Victorian Women Hike to the Summit of Pikes Peak!

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this blog post, Gena finds old newspaper articles and reads about Victorian women who bravely climbed or rode to the top of Pikes Peak in Colorado—some wearing corsets!

Climbing Pikes Peak in Colorado was quite the accomplishment for our nineteenth century ancestors. In 1806 Zebulon Pike declared that he thought the mountain was impossible to climb. At 14,115 feet it is and was no walk in the park. Temperatures can drop 30 to 40 degrees at the higher elevations, a fact that early pioneer hikers were in some cases ill-prepared for.

photo of Pikes Peak, rising above present-day Colorado Springs, Colorado

Photo: Pikes Peak, rising above present-day Colorado Springs, Colorado. Credit: Huttarl; Wikimedia Commons.

Fourteen years after Zebulon Pike’s prophecy, a young man named Edwin James proved that it could be climbed. And so the rest, as they say, is history.

But maybe it’s not a history that’s been completely told.

Imagine hiking the Peak in a long heavy dress and corset! If men thought the hike was difficult in the nineteenth century, it could have only been compounded by what women were expected to wear during this time period. Nonetheless, women did.

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First Woman on Pike’s Peak

Fifty-two years after Zebulon Pike proclaimed no one could ascend the Peak, a woman did just that: Julia Archibald Holmes, a suffragette and abolitionist, climbed to the top of the peak accompanied by her husband in 1858.

photo of Julia Archibald Holmes, c. 1870

Photo: Julia Archibald Holmes, c. 1870. Credit: Agnes Wright Spring; Wikimedia Commons.

Nearly one hundred years later, her exploit was recounted in this newspaper article.

article about Julia Archibald Holmes, Sacramento Bee newspaper article 10 August 1950

Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, California), 10 August 1950, page 20

In that letter* she wrote her mother from atop Pike’s Peak, Julia said of her historic climb:

Nearly everyone tried to discourage me from attempting it, but I believed that I should succeed; and now here I am, and I feel that I would not have missed this glorious sight for anything at all.

While not as comfortable as today’s sportswear, Julia did wear bloomers and a shorter dress that aided her in hiking more comfortably up to the mountain’s summit.

article about Julia Archibald Holmes, Trenton Evening Times newspaper article 24 August 1961

Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 24 August 1961, page 19

It’s not exactly spandex, but bloomers were at least an improvement for the intrepid mountain climber!

illustration of “bloomer” dress of the 1850s

Illustration: “bloomer” dress of the 1850s. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

After Julia, women continued to ascend the mountain, some by hiking the trails while others used different modes of transportation.

Pikes Peak Inspires “America the Beautiful”

One of the more famous results of having reached the top of Pikes Peak and marveling at the scenery was the penning of the poem “Pikes Peak” by Katherine Lee Bates; her poem was turned into the patriotic song “America the Beautiful.” As a visiting professor at Colorado College in 1893, Bates had the opportunity to ride up to the Peak. The magnificent view from the top gave her the inspiration to write the poem.

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Woman Journalist Goes to the Top

Not all the women who went to the top of Pikes Peak hiked; some, like Katharine Lee Bates, rode in wagons—or even on the backs of mules. New Orleans newspaper travel writer Catharine Cole (pen name for Martha R. Field) wrote about her journey up Pikes Peak in 1884 on a mule, led by a guide. Her report gives a sense that even with the added convenience of riding up the mountain, a woman still faced challenges with the thin air at high altitude—combined with the difficulty of breathing while wearing a corset!

travel article about Pikes Peak written by Catharine Cole, Times-Picayune newspaper article 6 October 1884

Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 6 October 1884, page 2

Suffragettes Hoist Flag

Julia Archibald Holmes wasn’t the only suffragette who climbed the mountain. Like with any endeavor, once there is the pioneer who shows that something can be done, others soon follow. And while women continued to climb Pikes Peak for the adventure and the magnificent view, groups of women also used the mountain as a way to get their message across. In 1909 suffragettes ascended and planted a “Votes for Women” flag at the summit.

