Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Rocky Mountain Locust: The Plague of the Pioneers

Photo by Darla Sue Dollman. I believe this was also a locust.

"No matter what they came to, they went right on. They were crawling up one side of the barn and down the other. Crawling West. They crawled straight into the creek, never stopped. They crawled into it and drowned till they clogged it up and the others crawled across on their backs. Molly...would they do something like that without knowing why? I tell you they were bound to go West. All the powers of Hell couldn't 've stopped them." He and Molly looked at each other for a long moment...Neither of them could say what they felt. The grasshoppers--crawling into the creek and drowning  'till the others crossed on their backs. Grasshoppers, going West--like the railroads, like the people, like cities and settled lands and law and government. Yet grasshoppers were as alien, as indifferent to human beings than human fate itself." 
--excerpt from Let the Hurricane Roar by Rose Wilder Lane, daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder 

Locust in New Mexico arroyo. Photo by Darla Sue Dollman.

Here Come the Bugs!

It is spring, and my house is already alive with spiders and creepy crawly creatures. It sometimes seems that every year my home state of Colorado is plagued with some creature, such as moths, butterflies, or bees, but the one that has created a unique history of its own with its massive, nationwide invasions is the grasshoppers, or locust. Perhaps the most famous of these is the Rocky Mountain Locust with their massive attacks on American pioneers. 

The Rocky Mountain Locust and American Pioneers

Rocky Mountain Locust once swarmed in numbers unimaginable to modern farmers who use pesticides to protect their crops. According to the Fort Collins Museum Discovery Science Center, the 1874 swarm of Rocky Mountain Locust covered 198,000 square miles with an estimated 12.5 million insects. In the 1800s, farmers fought a seemingly endless battle with the locust, year after year, and many believed the locust would win. They gave up their dreams of farming and returned to their homes in the East.

Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation at the Fort Collins Museum & Discovery Science Center, "From July 20 to July 30 of 1874, a plague of locusts was recorded over the prairie that covered 198,000 square miles (approximately twice the size of my home state of Colorado) and contained at least 12.5 trillion individuals weighing approximately 27.5 million tons."

Laura Ingalls Wilder. Wilder and her daughter both wrote about the Rocky Mountain Locust plagues in their accounts of life on the American prairies. 

Laura Elizabeth Ingalls Wilder (1867-1957), Rose Wilder Lane's mother (quoted above) wrote the Little House series about her family life in Independence, Kansas, and also wrote about her family's experiences with the Rocky Mountain Locust in her books, including On the Banks of the Plum Creek, a story of her life on the American prairie.

Ingalls describes her impression of the locust as they moved toward her family farm: "The cloud was grasshoppers.Their bodies hid the sun and made darkness. Their thin, large wings gleamed and glittered. The rasping whirring of their wings filled the whole air and they hit the ground and the house with the noise of a hailstorm..."

Locust swarming on an outside wall in Kansas City. Photo taken in 1933. National Archives and Records Administration/Public Domain.

It is the 1870s and dreamers, pioneers, have suddenly become farmers responding to the 1862 Homestead Act. They packed their families and belongings and moved onto their 160 acres where they built sod homes, shanties, any kid of structure to meet the government residency requirements, but most of these homes were made of mud, sod houses that survived best against the blistering heat, harsh winds, and relentless snowstorms on the Western prairies and thankfully were the only type of home that locust could not eat.

They lived on their land for five years, planting, harvesting, waiting for the day when they could finally file the title to your property. Then suddenly one a quiet, sunny morning there appeared a black cloud above their homes moving closer, faster, descending on their crops, streams, barns, animals, dreams, like a giant beast destroying every little plant that grew from every little seed that these men, their wives and children dropped by hand into the soil just months before.

Rocky Mountain Locusts (titled Minnesota Locusts) of the 1870s. 
Jacoby's Art Gallery/Public Domain.

Those families who were familiar with locust tied the openings of their clothing--shirt sleeves, pant legs--with string so the locust wouldn't climb inside, then rushed to cover their wells with anything they could find. Some tried to burn part of their crops, hoping the smoke would discourage the locust. It did not.

The families hid inside their mud houses. The sound was horrendous--crunching, crawling, scratching. When the creatures could not find something to eat, they began to eat each other. When the ground was bare, they moved on. For some settlers in the West, the loss was too much and they returned back home to their families in the East.

