Everybody Welcome

In honor of Black History Month, allow me to introduce you to a remarkable woman who once called Colorado Springs home. On October 26, 2019 our city welcomed a new sculpture in front of the Pikes Peak Center for the Performing Arts. The life-size figure depicts Fannie Mae Duncan (1918-2005) in her mid-30s, elegantly-attired, enthusiastic, and with her right arm extended in a greeting gesture, epitomizing the motto that became her credo, EVERYBODY WELCOME. Plans to create the first local statue in honor of an African-American woman were forged soon after Fannie Mae’s death, but it took nearly a decade-and-a-half of private fundraising for those plans to be made flesh—or bronze. The well-attended dedication ceremony was the latest in a series of belated tributes to a woman who modeled a peaceful way to racial integration.

Everybody Welcome also became the theme of a play, a book, and a PBS television documentary, thanks to the efforts of retired teacher, Kathleen F. Esmiol. She and a group of her students contacted Mrs. Duncan to ask for permission to portray her in a play, which was performed in Colorado Springs and Denver on a number of occasions between 1993 and 1994. The ensuing friendship between the two women led to the 2013 publication of Everybody Welcome, A Memoir of Fannie Mae Duncan and the Cotton Club. Written by Ms. Esmiol, it recounts Fannie Mae Duncan’s life in her own words, and is a poignant and profound portrait of a woman whose ideals we are still striving to achieve today. If it were not for urban renewal, a short walk from Fannie Mae’s statue would lead to the legendary establishment that became synonymous with her—Colorado Springs’ very own Cotton Club.

To retrace Fannie Mae’s life from her roots in the deep South to her blossoming in Colorado Springs is to re-live the struggles of many an African-American family. Her parents were children of enslaved parents and labored as tenant farmers in Alabama, until the family moved to Oklahoma to escape a case of blatant racism. Fannie Mae Bragg was the first of seven siblings born outside of Alabama. After the death of her father, the family eventually relocated to Colorado Springs, where Fannie Mae became the first member of her family to graduate from high school in 1939. She had to forego her dream of attending nursing school because of a lack of funds, working instead as a maid for various employers. She married Ed Duncan, the older brother of a classmate, who worked as chauffeur.

The entry of the United States into the second World War after the attack on Pearl Harbor changed not only Colorado Springs’ fortunes, but also the Duncans’. Camp Carson was founded in 1942 (to be renamed Fort Carson in 1957), and Fannie Mae learned about an open position as a soda fountain operator at the segregated Haven Club. In 1944, she persuaded Ed to help her run a café and snack bar at the newly opened USO club for black servicemen in downtown Colorado Springs. He was an excellent cook and handyman, she knew how to deal with customers and money. The café was an instant success, providing a steady income for the Duncans, as it was one of the few eateries that served blacks, and attracted both downtown workers for a quick bite, as well as local families and travelers.

Fannie Mae dreamed about not only renting, but owning their own business. When the opportunity presented itself that same year to buy a former restaurant, she pleaded with Ed to jump at it. They borrowed money from one of his former employers, a wealthy widow, in order to make the requisite down payment. Duncan’s Café and Bar opened in November 1947, becoming instantly popular. Soon thereafter, Fannie Mae and Ed also opened Duncan’s Lounge on the second floor above the café.

Fannie Mae and Ed regularly journeyed to the Rossonian nightclub in Denver’s Five Point neighborhood to listen to famous jazz performers, which sparked the desire to open their very own. Fannie Mae knew she wanted a grand name, and what could be grander than Cotton Club, in honor of Harlem’s famous but defunct musical venue. She ordered a 20 foot-tall, flamingo pink Cotton Club sign, and was tickled by the notion that it could be seen by all passing cars from the highway that would became I-25.

The Cotton Club was a hit from the moment it opened its doors. Unlike Harlem’s namesake, which featured black performers for white patrons, the Duncans wanted to provide a home not only for black artists, but also for their fellow black citizens, whose social opportunities continued to be limited. Neither the Antlers nor the Broadmoor Hotel allowed black performers or guests. Because many of their patrons were in the military, and had returned home after World War II with foreign-born wives, the Duncans expected a multi-ethnic crowd, and wanted to make them feel welcome. Fannie Mae hired 15 waitresses from various racial backgrounds.

