Nevada City gets historic donation

Former senator’s grandchildren give 1,700 items to library

 Karen Newell Young
and Stacy Drake

Nevada City Advocate

 The Searls Historical Library has become the beneficiary and custodian of rare letters and documents from the life of Aaron Sargent, a Nevada City pioneer attorney and newspaper publisher who went on to a career as a civic leader, congressman, senator and diplomat. The library has also become the beneficiary of several letters and other documents associated with the life of his wife, Ellen.

As the great-grandson of Aaron and Ellen Clark Sargent, Bill Sargent, 74, owned hundreds of artifacts reflecting their lives and the world in which they lived.

“We had these items stored for years, huge boxes that we donated to Searls,” Bill Sargent said during a recent visit to Nevada City. “We didn’t know what to do with it all.”

Aaron Sargent served three terms in the House, and from 1873 to 1879 a term in the U.S. Senate. Throughout his years as a national figure, Aaron and Ellen were ardent supporters of a woman’s right to vote.

Because of their commitment to women’s suffrage, the Sargents developed a warm and lasting friendship with Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and other women leaders of the time. At one point, the senator paid a fine to get Ms. Anthony released from jail when she was arrested for refusing to pay that fine while attempting to register to vote. 

In 1869, Ellen co-founded the Nevada County Women’s Suffrage Club and later served as the president of the California Woman Suffrage Association. And during her husband’s six years in the Senate, Ellen was treasurer of the national women’s suffrage organization. 

In January 1878, Senator Sargent introduced the 29 words that would later become the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, allowing women the right to vote. 

The bill calling for the amendment would periodically be introduced by other senators, but never gained majority support. Finally, in 1918, 40 years after its introduction, the proposed amendment made its way out of Congress and was sent to the states for ratification. It would be adopted as the 19th Amendment on August 18, 1920.

Following Sargent’s term in the Senate, he and Ellen made their home in San Francisco where in 1887 Aaron died a month shy of his 60th birthday. Ellen continued to fight for women’s rights until her death in San Francisco in 1911. 

Nevada City’s Famous Marching Presidents have honored the Sargents for several years for their support of women’s rights. Bill Sargent was invited to attend this year’s Constitution Day events and spoke to the Famous Marching Presidents at Miners Foundry after the September 9 parade. His key message to the group was “Read the Constitution.”

Bill Sargent now lives in Galveston, Texas, and, like his great-grandparents, has been active in politics for most of his life. 

After retiring from the Navy, Sargent served on the staff of two members of the U.S. House and one member of the U.S. Senate. He also worked for the U.S. Department of Commerce for 30 years, which included 17 years handling international trade legislation. From 2011 to 2012, he was chief deputy clerk for elections for the Office of the County Clerk of Galveston. In 2012 and 2018, he ran for a seat in the House of Representatives but lost. 

He and his two siblings were not sure what to do with the many items in the Sargent collection. They figured weighing and appraising the items was a lengthy and tedious task. They ended up donating more than 1,700 pieces to the Searls Library.

Included in the collection, which has been indexed and is easily accessible at the library, are letters from Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, an invitation to meet King David Kalakua of Hawaii, a request to attend a dinner to honor President Ulysses S. Grant and his wife, several letters of appreciation for civic involvement, as well as invoices for items purchased: jewelry, liquor, ash trays and umbrella stands. There are also dress material samples for Ellen. Sargent’s wardrobe and Christmas cards and drawings by Aaron for inventions.

“Even though none of us live in or around Nevada City, we agreed that the personal items of my great-grandfather and grandmother belonged in the Searls Library,” Bill explained. “The honor of his accomplishments really belongs to the area he represented in Washington, which is Nevada City.” 

About the photo: 

Front Page: 

Bill Sargent talks about his family’s donation to the Searls Historical Library while having a cup of coffee at Java Johns in downtown Nevada City.

Photo by Stacy Drake

This page: 

The March 30, 1882, cover of menu for banquet to honor Ulysses S. Grant and his  wife

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