A Distinct Species of Grasshopper

Rocky Mountain Locust. Annual report of the Agricultural Experiment Station of the University of Minnesota. (Biodiversity Heritage Library. Drawing by Julius Bien (1826-1909).

In 2010, when I first wrote this article, sources stated that all locusts are swarming grasshoppers in the Acrididae family. They become aggressive as their numbers grow and food sources become low.

However, it is now believed that the Rocky Mountain Locust, known as the M. spretus, is distinct. It once lived primarily in the Rocky Mountains, but spread into the prairies as its numbers grew, and continued to grow until clouds of locust filled the air for miles and miles. Between 1873 and 1877, locust swarms caused $200 million in crop damage in Colorado, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, and Nebraska. Imagine seeing a cloud of locust so large it covers the entire sky and turns day into night. As terrifying as a Bibilical plague.

Locust Plagues in History

Rocky Mountain Locust. Julius Bien (1826-1909) biography - Annual report of the Agricultural Experiment Station of the University of Minnesota. (11th July 1902-June 1903). Public Domain.

Author Jeffrey Lockwood also states in “The Devastating Rise and Mysterious Disappearance of the Insect that Shaped the American Frontier.”  that the largest swarm is believed to have happened in the American Midwest: "The 1875 swarm was estimated to contain several trillion locusts and probably weighed several million tons. That was the largest locust cloud in world history." 

According to an article in the New York Times, the 1875 swarm was equal to the size of "the combined area of Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Vermont."

The Disappearance of the Rocky Mountain Locust

Twenty-seven years after the largest locust swarm in recorded U.S. history, the Rocky Mountain Locust mysteriously disappeared. The last sighting of a Rocking Mountain Locust was in Southern Canada in 1902. In spite of the size of the 1874 swarm less than 300 specimens of the insects remain. It is, however, still possible to find Rocky Mountain Locust carcasses frozen in glaciers.

In an ironic twist, it is widely believed that these same farmers who were relentlessly tortured by plagues of locust eventually brought about the locust's demise by exposing their larvae while plowing their fields.

According to Katie Boswell: "DNA testing from museum specimens of the Rocky Mountain locust suggests that M. spretus was a distinct, and now extinct, species and the days of the locust on the scale of 12.5 trillion individuals are gone. If you do still want to find Rocky Mountain locusts, the best place to look (other than in a museum) is in a glacier. Throughout the west there are glaciers that have preserved the frozen bodies of locusts that once flew over them."


  • Bennett, Chris. Western Farm Press. Accessed 2013. 
  • Bowell, Katie. The Rocky Mountain Locust. More to Explore. The Fort Collins Museum & Discovery Science Center. Accessed 2010.
  • Lane, Rose Wilder. Let the Hurricane Roar. Harper & Row Publishers. New York: 1933. 
  • Wilder, Laura Ingalls. On the Banks of Plum Creek. Harper: 1937. 
  • Yoon, Carol Kaesuk. "Looking Back at the Days of the Locust." The New York Times. Posted April 23, 2002. Accessed 2010.  

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Colorado's Deadliest Floods

You may have noticed fewer posts over the past year. I've been working on a history book about flooding in Colorado. Colorado's Deadliest Floods was released by 
The History Press on September 4, 2017. 

Tomorrow morning, September 14, 2017, I will be interviewed by Ryan Warner on "Colorado Matters," Colorado Public Radio. We will discuss the stories in the book, including the story of the Denver flood of 1864.

The show starts at 10 a.m. and ends at 11 a.m., but I believe there are two interviews. I was told by the radio station that "To hear it live, people can stream us online at CPR.org, and on station 90.1 for Greeley. The story and audio will be found online later in the day to access anywhere at anytime." http://www.cpr.org/ 

I've also been asked where to buy the book. I know of various places, but my best advice is to go to the History Press website.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

The Oregonian, Thomas Dryer, Henry Pittock, Mt. St. Helens and Mt. Hood

 Mount Hood reflected in Mirror Lake, Oregon. Public domain. Courtesy of Oregon's Mt. Hood Territory. Released into public domain when submitted to FHWA with 2005 Nomination Application.