"Votes for Women" (flag) Floats from Top of Pike's Peak, Anaconda Standard newspaper article 6 November 1909

Anaconda Standard (Anaconda, Montana), 6 November 1909, page 13

Four Generations of Women from One Family Climb the Peak

This article from a 1905 issue of the Denver Post is a family historian’s dream. It would seem that not just one female member of the family climbed the peak, but four generations of the Knapp family women—including a 4-month-old baby! By achieving this goal they disproved the adage that the Peak was “too high for the very young and the very old.” The youngest in their party, understandably, was the youngest ever to ascend the mountain, and the oldest was 85 years of age. Names, ages, and residences are provided in the article.

Four Generations of One Family (Knapp) Ascent to the Top of Pikes Peak, Denver Post newspaper article 8 October 1905

Denver Post (Denver, Colorado), 8 October 1905, page 47

Pikes Peak Can Be a Dangerous Place

While many have successfully climbed to the summit of Pikes Peak, the ascent is not without risk. As hiking to the summit became popular, more and more individuals and families climbed the mountain and some tragic accidents did occur. In their eagerness to ascend the famous Colorado attraction, some downplayed the potential danger in such a trip. While today we know of difficulties that excess exercise combined with changes in altitude and weather can cause, our ancestors didn’t always consider these factors. One case is that of William and Sallie Skinner, a middle-aged Texas couple who attempted to climb the Peak in August 1911. Ignoring their better judgment, they got to a point where they could no longer go on and eventually froze to death. Ironically, a friend of theirs had sent a letter stating “I hope you don’t freeze to death on Pikes Peak.” This letter was found in Mr. Skinner’s pocket.

Man and Wife Frozen to Death in Snows on Summit of Pikes Peak, Denver Post newspaper article 23 August 1911

Denver Post (Denver, Colorado), 23 August 1911, page 6

We know quite a bit about this one tragic death because a photographer took a photo of the frozen bodies and published postcards. You can learn more about this case by viewing the video produced by the Pikes Peak Library about researching the postcard.

Victorian women accomplished incredible things while wearing heavy dresses and constrictive corsets. Hiking Pikes Peak is just one of many ways they showed that they were up to the challenge.

Did any of your female ancestors accomplish remarkable firsts? Please share your stories with us in the comments.

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*Robertson, Janet (2003). The Magnificent Mountain Women: Adventures in the Colorado Rockies. University of Nebraska Press.

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Job Names in Historical Newspapers: Researching Old Occupations

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary provides a fun quiz to test your knowledge of terms used in old newspapers to describe our ancestors’ occupations—and then provides illustrated definitions of those terms.

Genealogy research often finds terms used for occupations that are no longer common in today’s vernacular, such as: cordwainer, gaoler, huckster and suttler.

How well do you know the occupational terms used in old newspapers to identify our American ancestors’ jobs? Test your historical jobs knowledge with this handy Early Genealogical Occupations Quiz. Match the historical occupational names in the left column with the modern occupational name answers on the right. Check the key on the bottom to see how you did.

early genealogical historical jobs quizIf you missed any of the answers on the Early Genealogical Occupations Quiz, read on to see a list of illustrated occupations I’ve compiled from Genealogybank’s archive of early American newspapers. You may be surprised at some of the historical job definitions.

Cooper: In early America, coopers were barrel or cask makers and repairers, as seen in this 1825 death notice for George Lovis describing him as “a cooper by trade.”

George Lovis obituary, Statesman newspaper article 31 May 1825

Statesman (New York, New York), 31 May 1825, page 2

Cordwainer or Cordiner: Originating from the leather industry in Cordovan, Spain, a cordwainer was a shoemaker, as reported in this 1860 definition from the Salem Observer.

definition of cordwainer, Salem Observer newspaper article 3 March 1860

Salem Observer (Salem, Massachusetts), 3 March 1860, page 1

Corsair: A corsair was a pirate. A 1794 statute authorized the president of the United States to create a naval force to protect against Algerine corsairs, i.e., pirates from Algiers.

