Historian Jo Woolf tells story of Isabella Bird, a female explorer who broke the conventions of her time living as a rancher in the Rocky Mountains.
19 Nov 2021
Historian Jo Woolf, writer in Residence for the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, explores the history of Isabella Bird - a pioneering female explorer based in Edinburgh - and how she left her mark on the world.
At 100 Princes Street we will pay homage to Edinburgh's rich history and take inspiration from the explorers who put 100 Princes Street on the map. In design, our teams will look to create a 'sense of place', working with local artisans to create bespoke pieces and feature a mural honouring the adventures of several great Scottish explorers by Croxford & Saunders. Read more about this rich history below.
In November 1873, high in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, Isabella Bird wrote to her sister, Henrietta:
“My hair, which was thoroughly wet with the thawed snow of yesterday, is hard frozen in plaits… Half our floor is deep in snow, and it is so cold that we cannot open the door to shovel it out… It blows in through the chinks and dusts this letter while I write.”
Isabella was 42 years old, the unmarried daughter of a church minister. At that moment, her comfortable home in Edinburgh must have seemed a million miles away. In a spirit of adventure, a few months previously she had arrived in one of the most remote ranching settlements of North America, and loved it so much that she decided to stay.
Her neighbours were hard-riding, hard-drinking cowboys who made a living by driving cattle. This was not, perhaps, the most obvious sanctuary for a well-born, well-educated woman in the Victorian era, but Isabella was not the average Victorian woman.
Estes Park, about 60 miles north-west of Denver, was a sparsely populated outpost accessible only by an arduous and obscure mountain pass at an altitude of 9,000 feet. Far from being a ‘park’ as we would understand it, this region was a mountain wilderness that was still largely unexplored.
Isabella’s cabin, a drawing from her book, ‘A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains’
The Estes Park cattle ranch was run by a Welshman, Griffith Evans - who had hit on the enterprising notion of letting a couple of log cabins out to visitors - and Isabella was one of his first guests. However, if he was expecting her to put her feet up and admire the scenery, he was in for a surprise. Isabella was an accomplished horsewoman, and she threw herself wholeheartedly into the life of a cattle rancher:
“I live mainly outdoors and on horseback… sleep sometimes under the stars on a bed of pine boughs, ride on a Mexican saddle, and hear once more the low music of my Mexican spurs.”
Isabella Bird and her horse
Quickly winning the respect of the ranchers, Isabella joined their breathtaking, headlong drives into dizzying canyons and down pine-clad slopes, leaping and galloping with the best of them as they corralled stampeding herds of Texan cattle several thousand strong. For Isabella, who had never enjoyed the best of health as a child, the clear mountain air and the brilliant sunshine were invigorating.
By mid-October the snows had started, and the log cabins were not sealed against fine snowflakes, especially if they were driven by a gale. One night, after covering herself with six blankets, Isabella awoke to find her bed covered with snow and her sheet frozen to her face. When the men brought her a bucket of hot water to wash in, it froze before she could use it.
Griff Evans offered Isabella six dollars a week if she would stay on at the ranch during the winter to clean and cook for the men. Her response to this was to take herself off on a month-long excursion on her favourite horse, a mare she called Birdie. By this time, the country was deep in snow, but she managed to find accommodation simply by knocking on people’s doors and accepting whatever hospitality she could find.
Mountains in Estes Park
Isabella didn’t intend to go back to Estes Park, but when she called at a bank in Denver, they refused to cash her banknotes. The US was in the middle of a financial crisis and banks were withholding money. With just 26 cents in her pocket, her only option was to return to the ranch.
Characteristically, Isabella threw herself into the task of housekeeping and did it with energy and style. She scrubbed and swept the rooms and cleaned the windows until they sparkled. She did the laundry, bleaching the linen so that it was pristine and white. However, she was dismayed one afternoon to find that a gale had ripped her only change of clothes into inch-wide strips on the line.
Every day she baked bread and, with three hungry men to feed, she seemed to know precisely how to eke out the dwindling rations until the next supplies could get through the snowdrifts; for all she knew, that could take several weeks. When the temperature dropped to -1°F (-18°C), the eggs had to be kept on the coolest part of the stove to stop them from freezing solid. At least meat was plentiful, because the men had laid in supplies of game. A waterhole in a nearby lake, which supplied their drinking water, was kept open by hacking regularly at the ice crust with an axe.
The ranch with Long’s Peak behind (1890)
Despite all these setbacks, a celebration supper at Thanksgiving was well within Isabella’s capabilities. She cooked venison steaks and potatoes, and made a cherry pudding to follow, served with a custard of whisked eggs and cream. She wrote: “I should think that few people in America have enjoyed their Thanksgiving dinner more.” Henrietta, to whom she wrote practically every day, must have been overwhelmed with relief!