This is an odd sort of story that I first heard on a television anthology show. It is a story of adventure, exploration, volcanoes, climbers, daredevils, tall tales and great accomplishments. It is complicated, but fascinating at the same time. When I attempted to research the tale I discovered there was less and more to it than the writers of the show originally implied. I would love to hear from some native Oregonians who know more about this tale than I do! Nevertheless, it is a fun tale, a
tall tale about challenges and danger, and the insatiable desire for men to be the "first" to go where, in the unforgettable words of Star Trek's Captain Kirk, "no man has gone before!" Whether or not some of the men involved achieved their goals is up to speculation,but there is no doubt that they tried, and the attempt to achieve is part of the great beauty of the history of the American West.

So, I will begin by apologizing for my very long hiatus. I've been writing a history book, and as it turns out, the book required much more research than originally anticipated. It will be finished soon and I miss hearing from my fellow fans of the Wild West. Therefore, I will begin with a post I started before I disappeared, a story about two men who worked as journalists in the Old West--Thomas J. Dryer and Henry L. Pittock, whose lives were intertwined through their career choices, their place of employment, and their hobby and love for mountain climbing. 

Mount Hood at Sunrise. U.S. Forest Service photo/public domain.

I feel a connection to these men. I also love the outdoors, hiking, exploring, and that feeling that I am the first human to see a stunning vista or hear a trickling creek. I also started my writing career as a journalist and received my first writing award from the Denver Womens Press Club when I was 19 years old. I know that feeling, that drive to compete. For this and many other reasons the story of Thomas J. Dryer and Henry L. Pittock intrigues me. I am also intrigued that there are many versions of the story and that it is difficult to separate fact from fiction in this tale--a common problem with stories about the American Old West. 

  Thomas J. DryerPublisher and Editor of the Oregonian, public domain.

The story begins in Portland, Oregon with a man named Thomas J. Dryer (January 8, 1808 – March 30, 1879). Dryer was a popular character in Portland. He founded The Oregonian, one of the oldest newspapers in the Old West. Dryer was a member of the Oregon Territorial Legislature in 1857, so he was also a politician, as was common for newspaper publishers in the Old West. The most important aspect of his life for the purpose of this story, though, was the fact that he was an avid mountain climber and claimed to be the first to climb both Mount St. Helens and Mount Hood in a personal account he wrote and published in The Oregonian.

According to The Oregon Encyclopedia, Dryer established The Oregonian at the request of local residents. Dryer had a drier sense of humor (pun intended). In the Old West, newspapers were used to attract settlers and help establish towns by encouraging commerce, and as we learned in an earlier examination of The Rocky Mountain News, publishers like William N. Byers and Thomas J. Dryer of The Oregonian were well-known for their satirical approach to politicians and others who might disagree with them, an approach that included name-calling, insults, and sometimes bordered on harassment. This approach was both admired and encouraged. In fact, The Oregon Encyclopedia refers to it as "the Oregon style of journalism."

USFS Photograph taken before 18 May 1980 by Jim Nieland, US Forest Service, Mount St Helens National Volcanic Monument. Public domain.

Dryer first published the Weekly Oregonian on December 4, 1850. On September 3, 1853 he published an account of a climbing expedition that he claimed took place on August 25, 1853. Dryer stated that the expedition consisted of "Messrs. John Wilson [an employee of The Oregonian]; Smith [identit unknown]; Drew [possibly Edwin Drew, a local Indian Agent, or Charles Drew, a militiaman]; and ourself," The men stocked enough rations for three days and established a base camp on Mount St. Helens, (the same mountain that exploded in May of 1980 destroying a large portion of Washington State's forestland. Mount Hood, Mount Adams, and Mount St. Helens are called "The Guardians of the Columbia River"). In his report Dryer says the mountain (volcano) is "sublimely grand, and impossible to describe." He states that they camped for the night at timberline, built a pyramid of rocks to mark their campsite then began their descent on August 27, 1853. 

View of Mt. Ranier from Ricksecker Point. Photo by George A. Grant courtesy of the US National Park Service Historic Photograph Collection.

Unfortunately, Dryer's accounts of his expeditions were questioned from the start, and to this day. According to an investigation by Harry M. Majors, which appeared in Northwest Discovery in August of 1980, Dryer's account of the ascent to the summit of Mount St. Helens contains numerous errors. When Dryer referred to Mount Rainer, Majors claims Dryer was actually looking at Mount Adams. Majors also points out that a later ascent made by another expedition group in 1860 and numerous other ascents to the summit failed to locate the "pyramid of loose stones on the highest spot of level earth and ashes" that Dryer claimed he and his party left on Mount St. Helens.