By coordinating engagements with the Rossonian, she was able to book their high-level performers for the Cotton Club also. The Who’s Who of American Jazz performed in Colorado Springs, among them luminaries like Fats Domino, B.B. King, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson, and Etta James. It did not take long for white music lovers to show up at the club, and for other local businesses to complain about her channeling white customers away from their establishments, which led to her invitation to the local police chief who told her she “couldn’t mix races,” and to “run it black.” She famously countered with: “I check them for age. Nobody told me I had to check them for color.” He soon changed his mind, likely because of the protests by her white, influential clientele.

Fannie Mae has often been described as a community activist, but my impression is that she did not set out to be a revolutionary. She simply applied the golden rule and treated others the way she wished to be treated, regardless of skin color. While it might not have been the Duncans’ initial intent to make a political statement, the Cotton Club became the first fully integrated enterprise in Colorado Springs. Ed hand-lettered a sign, and Fannie Mae put it into the window: EVERYBODY WELCOME reflected not only the slogan of the Cotton Club, but Fannie Mae’s philosophy of life.

Black performers, regardless of their national or international fame, were still not welcome to rest their heads on pillows in Colorado Springs hotels. It profoundly perturbed Fannie Mae that her musicians had to return to Denver for accommodations. To remedy this shortcoming, in 1952 she bought one of her favorite downtown houses, saving it from demolition. The 1891, 42-room Victorian Mansion was then conveyed to her property in three parts. The Duncans were able to welcome their performers with comfortable lodgings and with home-cooked, Southern-style meals, courtesy of Fannie Mae’s mother. Sadly, Ed died in 1955 due to complications from alcoholism, which might have been triggered by the death of their only child during delivery. He left Fannie Mae a widow at 36.

It seems an inevitable fact of “civilized” society that jealous, evil tongues start wagging at the success of fellow humans. Fannie Mae’s preference for flamboyant outfits, flashy Cadillacs, and Victorian mansions likely did not help, nor did the degeneration of downtown Colorado Springs, with increased levels of crime in the 1960s and 70s. The city decided to sacrifice her Cotton Club to urban renewal and applied eminent domain, and Fannie Mae’s baby fell prey to the wrecking ball in 1975.

She moved away from Colorado for a while, but returned to live in Denver, where Kathleen Esmiol found her and set into motion the events that culminated in the beautiful statue of Fannie Mae Duncan. Fannie Mae died in Denver in 2005 at age 87, not knowing of all the honors that would be bestowed upon her posthumously. One hopes that she had overcome her misgivings about Colorado Springs, where she was laid to rest at Evergreen Cemetery, next to her husband. In death, she remains surrounded by her mother and several other family members.

The mural of Fannie Mae and her Cotton Club shown in the topmost photo graces a wall at 2438 E. Platte Avenue in Colorado Springs. It was dedicated by the Knobhill Urban Arts District Planning Committee on July 5, 2019.

Bitte verzeiht mir, daß es wegen der Länge dieses Beitrags heute keine deutsche Übersetzung gibt.

Maria Merian

One scientist, who would have taken issue with last week’s “ignorance is bliss” statement is Maria Sybilla Merian (1647-1717). This powerhouse of a woman, of whom I knew nothing until the recent fortuitous find of her 2018 biography The Girl Who Drew Butterflies  by Joyce Sidman, not only sought knowledge at every turn, it was insect knowledge she loved above all else, which led her to accomplish feats unusual for any human, let alone for a woman born in the 17th century.

Endpaper detail from “The Girl Who Drew Butterflies” by Joyce Sidman

Maria saw the light of the world in Frankfurt, Germany, on April 2, 1647. Her father, Matthäus Merian the Elder, an engraver and head of a publishing company died when she was only three. Her mother, Johanna Sibylla, remarried. From her stepfather, Jacob Marrel, a still life painter, Maria learned his craft, and she proved talented from an early age. Including insects on still lifes was popular, and Maria, utterly intrigued, began to observe them closely. Most of their life cycles were unknown (the notion of spontaneous generation was still widespread), and while watching and drawing their transformation from egg to caterpillar to moth or butterfly, she became aware of the process of metamorphosis, which was not common knowledge then.

