Hornbek Homestead

No less striking than the buildings that line the road a few miles south of Colorado’s mountain town Florissant, is the picture of their former owner. Taking into account that photographers in the 19th century asked their subjects not to smile, the portrait of Adeline Hornbek, née Warfield (1833-1905), had always inspired respect, even before I knew about her personal challenges and accomplishments.

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

This was no ordinary woman, as her biography attests. Hailing from Massachusetts, she came to Colorado in 1861 with her husband, Simon Harker, and two young children, to seek a cure for his medical ills, presumably tuberculosis. They settled and farmed near the newly-founded Denver, where Adeline became a widow in 1864, not long after the birth of their third child. As a single mother, she raised and provided for her three offspring, purchased her own homestead in 1866, married once again, then bore a fourth child in 1870. Five years later, Elliott Hornbek disappeared, possibly to return to a previous wife back east, whom he had failed to mention to Adeline.

Little is known about the family’s fortunes in the following years, but in 1878, Adeline bought land in the picturesque Florissant Valley, about 35 miles west of Colorado Springs, and became a successful rancher and businesswoman. Instead of a simple dwelling, she commissioned a two-story house from a master craftsman, and added several outbuildings, as well as a root cellar across a meadow, where foodstuffs were kept cool. The proximity of a creek and digging of a well ensured a steady water supply, and the family raised chickens and cattle, and most certainly owned horses for work and transportation. To supplement her income, Adeline worked in the nearby Florissant Mercantile.

The Hornbek parlor was a popular gathering place for friends and neighbors, and Adeline was active on the local school board. At age of 66, she married a third time, Frederick Sticksel, a German immigrant, but did not change her name again. She died at age 72 from probable stroke (“paralysis”).

The Hornbek Homestead was preserved for posterity once the National Park Service acquired the land that is now part of the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument. Adeline’s handsome, restored residence, and several outbuildings that were typical of the era but once stood in different locations, beckon for a visit each time we make the journey up to Florissant. This summer, we first learned about Adeline’s final resting place at Four Mile Cemetery, about five miles from her former home, and paid homage to her by visiting her grave.

Adeline Hornbek, as her photograph suggests, was indeed a formidable woman. Her grit and determination have my full admiration.

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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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.

Click here for the German version/klicken Sie bitte hier für die deutsche Version:

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