For these and other reasons Dryer's account is questioned by historians, but most historians do believe Dryer was the first explorer to reach the summit of Mount St. Helens. And yet, to a man like Dryer, his life as a politician, newspaper publisher and his reputation as the first man to climb to the summit of a famous American mountain was not enough. He needed more. He quickly planned another excursion, this time up the infamous Mt. Hood. It is his account of his climb to the summit of Mt. Hood that created a scandal and made his successor at The Oregonian, Henry Pittock, a famous explorer, as well.

Thomas J. Dryer. Photo by unknown photographer from Oregon Native Son, Vol. II, No. 7. Photo is in public domain. 

Mount Hood rises 11,239 feet (3426 meters) above sea level, its base is 92 feet wide. It is an active volcano, considered a high threat by the USGS 2005 Early Warning System assessment. It is believed to be the second most climbed mountain in the world, and it is a nightmare for mountain rescue crews. Thomas Dryer and Henry Pittock may have been among the first to attempt to climb Mount Hood, but they were not the last. It is estimated that 10,000 people attempt to climb Mount Hood every year. Trying to create an estimate using various sources, I came up with an estimate that more than 170 people have died on Mount Hood since the 1800s, and although many sources site avalanches as the culprit in the Mount Hood death trap, most people die from falls or hypothermia. Sadly, many people have died from attempts to find a position where they could have a clear view from the summit. 

The undeniable fact is that Mount Hood is dangerous. It is a fact that was well-known to people even in the 1800s, and when Thomas J. Dryer rushed into his newspaper office shouting that he successfully climbed to the summit his claims naturally attracted a great deal of attention, as well as a bit of skepticism, and perhaps even a little jealousy from other local adventurers. 

Henry L. Pittock, The Oregon Encyclopedia. 

This is where Henry Lewis Pittock enters the story. In 1853, Henry Lewis Pittockfuture editor and publisher of The Oregonian newspaper, was born in London, but raised in Pittsburgh where he worked at his family's printing company. After completing his studies at the Western University of Pennsylvania's Prepatory School at 17 years old, Pittock left Pennsylvania and joined thousands of trappers, traders, and pioneers on the 2,200 mile hike of the historic Oregon Trail. Pittock was searching for a new life in Oregon--the same reason most people headed West in the 1800s, because they wanted a new life. Although Pittock was an explorer in search of an adventure he was also broke and used his education and experience in printing for financial support. He soon found employment as a typesetter for The Oregonian newspaper. 

In 1854,while Pittock was hard at work, his employer, Thomas Dryer, rushed into the newspaper office declaring he had just completed a remarkable feat. He claimed he had climbed Mount Hood, which would make him the first known human to make it to the summit. He told how he could see as far as California from the peak, and printed his story in his newspaper.
The Oregonian Building in 1900. This building was completed in 1892, and was demolished in 1950. The newspaper moved to another building in 1948, and both the old and new buildings were/are called The Oregonian Building. Public Domain.

Now, to understand how remarkable this claim would be, one has to understand Mount Hood. The mountain is 11,000 feet above sea level and known for its dangerous weather conditions, such as sudden, blinding blizzards and deadly glaciers. Nevertheless, over 10,000 people attempt the climb each year. 
Mount St. Helens. Photo taken by Harry Glicken, USGS, on May 17, 1980, one day before the volcano exploded. Public Domain. 

Pittock could not help but feel a twinge of jealousy and frustration. According to Mysteries at the Castle, Pittock not only doubted his employer's claim that he climbed to the summit of Mount Hood, he also decided he would take the challenge himself, document the event, and prove his employer wrong. It took Pittock a few years to save his money and gather his friends for the ascent, but in 1857, 22 year old Henry Pittock left the newspaper office and headed for Mount Hood. 

Mount Hood Oregon. Painting by artist William Keith, circa 1881.

On August 6, 1857. Pittock and four of his friends established a base camp on the south side of Mount Hood and began their ascent. They passed Crater Rock, climbed the Hogsback snow ridge, then completed their journey to the summit. 

The men were beyond thrilled when they realized they had reached the summit. They were young, bold, adventurous, and knew in their hearts that they had just achieved what many men in Oregon could only dream of accomplishing. They had also made detailed observations every tortuous step of their climb. By carefully surveying their surroundings and comparing these details to the account made by Dryer, the men quickly realized that Dryer had actually stopped his climb at least 350 feet below the summit, most likely because he and the rest of his expedition members had chosen the eastern route and became confused. 

