A Woman’s Woman – in a land where men were shot like skunks

Isabella Bird: A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains.

Isabella Bird on Birdie

“There’s a bad breed of ruffians,” she’s told, “but the ugliest among them all won’t touch you. There’s nothing Western folk admire so much as pluck in a woman.”

And so it was.

Isabella Lucy Bird certainly had pluck. Daughter of an English clergyman she was born in 1831 and owing to her fragile state of health was advised to spend time abroad in American and Canada. And so the 23 year old began on an incredible set of travels around the world. Not quite sure the adventure she embarked upon was quite what that English doctor had in mind but what was soon abundantly clear there was nothing at all wrong with her other than, perhaps, boredom with her life in England.

From San Francisco she took to the saddle riding for hundreds of miles around the Rockies mainly inhabited then by wild men and animals, proving herself braver and more resilient than everyone gave her credit for at the outset. There in the Rockies she fell in love – with the place – the immense grandeur of its mountains, the flowers of the foothills and many of the animals still abundant in the 1870s. And though she hardly admits it, surely fell in love with one Rocky Mountain Jim Nugent – beguiled by his kindness, his poetry and long blond curls.

I’ve read Isabella’s book several times and on each occasion find it totally spellbinding. That’s not to say I like Isabella for I find her prejudices, her racism and disparaging remarks about native Americans hard to stomach but I admire her guts and sense of adventure. Hers is an astonishing story recorded in a series of letters sent home to her family which were published in 1879 which paints a picture of the West as proficiently as any artist with a brush: her palette the carmine, vermilion, greens, blues, yellows, orange, violets, lemons of the skies, the grasses, the hillsides, the gorges, the mountain streams of Colorado  so the reader can imagine those crimson sprays of Virginia creeper, snow-capped summits, colossal rocks crested with pines, “beautifully arranged by nature,” blue jays and chipmunks, deer, elk bighorn, grizzlies, mountain lion, bison, rattle snakes, tree snakes – every kind of snake. Her writing is lush and spare at the same time for she doesn’t tell all.

The supposedly ailing Isabella set out on horseback to explore the awesome beauty of the American West. Frankly it sounds terrifying but Isabella was up for the challenge. She did depend on others although she wasn’t always appreciative of them. What preserved her mainly was this was a different time, when a woman travelling on her own had little to fear from men, irrespective how wild and violent they were with one another. The only things she was scared of were wild animals and sometimes landing herself in precarious situations; near stranded in deep snow and freezing fog. Her prejudices she took with her from England and are well-entrenched and she was far more comfortable with fellow-English people, often described as civilised and lady-like (the women) than others.

From San Francisco she takes in Cheyenne, Wyoming, Fort Laramie – “a God-forsaken, God-forgotten place” (There’s a Scottish bank note in a bar in Laramie left by yours truly.) She enters a land of displaced Native Americans – “savage Indians” as she describes them, of shanty towns, basic frame houses, disease, early death, widows, widowers, orphans and mountain air as exquisitely healthy as anywhere. Here the people are hard-drinking or temperance. Horses are fine or broncos and mules. Cattle grazed and are driven by the tens of thousands for months at a time, protected by heavily armed vacheros, to their ultimate fate the meat yards of Chicago.

In this wild country where settlers are scattered there is an understanding homesteaders would put up those travelling through and make a little money in the process. The first family Isabella comes across are Scottish. The Chalmers and Isabella are like chalk and cheese. Dirt-poor, not very capable, scratching a living in the foothills of the Rockies as small ranchers and with a sawmill they don’t impress Isabella, until the time they parted. There’s little love lost between them for Isabella is a snob and Chalmers appears to be a bit simple and feckless, the family mostly sleep in the open air as their home is so poor a structure without much of a roof to shelter them. The Chalmers share the little food they have with their ‘house-guest’ but Mr Chalmers doesn’t go out of his way to charm his boarder as he constantly rants against the English – which not unnaturally she bridle at, especially when he vents his spleen against Queen Victoria as he hates the monarchy and the British Empire. Chalmers is clearly from Highland stock, a strict Presbyterian, and the family sing metrical psalms in the traditional unaccompanied way which in church would be led by a Precentor; familiar to many older Highland Scots but doesn’t go down well with Church of England Isabella. It wasn’t only Chalmers who fumed against the English as Isabella discovers. They are unpopular with the majority she encounters, not targeting her – indeed she is assumed to be Danish or Swedish – but as she writes, “I so often hear a good deal of outspoken criticism (of the English)…on the greediness of English people.” She’s is saved from becoming too down about this state of affairs when she comes upon “a refined, courteous, graceful English” emigrant but poor Chalmers – she even despises their children and while they might be scruffy and not much good at farming and cooking at least the family didn’t turn Isabella away from their door (not that they had a door.)



