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Margaret Wood Bancroft (1893-1986)


Frankness, courage, and a passion for adventure are just a few of the remarkable qualities that distinguished Margaret Wood Bancroft. Known to many as the wife of naturalist Griffing Bancroft and daughter-in-law of historian Hubert Howe Bancroft, she was not one to stand in their shadows. She swept through life with zest, embracing roles as varied as cowhand, actress, socialite, naturalist, and explorer.

The Early Years

Margaret Wood was born on July 10, 1893, in Glasgow, Kentucky, a town in tobacco country near the Tennessee border. Her father, Clarence Wood, sold hardware and farm equipment, and her mother, Cora Byebee Wood, was a former schoolteacher. Margaret had seven older siblings: Ashton, Joseph, Elizabeth, Susie May, Mickle, Cora, and Johnson. The Woods were financially well-to-do and lived comfortably in town, yet they were plagued by health problems. In 1894, tuberculosis took the life of Ashton and was suspected of infecting the remaining children. The Woods debated seeking a healthier climate in southern California. The deciding factor was a fire that decimated Glasgow in 1899. After losing everything they owned, the Woods sent Joseph to California to scout out a good location.

The Wood family moved to San Diego in 1900, where Joseph had found a job in a hardware store. They purchased a house at the corner of 3rd and Cedar Streets. Margaret later reminisced about how fascinated the children were with their new surroundings:

The first thing my father did was pile us in sort of a tally-ho and drive out to La Jolla. It was the first time we’d ever seen the ocean, any of us. It was the most exciting day and it’s vivid in my mind, all of us coming back, just dripping with shells and everything we could collect. (Bancroft & Baum, 1980, p. 6)

But illness continued to be a problem on the foggy coast. In 1902, the family relocated to Descanso, California, a town in the mountains east of San Diego. The children took to western life with enthusiasm and their health improved dramatically. Resolving to stay in the mountains, the Woods purchased the Witch Creek Ranch, in farming and ranching land between the former goldrush towns of Julian and Ramona.

Witch Creek was a 15-acre guest ranch with an adobe-and-wood hotel, an extensive garden and orchard, several milk cows, and horses for the guests to ride. Margaret kept busy with ranch and hotel chores as well as attending the local one-room school. She loved the active outdoor life and became a skilled rider, serving as a trail guide from the age of ten. She was an adventurous and self-assured child:

When we got to Witch Creek, there was a buggy and two or three horses, and a man hauling our possessions, the few things that we had up in the mountains. George Sawday, who owned half of San Diego at one time or another, … got off his horse and came in to visit and talk with my father and mother, and he turned to me and said, “Young lady, what are you going to be?” At that time, I was ten. I said, “I am a cowboy.” He said, “Would you like to work for me?” and I said, “Yes, I would.” So he said, “All right, you come tomorrow morning and start to ride with me.” His place was a half a mile up the road. From that day to the day he died, I was his little girl Friday. (Bancroft & Baum, 1980, p. 2)

After graduating from the ninth grade, Margaret left school to help her family run the guest ranch, which had become a popular destination. The 14-year-old’s work was strenuous and included driving a team of horses more than 20 miles to meet guests arriving by train.

Even with Margaret’s assistance, the family struggled to run the ranch. It became more difficult after Clarence died in 1910. Only Margaret, Cora, Johnson, and their mother were left at home. The girls put on plays in nearby Julian and Ramona in the winter, acting multiple roles and dressing up in fancy costumes to entertain the guests and neighbors and earn a little extra money. They also visited the local Indian reservations and bought baskets to sell to guests at the ranch:

Some of the baskets had the pattern of a rattlesnake. They had all sorts of patterns in them. Some of the very small baskets had woven in quail tufts and some of them with mountain quail tufts. Those baskets were just exquisite. (Bancroft, 1980, p. 120)

One day Kate Sessions, a famous botanist and gardener, came to Witch Creek. She admired the eastern and English lilacs that grew prolifically in local gardens and showed the girls how to box and ship them for sale. From that time on, Margaret and her sisters collected lilacs from their neighbors each spring for sale, giving the owners a share of the proceeds. But money-making projects such as these were not enough, and in 1913 the family made the difficult decision to close the ranch. The children scattered to various locations. Soon after that, Margaret’s mother passed away.

