Pioneer Women: Frances Hopkins

Mariposa Cnty - Monarch ButterflyMary Frances Sherwood (or Frances, as her husband always called her), and her bridegroom Mark Hopkins, departed New York by ship for California just hours after their wedding ceremony. Frances was 36 on her wedding day September 20, 1854—an age considered quite old for a bride—although presumably they hadcommitted to marry before Mark’s impetuous sojourn to California’s great gold rush six years earlier. They were first cousins, related through the inter-married Sherwood, Kellogg, and Hopkins families. Neither could have known then that Mark would become one of the “Big Four” who built America’s first transcontinental railroad, or that quiet, well-educated Frances would become notorious after his death. The couple set up housekeeping in Sacramento, where Mark had been a successful wholesale grocer before their marriage. Little is known of Frances’s 20 years in Sacramento except for her church membership and her State Fair award-winning embroidery. When the railroad’s headquarters moved from Sacramento to San Francisco in the early 1870s, the Hopkinses relocated and once there, Frances insisted on building a magnificent new residence on Nob Hill. It was almost finished when Mark died suddenly in March 1878. Frances inherited most of her husband’s $20 million dollar fortune and moved into the fabulous 40-room, multi-turreted mansion replete with gables, spires, and ornate ornamentation which was widely scorned for its “fanciful” architecture. Reserved by nature, she had invested little time in San Francisco’s social circles before Mark’s death and now continued to remain aloof. The press magnified her every move, seizing on unwise remarks she let slip about her growing dislike of California, with the result that Frances was harshly judged as an egotistical, mean woman who was lacking in refinement. Malicious tongues wagged even more furiously when Frances, then 69 and widowed 9 years, married interior designer Edward Searle, a handsome man 22 years her junior, with whom she designed and built a number of  fabulous palace-like homes in Massachusetts and New York. Her death in 1891 was announced by headlines such as “Rich Woman Dead” in newspapers across the country. Frances’s widower Edward Searle donated the Nob Hill mansion to the San Francisco Art Institute; it was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake and fire. Today the Mark Hopkins Hotel stands on the site. March is National Women’s History Month.

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