An Act to Provide a Naval Armament, United States Chronicle newspaper article 1 May 1794

United States Chronicle (Providence, Rhode Island), 1 May 1794, page 1

Gaoler: This was an early spelling of jailer, as reported in this 1799 marriage notice for Obadiah Havens and Nancy Robertson, the daughter of “Mr. Archibald Robertson, gaoler.”

Havens-Robertson wedding notice, Bee newspaper article 3 July 1799

Bee (New London, Connecticut), 3 July 1799, page 3

Gentlemen and Goodwives: These words are based on the term “les gentils,” and indicated a “gentile” who owned freehold property. After the 16th century, the term referred more to one who did not work with his hands, or one who had retired from working with his hands (e.g., a retired tailor). A gentleman’s wife was commonly called Goodwife or “Goody.” Gentlemen typically had Esquire (Esq.) added to their names, even if they were not attorneys.

Husbandman: A husbandman was an early term for farmer, often of a lower societal class.

In this 1825 newspaper article, plaintiff Isaiah Silver of Methuen was described as a gentleman, and defendant Benjamin Town as a husbandman.

State of New Hampshire silver-town legal notice, Daily National Intelligencer newspaper article 23 November 1825


Daily National Intelligencer (Washington, D.C.), 23 November 1825, page 4

Gun Stocker: A gun stocker was a weapon maker, or someone who fitted wooden stocks to firearms. In this 1776 reward notice for run-away indentured servant Richard Trusted, the advertiser described him as a gun stocker by trade.

Ten Pounds Reward, Pennsylvania Ledger newspaper article 9 March 1776

Pennsylvania Ledger (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 9 March 1776, page 4

Huckster: A huckster was a door-to-door, road-side or kiosk salesperson, such as Eleanor Keefauver, a young woman who grew and sold her own vegetables in 1903.

photo of Eleanor Keefauver, huckster, Plain Dealer newspaper article 12 July 1903

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 12 July 1903, page 32

Mason: A mason was a builder, bricklayer or stone worker, a term still used today. Many people are intrigued by the mystery surrounding the “Ancient & Honourable Society of Free and Accepted Masons,” an international fraternal and charitable organization known for its secretive rites. One of the earliest references in GenealogyBank dates to 1727, describing a society meeting “where there was a great Appearance of the Nobility and Gentry.” (The gentry held a high societal status just below the nobility).

notice of a Masons meeting, Boston News-Letter newspaper article 25 May 1727

Boston News-Letter (Boston, Massachusetts), 25 May 1727, page 1

Privateer: A privateer was an armed ship, or the owner of the same, who was commissioned by the government to capture enemy ships—a form of legalized piracy. Privateers were often entitled to keep the bounty, known as a “prize.” This 1780 newspaper article reported that the privateer Dart brought a captured ship to Dartmouth.

notice about the privateer "Dart," New-York Gazette, and Weekly Mercury newspaper article 29 May 1780

New-York Gazette, and Weekly Mercury (New York, New York), 29 May 1780, page 2

Surety: A surety was a bondsman or bonded individual who ensured that an event, such as a marriage, would take place. If the event did not occur, the surety encountered a financial loss. In this 1800 advertisement, surety Thomas Crone guaranteed payment of a reward for the return of Thomas Ball, a deserted seaman.

20 Dollars Reward, Prisoner of Hope newspaper article 2 August 1800

Prisoner of Hope (New York, New York), 2 August 1800, page 99

Suttler: Suttlers were peddlers who sold items to soldiers or the military. This 1761 newspaper notice reported that John Malcom “desires one Thomas Power, a Suttler at Halifax, immediately to come to Boston” to settle his accounts, because Malcom’s “tarry” (stay) at Boston would not be long; he needed to return to Quebec before the breaking up of the lake ice.

notice about Malcom-Power meeting, Boston Gazette newspaper article 16 February 1761

Boston Gazette (Boston, Massachusetts), 16 February 1761, page 3

If you enjoyed these reports of historical occupations found in newspapers, watch for a follow-up in a future GenealogyBank blog article.

Did your ancestors have any unusual occupations? Share them with us in the comments.