Cheryl Anne Stapp
Margaret Frink, Pioneer Housewife
In the spring of 1850—bedazzled by sensational reports coming back from the California gold fields—Margaret and Ledyard Frink excitedly headed west from their Indiana home in a covered wagon. Despite the foreboding of friends and family, they were going to be gold miners!
The truth of it was that the couple had become infected with the same gold fever that had struck thousands before them. Married eleven years, they were a bit older than the average gold-rusher, were prominent in their Indiana community, and they didn’t need the money. Ledyard owned a successful mercantile in Martinsville, which they left in a relative’s care with instructions to sell. The couple purchased a custom wagon with storage compartments built into the floor, took the right types of durable clothing, and wisely packed folic acid-rich pickles and vinegars to prevent scurvy. They had no children of their own; but Ledyard’s young mercantile clerk Aaron Rose accompanied them, and so did Robert Parker, an eleven-year-old orphan who had lived with them for the past four years.
For families, a journey of such distance generally meant the move was a permanent one, or at least a relocation that would last for many years, and the Frinks were the type of people who planned carefully. Although they didn’t know from the outset where they might eventually settle in California, the couple had the foresight to arrange for a future dwelling. Learning that the price of lumber in California was an exorbitant $400 per thousand feet compared to $3.00 per thousand feet in Indiana, they decided to have a pre-cut cottage shipped ahead. Lumber of all necessary sizes was measured, cut, and fashioned, ready to assemble. Ledyard arranged for these materials to be floated on a raft down the White River to the Wabash, the Ohio, and the Mississippi Rivers to New Orleans. From there the stack was to be shipped around Cape Horn.
They had quite an adventure traveling 2,000 miles, with Margaret riding side saddle on her pony for much of the multi-month trip. They endured some unpleasant experiences on the trail, but their foresight and good common sense allowed them to avert disasters that befell many others, allowing their party, personal possessions, and animals to arrive in California whole and healthy. On September 7 their wagon rolled into one-year-old Sacramento, a booming gold rush town a mere 40 miles from several gold fields, a town strewn with tents and rough new buildings, lively with commerce and boiling with energy.
However, somewhere along the way, gold mining must have lost its appeal to Margaret and Ledyard. Aaron Rose, the clerk from Ledyard’s Martinsville mercantile, said goodbye and set off for the gold mines on the Yuba River with a friend they met on the trail, buoyantly optimistic that he would soon strike it rich. But the Frinks themselves, who had withstood freezing storms, crossed blazing deserts, forded swift-moving icy rivers, endured blinding dust clouds, suffered fatigue and hunger—all for an admitted, consuming gold fever, wished him well—and stayed put.
Within a week of their arrival, Margaret became a founding member of Sacramento’s First Baptist Church, and within two weeks the Frinks opened a boarding house. Two months later, Ledyard founded a much needed dairy to furnish Sacramento residents with fresh milk, and they prospered. The couple invested in real estate, much of it downtown business district parcels, and dairy land. The following year their pre-cut house arrived, always afterward referred to by the family as the “White River Cottage” for its beginning transport point in Indiana. Throughout their years in Sacramento, the couple survived major fires and disastrous floods, stood among the ecstatic crowds who welcomed the arrival of the first west-bound Pony Express rider in April 1860, and watched, from their backyard, as California’s Capitol Building began to rise above the landscape. They lived in Sacramento until 1867, when they moved permanently to their cattle and dairy in Rio Vista, on land they had purchased in the mid-1850s, and had spent the intervening years developing.
In 1875, the Frinks retired from active farming and moved to a fine home they built in Oakland, where Margaret died on January 17, 1893. Her detailed, articulate diary of their overland journey to California in 1850 remains a classic, delightful account of American pioneer history. Read it in Covered Wagon Women – Diaries & Letters from the Western Trails,1850. Margaret’s life in Sacramento is detailed in Disaster & Triumph: Sacramento Women, Gold Rush Through the Civil War. March is National Women’s History Month.