Uncolored engraving of a garden tiger moth on a hyacinth flower from Maria Merian’s 1679 caterpillar book

Maria married at 18, as was expected of her. Her husband, Johann Andreas Graff, also a painter, was ten years her senior. The couple moved to Nuremberg, where they ran a printing and engraving shop. They had two daughters, Johanna and Dorothea. Unusual for the time, Maria published two books with engravings during her sojourn in Nuremberg, one about flowers, another about caterpillars and their remarkable transformation. Eventually, a second caterpillar volume was to follow.

Her marriage was unhappy, and when her stepfather died in 1681, Maria returned to Frankfurt, ostensibly to support her mother, but likely because she wanted to get away from her husband. Four years later, Maria, her two daughters, and her mother joined a religious community in Holland, where Johann sought her out, demanding her return. Maria refused, and they divorced shortly thereafter.

Maria Merian’s depiction of a frog’s life cycle, including eggs, tadpoles, and adults

Following her mother’s death, Maria and her daughters moved to Amsterdam, Holland’s capital and a thriving port city, where she had access to private curiosity cabinets, precursors to museums, with their plant and animal collections from across the world. Together with her daughters, both accomplished artists in their own right, Maria ran a business. They painted and engraved, and Maria taught fellow women artists, while continuing her scientific observations. No animal or plant was beyond her notice. She became particularly intrigued by specimens sent back from the Dutch colony of Surinam, also known as Dutch Guyana.

Maria determined to travel to Surinam to study its flora and fauna. Against all odds, she and her younger daughter financed their own journey, and, from 1699 to 1701, spent nearly two years in this exotic country at the northern coast of South America. Maria would have preferred to stay longer, but reluctantly returned to Europe because of ill health, likely the result of tropical diseases. They arrived with vivid recollections, volumes of notebooks filled with sketches, myriad animal specimens, as well as seeds, bulbs and pressed flowers.

It took four years, but Maria’s masterpiece, a book about the insects of Surinam, was published in 1705. Sixty gorgeous plates depict the different developmental stages of each species on the animal’s host plant. Critical acclaim followed, but not financial gain, as she barely recovered the cost of publication. The Royal Society of London praised Maria’s work, even if it did not offer her membership (the first woman member would not be admitted for another 250 years).

Banana flower, young bananas and saturnid moth from Maria Merian’s book “Metamorphis insectorum Surinamensium”

After her death of a stroke at the age of 69, Tsar Peter the Great bought nearly 300 of her watercolors for Russia’s first art museum, later to be curated by Maria’s daughter, Dorothea. She also published her mother’s third European caterpillar book posthumously. Carl Linnaeus, the “inventor” of the binomial nomenclature, cited her extensively in the 10th edition of his 1758 Systema Naturae. In subsequent centuries, Maria’s “amateur” accomplishments were largely forgotten, until she was rediscovered, and recognized as a trailblazer and scientist ahead of her time. Her portrait graced the 500 Deutschmark bill, before the introduction of the Euro.

Pineapple plant and tropical cockroach from Maria Merian’s book “Metamorphis insectorum Surinamensium”

I’m grateful to Joyce Sidman. Her The Girl who drew Butterflies acquainted me with a remarkable woman whose contributions to the life sciences should not be overlooked. 303 years ago to the day, Maria Merian passed away on January 13, 1717.

Bitte verzeiht mir, daß es wegen der Länge dieses Beitrags heute keine deutsche Übersetzung gibt.

Hope is the Thing with Feathers

Hope is the thing with feathers

That perches in the soul,

And sings the tune without the words,

And never stops at all,

Hoffnung ist das Wesen mit Federn

Das sich in der Seele niederläßt,

Und die Melodie wortlos singt,

Und niemals damit aufhört,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;

And sore must be the storm

That could abash the little bird

That kept so many warm.

Und am lieblichsten hört es sich im Sturm an;

Wahrhaft wild muß das Unwetter sein

Das das kleine Vögelchen verstummen ließe

Das die Herzen so vieler erwärmt hat.

I’ve heard it in the chilliest land,

And on the strangest sea;

Yet, never, in extremity,

It asked a crumb of me.

Ich habe es in den kältesten Gefilden vernommen,

Und auf den fremdartigsten Ozeanen;

Jedoch hat es selbst in äußerster Not,

Nie etwas von mir verlangt.

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) was arguably one of, if not the most introvert of American writers. She spent the majority of her adult life as a recluse in her room in the family’s home in Amherst, Massachusetts, where she composed nearly 2,000 poems. A mere seven were published—anonymously—during her lifetime, but not to great acclaim. Today she is considered one of America’s greatest poets and exemplifies that artists are often misunderstood or underappreciated in their own era.