The Starlet

Margaret decided to move in with her sister Mickle in San Diego. Four friends persuaded the dark-haired, dark-eyed, athletic young woman that she should join their new motion picture studio, Ammex. Margaret’s ability to drive four-horse teams and ride bareback made her an ideal actress and stunt person for cowboy movies, including Remorse of an Outlaw in 1913. Margaret’s new career had its dangers, however, and she was forced to take a hiatus after she broke an ankle throwing herself from a falling horse. But by then she had fallen in love with acting.

In 1915, Margaret joined her brother Joe in Los Angeles to attend the Egan Dramatic School. She was able to meet and socialize with the top people in the business, such as the Cecil deMille family, through family connections made during the Witch Creek days. Screenwriter Frances Marion helped Margaret land two small film parts. One was in a Jack London story and the other was in Captain Courtesy, a western featuring Douglas Fairbanks. Margaret then obtained a position as a $25/week extra for the studio of D. W. Griffith, the pioneering director of Birth of a Nation. It was a fast-paced and varied life. Margaret played a Roman princess carried through the streets of Jerusalem in a scene (later cut) for Griffith’s masterpiece Intolerance. During this time she became good friends with actress Lillian Gish.

Margaret went on to work for the Keystone and Mack Sennett studios, where she hobnobbed with some of the great comedic actors of the day, including Charlie Chaplin and Mabel Normand. In later years, she remembered loving her life among what she called that “tough bunch,” but noted that she had to learn to block her ears against salty language and her hotel door against unwanted visitors (Bancroft, 1980, pp. 11-12). Acting proved to be a good career for a young woman who loved the outdoor life. Much of the filming was done on location at places such as Mount Baldy and Catalina Island. Falling off a ship and playing a novice skier out of control were some of the athletic stunts that Margaret performed.

Courtship and Marriage

Margaret Wood’s romance with Griffing Bancroft began in controversy. Griffing was a Harvard graduate and member of the San Diego business community who managed the extensive property holdings of the Bancroft family (Black, 1913). In 1912, he had separated from his first wife, Ethel Works, the daughter of San Diego attorney and later U.S. Senator John D. Works. Griffing and Ethel's daughter Barbara stayed with her mother, but the two boys, Griffing Jr. and Hubert Howe III (Howe), bounced between an aunt and a governess before finally joining their father.

Griffing had been a frequent visitor to Witch Creek and was acquainted with the Wood family. In 1916, he and Margaret met again on a boat to San Diego. The young actress was on her way to spend the summer with her sister Susie May. Griffing was fascinated with Margaret and began a determined courtship. An outgoing couple, they went dancing at the Hotel del Coronado and other local hotspots and attended every play and opera that came to town. Margaret’s conservative Catholic family tried to discourage her from marrying a divorced man who was 14 years older, but Margaret knew her own mind:

Susie May and Cora were talking one time, lying on Susie May's bed in her house. I went in and threw this diamond ring right into the middle of them. Mickle was there, too. They said, "Well, here we are. All right, we'll accept him as a brother-in-law." And from that time on, they made no fuss. (Bancroft, 1980, p. 20)

Griffing filed in San Diego County for divorce and child custody, which were contested by Ethel. When the divorce was granted in 1917, custody of the children was awarded to Ethel. The loss of his sons was a serious blow to Griffing. He quickly married Margaret on September 2, 1917 and sent the two boys north in secret. Ethel immediately filed suits for bigamy and kidnapping. Griffing was forced to leave the county to avoid prosecution. The newlyweds were invited by Griffing’s father, Hubert Howe “HH” Bancroft, to share the Bancroft homestead in Walnut Creek, California. HH was a celebrated historian and collector of western memorabilia. He got along well with Margaret and adored his grandsons, although, according to Margaret, they were “the most strenuous youngsters you could ever imagine” (Bancroft, 1980, p. 19). Happily, Ethel decided the boys were too difficult to handle and relinquished custody to Griffing the following summer.

