It’s Women’s History Month, y’all, and since 1988, every president has signed proclamations making it so. Themed observance months, no matter their subject, commonly are questioned with, “Why do we need a whole month dedicated to that?” In the case of Women’s History Month, we need it because people still think that women don’t or haven’t done things, that skilled women in history are anomalies, or that if a woman did accomplish something, she must have had help from a man to get it done. Which is bullsquawk. If you want a basic primer on how a society erases women, Joanna Russ’ “How to Suppress Women’s Writing” is a phenomenal work, and if you only have time for a cruise-through, Kameron Hurley’s essay, “Where Have All the Women Gone,” breaks it down beautifully.
Colorado is no different, with a history full of fascinating women. Here are six ladies who helped forge the Centennial State into being great.
Clara Brown (1800-1885)Clara Brown was a free black woman five years before the Civil War began. She spent the 56 years she lived in Virginia and Kentucky as a slave, but when her last owner died, he granted her freedom in his will. The 1850 U.S. Census shows that Brown wasn’t alone in her freedom. At the time, there were more than 400,000 free black folks in America.
Brown journeyed by river from Kentucky to Leavenworth, Kansas, where she was hired as a cook for a wagon train of Gold Rush hopefuls headed to Denver. The eight-week working trip was Brown’s only way West. In 1859, in large swaths of the United States, it was illegal for a black person to travel without the accompaniment of a white person
Central City is where Brown put down roots, working as a midwife, nursemaid, and cook, but it was when she set up the first laundry in Gilpin County that her fortunes took off. Brown soon gathered $10,000 in savings (over $270,000 in today’s money), owned 16 lots in Denver, seven houses in Central City, and other property and mines in Boulder, Georgetown, and Idaho Springs.
But folks didn’t know Brown as a rich, old lady. They knew her as “Aunt Clara” who had, according to a Denver Tribune-Republican reporter, “a remarkable face, with high cheekbones, a long, pointed nose, and very black eyes. Her cast of features is strong and almost classical, and the hair which curls above her temples is as white as the snow.” She was the kind woman who hosted Methodist church services at her house, the philanthropist who donated to those in need and to churches of all denominations, and the woman who paid for over 16 family members and freed slaves to come to Colorado.
Martha Maxwell (1831-1881)Martha Maxwell was a naturalist and the mother of modern taxidermy. After a short stint as a teacher in the circus-centric town of Baraboo, Wisonsin, she married a fella, who, after the Panic of 1857 (the first worldwide economic crisis involving gold), convinced her to join him in the Gold Rush.
The couple settled in Nevadaville and, not content to sit at home while her husband mined for gold, Maxwell baked pies, mended clothes, and took in washing. She invested her money in mining claims, a boarding house, and a one-room log cabin.
In an odd turn, a squatter took over the log cabin before Maxwell made use of it. Maxwell waited until the German miner left on an errand, unhinged the front door, and chucked all his possessions out. The claim jumper had been a taxidermist and, soon after, Maxwell wrote her family for a book on preserving animals.
By 1874, Maxwell, a lifelong vegetarian, opened the Rocky Mountain Museum in Boulder to showcase specimens she had hunted and preserved. It moved to Denver a year later, but ultimately closed due to monetary difficulties. Still, after hundreds of preservations, Maxwell had developed her own taxidermy techniques that included an instance of specimens displayed in a replica of their natural habitat. She was invited to create a display at the Centennial International Exhibition of 1876, the first World’s Fair in the U.S., and her taxidermy techniques would go on to influence Carl Akeley, the taxidermist and diorama creator for the Field Museum of Natural History and the American Museum of Natural History.
Chipeta (1843-1924)Chipeta, translated as White Singing Bird, was an integral negotiator in mediations between white settlers and the Ute people. As a babe, a band of Tabeguache Utes had pity on Chipeta and adopted her as their own after finding her crawling in the remains of a Kiowa Apache encampment, the only survivor of a brutal attack.