I recall neither place nor time of my first encounter with the verses above, but in recent years they have often fluttered into my head and started to build a nest. While I will not attempt to interpret them, the association between feathered beings and hope resonates strongly with me. Ever since birds have given wings to my imagination—if not soul—their presence and well-being set my heart singing and strike a hopeful note for Planet Earth. As we know and mourn, their numbers have been declining globally, but some species formerly on the brink of the abyss have experienced a resurgence, thanks to concerted efforts from the human community, which proves what is possible if we act together.

While there are many, many reasons for concern, if not resignation, at the beginning of this new year, I choose hope over despair. May each of us work in our own little circle toward the preservation of this one-in-a-universe, wonder-filled sphere we call our home.

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) dürfte eine der introvertiertesten amerikanischen Schriftsteller gewesen sein. Sie verbrachten den größten Teil des Erwachsenenalters in ihrem Zimmer im familiären Heim in Amherst, Massachusetts, wo sie fast 2.000 Gedichte verfaßte. Lediglich sieben davon wurden anonym während ihres Lebens veröffentlicht, ohne großen Erfolg. Heute wird sie als eine der besten amerikanischen Dichter angesehen, was veranschaulicht, daß viele Künstler in ihrer eigenen Zeit unverstanden waren, und nicht ausreichend gewürdigt wurden.

Ich kann mich weder an den Moment noch an den Ort erinnern, als ich meine erste Begegnung mit den obigen Versen hatte (bitte verzeiht meine dilettantische, sich nicht reimende Übersetzung), aber in den letzten Jahren sind sie mir öfter durch den Kopf geflattert und haben begonnen, dort ein Nest zu bauen. Ich werde nicht versuchen, sie zu interpretieren, aber die Assoziation zwischen gefiederten Wesen und Hoffnung findet bei mir großen Widerhall. Seitdem Vögel nicht nur meine Phantasie. sondern auch meine Seele beflügeln, bringen ihre Präsenz und Wohlergehen mein Herz zum Singen, und schlagen einen hoffnungsvollen Ton für unsere Erde an. Wie wir wissen und betrauern. sind ihre Zahlen weltweit rückläufig, doch sind einige Arten, die einst am Abgrund standen, vom fast-Tod wiederauferstanden, dank vereinter menschlicher Anstrengungen, die beweisen, was möglich ist, wenn wir unsere Kräfte vereinen.

Auch wenn es unendlich viele Gründe zur Besorgnis, wenn nicht sogar zur Resignation gibt, entscheide ich mich zu Beginn dieses neuen Jahres für Hoffnung anstatt Verzweiflung. Möge jede(r) von uns in unsererem kleinen Kreis tätig werden, um diese im Universum einmalige, mit Wundern gefüllte Sphäre zu erhalten, die unser einziges Zuhause ist.

A Child of Nebraska’s Sandhills

One of my favorite American writers, Willa Cather (1873-1947), put Nebraska on the literary map when she immortalized the state in several novels. I have previously reported on our literary pilgrimage to her childhood home. Thanks to my husband, who has read several books by a second Nebraska author, our recent visit to our neighboring state also included a second literary pilgrimage.

Mari Sandoz (1886-1966) was a daughter of Nebraska’s Sandhills. She grew up on an isolated homestead along the Niobrara River until the age of fourteen, when her parents moved the family to a second homestead, even more remote than the first. Her formal education ended after eighth grade, but she was a determined autodidact and lifelong learner. Following a brief marriage and divorce, she moved to Nebraska’s capital, Lincoln, at the age of twenty-two, where she spent many years, similar to Willa Cather. In another parallel, both women left Nebraska for the lure of New York.

Mari loved to write even as a child, but her parents not only discouraged her passion, they even punished her for it. When she won a prize for one of her short story submissions at the tender age of twelve, her father, Jules, a stern, opinionated, and violent man who considered writers “the maggots of society,” beat her badly, a treatment she had to endure throughout childhood. Undeterred, she continued to compose in secret, until she lived on her own. In Lincoln, while working as a teacher, she also attended classes at university, despite the lack of a high school education. And she wrote, submitted manuscripts, and suffered rejection after rejection. Reportedly, she burned seventy-plus manuscripts in 1933, before she moved back to the homestead after her father’s death, to live with her mother. Two years later, the publication of her first novel, Old Jules, ironically based on her complicated relationship with her father, was a career-turner, and the associated $5,000 award afforded her the freedom to write full-time thereafter.