Using Pittock's detailed records, historians have concluded that Henry Pittock and his friends were the first men to reach the summit of Mount Hood. They carved their names in a rock to make certain no one would question their claim and left a flag waving in the wind at the summit before returning to their base camp then to Portland. 

One of Pittock's friends and a fellow expedition member, James G. Deardorff, wrote about the achievement in the Democratic Standard, The Oregonian's competition. The Oregonian's Thomas Dryer responded with his usual disdain in an editorial, claiming the "young men" were simply bragging, trying to make themselves appear tough and strong to an older, more experienced generation of climbers. Pittock waited seven years to tell his own story so he would not insult his employer and lose his job.  By the time he told his story, Pittock had climbed Mount Hood several times. 

Henry Pittock, March 1, 1835 – January 28, 1919. Photo circa December, 1900. Public Domain.
Dryer may have been bold and adventurous, but as it turned out he was not a particularly skilled businessman. In 1860 he was forced to turn over The Oregonian to Henry Pittock in exchange for unpaid wages and on February 4, 1861, Henry Pittock, editor and publisher, introduced his six-day a week Morning Oregonian. Pittock's mansion is now on the National Register of Historic Places. 

The Pittock Mansion. This photographic work of art by Geremia is one of few that I found that captured the mansion's great beauty. The photograph is in public domain. The Pittock Mansion is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, reference number 73001582.

  • Dryer, Thomas J. "First Ascent of Mount St. Helens, Washington. August 26, 1853." Excerpt from The Columbian, originally posted on September 24, 1853. The article originally appeared in The Oregonian on September 3, 1853. Accessed 1/7/2016 on USGS website: Volcanoes/Volcanoes and History/Cascade Range Volcanoes.
  • "First Ascent of Mount Hood, Effects of a High Elevation Up the Human System.", Vol.VII, p.321, 1854. Littell's Living Age, 1854,
  • Stein, Harry H. "Henry Lewis Pittock". The Oregon Encyclopedia. Accessed March 19, 2016.
  • "Mysteries at the Castle." Travel Channel. First aired 3/10/2016.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Employment Opportunities for Women in the Old West

Judy Garland from a scene in the movie The Harvey Girls, 1946. Public domain.

The first time I saw Judy Garland in a film was in The Harvey Girls. It may not have been her most famous movie, but it was a great film that helped show the world that women in the American West had far more employment opportunities than what was portrayed in most Westerns--employment as prostitutes, or if they were lucky, madams.

My last post was about divorce. Women in the Old West were not necessarily tied to a bad marriage due to financial constraints (although they could be trapped in an awful situation if they lived miles from anyone else!) In fact, there were many employment opportunities available to women, and in a few days I'll discuss some of the more  popular jobs that could be found in the medical field. 

Judy Garland and John Hodiak in The Harvey Girls.

I first wrote about the Harvey Girls in a post about Fred Harvey and his attempts to raise the standards of dining in the Old West. Fred Harvey believed all customers should receive good food and good service, and he was particular about the women he hired to work in his restaurants. The women had to be single, between the ages of 18 and 30, educated, attractive, and well-mannered. Harvey originally hired young men to serve the cowboys and travelers who came in to dine, but found that most of these travelers were men, and hiring attractive women added to the pleasant dining experience. 

These hard-working women were paid well for the times, worked hard, and were expected to represent Mr. Harvey in a respectable manner. They lived in houses with house mothers to watch over them, had strict curfews, and were discouraged from fraternizing with the customers, though it is estimated that over 5000 Harvey Girls eventually found their true loves through their employment! 

Women and Photography

Daguerreotypes were invented in France by Louis Jacques Mande Daquerre around 1839 and the process was slowly perfected so that by the 1860s, around the time of the American Civil War. Daguerreotypes were also high in demand during the time of the Civil War as families wanted pictures of their sons, husbands and fathers before they left for war, but they were also a popular form of creative expression for men and women and a way for women to make money to support themselves or supplement the family income.

Elizabeth Alice Austen in 1888, public domain.

There was a surprising number of female photographers, including Alice Austen (1866-1952) whose family was abandoned before she was born.

Trude & I Masked by Alice Austen, public domain.

Austen arrived at Staten Island with her large extended family and something inside her told her she had to document everything that was around her. Her uncle was a chemist, which may have influenced Austen's interest in photography.

The Staten Island Historical Society has negatives of over 8000 photographs taken by Austen at Staten Island. 