Estes Park 1873

Estes Park 1873



The problem with travelling about on her own (one of them) was she never knew where she would find passable lodgings or who she would come across. Isabella  Bird was quite at home on the back of her horse, Birdie, which she rode like a man not side-saddle (except on occasions it was expected of her and put out her back.) Birdie her sure-footed companion during trying times. She did, however, choose to try somewhere else when late one day she discovered the cabin she hoped to board at already had 17 men settling down to sleep on the floor.

She did seek out the desperado Jim Nugent and the day she rode up to his blackened wood cabin its roof adorned with pelts from all kinds of animals began one of the most unlikely of relationships. 

Mountain Jim about 45 years old with grey-blue eyes, a large moustache and “strikingly handsome” raised his cap to Isabella when she turned up at his log cabin. Sounds like love at first sight for both of them; Jim her “child of nature” must have been a real beauty for he’d lost an eye and one side of his face was badly scarred from a fight with bear. His arm and ribs had also been broken and he was generally “chawed” by the bear who had been protecting her cub. Still, he survived to charm Isabella with his refined accent, easy and elegant way of talking and chivalry towards her. One-time scout he mostly earned his living trapping animals and keeping some cattle. A heavy drinker he was given to extreme violence.

Jim rode a horse, a mare, with a bare wooden saddle from which hung mink, beaver and marten tails. Despite his fiercesome reputation children like him and would clamber all over him playing with his long curly hair. From an Irish family Jim’s father had been a British officer at Montreal but at 17 years Jim turned to hard liquor when his girlfriend died. He moved around, worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company for some years then became an Indian scout for the US government. This was how he gained his notoriety. He also escorted emigrant groups across the West. Whether he regretted some of his horrible crimes who knows but Isabella did say he was full of self-loathing.

Intent on getting to the summit of Longs Peak Isabella had been persuaded to be accompanied by a couple of youths as guides. The four, along with Jim’s hound, Ring, “said to be the best hunting-dog in Colorado, “with a wistful expression, and the most truthful eye I ever saw in an animal” set off into the high Rockies passing lakes and streams, forests completely silent but for the crack of a branch, gazing up at spectacular views of “dark pines against a lemon sky”, “floods of golden glory pouring through canyons of enormous depth” marvelling over a lily-covered lake “magical its beauty” of “amethyst-coloured water.” Isabella’s sumptuous descriptive palette is a privilege to read.

They made up beds of pine shoots and warmed themselves at a huge log fire over which they cooked a supper of beef strips, “reeking with pine smoke” and drank tea out of “battered meat-tins in which it was boiled.” She wouldn’t have forgiven the Chalmers for such coarse living. Jim’s dog Ring lay down to protect Isabella on nights they were out but with eyes only for his master. They sang and Jim recited poetry while around them in the freezing dark wild animals howled. On wakening to a most stunning sunrise Jim announced, “I believe there is a God!”

Jim and Isabella (and presumably the youths who were still in tow) were roped together with him pulling Isabella up the toughest parts of the route on Longs Peak but initially to no avail for the climb proved too difficult and they were forced to descend to avoid impenetrable ice fields. Battered, bruised and exhausted they moved to another pitch and on hands and knees eventually succeeded to stand on the 15,000 foot summit with one of the youths spitting blood through effort and the thin air. The odd party then scratched their names and date on a tin and stuffed it into a crevice between rocks. They made it in the nick of time for next day Longs Peak was cut off by deep snow for 8 months.

Sunshine by day, freezing night temperatures tested Isabella. Penetrating cold and ice was severe enough to freeze treacle and milk, even eggs, inside cabins and certainly the clothes and hair of wet riders but the young woman in apparently delicate health took it all in her stride.

Isabella despised the wolves, another of her prejudices, describing them as cowardly. She was no fonder of “high-minded” Americans. As we’ve seen she wasn’t keen on  Highlander Scots and fiercely bigoted on Native Americans but she should be admired for her healthy dislike of the sportsman hunters and trappers who slaughtered for pleasure. There were plenty of them who ventured into the “closed” society of the mountains – tourists such as Isabella, hunters and prospectors for silver, gold and land. This wild, majestic landscape was no Utopia for it harboured jealousies, hatred, greed as well as their opposites with the gun being the final arbiter in any argument.