Her canon includes at least twenty-one major works of fiction, non-fiction, biography, and essays, and many of her books are still in print. One of the benefits of her upbringing was exposure to Native Americans who lived in the vicinity, visited and exchanged stories with her father to which she was privy, and which caused a deep and abiding interest in and concern for the fate of the Indians. Many of her works deal with their history, such as Crazy Horse and Cheyenne Autumn. She was sympathetic to their situation, outraged at their mistreatment, and concerned for their future on reservations, and became an outspoken (outwritten) American Indian Advocate.

A selection of Mari Sandoz’s publications

Several critics faulted Mari for taking liberty with history. Even though many agreed that her writing was based on actual, well-researched facts, she was censured for inventing dialogue and details to fill in the blanks; for creating overly sympathetic characters; for being exceedingly enamored with the Indian subjects of her stories. Her detractors might have reflected the unwillingness of a country to deal with a black stain in its history.

Chadron State College in Chadron, about twenty miles east of Fort Robinson, houses the Mari Sandoz High Plains Heritage Center, one of our destinations during our recent trip to Nebraska. It is a fitting tribute to one of the state’s exceptional daughters, offering an honest evaluation of her life and accomplishments, but also of the controversy regarding her critical reception.

To enlarge a photo, click on it. To read its caption, hover the cursor over it.

We finished our pilgrimage by driving through the Sandhill country of Mari’s girlhood, passing near the site of the first homestead, then spending a few hours in the neighborhood of the family’s second home, which also became Mari’s final resting place.

As we sat on a bench next to her grave, overlooking the wide valley where bison and Indians once tread, where settlers put down roots, where Mari developed her talents in secrecy, where her mortal remains have mingled with Nebraska’s soil, where a gentle breeze caressed the green hills, we recalled one of the quotes highlighted at the museum: “Mari had a talent – a talent for catching and bringing to life the stories that blew across the plains like the everpresent and enigmatic wind.”

A Bloomer Girl on Pike’s Peak

To be called a “Bloomer Girl” was not a compliment in polite society. According to Victorian mores, proper clothing for proper women equaled an ankle-length skirt, regardless of its impracticality for many activities. “Bloomer Girls” donned dresses that reached slightly below the knee and were worn over a pair of billowing, loose-fitting pantaloons – a scandal. Even though she did not design the outfit, it was named after Amelia Bloomer (1818-1894), one of the early proponents of women’s suffrage, and an advocate for dress reform. Women who donned these progressive garments protested society’s arbitrary norms and typically supported the early feminist organizations and their goals of equality, and the right to vote.

“Reform Dress” or “Bloomer”. Illustration from A Bloomer Girl on Pike’s Peak.

The title of this post originates from a book I recently discovered. Published by the Denver Library District in 1949, A Bloomer Girl on Pike’s Peak refers to Julia Anna Archibald Holmes (1838-1887). Born in Canada, she moved to Massachusetts at age 10, and to Kansas in the mid-1850s, where her abolitionist family was part of the movement that settled the state to prevent it from becoming pro-slavery. They helped found the town of Lawrence where she met James Holmes, a fellow abolitionist, and, furthermore, a member of John Brown’s Free State Rangers. Julia married him in the fall of 1857, when she was 18. After the discovery of gold in Colorado the following year, the couple joined the Lawrence Party in June 1858, among the earliest hopeful gold seekers. Crossing the Great Plains in covered wagons and on foot, they arrived at the base of Pike’s Peak about one month later and set up camp near the future Garden of the Gods.

Half a century earlier, in 1806, Captain Zebulon Montgomery Pike had led the first U.S. government expedition to the region acquired in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. While searching for the source of the Arkansas River, he saw and approached a tall mountain in the distance, but was prevented from its ascent by November’s inhospitable conditions. In his journal, he expressed the conviction, that “no man could have ascended to its pinnacle.” On August 5, 1858, however, Julia and her husband summited, and Julia is generally presumed to have been the first white woman to stand on top of the 14,115 foot mountain named after Pike years after his death. Ironically, she did so wearing her Bloomer dress which facilitated her journey, whereas Pike and his men were prevented not only by snow, but also by their inadequate summer uniforms.