"Elderly Chinese American Man with Queue" 
by Laura Adams Armer, public domain.

Laura Adams Armer (1874-1963) studied at the California School of Design in San Francisco and was famous for her work depicting the Navajo and Chinese. Her photographs of Chinatown are included in the collection of the California Historical Society.

Early Morning Above Vancouver by Sarah H. Ladd. Published in Pacific Monthly, public domain. 

Sarah Ladd (1860-1927) was an early landscape photographer. It is unknown how she became interested in photography or if she ever had any formal training. Many of her photographs were published in Pacific Monthly Magazine

Making it Happen in the Old West! 

My admiration for Augusta Tabor should be obvious by now. From the day she married Horace Tabor Augusta took it upon herself to support her family in any way she could, from washing shirts for miners to baking bread and renting tents. Many women used their household skills to make money, particularly in the laundry field.

In 1854, a woman in Ravine, California was making 15 to 20 dollars a week washing clothes for the miners (Reiter). The woman was Clara Brown, a freed slave from Kentucky who eventually saved $10,000 to find work for other former slaves in Colorado. 

However, according to Joan Swallow Reiter's The Women: The Old West, "Laundering was only one of the ways an enterprising woman could strike it rich in the gold fields." According to Reiter there was a woman in Los Angeles who owned and operated a restaurant and made money on the side by offering lessons in swordplay to her customers. 

If at First you Don't Succeed...

Luzena Wilson traveled to Nevada City with her husband in 1849 with the intention of supplementing the family income with a boarding house. She discovered she had competition, but not enough to stop her. 

Wilson bought supplies at a local store, set up a tent restaurant and started serving food to the miners. She saved enough money to build a small boarding house, with room enough to accommodate between 75 and 200 homeless, sleepy miners. She continued to cook and clean for the miners, saved $500, then loaned out the money to grubstake the miners. She soon had her own store and her husband was working for her. One night the store caught on fire and Luzena thought all was lost, then her husband discovered he still had the days profits in his pocket, $500, and the couple started again. 

  • The Harvey Girls. Dir. George Sidney. MGM, 1946. 
  • Morris, Juddi. The Harvey Girls: The Women Who Civilized the West. Walker Publishing, 1994.
  • Reiter, Joan Swallow. The Women: The Old West. Time Life Books. New York, Canada: 1978.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Divorce in the American Old West

Engagement Rings. Photo by Piotr Frydecki.
Although the days of the American Old West ran concurrently with the Victorian Era, and in spite of the fact that one of the most powerful countries in the world, England, was controlled by one of the most respected women of the world, nevertheless, women were rarely allowed to choose their own future, particularly when it came to issues such as marriage and divorce. 

Queen Victoria wearing her white mourning headdress, painting byCarl Rudolph Sohn, 1883. Queen Victoria set the standards for moral behavior throughout her entire reign.

However, in the American West, where women were scarce and morals were, well, questionable at times, divorce was far more commonplace. Oddly, this changed the way divorced women were treated. Just as a widow would be forced to fend for herself, so would a divorced woman, and her situation was viewed with sympathy and compassion. 

A Painful and Shocking End

Divorces are never easy, but in the Old West where news traveled slowly (unless the news was about a recent discovery of gold) divorces could be particularly painful. In her book The Women: The Old West, Joan Swallow Reiter tells of one man who was visiting family back East and inquired about the welfare of his wife as he hadn't heard from her in some time. Unfortunately, the news was not good. His wife had divorced him six months earlier and never bothered to tell him. This was not a rare occurrence in the Old West where divorce was easily obtained, often against the wishes of one of the parties involved. 

The Tabor Scandal
Augusta Tabor, 1880.

One of the most famous divorces in the Old West occurred between Augusta Tabor, an adoring and loyal wife, and her philandering husband, Horace, who fell in love with a much younger woman, moved out of the home and left Augusta to fend for herself and care for their child alone.

Augusta refused to divorce her husband, to no avail. The divorce was finalized and the young "Baby Doe" became the new Mrs. Tabor. Horace Tabor died a broken man. He lost his fortune and his reputation. At the time of his death he was working as the Postmaster in Denver, but for a short time was forced to live in a mid-class hotel with his new wife and their children. 