Griffith Evans and his family (and dog, Plunk), Welsh obviously, were Park settlers, living in a wooden cabin roofed with young spruce branches topped off with hay and mud. Despite being well-built the near-incessant driving snow squeezed in through gaps in its walls. It was not unusual for early settlers in their make-do cabins, not great solid building we often see in westerns, waking up in their beds blanketed in snow and were constantly having to dig accumulated snow out of their cabins in the worst winter weather. Isabella tells us that in Estes Park life was spent: tidying, sweeping, hunting, loafing, cleaning rifles, cooking, casting bullets, making fishing flies, baking, reading, mending, waterproofing boots and singing – Yankee Doodle, “Negro songs” and Rule Britannia (which aroused laughter as “it sounded so foolish and mean.”



Evans place with Longs Peak in the background

Evans place with Longs Peak in the background


Evans was another hard drinker and always in debt. As Isabella phrases it he keeps his money in “a bag with holes.” She trusts him with a $100 note to purchase a horse for her when he goes off to Denver but there are problems with the banks and with one thing and another Evans spends her money (he did later repay it and he provided her with a horse.) Mrs Evans works like a slave, as many women did for work was constant – domestic farming – hens, milking cows, washing, ironing, cleaning, shovelling snow, looking after children, cooking, bread and biscuit making. While there Isabella is provided with hearty breakfasts of beef, potatoes, tea, coffee, new bread and butter, cream and milk. Dinner was the same but with a “gigantic pudding” and no coffee. Tea, like breakfast.


Isabella finds herself in this “earthly paradise… a temple not made with hands” in contrast to the “bonnets of endless form, and curiously intricate back hair” she associated with church-going in England. In other words nature versus mannered. Her days are often spent in the saddle – not even dismounting to eat, content to gallop and leap rocks and fallen trees, “down-hill, up-hill” till dizzy and out of breath. Her riding ability and bravery astound the men she meets. She notes how Americans attitude to animals differ from in England where whips and spurs are widely used to terrorise and bully animals, as she puts it, while in America there is no such cruelty that she witnesses and even dogs are not permitted to worry animals, “quietness and gentleness were the rule.” Despite the desperados it’s fair to say Isabella is bowled over by the West; stunning scenery, its light, colours, perpetual sunshine – although the snowstorms are dramatic and she finds herself one time in 40 foot drifts. She compares “the fiery hills of Moab and the Desert” with “the gray castellated towers of feudal Europe” coming down on the side of nature. She often rides through the night, in all weathers sometimes literally frozen stiff so that she has to be lifted off her saddle.

When major snows are due women and children move farther downhill to the plains while their men-folk usual stay in their mountain homes, doing for themselves, “baching” as they call it. Isabella sometimes shares accommodation with men, strangers, and they all pull together except for one pretentious, lazy youth who nearly eats them out of house and home and does nothing but boast about his published writings which appeared to be little more than passages plagiarised from books.

The wildest experience Isabella encounters is in Denver, inhabited mainly by men – in search of notoriety as she puts it – “hunters and trappers in buckskin clothing; men of the Plains with belts and revolvers, in great blue cloaks, relics of the war; teamsters in leathern suites; horsemen in fur coats and caps and buffalo-hide boots with the hair outside…; Broadway dandies in light kid gloves; rich English sporting tourists, clean, comely, and supercilious-looking…Indians on their small ponies, the men wearing buckskin, with faces painted vermilion…”

At Deer Valley lynch law rules where “men were shot like skunks.” Here she witnesses senseless violence where shooting to kill to prove one’s manhood prevails. Isabella Bird has descended from Arcadia into hell and as she rides away from this awful place yet another man is strung up within an hour of his “hearing.”

