Twenty-four–year-old Rachel Hobson Holmes boarded the trading vessel Newcastle out of Boston in September 1831. She was sailing for far-off California to join her seafaring, Danish-born husband Captain A. C. Holmes, whom she had married four years earlier but had not seen for some time.
The only other passenger was 29-year-old Thomas Oliver Larkin, a once successful storekeeper who had lost everything, and was now California-bound to accept employment with his older half-brother John Rogers Cooper, who had been a successful trader in that Mexican province for the past seven years. During the months-long journey around Cape Horn, Rachel and Thomas became lovers, a relationship that continued when the Newcastle at last anchored in Monterey in April 1832.
Since Rachel’s husband was still at sea and there were no hotels, both of them resided with John Cooper and his family. Discovering that she was pregnant with Larkin’s child, Rachel discreetly relocated to Santa Barbara—her husband’s port of call—where she gave birth to a daughter she named Isabel Ann, in January 1833. No doubt frantic with worry over how she would explain this to her husband, here in Santa Barbara she also learned that Captain Holmes had died the year before, while en route from Acapulco to South America. Rachel Holmes and Thomas Larkin were married in June 1833 in Santa Barbara Harbor aboard the American ship Volunteer, but lost baby Isabel a month after the wedding. Rachel Holmes Larkin was the first American wife in California, and until 1840, the only one. The couple returned to Monterey, and over time had eight more children, only five of whom survived to adulthood.
Thomas Larkin became a successful merchant and constructed a fine adobe home—the first two-story house in Monterey—of a stylish New England design with wide, Spanish-style verandas. Through Thomas’s merchant activities, land speculation and investments in various enterprises, the Larkins became wealthy, and they became famous throughout the territory for their generous hospitality, especially after Thomas was appointed the U.S. Consul to Mexican California in 1844 … at Rachel’s dinner table, guests discussed Mexican political affairs and plans for the future of California. Nevertheless, the Bear Flag Revolt in June 1846, incited by dissatisfied American immigrants, was an unwelcome surprise. A month later, however, the Bear Flag uprising was trumped when United States military forces landed at Monterey to begin the conquest of California pursuant to a formal declaration of war against Mexico. In February 1848, Mexico ceded California to the United States, ending the need for Thomas Larkin’s diplomatic services.
Thomas and Rachel, with three of their children, moved to New York in 1850. They rented a comfortable suite at the fashionable Irving House, a popular gathering place for Californians. In November they purchased and extravagantly renovated an eighteen-room house in a good neighborhood. The new house soon had the same reputation for lavish hospitality as their former Monterey home, but the cold and damp weather induced repeated bouts of illness in Rachel and the children, some of it quite serious. Thomas himself suffered from an acute skin disease he had contracted on the East Coast, and was so ill for two months that newspapers mistakenly announced his death. By the time he began to recover, Rachel, who had helped doctor him, collapsed.
The Larkins moved back to San Francisco in May 1853, regained their good health, placed the two youngest children in good local schools, resumed their busy social and business lives, and soon built an opulent mansion. Rachel said she missed the excitement and glitter of New York, although she was favorably impressed with the changes in San Francisco during their three years’ absence. Unfortunately, she was soon to lose her husband. Stricken with typhoid fever, Thomas died in their San Francisco home October 27, 1858.
Rachel lived on for fifteen more years. Born to Daniel and Eliza Hobson in Ipswich, Massachusetts on April 30, 1807, she died in San Francisco on October 29, 1873. She had not remarried. Her first California home, the Larkin House in Monterey, was donated to the State of California in 1957 by her granddaughter Alice Larkin Toulmin. March is National Women’s History Month.