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

Last week, we met Nancie Colburn Hartford and her mining husband, Miles, and explored their change in attitude toward mining over the course of a couple of years. This week, we’ll look at a different kind of change: those that so often happen in the life of a woman.

While Miles was navigating the difficulties of mining and exploring alternative options for making a living in Colorado, Nancie was navigating an entirely different set of difficulties.

Throughout her early letters, Nancie took close stock of the social atmosphere of Russell’s Gulch. In her first letter back to Maine describing her surroundings, Nancie mentioned that “The neighbors are quite handy & very social, some very fine ladies.” She went on to mention several by name who had called on her, and in a postscript seemed quite taken aback by the extent to which a cosmopolitan lifestyle was sought after, noting that “We have had several invitations, to attend Balls, since I came, but declined. They are having Balls, quite often. There is a theatre at Mountain City, don’t you think this a fast country.”

This lithograph, which idealizes family life on the frontier, was printed in 1870 by Hunter & Co. of Hinsdale, NH, exclusively for subscribers to their illustrated newspaper.

Among Nancie’s early acquaintances was a “Mrs. Thacher,” a “nice lady formerly of Vermont. her sister is teaching school here.” Two months after her arrival, Nancie went to Central City with Mrs. Thacher and a Mrs. Bensen to do some shopping. She was “really surprised to find so large an assortment, of goods, here. I never saw a better, assortment, in any retail store, &. they ask a good price.” The trip seemed to increase her acquaintance with Mrs. Thatcher, as a few days later she attended a tea party at her house and “had a splendid time. There were about eight ladies present. all very fine ladies – Mrs. Thacher is one of the finest ladies I ever knew. I think so much of her.” Despite the rustic setting and hardships of living in a log cabin in a small village, Nancie had found a comforting social circle to make her adjustment easier.

An image of Central City, the "city" closest to Nancie and where they would take shopping trips. From "Pencil Sketches of Colorado" by A. E. Mathews, with lithography by Julius Bien. New York, 1866.
An image of Central City, the “city” closest to Nancie and where she took shopping trips. Note the well-dressed women sitting on the bluff in the foreground overlooking the city. From “Pencil Sketches of Colorado” by A. E. Mathews, with lithography by Julius Bien. New York, 1866.

Or so she thought.  It turns out that removing oneself from “civilization,” as it were, does not remove one from human nature. About seven months into her settlement, Nancie wrote to her mother that, while she had “some excellent neighbors,” she did not “think quite as much of Mrs Thatcher as I did. She is deceitful as she can be, she has talked about every lady on the Gulch, at the same time pretending to be their friend. I don’t like such friends as that.” It appears that some relationship and personality types don’t change no matter what century or location you’re in.

In addition to dealing with the establishment of female relationships, Nancie, as a newlywed, also began to contemplate starting a family. Writing to her mother on May 26, 1861, Nancie told her that Jennie, her sister, “wished to know if I intended to help populate the mountains.” Nancie’s reply to this question is direct, and rather curious. “I think not,” she wrote. “There will be a plenty besides; &. I think I would rather be excused.” At a time when all married women were expected to produce children, was she truly indifferent to them? Or, even though she had only joined her husband about seven months before, was she beginning to worry that she was not yet pregnant and thus responded defensively?

Of course, there’s no way to know. But what we do know is that by the beginning of November 1861 she had “never had such an appetite in my life,” and in April 1862 she wrote IMG_1722her mother to apologize for not having written earlier, but she had “been very sick indeed, am now better &. able to be about the house. You will probably be some surprised to hear, that I have a little Daughter. but it is even so, she was born the twentieth day of March.” Today, when communication is instant and travel easy and quick, it is hard to imagine a young woman not telling her mother that she is pregnant with her first child, but for Nancie it was a matter of practicality: “I did not say anything to you about it, for I thought it would only worry you for nothing. I have had good care. Miles has done every thing in his power to make me comfortable. (he is a dear good husband) & I had a good Doctor, & Nurse, Mrs. Mitchell, one of my neighbors, took care of me during my sickness, and is with me now.”

Despite her confidence in the care she had received, childbirth away from her family was not an easy experience for Nancie. “My dear Mother,” she wrote, “you can well imagine how much I missed your ever ready hand, while lying on a bed of sickness I never knew what sickness was before, for ten days I was not stirred from the bed. & then Miles had to lift me into a rocking chair, while I had my bed made, but for a few days. I have gained quite fast. am now most well. have got one of the sweetest Babes you ever saw. I know you would love her so if you could see her…I wish I could take her home to you this summer.”

Childrearing without her mother’s ready advice also proved challenging. A few weeks after the letter announcing the baby’s birth, she wrote again saying that the baby was not gaining weight as she should, and that she had been worried. But “Dr. Barber told me he thought my milk did not agree with her & said I had better feed her some with cows milk. I did so, & now she will not nurse a bit. She has not nursed for over a week. I think it is so funny. I have to feed her all the time, I feel in hopes she will grow some now, she grows smart every day.” For Nancie, it seems, approaching hardships with a sense of humor was a key to survival.

Next week, the series will conclude with a look at how the outbreak of the Civil War affected Nancie and those around her.

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Kayla Haveles

Outreach Coordinator, American Antiquarian Society

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