gold for anyone. He strongly advises his guests to deposit their precious gains in a city bank, and tells them that he will do the same. The Frink family’s mattress value dips sharply that same day.


Ledyard buys a dairy. It's a big investment. For $2,500, the family gets twelve more cows, plus chickens, turkeys, and milk cans, plus sixty acres and a cabin thrown in.

With 25 cows, the family produces more than its customers can drink. So the Frink Dairy begins to sell its surplus milk in the city, bringing in a modest $40 a month.

But the Frinks’ future is clear: Cows. Margaret and Ledyard have acquired suitable living accommodation elsewhere, so now’s the time to get out of the hospitality business. They sell the hotel, and buy a second dairy. With fifty cows, however, the Frinks need more help.

Fortunately, help arrives. And it comes in the very welcome shape of their surrogate son Aaron Rose. He's back from the gold mines, and Margaret, Ledyard, and Robert are thrilled to have him home. Aaron hasn’t done too badly, either, because he has returned with a nice nest egg of $3,000 in gold. He's back because he's basically a desk guy, and he soon tired of the wet, filthy, and hard physical work involved in separating gold dust from dirt and river water.

So, as you might guess, Aaron doesn’t do milking cows (the Frinks hire milkers for that). Just as in Indiana, Aaron is the money man. He drums up business, going door to door in Sacramento's fiery summer heat, collecting payments for the milk and eggs.

Ledyard and Margaret always could trust Aaron with the money.

OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA, 1897: The Frinks and the Alsips

In the house in Oakland, where the silence is mostly broken only by the maid clattering dishes and the ticking of the clock, Ledyard thinks of the boys. Aaron did fine working in the dairy. But he grew restless, and this time, he looked East, not West for relief. He missed home, his real home, where his real parents lived. Or maybe he missed his female admirers in Martinsville. There weren’t too many girls in Sacramento, and especially not the marrying kind, and he had no steady girlfriend to invite out West. After two years with the Frinks, Aaron Rose returned to Martinsville with his $3,000 in gold. He has stayed there ever since. Margaret and Robert missed him greatly, of course, that was to be expected. But not everyone wanted to make a future in the West. Aaron wasn't the only former miner who decided not to stay.

Little Robert Wilson Parker grew up with the Frinks, and then, when he turned 21, he too went out into the world, leaving Margaret and Ledyard empty nesters. Robert moved around, trying all sorts of different jobs. He even served bravely as a volunteer deputy Marshal. Once, in Sutter County in 1886, he confronted and arrested two of the mob of white men who had illegally driven out Chinese settlers.

But eventually Robert came back, settled in Sacramento, and became a grocer and butcher, did a little farming, and then became a contractor, building sidewalks. He and his wife, Mary Ellen, raised three children of their own, two girls and a boy. Ledyard and Margaret were very proud of how Robert turned out.

And the Alsips? Margaret’s family? It had only been a matter of time, of course, before the Alsips finally abandoned Indiana, and followed the Frinks to the West. It was when Laura Alsip, Margaret’s newly-arrived sister, was living in Ledyard and Margaret’s home that she was introduced to a Sacramento lawyer (and future superior court judge) named Mr. Elisha Winchell. She soon married him.

Sadly, the Winchells’ first baby was stillborn. But the next pregnancy was successful, and their first surviving son, Lilborne Alsip “L. A.” Winchell, born in 1855, became the first California-born Alsip. When a second son came along, the Winchells named him after Ledyard, his uncle. That was quite an honor.

But by that time, the Winchells had left Sacramento for Fresno.

Unable to go farther west, the Alsips migrated around northern California, always open to new possibilities. They had brought enough money from Indiana, and the experience that money buys, to make more money and try new pursuits. A.B. Alsip, Margaret’s brother and Ledyard’s former business partner in Indiana, also came West, and tried this and that with good results. Eventually, in 1885, he was able to settle on land he had bought in California's infant wine country, near St. Helena.

As for Ledyard and Margaret? Sure enough, the pre-fabricated cottage Ledyard had wisely ordered in Martinsville arrived safely in Sacramento a year after the Frinks did, and it became their starter home when they gave up the hotel. By then, Margaret wrote (or was it Ledyard who wrote it? What difference did it make anymore?) :

But after a year’s residence in the delightful valley of the Sacramento, we had satisfied ourselves that no pleasanter land for a home could be found, though we should roam the wide world over. We gave up our plan of further travels. We had traversed the continent, from the far east to the farthest west, and were now on the verge of its broadest ocean. But we had no wish to tempt the perils of the great deep. The future of California seemed to us full of promise, and here we resolved to rest from our pilgrimage.