Margaret was up to the task of raising her lively stepsons, having helped out many times with her sisters’ children. But she was shocked to discover how little they knew of the outdoor life. She decided that she and Griffing should teach the boys about nature, with Margaret focusing on plants and Griffing on animals. Dr. Frank Bancroft, a scientist and cousin to Griffing, took the family into the field to teach them how to collect, pack, and process bird eggs for storage and exhibition:

In those days, they put a hole in each end. Then we learned to use a dentist's drill and make one little hole, then bring the fine glass tube down to a very fine point and blow in, and that would blow out the matter. Then we'd wash them out and put them on blotting paper until they were dry, then put a sealing coat over the hole to keep out the moths, and then put them into little cases. It was delicate work. (Bancroft, 1980, p. 129)

These days in the field were the beginning of Griffin’s lifelong passion for collecting birds’ eggs, in which he was ably assisted by Margaret. When the family moved back to San Diego in the fall of 1918, they carried about 50 sets of carefully wrapped, fragile eggs on top of their automobile.

Homemaker, Socialite, Explorer

Margaret settled into her new life, combining homemaking and raising the boys with a busy social schedule. She and Griffing played active roles in San Diego high society. They also explored the natural history of large regions of southern and Baja California, and they continued their egg collecting trips every spring until the start of World War II. Griffing’s ornithology expertise and reputation as an oologist grew, with Margaret’s enthusiastic support.

In 1930, Margaret and Griffing set out on a five-month journey to explore and document the bird and animal life of the Baja California coastline. Their crew included ornithologist A.J. Van Rossen (California School of Technology), zoologist Donald R. Dickey (Califomia School of Technology), F.S. Rogers (San Diego Natural History Museum), Albert Kroeckel, and J. Elton Green (University of California, Berkeley). On February 15, the explorers departed San Diego on the Least Petrel, a 52-foot boat owned by Griffing Bancroft. They made observations and compiled notes at numerous sites along the 1,900-mile coastline and islands of Baja California. Griffing memorialized the trip in 1932 with the publication of The Flight of the Least Petrel, which documented the abundance and variety of birds and wildlife in Baja California and described the adventures of the Bancrofts and their companions.

The Least Petrel

In the Flight of the Least Petrel, Griffing referred to Margaret as “the Partner,” expressing admiration for her intrepid spirit and knowledge of the natural world. On Cedros Island, he noted that “her interest was especially awakened in the cedars from which the island takes its name” and that she also knew of the “water holes and the lesser vegetation and of the deer and smaller mammals and of the wealth of bird life” (Bancroft, 1932, p. 86). Griffing’s recollection of an egg-collecting outing on the cliffs of Ildefonso Island gives the reader a taste of Margaret’s bravery and stubbornness:

The Partner declared herself in on the collecting and insisted that it would be she who would do the climbing. Tony and I joined in putting her in her place, in explaining that Duck Hawk eggs involved the sportiest of oölogical takes, and that no woman had any business doing anything so dangerous. The result was that the end of the next hour found her on our rope ladder with an especially equipped creel at her waist and a hundred feet of sheer drop beneath her feet. (Bancroft, 1932, p. 241).

Margaret eventually found a set of four beautiful red eggs. She packed them carefully in her basket and brought them safely to the top of the bluff. They enjoyed a place of honor in the Bancrofts’ home for many years.

Margaret later recorded a memorable adventure at Guadalupe Island, Baja California, on an expedition to collect a bull elephant seal skin. As official photographer, she wandered along the beach through a group of nearly fifty elephant seals while a crew member prodded the massive animals to stir them to animation. The next day, Margaret found herself boiling the head of a half ton,17-foot elephant seal to collect the skull, as the men struggled to skin the body. That evening she had a remarkable experience:

Going down the beach with our burden we encountered a great pop-eyed bull, his huge trunk reared almost to a question mark. Captain became facetious. “Missus, why don’t you ride him?” Impetuously I made a running jump onto his back. Much to my amazement he began to move, humping and slumping along in the Elephant Seal’s awkward way of travel .I clung on, like a flea to a dog, watching to see whether he would attack me with his tail or his flippers. I was surprised by his doing neither of these things; instead he made directly for the water. The inspector jumped all over the beach, in his excitement shouting “Burro!”and I took a cold ducking as my mount unceremoniously disappeared in the surf. (“Riding an Elephant Seal,” M. W. Bancroft, n.d., p. 8).