Julia kept a journal, and even though it has been lost, letters to her family as well as articles written for women’s magazines have survived and provide insight into her adventures. They form the core of The Bloomer Girl on Pike’s Peak. The following are quotes from the book.

We were now fairly launched on the waving prairie. A person who has beheld neither the ocean nor the great, silent, uninhabited plains, will find it impossible to form an adequate idea of the grandeur of the scene. With the blue sky overhead, the endless variety of flowers under foot, it seemed that the ocean’s solitude had united with all the landscape beauties. (page 15)

I commenced the journey with a firm determination to learn to walk. At first I could not walk over three or four miles without feeling quite weary, but by persevering and walking as far as I could every day, my capacity increased gradually, and in the course of a few weeks I could walk ten miles in the most sultry weather without being exhausted. Believing, as I do, in the right of woman to equal privileges with man, I think that when it is in our power we should, in order to promote our own independence, at least, be willing to share the hardships which commonly fall to the lot of man. (page 20)

I have accomplished the task which I marked out for myself and now I feel amply repaid for all my toil and fatigue. Nearly every one 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. In all probability I am the first woman who has ever stood upon the summit of this mountain and gazed upon this wondrous scene, which my eyes now behold. (page 39)

Modern-day view from the summit of Pike’s Peak

When gold proved elusive, Julia and her husband moved to New Mexico for a number of years. Of their four children, two died. Julia was granted a divorce in 1870, probably as a consequence of domestic abuse and adultery. She made Washington, D.C. her permanent home where she remained active in the suffrage movement and worked for the US Government until her death at the age of 49. I have not been able to establish the cause of death. The portrait above shows Julia at about 32, when she left her husband. Does anyone else think she bears an uncanny resemblance to Julia Roberts?

“America’s Mountain” reminds me regularly of the eventful and accomplished life of “A Bloomer Girl on Pike’s Peak”, the progressive, abolitionist, suffragist, writer, and first known female to scale its steep summit.

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https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2017/10/12/eine-bloomer-frau-auf-pikes-peak/

The Original Helen Hunt

Out-of-town visitors to Colorado Springs regularly think of the present-day Hollywood actress when Helen Hunt’s name comes up during my tours as a volunteer docent at the Pioneers Museum. Both share a name and a relationship to California, but Helen Hunt, the First (1830-1885), was a pioneering woman and writer during our town’s infancy, in the latter half of the 19th century. Her initial impressions were inauspicious. “I shall never forget my sudden sense of hopeless disappointment at the moment when I first looked on the town. There stretched before me, to the east, a bleak, bare, unrelieved desolate plain. There rose behind me, to the west, a dark range of mountains, snow-topped, rocky-walled, stern, cruel, relentless. Between lay the town-small, straight, new, treeless. One might die of such a place alone.” No chamber of commerce would advertise these words on its banner. It is ironic that Colorado Springs did, in time, pride itself of the person who expressed them and name the popular waterfalls in North Cheyenne Cañon after her.

Helen Hunt Falls in North Cheyenne Cañon

Helen Hunt, née Fiske, was 43 years old in November 1873 when she suffered these somber sensations after a cross-country train journey across the flat, monochromatic Great Plains from her home in Massachusetts to Colorado. Knowing about her past life, they are understandable. Motherless since age 13, fatherless since 16, she had lost her 11 month-old son Murray at 23, her 42 year-old husband Edward B. Hunt when she was 32, and her nine year-old son Warren at 34. Ill at heart and ill in body, she came at the behest of her physician, who recommended a change of scenery for a chronic respiratory condition. Before the antibiotic era, Colorado, by virtue of its healthy climate, was among the premiere destinations for health seekers suffering from consumption. During a period of frequent misdiagnosis, Helen might have been afflicted by tuberculosis, but officially it was asthma.

Fortunately for the burgeoning community at the foot of Pikes Peak, founded only two years prior, the dry air of the mountains did, indeed, benefit her health, while their beauty lifted her spirits. Helen decided to stay, after a complete reversal of her earlier attitude. In an essay about her new home in the New York Independent in August 1874, less than a year after her arrival, she reflected, “To-day I say, one could almost live on such a place alone.” “Almost” because she continued to love and pursue travel.

