Isabella Bird Bishop was feminine, dressed in women’s clothes and rode side saddle (only in town). She also was an experienced traveler who wasn’t afraid of anything or anyplace. Miss Bird, as many called her, was a world traveler, but I have been especially interested in her travels in the Rockies in the 1870s, in part because it was here that she met her “dearest desperado,” who was the love of her life.
Isabella is probably the best-known woman adventurer, next to Gertrude Bell. I talk to people about the Women Adventurers series, they will often mention her. This article focuses on her trip to the Rockies in 1873, with a focus on her travels in the mountains and her relationship with Jim Nugent.
Isabella’s Early Life
Isabella Bird was born in Yorkshire, England, on October 15, 1891. Her father was a clergyman who had trouble keeping a position, so they moved often. From childhood, she was frail, with spinal issues, nervous headaches, and insomnia. Because of her illnesses, she was taught at home. A fibrous tumor was removed from her spine, but she still continued to have problems, and the family spent summers in Scotland to see if it would improve her health.
She was an outspoken child, bright, curious, and a great reader. Her father taught her botany and she enjoyed looking for specimens on her travels.
Isabelle’s first trip was a family trip to the U.S. in 1854, and her letters back home were the basis for her first book, An Englishwoman in America (1856). The book was well received and she was on her way to becoming a celebrity.
Off to the Rockies
In 1872 Isabella started a long journey. She found that travel invigorated her; she wasn’t prone to seasickness and she enjoyed much better health when she was traveling.
This trip began in Australia (which she disliked) and New Zealand (she liked it), and then she went to the U.S, with the aim of seeing the Rocky Mountains.
On her way to Estes Park, she stayed with two couples, and her time with them reveals the types of people who were living in Colorado in the 1870s. The first couple, the Chalmers family from Illinois, were “in all ways hard.” In A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains, Isabella described their faces “like granite,” their meanness, suspicion and ill humor.
They were also “simply incompetent.” When Mr. Chalmers offered to lead her to Estes Park, she had clear evidence of this: On the way, their horses took off because he forgot to tether them. And he lost his way and couldn’t find the trail; he even forgot the way home! Isabella, of course, took charge.
She also stayed with the Hutchinsons, a “more agreeable” young doctor and his wife. They were from Britain and not used to the ways of rough citizens of Colorado. The settlers “shamelessly” cheated them and they had no farming or domestic skills. Isabella again took charge.
Isabella was at her best and healthiest when traveling, and she was “enchanted” with the mountains, with the brisk air and beautiful scenery.
Isabelle and Jim Nugent
When Isabelle reached Estes Park in 1873, she saw a “rude black log cabin” with a dog out front and “a broad thickset man, about middle height. He wore an old cap, a ragged hunting-suit, and mocassins on his feet. He had only one eye and “‘Desperado’ was written in large letters all over him.” * He actually kicked the dog as he raised his cap. This was Jim Nugent, “Rocky Mountain Jim, AKA “The Mountainous One” “because of the extraordinary altitude of his lies.”
But she was shocked when he began to speak, because, she said, his manner was that of a chivalrous gentleman, “easy and elegant” and cultured. “I hope you will allow me the pleasure of calling on you,” he said to her.
I wasn’t surprised to hear he was Irish, born in Canada; this was a complex man. He had run away from home because he couldn’t marry his first love. He had been a fur trapper and Indian scout (he was about 45) and he did trapping and guiding and stock raising to get money to spend on “orgies of drunkenness and ruffianism.” But he also wrote poetry and was vain about his reputation. He was gentle and children adored him.
He offered to guide her through Estes Park and a spark was quickly lit in their relationship as they traveled and talked. She said Jim was “cultured, erudite, delightful.”
The description of their attempt to climb Long’s Peak (14,700 ft) was comical. Picture Isabelle, who described herself as a “short, plump, devout, high-minded English spinster of over forty…” (she was 45) in cumbersome Victorian dress and petticoats. She wanted to prove her bravery and courage by climbing the mountain, but her physical state wasn’t up to the challenge. She had to be “half-dragged” by Jim to the summit, as he tied her to himself and basically climbed with her on his shoulders. At times she crawled on her hands and feet.
Toward the summit, the last 500 feet was a “perpendicular crawl up a smooth cracked face of pink granite.”
After this adventure, she stayed in a cabin (not the same one where Jim was) and enjoyed his company and that of his friends. She knew she was falling in love with him and didn’t know what to do. So she went on a trip to Denver and Colorado Springs and was able to find her way to the Continental Divide.
She was running out of money and came back to the cabin, where their relationship became more and more complex and “emotionally charged.” She knew, she said, that
“He is a man whom any woman might love but whom no sane woman would marry.”
Although she doesn’t come right out and say it, it appears that he declared his love for her and asked her to marry him. Finally, after a good deal of soul-searching, she wrote to him saying “there can be nothing but constraint between us…It is my wish that our acquaintance should at once terminate. Yours truly, ILB.”
Pat Barr, who recounts this story in A Curious Life for a Lady, suggests that Isabella had a strong sense of self-preservation and her Victorian upbringing wouldn’t let her tie herself permanently to the man she called her “dear ragamuffin desperado.”
She left Colorado to avoid being stuck there all winter. She found out about a year later that he had been killed in a fight.
Somebody should do a movie about this adventure. It reminds me of The African Queen, with Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn, only their story ended more happily. Just for fun sometime, try the original of The African Queen, the book by C.S. Forrester.
Isabella had more adventures in many countries and she did marry a Scottish gentleman who hated traveling. I’ll be writing more about her story in a future article.
* The quotes from this article are by Isabella, quoted in Patt Barr, A Curious Life for a Lady.
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