Then again it is here she finds the cleanest, most cared-for establishment in which to spend the night but the impression she leaves with are the often repeated expressions, “There is no God west of the Missouri” and “the dollar is divinity.” What matters in these parts is a person’s ability to succeed, by any means – cheating or smartness, their success attracts admiration and however criminal is of little consequence.  

log cabin

Isabella only once carried a small weapon, a little Sharp’s revolver which kept dropping out of her pocket, but mainly she relied on the goodwill of strangers for her safety. And she was right. As she and Birdie make their way to the Continental Divide where one side drops into Colorado and west to the Pacific and the other to Platte and lands stretching back to the Atlantic she is approached by another lone rider. Male, bearded, blue-eyed with long fair curls dropping from below his “big slouch hat” almost to his waist he introduces himself as Comanche Bill. He is weighed down with arms – a “rifle, pair of pistols in holsters, two revolvers, knife in his belt… a carbine slung behind him.” The two ascend the Divide and wonder at the beauty of the place and she enjoys his company for she describes him as “a real gentleman” despite his reputation as one of the most notorious desperados of the Rocky Mountains and “the greatest Indian exterminator on the frontier.” He tells how his family were massacred at Spirit Lake and his young sister kidnapped by the Sioux and that he dedicated his life to finding her and satisfying his hatred of all Native Americans through an orgy of murder.

Isabella’s own deeply held prejudice against Native Americans is set out in this passage: “The Americans will never solve the Indian problem till the Indian is extinct.” She reports how tribes’ reservations were “rushed” by Europeans; by miners if there was a chance of finding gold on their lands, and tribes men, women and children chased away or shot. It was the actions of miners responsible for the only devastation she personally witnessed – ugly scarring, holes and charred tree stumps ruining the land. In a passage lacking in self-awareness she writes, “Surely one advantage of travelling is that, while it removes much prejudice against foreigners and their customs, it intensifies tenfold one’s appreciation of the good at home and above all, of the quietness and purity of English domestic life.” Perhaps not so quiet and pure for 16 English women jailed for challenging agricultural strike breakers that very year.

Another unpleasant character she encountered was Lord Dunraven, Irish as it happens, a Conservative politician, an Under Secretary of State for the Colonies in the 1880s and  Daily Telegraph correspondent. A thoroughly bad lot, violent, ruthless – a “High Toner” she calls him, we might say toff, he was in the West to slaughter as many animals as he could mainly buffalo and elk. He’d done his best to wipe out animals everywhere else he’d travelled so why not in America? He despised all things American, according to Isabella – except the ‘game’ and the land for he conspired to claim 15000 acres of it.



The greedy degenerate Lord Dunraven

Mountain Jim accompanied Isabella back down country to the flat lands but months later he was fatally shot by Evans when he stopped to water his horse at a stream outside the Welshman’s cabin, after Isabella returned to Britain. He died slowly of a bullet in his “magnificent head” filled with poetry and love of nature. Evans appears to have been involved with the scheming Lord Dunraven who fraudulently claimed thousands of acres of Estes Park to create a hunting park – later called “one of the most gigantic land steals in the history of Colorado.” Settlers were opposed to this and Dunraven responded with threats. Mountain Jim Nugent was a prominent opponent of the greedy opportunist Lord and on the side of the settlers and it appears Evans was hired to kill him  – to shut him up, “English gold killed Jim for opposing the land scheme” was informed opinion. A witness told how Lord Dunraven put a double-barrelled shotgun into Evans hands and instructed him to “protect” him. A witness to this was apparently paid by Dunraven to keep his mouth shut and disappear. Dunraven succeeded in his criminal activities and built a hotel on the land he designated a game park.

On opposition to his 33 year land-grab, the despicable Lord complained,


“People came in disputing claims, kicking up rows: exorbitant land taxes got into arrears; and we were in constant litigation. The show could not be managed from home, and we were in constant danger of being frozen out. So we sold for what we could get and cleared out, and I have never been there since.”


Neck he had. A lot of neck. He sold the land, which wasn’t his which goes to prove life is not fair.

I urge you to read Isabella’s account of her time in the Rockies. It’s an easy canter through pages of fascinating beautifully descriptive text – you won’t like it all but it’s a superb read for all that.

Isabella Lucy Bird was the first woman elected Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. Well-travelled she visited Australia, Hawaii, Japan, China, Korea, Vietnam, Singapore, Morocco, Malaya, India, Persia, Kurdistan, Turkey and the Western Isles. She married Edinburgh surgeon Dr John Bishop and died in Melville Street Edinburgh in October 1904 and is buried in Dean Cemetery.


self portrait sketch by Isabella

Isabella Bird and Birdie



For more on the Scots Chalmers click here

2 Responses to “A Woman’s Woman – in a land where men were shot like skunks”

  1. Cracking review, especially like the ability to admire elements of character and writing but be coruscating where necessary.


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