Dateline 1858: First Anglo Woman to Climb Pikes Peak
Julia Archibald Holmes, the first Anglo woman to climb Pikes Peak, was born in Nova Scotia, Canada, in 1838.
On August 5, 1858, 160 years ago this year, 20-year-old Julia Archibald Holmes reached the airy 14,115-foot-high summit of Pikes Peak, perhaps America's most famous mountain. On that clear day, Miss Holmes became the first recorded woman to climb the great Peak and also the first known woman to climb a Fourteener or 14,000-foot mountain in Colorado. It wasn’t for another 23 years that another Anglo woman climbed a Fourteener.
It's important to remember, of course, that Native American women undoubtedly trekked to the top of Pikes Peak and other Colorado Fourteeners but their feats were never recorded.
First Glimpse of Pikes Peak
The newlywed Holmes, originally an immigrant from Nova Scotia in Canada, ascended Pikes Peak over several days with James Holmes, her new husband, and a couple other miners, J.D. Miller and George Peck. The group, headed for the newly discovered Central City goldfields west of Denver, had trudged 500 miles west across the Great Plains from Lawrence, Kansas.
Holmes first saw Pikes Peak on June 28, 1858 near Bent’s Fort, a Santa Fe Trail trading post along the Arkansas River in southeastern Colorado. Excited by her first glimpse of the distant mountain, she wrote, “This day we obtained the first view of the summit of the Peak, now some seventy miles away. As all expected to find precious treasure near this wonderful Peak, it is not strange that our eyes were often strained by gazing on it. The summit appeared majestic in the distance, crowned with glistening white.”
Holmes Wears Bloomers
The party traveled northwest and encamped at today’s Manitou Springs below Pikes Peak. To climb the peak, Holmes, a women’s rights advocate, wore Bloomers. This scandalous outfit, a symbol of women’s liberation in the 1850s like the burning of the bra was in the 1970s, was named for Amelia Bloomer, another activist who urged women to wear a short skirt over a pair of loose trousers or “Bloomers.” Besides her billowing Bloomers and a skirt, Julia also wore moccasins and a hat, dubbing the outfit her “American costume.”
View from the Summit
On that dazzlingly clear August day, the young woman sat, read poetry by Ralph Waldo Emerson, and wrote several letters, using a flat slab of granite as her desk. Julia Holmes wrote to her mother: “Extending as far as the eye can reach, lie the great level plains, stretched out in all their verdure and beauty, while the winding of the grand Arkansas is visible for many miles.” She also noted, “Nearly everyone tried to discourage me from attempting it, but I believed I should succeed; and now, here I am, and feel that I would not have missed this glorious sight for anything at all.”
Holmes Divorces Abusive Husband
After climbing Pikes Peak, Julie Archibald Holmes and her husband kicked around Colorado but he didn't find a mother lode of gold so they walked south to Taos, New Mexico where they lived for several years before moving to Washington D.C. with their two daughters Phoebe and June.
Despite what seems like a carefree life, traveling about the West and climbing Pikes Peak, Julia was tormented and abused by her husband for years before she divorced him in 1871 for "wife beating" and whipping.
History books and articles seemingly ignore this part of Julia Archibald's life. One article simply said that "Her marriage was an unhappy one" and the Colorado Women's Hall of Fame article about Ms. Holmes called her "a single working mother." The abuse she eventually escaped is, however, an important part of her inspirational story.
A news article in the Daily National Republican on October 13, 1871 related court documents that told a desperate tale of "whippings and habitual .tyranny," "neglect and total abandonment for months at a time," and being "knocked down by her husband and pounded while prostrate on the floor, the villain kneeling on her stomach." Mr. Holmes also imported a "concubine" from New York, who lived in their house and also "persecuted her younger unmarried sister with his lecherous proposals...."
The court affidavit filed by Julia A. Holmes says that "for three or four years past she has experienced very cruel and abusive treatment from her said husband and that in consequence of his violence towards her she has believed her life to be in danger."
Another affidavit filed by Miss M.C. O’Brien says that she "found Mrs. Holmes and her children almost destitute of food, fuel and clothing, having nothing to eat but corn bread; that to her personal knowledge Mrs. Holmes and her children remained in this condition for months, while Mr. Holmes was living in idleness and refusing to get a situation as a clerk...." She also said that Mrs. Holmes told her that she feared that "her husband would murder her."
The divorce was granted.
Holmes became a Suffragette
After getting her life back after those years of abuse, Julia Archibald Holmes became a reformer, slave abolitionist, and suffragette for women’s rights. She worked as the first woman member of the Bureau of Education and eventually became the chief of the Spanish Correspondence Division. She also worked for the National Woman Suffrage Association, was friends with famed suffragette Susan B. Anthony, and attempted to register to vote in 1871.
Women Allowed to Vote in Colorado in 1893
Colorado, like most of the Rocky Mountain states, was ahead of the curve on women's voting rights. The Wyoming Territory allowed women to vote in 1869, followed by the Utah Territory in 1870 and Washington Territory in 1883. In 1870, Colorado Territorial Governor Edward McCook recommended that women be given the vote but the legislature rejected his proposal. It wasn't until November 7, 1893 that women won the right to vote in Colorado.
Holmes Died in 1887
Julia Archibald Holmes would have been happy to see the women's vote come to Colorado if she was still alive in 1893, but she had died on January 9, 1887 at age 48 in Washington D.C. She was buried in Oak Hill Cemetery next to her younger sister June, who passed three years previously.
Julia, inducted in the Colorado's Women's Hall of Fame in 2014, began her quest for justice and equality with her landmark ascent up Pikes Peak.
Moonset behind Pikes Peak on a spring morning. Photo @ Stewart M. Green