Ledyard bought a big double lot on the corner of M and Eighth Streets, and within a single week, the cottage was ready for move in. A few years later, they built themselves a grander, more permanent house.

And so, Margaret and Ledyard’s westward adventure was over.

Ha! No, of course it wasn’t. Ledyard remembers how they soon moved on. They never left their beloved California, of course, but they bounced around it, living in various places, trying and investing in various ventures and schemes. Finally, they had reached the age when moving and business were just too much. In old age, they settled, at last, in Oakland, by the San Francisco Bay.

Margaret is buried here in Oakland, of course, and sometime soon, Ledyard will join her in the same plot, under a shared gravestone. He’s 86 years old. It can’t be long now. And anyway, they did what they set out to do.

Ledyard and Margaret Alsip Frink went as far West as they could go.

Oakland, California, 2021:

Margaret and Ledyard are still here together in Oakland, and always will be, at Mountain View Cemetery, beneath a gravestone marked Husband and Wife. It’s a fitting tribute to a Victorian couple who didn’t quite fit the stereotype of patriarchal man and meek little lady. In death as in life, as you can see on the grave marker, Ledyard was unquestionably the senior partner to whom Margaret deferred. But they were partners, and they had, just enough, blurred the strict gender roles that defined the lives of middle-class Victorian couples.

Here’s Ledyard Frink. Imagine him in his thirties, maybe without the beard.

Margaret Frink. Imagine her, less matronly, in her thirties.

And just look at their smiles.

P. S. . . .

A.B. Alsip died in St. Helena in December, 1898, a year after Margaret and Ledyard’s journal appeared in print. His funeral was held at Ledyard’s house in Oakland. He is buried in the same cemetery as his sister and brother-in-law.

Having outlived Margaret by seven years, Ledyard Frink (listed in the city directory, a sort of pre-phone book, as “Capitalist”) died in Oakland in 1900. He left an estate worth $40,000. There was money in cows.

Want to know more about the Frinks, and what made this retelling possible? Keep scrolling. If not, but you enjoyed the story, please like and subscribe for more stories.

Background Stories

Anybody who talks about California hedonism has never spent a Christmas in Sacramento. —Joan Didion

Margaret and Ledyard Frink and the Creation of Sacramento

Margaret was a pioneer in her own right. Very few women took the overland trail until 1851. There's an old joke in California:

The miners came in ‘49,

The whores in 51,

And when they got together

They begot the native son.

Of course, there were sex workers in early Sacramento, but most of the women who followed Margaret in 1851, had a lot in common with her: middle-class and respectable, but also practical, and toughened in the crucible of the westward journey overland. People like these were part of the cultural bedrock of the city's future.

By the time the Frinks arrived in the early fall of 1850, the ruthless businessmen who invented Sacramento were already concerned to attract families, permanence, and the investment that came with both. They needed the cornerstones of community. Margaret had unwittingly played a role in their plans as one of the founders of 1st Baptist Church of Sacramento, which is still on the same site today. Even before more women arrived, the professional men who had honored Margaret with a seat at the head of the lunch table were already busily cleaning up the city in preparation for the arrival of more ladies.

Family-friendly amenities were vital to remaking Sacramento into an attractive middle-class city. Amenities included churches like 1st Baptist, and especially schools. In 1856, Sacramento took a major step toward East Coast standards of civilization when it opened a high school. This was really the equivalent of college today: it was public, free, and a move in the direction of democracy. Sacramento High School was the second to be built West of the Mississippi, and only two weeks behind Lowell High in San Francisco, which won the bragging rights.

More than eighty years after Ledyard Frink’s death, a few miles from where he and Margaret operated their hotels, an enthusiastic British exchange student threw herself into Sacramento High School’s 125th Anniversary celebration. She went on to write a short, fragmentary, and mediocre history of the long-lived school. It’s buried somewhere in a local archive.