Even if she hadn’t been snowbound and short on cash, Isabella had another reason for lingering at Estes Park. Just up the hill, in a cabin set apart from the rest, lived a fur-trapper called Jim Nugent, otherwise known as ‘Rocky Mountain Jim’. Isabella had been warned by the other men to give Jim a wide berth, because he was an outlaw with a wild and unpredictable temper. She’d promptly gone up to see him, and they had struck up an unexpected friendship.
At some time in his colourful past, Jim had been attacked by a bear, leaving one side of his face shockingly disfigured; the other side, according to Isabella, was so classically handsome that it could have been fashioned in marble. A notorious drunkard, casually trigger-happy with his revolver, he was nonetheless unfailingly polite to Isabella. His old-fashioned charm surprised and fascinated her, and so did his talent for poetry. Before the snows came, they went riding together and camped under the stars. They climbed a mountain called Long’s Peak - a serious challenge at over 14,000 feet - and the trek took them several days. Isabella realised that she was losing her heart to him. She knew it would end in tears.
When Jim was in one of his black moods, he insisted on telling Isabella his life story. Aged about 17, he’d fallen hopelessly in love with a young woman whom his parents had forbidden him to marry. Grief-stricken when she died at a young age, he became an Indian Scout in the US militia. Driven half-mad with emotional pain, he participated in acts of brutality and murder. He’d moved from one state to the next, joining gangs of ruffians in raids and massacres. His memories made Isabella recoil in horror. He told her that she was the only person who’d treated him like a real person, and he asked her to marry him.
Isabella’s idyll in the Rocky Mountains was over. She could not, for one instant, allow herself to entertain Jim’s proposal. She didn’t trust his violent nature, and she wouldn’t be tied down; but she was heartbroken all the same. On a cold December morning she watched the sun rise over the mountains for the last time, and then saddled her horse to make the long journey through the snow. Jim rode with her for some of the way, ironically providing security on a dangerous ride. A few days earlier, Isabella had had a disturbing premonition that he would die violently in a shoot-out. She hoped it was unfounded. Before they parted, Isabella urged Jim to change his life for the better. He told her sadly that it was too late.
Back in Britain, Isabella collected the letters she had written to her sister and, in 1879, her book, ‘A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains’ was published. Somehow, even though she had spent three months living as a cowgirl in the back of beyond and had got herself romantically entangled with a desperado, she managed to avoid any whiff of scandal. Travellers, she once said, were allowed to do the most improper things with perfect propriety.
Isabella did not escape matrimony altogether: in 1880 she married an Edinburgh surgeon by the name of John Bishop. John was able to offer Isabella emotional support after the death of Henrietta, her beloved sister. Sadly, within six years he himself had died, and with Isabella’s grief came the realisation that she was free once again to travel. This time, she turned her attention to Central and Eastern Asia, and embarked on a series of daring solo journeys around China, Japan, Korea, and Russia.
When she was at home in Scotland, Isabella divided her time between Edinburgh and Tobermory on the Isle of Mull, where she had a cottage overlooking the harbour. Throughout her life, her physical health was curiously unstable: she often languished amid the creature comforts of home but responded with energy and determination to the rigours of travel, thinking nothing of staying in filthy, vermin-ridden shacks or riding a yak over a Tibetan mountain pass in a snowstorm.
On one occasion she had to run for her life from a mob of villagers who were intent on stoning her to death, because she was the first westerner they had seen, and they were deeply suspicious of her. She was completely undeterred, and eventually she gained their trust. By that time, she had acquired some medical training and, wherever she could, she used her knowledge and her basic medicinal supplies to help people in need.
In an age when women were expected to conform to strict behavioural codes, Isabella broke away and experienced the true freedom of individuality. On the exhilaration of travel, she wrote: “It is to me like living in a new world, so free, so fresh, so vital, so careless, so unfettered, so full of interest that one grudges being asleep.”
In 1892, aged 61, she learned a new skill, photography, by taking lessons from the renowned photographer John Thomson. From then onwards, she carried a plate camera everywhere on her travels, and developed her photographs beneath the night sky. She was one of the first travel photographers, capturing images of communities and traditions that have long since vanished.
Thankfully, Isabella was recognised in her own lifetime for her extraordinary achievements. In 1890 she was made an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society - the first woman ever to receive that honour. She was also the first woman to deliver a lecture to the Society in 1891. She became a bestselling author, with every new book eagerly anticipated by an admiring public. As a reviewer in ‘The Spectator’ observed, “Not the least noteworthy among Miss Bird's gifts is a heaven-sent faculty for having adventures.”
Painting of Estes Park by Albert Bierstadt (1877)
And Rocky Mountain Jim? Less than a year after they parted, Isabella received the news that she’d been dreading: Jim had been shot and killed in a drunken shoot-out. She carried her memories of him in her heart as she continued on her long and courageous path around the world.
Isabella Bird, A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains (1879)
Deborah Ireland, Isabella Bird: A Photographic Journal of Travels Through China, 1894-96 (2015)
Anna M Stoddart, The Life of Isabella Bird (1906)