Chipeta became the caretaker of Chief Ouray’s son and when his first wife died, Chipeta became his second. She was renowned for her beadwork, wisdom, and ability to sing in multiple languages. Even after Ouray’s death, Chipeta continued as the leader of her people and the only woman permitted to sit on Ute tribal councils.
After the Meeker Massacre, Chipeta was a key negotiator in the release of women and children taken hostage. 1880 brought her to Washington to discuss a treaty on reservation resettlement. Even though, through the help of Chipeta, the Utes ratified a treaty with the U.S. government, they were forced to leave Colorado for placement on a Utah reservation. It wasn’t until the end of her life that Chipeta was again recognized as a wise peacemaker by the likes of poets and President Taft.
Mary Virginia Donaghe McClurg (~1850-1931)Mesa Verde National Park may not have been preserved from treasure hunters and land-grabbers if it wasn’t for Mary Virginia Donaghe McClurg. McClurg arrived in Colorado in 1879 as a newspaper correspondent for the New York Daily Graphic, covering the “scenic West.”
McClurg fell in love with “Colorado’s wonderful buried cities and lost homes” after she visited Mesa Verde in 1882 and 1886. Her second trip included a guide, a photographer, a cook, and horses to haul supplies. Her party rediscovered Echo Cliff house, Three Tier House, and a Balcony House. The Utes were, of course, well aware of Mesa Verde and what it contained, but McClurg’s rediscovery of the ancient ruins led her on a path to advocate for them. She formed the Colorado Cliff Dwellings Association, published sketches, photographs, and a book on Mesa Verde and gave public lectures, including several at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. After teaching an 1894 class on “The Prehistoric West,” McClurg circulated a petition to preserve Mesa Verde as a national park. It took 12 years of petitioning with Lucy Peabody, the vice regent of the Colorado Cliff Dwellings Association, which caused President Roosevelt to designate Mesa Verde as a national park in 1906.
Justina Ford (1871-1952)Justina Ford was the first African American female doctor in Denver. After acquiring her MD at Hering Medical College in Chicago, Ford set up offices in Denver. In 1902, she received a medical license, but the examiner stated, “I feel dishonest taking a fee from you. You’ve got two strikes against you to begin with. First of all, you’re a lady, and second, you’re colored.” He didn’t believe that Ford would make a dollar as a doctor being that African Americans were barred from working in hospitals.
During her 50-plus-year career, Ford delivered almost 7,000 babies from her home practice. She specialized in general medicine, gynecology, obstetrics, and in taking care of people hospitals did not want to: Black folks, non-English-speaking immigrants, and poor white folks. It wasn’t unusual for Ford to accept trades in lieu of cash from her patients or for her to buy food and coal for those who couldn’t afford it.
Though she had a flawless, generous medical practice, Ford was not initially allowed entry into the Colorado Medical Society or the American Medical Association. After submitting yearly applications, it took until 1950 before Ford was accepted into the Colorado Medical Society, two years before she died. Today, her Denver home is now the Black American West Museum and Heritage Center.
Elizabeth “Betty” Eyre Pellet (1887-1976)Every career Pellet had, from acting to politics, she followed one piece of her mother’s philosophy: “If women raised fewer geraniums and more Cain the world might be a lot better place to live in.” Pellet’s accomplishments are a strange lot. She met and fought with Mark Twain, kissed President Theodore Roosevelt, marched as a suffragette in Hell’s Kitchen, sang on Broadway, acted in silent films, and was a Colorado Congresswoman from 1940 to 1942 and again from 1948 to 1964.
Pellet was a savior of mountain roads and railroads, her advocacy saving entire Colorado regions from ghosting out. She was instrumental in the creation of road access from Kansas through southern Colorado into Arizona, which helped farmers sell their bean crops. As the first female House Minority Leader, she advocated for children, education, and the disabled.
“So, with dream-chips on my shoulder – a habit I can no longer break,” Pellet said, “it’s on to tomorrow’s unknown battle, or folly.”
Patty TempletonDGO Staff Writer