c 2014 By Jan MacKell Collins
“One night I saw something that put a little sense in me…I was sitting at a little table eating when a woman came in…I looked up at her and thought she was the prettiest woman I ever saw in the Creek…As she got up to leave, I looked up at her and almost fell out of my chair with shock. The side of her face towards me, from her forehead on down to the neck, had been slashed three or four times with a knife. Her neck was slashed all on one side. It was terrible.”
~ Lizzie Beaudrie
Cripple Creek dance hall girl
Historically, romanticism has run rampant about women’s roles in the American West. Documentation such as Lizzie Beaudrie’s, however, tells us that women were not respected as a whole and were often victims of violence. And so, while the gentler sex was often regarded as such, the same were expected to make their way in a harsh world without fuss or fight.
A great many single women in turn worked hard to maintain some sort of lifestyle for themselves. The possibilities of employment were extremely narrow by today’s standards. Cooks, clerks, stenographers, nurses, dressmakers, maids, milliners, laundresses, prostitutes, teachers, wives—all were low paying jobs which offered no advancement and some inherent dangers. The combination of low income and a lack of services made for a hard and thankless life.
But although the woman’s wall of will constantly found itself up against the barrier of suppression, it somehow persevered. One feminist who proved this point was English travel-writer Isabella Bird. In 1873, Bird arrived in Colorado to have a look around. Amazingly she traveled alone much of the time and was unarmed, most extraordinary for a woman of her time. Her companions and hosts included the wealthy and the poor, desperados and ranchers. Most of these were men.
Isabella Bird’s determination to make it in a barren and primitive region would later serve as an inspiration to women like Emily French. Emily, initially a ranch wife on the Colorado prairie, was one of many women who suffered from an unresponsive husband. When she found herself divorced from Marsena French at the age of forty seven in 1890, Emily was forced to do housework in order to support her disabled sister and two children. Sometimes food was scarce. Other times, Emily ached so badly from the cold she could hardly perform her duties. Despite an educated background, Emily could find no other work. Emily did have the luxury of a set of false teeth made of wood, and managed to even secure a date now and then. For the most part, however, Emily spent many lonely days as a woman in a man’s world.
In fact, Emily French had it good compared to the lowest form of poverty. This included thousands of prostitutes, whose complaints often fell on deaf ears. A 1901 issue of the Colorado Springs Gazette reported on the trial of Joe Huser in Cripple Creek: “The complaining witness was Cora Wheeler, a colored woman of Myers Avenue, who alleged that Huser struck her in the face with a hatchet.”
Violence and hardship aside, a number of women did strive to make a career for themselves. Many were successful; witness the number of female boarding house proprietors in the Cripple Creek District in Colorado at the turn of the century. There is no doubt that Mrs. Mollie Kathleen Gortner set precedence when she staked one of the first mining claims in the District in September of 1891. By 1893, the Women’s Gold Mining Company had also incorporated in Cripple Creek under the laws of Colorado. An ambitious undertaking, the Women’s Gold Mining Company included officers Miss A. Grimes, President, Mrs. A. Reynolds, Vice President, Miss Mary E. Gover, Treasurer, plus officers Mrs. Lucy G. Pierce of Peabody Massachusetts and Mrs. Joan Hanford of San Bernadino, California. The capitol stock of 800,000 was divided into single shares at ten cents each. It is no surprise that the principal mine of the company was known as the “She”.
More obscure professions fell to women like Mrs. N.H. Chapman, a writer who lived in Victor, Colorado in 1900. Anna Blair and Belle Miles were both artists who resided in Cripple Creek in 1902. Miss Fay Barnes was a “china decorator”. Mae Connor worked as a florist. Mrs. Julia O’Neill worked as a matron at the County Jail. Miss Mayme McAfee was among the musicians in Cripple Creek. Mrs. Kathryn Bates was a voice culture teacher.
As women toiled their way through the Victorian era, a light at the end of the tunnel appeared with the celebrated fame of Annie Oakley. Born in 1860, Annie overcame an abusive childhood to become one of the greatest sharpshooters in the west. During her career she literally made millions performing in exhibitions and traveling with Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show. Annie’s modesty was overshadowed by her contemporary appearance: short skirts and a refusal to tie up her dark curls. Despite her outward appearance, Oakley made no secret of her conservative lifestyle and her devotion to husband Frank Butler.
By the time Annie passed away in 1926, the celebrated markswoman had amassed a lengthy resume and fortune. Surely as women around the world read the obituary of Annie Oakley, they somehow found hope and encouragement to continue taking charge of their lives.
Julia Skolas was one of a number of women who found a way to make a living in a man’s world. During the 1890’s and early 1900, Skolas was a most prominent photographer in Cripple Creek, Colorado.