Pioneer Profiles: Isabella Bird

Isabella Bird had the pioneer spirit unlike any woman of her age. She was an avid horsewoman, photographer, writer, and naturalist. Born in 1831, as a child she was told she was sickly and that fresh air and travel were the cure. Taking her doctor’s advice to the extreme, she traveled all over the world during her lifetime. Trips to Korea, China, Japan, Western Europe, and the Middle and Far East resulted not only in her writing travel books for each area, but she also created amazing photographs and etchings that rival a professional artist’s. Bird’s straightforward descriptions of the world around her lend her writing a vivid, objective viewpoint, which is why her travelogues are still popular today.

Bird’s most famous publication is A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains, which is a compilation of letters to her sister, Henrietta, over a period of months in 1873-74. At this time, Bird had just finished a trip to Hawaii and was on her way home to Edinburgh when she decided a trip through the Rockies was to be her next adventure.

The book begins with Bird launching her expedition on horseback from San Francisco. She rode by herself, as she preferred to do, through Lake Tahoe and over Donner Pass (about which she included an interesting, rather gossip-laden description of the fate of the Donner Party), after which she encountered the Great Plains. She opined, “Plains, plains, everywhere plains, generally level but elsewhere rolling in long undulations, like the waves of a sea which had fallen asleep.” She found Cheyenne, Wyoming incredibly dull, but as she rode south, she relied on settlers for a place to lay over each night.

As soon as she came in sight of the Rockies, Bird was transfixed. She developed an immediate affinity for the mountains, saying, when in sight of the Rockies near Fort Collins, Colorado: “As I write I am only 25 miles from them, and they are gradually gaining possession of me. I can look at and feel nothing else.” Bird wrote extensively of the changing landscape all around the mountains, hulking masses which she described as “changeless” despite the growing population of settlers around them. Some settlers were homesteaders, she notes, and some were gold diggers, but “nine out of ten settlers were cured invalids. Statistics…represent Colorado as the most remarkable Sanatorium in the world.”

Following the rather scant advice of miners, Bird had made her solitary way, unarmed and riding astride, through the mountains of northern Colorado until reaching an area a few miles outside of Estes Park. She stayed with a rather disagreeable family in their ramshackle cabin for a few days; they found her “citified” ways to be pretentious. For example, when she suggested that they light a lamp after sunset so they could stay up after dark, they viewed  her with astonishment. Why would anyone want to do that? After a few days of intense scrutiny by the lady of the house, Bird paid the woman’s husband to guide her into Estes Park, which, having seen Long’s Peak towering above her a few days earlier, was now her earnest goal. The husband, directionally-challenged and none too good a horseman, “did his incompetent best,” and after getting lost and being thrown from her horse twice, four days later they arrived in Estes Park.

A shocking sight greeted the author as she approached the outskirts of town. A cabin, strewn about with animal parts, covered with skins and stinking like rotting meat made her long for the rude shack and judgmental eye of her former hostess. From between nearby trees came a man known as “Mountain Jim” who was known locally as somewhat of a “desperado.” He was missing an eye—the unfortunate result of a recent fight with a bear, he said. The bear lost, and its remains lay near the cabin. “‘Jim’ was a shocking figure; he had on an old pair of high boots, with a baggy pair of old trousers made of deer hide, held on by an old scarf tucked into them; a leather shirt, with three or four ragged unbuttoned waistcoats over it; an old smashed wide-awake [a hat—think Butch Cassidy], from under which his tawny, neglected ringlets hung; and with his one eye, his one long spur, his knife in his belt, his revolver in his waistcoat pocket, his saddle covered with an old beaver skin, from which the paws hung down; his camping blankets behind him, his rifle laid across the saddle in front of him, and his axe, canteen, and other gear hanging to the horn, he was as awful-looking a ruffian as one could see.”

This ruffian would become one of her boon companions, helping her with mountaineering and survival skills while never criticizing her for being a woman traveling alone. He didn’t like the idea of her being unarmed, though, so he convinced her to buy a handgun which she kept in the pocket of her riding habit and considered the bane of her existence. Mountain Jim appreciated her enthusiasm for outdoor adventure, and he encouraged her to take risks that she would otherwise have avoided. She marveled so often over the grandeur of Long’s Peak that he suggested she climb it. Such an idea had never occurred to her, and since Long’s Peak, at an elevation of 14,700 feet, had been summited for the first time only five years before, she hadn’t considered such a wild excursion, but Jim convinced her to try. They rode their horses up to timberline, camped overnight, and started for the top the next day. She kept stumbling over rocks and skinning her hands and knees, and got vertigo several times from looking down at chasms that were at least 3,000 feet below. Finally, though she had to be carried piggy-back for the last 1,500 feet across a field of ice and snow, she made it to the top, the third person ever to summit the mountain. “It was something at last to stand upon the storm-rent crown of this lonely sentinel of the rocky range. . . and to see the waters start for both oceans. Uplifted above love and hate and storms of passion, calm amidst the eternal silences, fanned by zephyrs and bathed in living blue, peace rested for that one bright day on the peak.”

Bird traveled over 800 miles in Colorado, visiting Denver, Colorado Springs, Colorado City and other small towns, looping north again and stopping for a final visit in Estes Park before voyaging home to England. She made the entire trip alone, riding astride until she reached civilized company where, just outside of town, she would swap her trousers for a skirt and ride side-saddle, as was expected of a lady.

Shortly after her sister’s death in 1880, Bird married. Her husband, quite a few years older, died just five years later and left her a sizeable inheritance. Though saddened by his death, her new-found wealth revived her possibilities for travel, and she continued visits across Europe and Asia until her late 60’s. She founded five hospitals across the Middle East, China, and Korea, and died in Edinburgh in 1904.


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