Augusta Tabor, who had supported her husband's ventures every step of the way by cooking for miners, setting up tents, renting rooms in their home, and doing everything she could to provide for her family, was told she would receive nothing from her husband when he left her. However, she continued to work hard and became a shining example of the women of the American Old West--determined and proud. When she died she left their son an inheritance of over a million dollars. Baby Doe Tabor died in a shack outside a mine once owned by her husband. 

Divorce could be nasty business in many ways, and always painful, but most women found ways to make lemonade out of lemons. Augusta Tabor sold a lot of lemonade! 

"Baby Doe" Tabor, also known as "the homewrecker." 
The Odds...

According to Keith Wheeler's The Townsmen, single women often gathered in large groups to travel to the West in search of husbands, and for good reason. For instance, after the American Civil War, few men returned home and the wives and daughters of these deceased soldiers were forced to fend for themselves. This changed society in many ways, particularly marriage. 

An 1880 census showed that in Colorado the white population consisted of 1577 women and 32,654 men. (The Federal census only counted the white population at that time). The odds that these single women would find husbands were in their favor, but women were not always treated with the respect they desired or deserved, as we learned with the story of the Tabors. Thankfully, these situations were easily remedied. If a woman chose to seek a better life, in many states she was granted her request for divorce in as little as ten days and was then able to move forward however she should choose.

Taking Charge of Their Lives 

The difference between divorce in the Old West and other areas of the world is that women were able to make their own decisions about their future and take charge of their own lives while still retaining the respect of their peers. They were also able to support themselves with respectable employment without feeling censured by the local society. As Augusta Tabor proved, there were plenty of jobs to be had other than working in saloons.

Reiter quoted a young woman in her book who, around 1880, wrote to her family to explain the difference in social views. Young Nannie Alderson explained that in her home town in West Virginia, "...you have to have your pedigree with you to be accepted anywhere." 

Alderson was pleased with the society she found in the West. "What impressed me the most," she said, "was the fact that a girl could work in an office or a store, yet that wouldn't keep her from being invited to the nicest homes or marrying the nicest boys. This freedom to work Seemed to me a wonderful thing."  

  • Reiter, Joan Swallow. The Women: The Old West. Time Life Books. New York, Canada: 1978.
  • Wallace, Robert. "The Halls of the Mining Kings." The Miners: The Old West. Time Life Books. New York, Canada:1976.
  • Wheeler, Keith. The Townsmen: The Old West. Time Life Books. New York, Canada: 1976.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Colorado's Pike's Peak in the Days of Exploration

Albert Bierstadt's painting of Pike's Peak in Southern Colorado, public domain.

Pikes Peak is the highest summit in North America's Rocky Mountain's Front Range, towering above Southern Colorado at an elevation of 14, 114'. This lovely mountain has inspired one of America's most famous songs--America the Beautiful--and played an important role in the story of the American West. It has also had many names, but my favorite is the first known name--Sun Mountain Sitting Big! 
    Stereoscopic view of Ute Indians by C.W. Carter from the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, public domain. Photo taken approximately 1865.

    The First Known Explorers

    Although researchers are fairly certain that the Clovis Native Americans lived in the Pike's Peak area approximately 12,000 years ago, it is also believed that the Ute were the first to document Pike's Peak. The Ute were also known as the Blue Sky People according to Pike's Peak--America's Mountain, and the mountain was known to the Ute as Sun Mountain Sitting Big. It is not known for certain if any Ute ever reached the peak, but there can be no doubt that they tried, or at the very least carefully explored the region. After all, they did believe that their entire world was created at the location of the Sun Mountain Sitting Big!

Lt. Zebulon M. Pike, public domain.

Zebulon Pike and the Pike's Peak Expedition

In his forward to the printed edition of Zebulon Pike's journals and letters Donald Jackson aptly stated that "Nothing...Zebulon Montgomery Pike ever tried to do was easy, and most of his luck was bad,” This may be true to some extent, but he never stopped trying, and for this reason the Sun Mountain Sitting Big was named Pike's Peak.

Pike was originally from New Jersey and followed in his father's footsteps, joining the U.S. Army when he was twenty, serving under James Wilkinson Commander of the U.S. Army and a secret double-agent for Spain.

Wilkinson provided Pike with an important assignment. In 1805 Pike led an expedition to explore the upper Mississippi while Lewis and Clark were exploring west of the Missouri. Unfortunately, Pike incorrectly identified the river's source and made few friends with the local tribes, but he did return with important geographical information according to Bob Moore's "Zebulon Pike: Hard-Luck Explorer."

