Relevant History welcomes historical mystery author Ann Parker, whose award-winning Silver Rush mystery series, published by Poisoned Pen Press, features saloon-owner Inez Stannert in the 1880s silver boomtown of Leadville, Colorado. Ann's ancestors include a Leadville blacksmith, a Colorado School of Mines professor, and a gandy dancer. Ann and her family live in the San Francisco Bay Area (although she'd really really love to move to Colorado), where she slings scientific and corporate verbiage by day to pay the bills and writes historical mysteries at night to satisfy her soul. For more information, check her web site, author blog, and group blog (on alternate Thursdays), and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.
"Go West, young man, go West!"
Such was the statement theoretically made by men such as Horace Greeley and John Soule. "The West," the location of which was ever on the move as civilization marched in the direction of the setting sun, was the place where restless, adventurous, and ambitious men could theoretically make their mark.
But what about restless, adventurous, and ambitious women?
As it happens, many of them went West as well.
The West, it was believed, was full of opportunity to those who were willing to apply a little elbow grease and who were lucky. Being in the right place at the right time was as much a factor then as now.
Women—with and without men—flocked to the West to make a future, build new lives, and (I'd be lying to say otherwise) sometimes to find a mate.
Leadville, Colorado, the main location for my Silver Rush historical mystery series, is a case in point. Leadville is located at the 10,000-foot mark in the Rocky Mountains, where winter lasts nine months out of the year. But that didn't stop people from coming to make their fortunes, starting with a mini-gold rush in 1860 and progressing to a very impressive silver rush in the late 1870s.
One of the first adventurous women to set down stakes in this area was Augusta Tabor, who came west in 1860 with her husband Horace Tabor and their tiny son Maxcy. The Tabors headed up to the remote California Gulch in what was to become Leadville, looking to get rich. The Tabors weren't alone. The area was crawling with prospectors hoping to make a fortune. To most, this meant a life of moving from claim to claim, chasing the glitter of precious metals. But others saw the business opportunity in the region. One of those discerning folks was Augusta. According to Edward Blair's book, Leadville: Colorado's Magic City, "She quickly set up her baking business and in addition served meals. She found that some men 'did not like men's cooking and would insist upon boarding where there was a woman.'"
As Leadville developed, more women arrived of the proper and not-so-proper sorts. The latter included women with appellations such as Red Stockings, Sallie Purple, Mollie May, and Winnie Purdy. At the other end of the virtue spectrum were the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth, Kansas, who established the first hospital in Leadville in1879. Both the sisters of the red-light district and the Sisters of Charity received a fair bit of press as to their activities—the good, the bad, and the ugly, as you might imagine.
But what about the rest? What were they up to?
When trying to get a grip on the lives of women during this timeframe, the newspapers are one source. There are miles of column inches written about who attended what soirees, what they wore, and the music they danced to and what they ate. But there are also letters, diaries, and journals. One of my all-time favorites in this genre is A Victorian Gentlewoman in the Far West: Reminiscences of Mary Hallock Foote. Mary Hallock Foote was a writer, an artist, a mother, and the wife of a mining engineer. Her writings and drawings serve up many details of the life of a proper woman in the wilder parts of the West in the late 1800s.
The 1880 census is also a gold (or perhaps that should be silver) mine of information as to the occupations of women in the silver-mining boomtown. Besides the Sisters of Charity (13 in all) and prostitutes (52 owned up to that profession to the census takers), there were actresses and dance hall employees (at 53, they outnumbered the prostitutes by one), domestic servants (185), laundresses (130), teachers (15), restaurant keepers and cooks (55), and dressmakers and milliners (76). What I always find interesting in analyzing a census are those professions where just a few women hold forth "in a man's world." For 1880, such professions in Leadville included journalist (1 woman/30 men), saloonkeeper/bartender (3 women/228 men), miners (4 women/3,204 men), physician/surgeon (4 women/69 men), and (and hostler/teamster (1 woman/255 men). To me, "the numbers tell the tale." Women looking for opportunity could find it, but they were tough and determined.
Life was not easy in those days and in those places. The law was hard put-upon to keep the lawless element in hand, and sometimes the citizens—including the women—took matters into their own hands. For instance, a local postmaster in the Leadville area, A.R. Brown, told the following tale concerning two proper Leadville matrons, Mrs. Bradt and Mrs. Updegraff. The women were passing two city lots recently purchased for building a school and noticed that one of the school lots had been jumped and the trespasser had put up a shanty on the grounds. (In 1879, real estate speculation was rife downtown, and prime lots were regularly being "jumped" by scoundrels who would simply move in and take over the lots at gunpoint.) According to Brown, Mrs. Bradt's and Mrs. Updegraff 's "western fiery spirits of justice to schools and school property led them to take the law into their own hands," resulting in their tearing down the lot-jumper's shanty and calmly walking away.
Now that's the spirit that won The West!
A big thanks to Ann Parker. She'll give away one copy of her latest release, Mercury's Rise, to someone who contributes a comment on my blog this week. I'll choose the winner from among those who comment by Sunday at 6 p.m. ET. International delivery is available.
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