The Life and Times of a Miner’s Wife: Part I

Detail from "The Miner's Ten Commandments" (California, 1853). Miners doing domestic work in the absence of women.
Detail from “The Miner’s Ten Commandments” (California, 1853). Miners doing domestic work on the Sabbath in the absence of women.

The nineteenth-century gold rushes continue to have a strong hold on the imagination of the American public. Perhaps it’s the promise of wealth or adventure or simply starting a new life. In any case, the gold rushes opened not only new physical and political frontiers for the United States, but also very personal ones for the people who partook in them. And although we usually focus on the miners themselves, theirs were not the only lives transformed by the decision to chase the golden dream—it was also those of their parents, siblings, spouses, children, and friends.

This was certainly the case for one Nancie Colburn Hartford who, in September of 1860, left her home in Maine and headed out west by railroad and stagecoach to meet up with her husband, Miles, who had left for the Pike’s Peak gold rush (located in what would soon become Colorado territory) shortly after they had been married in 1859 or 1860. Once there, Nancie wrote extensively to her mother and sister back in Winterport, Maine, giving us a rare glimpse of what life was like for those women who followed their husbands into the mining camps (or at least those of the post-California years).

Nancie (whose letters can be found in the Shaw-Webb Family Papers, 1756-1936wrote about her journey to the territory, the scenery, her life in a log cabin, the Civil War, and pioneer and mining life in general. Over the course of several years, Nancie’s letters shifted in tone and focus as the enthusiasm of starting a new adventure waned, the complications caused by the Civil War dragged on, and the realities of sustaining a family on the frontier set in. Watching these shifts is what makes these letters so fascinating—and so human.

Nancie’s first letter home to her sister after arrival at Russell’s Gulch.

The most obvious way in which one sees this shift is through Nancie’s attitude toward pioneer life and more specifically what brought them there, mining. In the beginning, as one usually is at the start of a new adventure, Nancie was full of enthusiasm and hope for the future. After being in Colorado a week, she wrote to her sister:

I think you would almost envy us our happiness, it is true we have not many of the luxuries of life, but most certainly we have many comforts. Our house is made of hewn logs, nicely finished. Miles built it all himself it is just as quick as I want, in this country, as we think of making but a temporary stay. We have parlor, sitting room & kitchen, all combined in one, but as there is but two in the family, it answers very well. my work will be light. The neighbors are quite handy & very social, some very fine ladies. I do wish you could see some of the cabins here where there are respectable ladies too just thrown together, without any floor & a piece of canvass hung up for a door…You may think you should be would be homesick to live in this way, but I tell you there is a kind of excitement about it which I like for a while. here Ministers, Doctors, Lawyers, & Mechanics, are all brought on a level & throw aside that formality & reserve, so prevalent in the states…

…I know I shall like here firstrate. every thing is so different from what I expected. I can sit here by the window &. count over twenty houses, all within five minutes walk, besides two Mills, which run night and day. There are meetings every Sabbath a short distance from here, also a school. There is so much novelty and excitement about this kind of life that one can not be lonesome.

Nancie put a positive spin on her situation and was determined to not only enjoy, but also find charm in her new life “roughing it” on the frontier. But of course, the situation was to be temporary.

Just before Christmas 1860, eight weeks after arriving at “the ‘Peak’,” Nancie wrote to her sister lamenting that she had not yet received any letters from home, which made her very anxious, but “I like my Mountain home very much, indeed.” Nonetheless, the beginnings of concerns about making a living on the frontier had already begun to set in. She acknowledged that “This is going to be a hard winter at the Peak, there are a great many who have no money to get home, no money to even buy their food, and cannot get trusted….people expect good times next summer, but this winter money is scarce. & provision high… Miles almost gets the blues sometimes….I tell you this is a hard country to get rich in any one of less pluck than Miles would have left in disgust, but he is all courage he says he does not expect to get rich. but he is bound to get something worth coming for.”

An image of Russell's Gulch, the mining village where Nancie and her husband lived. From "Pencil Sketches of Colorado" by A. E. Mathews, with lithography by Julius Bien. New York, 1866.
An image of Russell’s Gulch, the mining village where Nancie and her husband lived. From “Pencil Sketches of Colorado” by A. E. Mathews, with lithography by Julius Bien. New York, 1866.

Even after spring arrived, she continued to be concerned about money. In May 1861 she told her mother, “I go to walk every morning Miles has gone to work on his claim. it does not pay very well.” Come November, Miles had begun to look for alternative ways to make some money. “Miles commenced mining in the spring,” wrote Nancie, “but had such poor luck that he gave it up in July and commenced teaming, he has three yoke of oxen, now, we laugh considerable about his coming to ‘Pikes Peak’ to drive oxen, but he says anything to make money.”

Description of Russell's Gulch from "Pencil Sketches of Colorado."
Description of Russell’s Gulch from “Pencil Sketches of Colorado,” including a key to the image above.

By the middle of 1862, the Hartfords had managed to create a decent living for themselves by running a dairy farm. They had fourteen cows, which they milked themselves (with the help of a hired boy), and Nancie sometimes churned butter. Nancie could “hardly get time to think, I have so much to do,” but by selling the milk and butter they were “doing pretty well, better than mining.” “You know little about this country by what the papers say,” Nancie wrote to her mother. “There is now & then a claim paying pretty well, but they are rare. Miles says he shall not mine any more in this country.” After two years of constant toil and worry, Miles realized something many miners had realized before him: you make more money at the mines doing something other than mining.

Nancie’s letters can be found in the Shaw-Webb Family Papers, 1756-1936. Next week we’ll take a closer look at the particular challenges women faced on the mining frontier.

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Kayla Haveles

Outreach Coordinator, American Antiquarian Society

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