So, yes, there was a personal connection. There always is. I loved Sac High. I loved Sacramento. If there’s a bias in this piece, I hope other historians will show me I’m wrong. I think I’m right. But if the preponderance of evidence suggests otherwise, that’s the way I’ll go. That’s how academic historians roll. But I didn’t write this as history: It’s the best I could do in a few days. Do know that I made it as true as I could.

Retelling the Journal of Margaret (and Ledyard!) Frink

I’m a historian of early British America, not the 19th century West. I read Margaret Frink’s journal as my first introduction to the enormous body of diaries on 19th century Westward migration, for the novel I planned to write and, in fact, am now well along the way to finishing. Knowing that most diaries were written by men, I thought it would be fun to read the women before turning to the guys, and then on to the expert historians: Despite going to college in Sacramento, I had never been interested in the Gold Rush before.

Margaret's (and Ledyard's!) journal has rightly been called “one of the classics of American history.” I highly recommend reading it: It’s short, it's not hard to understand, and you can read in their own words about the Frinks’ journey from Indiana to California, which I skipped for the sake of brevity.

You can’t buy Margaret’s (and Ledyard’s!) original 1897 self-published book unless you have a couple thousand bucks to spare: Ledyard only ordered a few copies for friends and family, but demand has long since outstripped supply.

Ledyard originally attributed authorship on the cover of the published journal to Mr. and Mrs. L. Frink. Before you can say "Victorian patriarchy”, or “what a twit”, cut the man some slack: It was 1897, he was past 80, and he did all the editing and publishing and whatnot. And besides, it was Ledyard's story, too, and I don’t think Margaret would have minded him taking some of the limelight.

And if she had minded, she would have got the last laugh: Most people who know the diary speak and think of her as sole author.

That’s because the modern reprint of her diary is in a book dedicated to the writing of women who migrated west. Ledyard was surplus to requirements. This modern edition was curated and edited by the late Kenneth L. Holmes, a historian at Western Oregon State College. It was originally published in 1983 as the second in his series of women’s accounts of westward migration. The series was such a hit, Professor Holmes produced eight volumes of women’s letters and diaries in all. So, please note: It’s volume 2 you want. Here’s the title: Kenneth L. Holmes (Ed.) Covered Wagon Women: Diaries and Letters From the Western Trails, 1850 VOLUME 2.

But although the journal is always billed as a woman’s diary, it was clearly a joint Ledyard/Margaret production, just like almost everything else they did in life, as I hope I have made clear.

Cholera got you captivated? I depended on Professor Mitchel Roth’s clever and elegantly written Cholera, Community, and Public Health in Gold Rush Sacramento and San Francisco, in Pacific Historical Review (1997) This work is now behind a paywall, which benefits a corporation, JSTOR, and not the author. This now-typical state of affairs is a disgrace. In the past, historians typically haven’t minded not being paid for our scholarly work. But we DO mind that others exploit it for gain, and keep it from you. If you want to read it, you can: A reference librarian at a public university can help you, and will. You don’t have to be a student or professor. Be brave, and walk right through the doors, and tell them Dr. Annette Laing suggested you talk to them.

As I said in part 1, I am also indebted to Mark A. Eifler, history professor at the University of Portland, for Gold Rush Capitalists: Greed and Growth in Sacramento (2002) his detailed and fascinating study of early Sacramento. which helped me flesh out the context.

One more thing . . .The first time I read the journal, I was struck by how the Frinks’ marriage was a surprisingly modern partnership: Although Ledyard was acknowledged head of the household, there were many, many references in the text to “we” and “our” in decision-making. Their close relationship likely owes something to their childlessness (they were certainly not childfree by choice). I also love the family they pieced together in their casual adoption of Aaron, and their more official adoption of Robert. However, Aaron's family loyalties were always first to his parents in Indiana, and the Frinks’ words leave me with the unshakable impression that they thought of Robert as an independent entity whom they cared for, rather than as their own child. Which is not to say that Margaret didn’t freak out when Robert once got lost somewhere on the trail. But attitudes to children, fostering, and adoption have shifted over time, like everything else.

The glimpses of the Alsip clan (many of whom I suspect the Frinks didn’t mind leaving in Indiana) are also tantalizing,

A few details I give about the family came from random sources: I drew on the internets for obituaries, and I tracked down A.B. to St. Helena thanks to an undated document by Mariam Hansen, a member of the local historical society. There are also a few contradictions in the journal and family story, which I did my best to resolve.

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