In 1935, Margaret and her close friend Bertie Meling went on an historical expedition to search for the legendary lost mission of Santa Ysabel in the San Pedro Martir Mountains, Baja California. Bertie’s family ran a ranch at San Jose del Telmo 200 miles south of the border, where the Bancrofts joined them frequently on cattle drives. Margaret’s packing list for the rugged six-week trip includes an interesting mixture of personal items (boots, overalls, cold cream, pocket knife), practical items (20-gauge shotgun shells, 6 sets mule shoes, 300 feet cotton rope), food (dried apples, onion, potatoes), and medicines (antivenom, iodine, turpentine) (Scrapbook, M. Bancroft,1936). The two intrepid women were accompanied by three local guides and seven mules. Although the party never found the lost mission, Margaret did make a significant discovery: intriguing symbols marked on the wall of a cave. When San Diego archaeology expert Malcolm Rogers examined her careful copies, he determined that the marks revealed the direction taken by the ancient La Jolla Culture after the Yuma tribe drove them out of the San Diego area 500 yearsbefore the arrival of Europeans.

Margaret was also recognized for her contributions to the study of natural history. She sent a number of snake specimens to herpetologist Laurence Klauber, including a new species that he named after her, Sonora bancroftae (San Telmo ground snake):

I take pleasure in naming it after Mrs. Bancroft, a friend of more than forty years, who, with her husband Griffing Bancroft, has been the source of many fine reptile specimens collected in the course of their oological and archeological expeditions to Lower California, Sonora, and the islands of the Gulf of California. (Klauber, 1943, p. 1).

Political, Social, and Civic Volunteer

Margaret Wood Bancroft was generous with her time and support for causes she believed in. She and Griffing were active in social and civic work in San Diego and southern California. Margaret was one of the original members of the Junior League and served as director of the Red Cross for many years. She was actively involved with the San Diego Natural History Museum, the San Diego Museum of Art, and the San Diego Museum of Man.

Margaret developed a keen interest in politics in 1938 when she and Griffing “dropped everything” to work for the U.S. Senate campaign of his brother, Philip Bancroft. Margaret knew many influential people across San Diego County and was a vigorous and effective campaigner, later remembering that she had “never worked as hard and never enjoyed anything more” (Bancroft,1980, p. 66). Although Philip’s campaign was unsuccessful, Margaret and Griffing continued to actively support the Republican party over the next two decades. She met Richard Nixon when he was a law student and later worked on his 1952 vice-presidential campaign, later joking that “he wasn’t much of a baby kisser” (Bancroft, 1980, p. 74).

At the start of World War II, Margaret was on the board of directors of the Red Cross. Wanting to do more for the war effort, she took a job at the Consolidated Aircraft Company (later known as Convair) and worked there for two years. Although Margaret would have liked to be Rosie the Riveter, the company asked her to act as a counselor for the large numbers of untrained young women coming in to do electrical work. According to Margaret, patriotism was just one part of the equation for these women: “Housework is lonely work, the loneliest work you can have. Here there was an equality of how good you were as a worker … it was a big social occasion” (Bancroft,1980, p. 150). But the women encountered many challenges, from unfamiliar work to unwanted attentions from the men. Margaret leant a sympathetic ear and good advice, with a particular focus on getting the women to eat well and regularly.

As the war progressed, the lives of Margaret and Griffing became more centered on their home. In March 1942, Margaret met Eleanor Roosevelt. The First Lady expressed her appreciation in a letter to Margaret (below) and a newspaper column: “Their knowledge has been of use in our preparation for defense and she [Margaret] was kind enough yesterday to send me her husband’s book, which I know the president will enjoy” (Eleanor Roosevelt, 1942).