While mourning in Massachusetts, Helen Hunt had started to compose and publish poetry. Once she voyaged abroad, travelogues ensued. Her circle of friends in New England included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Emily Dickinson. Helen encouraged Emily to publish  her poems – but she only a allowed a few to appear anonymously during her lifetime, while the bulk of her prolific rhymes were published posthumously. Once settled in Colorado, Helen added novelist to her résumé. She belonged to an elite group of women authors able to make a living from their craft.

Colorado Springs, designed on a drawing board and in an early state of growth, did not yet offer many accommodations. Helen resided at the Colorado Springs Hotel, the settlement’s earliest, where she met fellow boarder William Sharpless Jackson. He was secretary and treasurer of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad which, like Colorado Springs, had been founded by General William Jackson Palmer. Helen and Mr. Jackson’s friendship led to marriage in 1875.

Four years later, a lecture by Ponca Chief Standing Bear altered the course of Helen’s few remaining years. She researched the mistreatment of the Indians and became an outraged and outspoken activist on their behalf. In 1881, she distributed her critical treatise, A Century of Dishonor, to members of Congress. Though it remained largely unnoticed, it led to an assignment by Century Magazine to explore the situation of the Indians of the former Spanish missions in Southern California. She subsequently managed to have herself appointed a special agent by the Commissioner for Indian Affairs, and described the Indians’ pitiable living conditions and prospects. Her experiences also moved her to fictionalize their predicament. In a May 2, 1883 letter to the editor of the Atlantic Monthly she articulated her ambitions thus, “If I could write a story that would do for the Indians a thousandth part what Uncle Tom’s Cabin did for the Negro, I would be thankful for the rest of my life.”

In her novel Ramona, feverishly written in four months, and published in 1884, she conveyed her indignation. A tragedy about the ill-fated love between an American Indian man and a mixed-race Indian-Scottish woman, raised as an orphan by a family of Spanish-Mexican heritage, it delves into the racial prejudices and abuses suffered by the Indians of the Catholic missions in the former Mexican territory of California which was ceded to the United States after the Mexican-American War (1846-1848).

While the extent to which Helen Hunt’s reporting effected Indian policy reforms has been difficult to quantify, her novel Ramona became a literary bestseller. It has been in print since 1884, adapted for multiple film versions, and, since 1923, performed annually as a drama at the Ramona Pageant in Hemet, California.

Sadly, Helen’s death soon followed the birth of her masterpiece. I sincerely hope that the sale of more than 15,000 copies in the 10 months between its publication and her passing, was gratifying to her. True to her convictions till the end, she beseeched President Grover Cleveland to correct the wrongs inflicted on the Indians from her deathbed in California, where she was trying to recuperate. On August 2, 1885, she succumbed to presumptive stomach cancer at only 54, with William by her side.

Helen loved Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado Springs so much that her husband had remodeled their house to enable her to view it from her chambers. Now he honored her wish and buried her in the mountain’s shadow, at Inspiration Point near Seven Falls, already a tourist attraction in her days. She lay interred under a growing mound of rocks, lovingly placed by the hands of her many fans who pilgrimaged to the site.

Helen Hunt’s former resting place near Inspiration Point (with the wrong year of birth)

View of modern-day Colorado Springs from Helen Hunt’s former resting place near Inspiration Point

Eventually, she was relocated to the Jackson family plot at Evergreen Cemetery. It is consoling for her acolytes to know that her grave is the one closest to, and with a direct view of the mountain she so cherished.

Helen Hunt’s resting place at Evergreen Cemetery, with a view of Cheyenne Mountain

When the city acquired the Jackson property in 1961 and the house was slated for demolition, the family donated portions of her domicile to the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum, which showcases four of Helen’s original rooms and furnishings in a permanent exhibition.

Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum

Portions of Helen Hunt’s dining room and library in the preserved rooms at the museum

Helen Hunt Jackson occupies a special place among the early citizens of Colorado Springs. Her indomitable spirit allowed her to overcome one blow of fate after another, and her American Indian activism was unusual for a woman of her era and social standing. In our local historic universe, she shines as one of the brightest stars.

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https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2017/07/13/die-ursprungliche-helen-hunt/

Helen Hunt’s portrait came from a photograph I took of a postcard issued by the Pikes Peak Library District. Photographer and date unknown.