Margaret Wood Bancroft (1893 -1986) lived anything but a dull existence. Her courage, physical stamina, and thirst for adventure led her into some close calls during her long life. As a child growing up on her family’s guest ranch in San Diego’s back country, she had decided to become a cowhand and was so skilled that she served as a trail guide and team driver from the age of 10. After she moved into town in 1913, a new motion picture studio in Los Angeles learned she could ride bareback and recruited her to perform in Western movies. During her career as a Hollywood starlet, she hung out with actors such as Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin, and worked on outdoor locations as a stunt performer.
Griffing Bancroft, a wealthy divorced San Diego businessman, fell in love with Margaret and the couple married in 1917. Margaret went on collecting trips to remote areas of Baja California with Griffing, who had a passion for ornithology. Along with several scientists, the couple spent five months traveling along the coast of Baja California in their 52-foot boat in 1930, mostly collecting bird eggs.
In 1932, they published a book about their adventures, in which Griffing always referred to Margaret as “The Partner.” Indeed, Margaret insisted on direct participation in every challenge, including scaling a perilous 100-foot cliff on Ildefonso Island to reach an osprey nest, despite her husband stating that “no woman had any business doing anything so dangerous.” On a beach at Guadalupe Island, she impulsively jumped onto the back of a huge bull elephant seal and rode him, as she later stated “like a flea on a dog,” as he raced back into the surf until she fell off. Margaret was miraculously unharmed by the enormous animal.
Always looking for new adventures, Margaret and her friend Bertie Meling embarked on a six-week-long mule trip to search for a lost mission near Santa Ysabel in Baja California in 1935. The two women never did find the legendary mission, but ended up discovering cave pictographs new to archaeologists, as reported in local newspapers. In her later life, she actively participated in political and social causes in San Diego, and was honored by herpetologist Laurence Klauber by having a new species of snake named after her. She died in La Jolla at the age of 93, after a lifetime of pursuing her passions.
You can learn more about Margaret Bancroft in our new, permanent exhibition, Extraordinary Ideas from Ordinary People: A History of Citizen Science, located on Level 3 of the Museum.