In 1946, Margaret and Griffing moved to La Jolla, California, where they continued an active social life. Griffing passed away in 1955. Margaret kept busy with swimming, horseback riding, and travels to foreign lands. She regularly visited the Meling Ranch in Baja California, spending a month at a time riding the range. Other destinations included Europe, Central America, andMexico. Discovering an interest in archaeology, Margaret began to work at the San Diego Museum of Man in Balboa Park and go on collecting trips for the museum. Her busy social life included dinner with President and Mrs. Richard M. Nixon at the Hotel del Coronado (President Richard M. Nixon, 1970). She also continued her support of local institutions, donating the Library of Griffing and Margaret Bancroft to the University of California, San Diego in 1971 (Bancroft, 1980).

Margaret Wood Bancroft reached the end of her travels at the age of 93, passing away on August 30, 1986. The San Diego Natural History Museum Research Library houses a collection of personal scrapbooks, letters, writings, and photographs that present a fascinating window into her life. These include photographs from The Least Petrel and other explorations in Baja California, a diary of the Lost Mission expedition, and the letter from Eleanor Roosevelt. Another rich source of historical material is the transcription of a series of interviews in 1977-1978 that record Margaret Bancroft’s memories about her life and family, published in 1980 by the Bancroft Library in Berkeley, California (Bancroft, 1980). In the introduction to this work, James D. Hart described Bancroft as a “dynamic person possessed of firm views and great charm” (Bancroft, 1980, p. i). She leaves behind an enduring legacy in the social and political life of San Diego County and the advancement of natural history and archaeological research in southern California and Baja California.


“2 women will ride burros into Mexico wilds to seek gold.” The San Diego Sun, 4 Nov 1935.

Bancroft, Margaret Wood. Recollections of Hubert Howe Bancroft and the Bancroft family [Interview by Willa K. Baum, 1977 and 1978]. 1980. Berkeley, CA: University of California. Available at

Bancroft, M. W. “Riding an elephant seal” [Personal Typescript]. N.d. Personal Effects of M.W. Bancroft. San Diego Natural History Museum Research Archives. San Diego, CA.

Bancroft, M. W. The book shelf scrap book of Margaret Wood Bancroft [Scrapbook and Photograph Album]. 1936. Personal Effects of M.W. Bancroft. San Diego Natural History Museum Research Archives.

Bancroft, G. Lower California: A cruise; the flight of the Least Petrel. 1932. New York, NY: G. P. Putnam’s Sons.

Black, S. F., & McGrew, C. A. San Diego County, California: a record of settlement, organization, progress and achievement, vol. 2. 1913. Chicago, IL: Clarke.

Eleanor Roosevelt, First Lady, to Margaret Wood Bancroft [Personal Correspondence]. 21 Mar 1942. Personal Effects of M.W. Bancroft. San Diego Natural History Museum Research Archives. San Diego, CA.

“First news of mission trek arrives.” The San Diego Union, Nov 1935.

Rolph, James Jr., Governor of California, to Margaret Wood Bancroft [Personal Correspondence].10 Feb 1932. Personal Effects of M.W. Bancroft. San Diego Natural History Museum Research Archives. San Diego, CA.

Klauber, L. “A new snake of the genus Sonora from Lower California” [Manuscript]. 9 May 1943. Personal Effects of M.W. Bancroft. San Diego Natural History Museum Research Archives.

“ Local scientists plan expedition.” The San Diego Union, 2 Feb 1930, pp. A1-A3.

“Margaret Bancroft, 93, dies; social leader, Baja explorer.” The San Diego Union, 31 Aug 1986, p.B2.

"Mrs. Bancroft finds new clues to fabled mission." The San Diego Sun, 4 Jan 1936, pp. Al-A2.

"Two women to seek fabled lost mission." Los Angeles Times, 4 Nov 1935.

President Richard M. Nixon’s daily diary. Appendix C. 3 Sep 1970. Available at

— Courtney Rogin, 2012. Research Library archives intern.