The following year Wilkinson sent Pike and his men on a dubious assignment that eventually led them to what is now Southern Colorado. This is when Pike's story truly captures my attention.

For years I made a two day drive from Texas to Colorado then back again to visit my grandchildren. I lived in Colorado most of my life, but spent a few years in the Texas Hill country, which I loved, but every time, without exception, that I drove close enough to view the mountains on these many drives--sometimes six times a year--to visit my family and saw the Colorado Rocky Mountains once again I cried like a child who hasn't seen her mother since childhood. If I made the drive through Eastern Texas, into Northern New Mexico, across Raton Pass and into Southern Colorado. Then I stopped by the side of the road to stare up at Pikes Peak, mesmerized by her magnificent beauty.

Pike's Peak mountain with Manitou Springs in the foreground. The image was taken from Stop at Pike's Peak on your Way to or from the Expositions (for 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition). Public domain.

So, how are my memories connected to those of Zebulon Pike? When Pike first set his gaze upon Sun Mountain Sitting Big he mistakenly thought he was staring up at a small blue cloud, then his heart was filled with amazement and wonder as he realized it was not a cloud at all, but a towering blue mountain. 

Of course, his first thought was that he would have to climb the mountain. My first thought was the same when I saw the mountain as a child, but we traveled to the top in a car packed tight with my large family that recently moved from Ohio and was eager to view the gigantic trees, thick forests, and abundant wildlife.

Pike settled most of his men in the City of Pueblo 35 miles south as it was nearing winter and he didn't want to risk the entire expedition, but he knew he had to return to the mountain, which he did. He called it Grand Peak. Unfortunately, he was unable to return until November. Pike and his men had reached one of the smaller peaks and were still in their summer uniforms. The men failed to reach the peak of the blue mountain, but they did climb Mt. Rosa and became the first documented Europeans to complete a high-altitude ascent of a North American mountain, so his luck wasn't all bad!  

The Name Game 

In 1820 Major Steven Long left with 22 men on the Long Expedition. His intention was to explore the mountain. They reached the base, but it took longer than expected and Long wanted to return home, but naturalist Dr. Edwin James who was also on the expedition convinced Long to give James a chance to climb the peak. Long agreed to wait for three days, and as it was a summer expedition with little to impede his progress, James easily succeeded in reaching the summit with two other men in just two days. 

They spent one hour at the top before returning to base camp with copious notes including documentation of what would become Colorado's state flower, the blue Columbine. Major Long was so impressed he decided to call the mountain James' Peak. 

Another famous explorer, John Charles Fremont, made the final decision to name the mountain Pike's Peak because Zebulon Pike was the first explorer to officially document the mountain's existence, but another mountain was later named after Dr. James and Long's Peak, the highest point in Rocky Mountain National Park is named for Major Long, but Pike's Peak, thanks to John Fremont, is still named Pike's Peak.

"America the Beautiful"

I am not the first woman to be overwhelmed by the great beauty of this mountain. In 1893, 33 year old Katherine Lee Bates, a professor at Wellesley College (she also taught university level English, so I feel a connection with her, as well), traveled by train to Colorado Springs. She was scheduled to teach summer school at Colorado College, but fell in love with Sun Mountain Sitting Big.

Sitting on the mountain top, words, descriptions, and rhymes began to flow in the mind of Katherine Bates, and when she returned to her room at the famous Antlers Hotel she sat at her desk and wrote her most famous work. The mountain inspired Bates to write a poem that includes references to the wheat fields of Kansas, references I think of every time I pass these fields on my travels, as well. Pikes Peak brought "For purple mountain's majesties" to the page. The poem was combined with the music of Samuel A. Ward in 1910 and became "America the Beautiful."

This song, and "The Star Spangled Banner," will always be my favorites songs. I taught them to my children and grandchildren, explaining each reference in great detail, and believe they are two of the most important songs Americans should know by heart and hopefully feel deep within their souls when they hear the words.

  • Higgins, William J. The Trailblazers. The Old West. Time Life Publications. Canada: 1971. 
  • "History." Pike's Peak--America's Mountain.Accessed April 2, 2016. 
  • Moore, Bob. "Zebulon Pike; HardLuck Explorer." Zebulon Pike--The Real Pathfinder. Accessed April 1, 2016. 

Christmas dinner for a family, from a series of photos documenting Gen. John J. Pershing's 1916 Punitive Expedition into Mexico. ...