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

This week concludes the story of Nancie Colburn Hartford and her husband, Miles, whom we met in Part I and Part II. Their letters can be found in the Shaw-Webb Family Papers.

Although westward expansion and the ensuing spread of slavery is often cited as a leading cause of the Civil War, the experiences of those living outside of the official states and most contentious areas of the territories during the war are often overlooked. What did it mean to be living out the war in a western U.S. territory? How did the war affect these settlements, politically, economically, socially?


Despite their relative geographic remoteness, Nancie and Miles were well aware of the tension boiling between the North and South. In a letter to her mother dated November 29, 1860, Nancie noted, “It seems that ‘Honest Old Abe’ is really elected! at least that is the news, which has come here. I hope it is so.” In May 1861, only a month after the outbreak of fighting, she wrote to her mother that, while her “same old rote Business still continues dull,” the “War in the States will affect us here, very much. There is scarcely any emigration…Is there much excitement in Maine, in regard to the war? I hear nothing else.”

The reason for such interest in the war in the territories soon becomes plain, as Nancie explains that “There are men here from every state in the Union, the hot headed Southerner & the most firm Abolitionist, – are constantly thrown together, in business, and they keep the subject agitated.” The nature of a territory—and a mining camp—meant that settlers from every part of the United States and beyond came pouring in seeking land, fortune, and a new life. Rather than leave their politics back home, they simply brought them into a situation in which they were in much closer quarters with their opponents.

"Map of Utah and Colordo, Drawn by Order of Lieut. Genl. W. T. Sherman," 1869
“Map of Utah and Colorado, Drawn by Order of Lieut. Genl. W. T. Sherman,” 1869

For her own part, although pro-Lincoln and pro-Union, Nancie generally held a no-nonsense attitude toward the war. “I hope the South will get a good whipping, for being so foolish,” she wrote simply the month after Fort Sumter. Whereas women “back in the states” were often preoccupied with army movements, casualty lists, and helping the war and antislavery efforts, Nancie’s biggest concerns were more directly related to being located outside of the United States. Within just a few months of the start of the war, and about a year after her arrival in Colorado (which officially became its own territory in February 1861), Nancie became increasingly anxious about being able to return home as they had planned. Money was so scarce in August 1861, claimed Nancy, that “If it was not for the war, there would be a general stampede for the states, but as it is we are better off here.” Besides, she had other more immediate reasons for staying: “I don’t wish to go home until the war is over, if it does not last too long, for I am afraid Miles would have to go in the army.”

Detail of "Map of Utah and Colorado" showing Pike's Peak, the horseshoe-shaped mountain below the "R" in Colorado.
Detail of “Map of Utah and Colorado” showing Pike’s Peak, the horseshoe-shaped mountain below the “R” in Colorado.

In addition to the fear of enlistment (and later the draft), travel had also become extremely difficult. “It is very dangerous travelling, now while they are burning bridges &. committing depredations the way they are in Missouri & the adjoining states – I hope there will be no trouble in Kansas…I want to see you all so much it seems sometimes that I cannot wait,” she wrote in November 1861. Furthermore, it was becoming increasingly difficult to cross borders: “how many many precious lives will be lost in this war, it is sad to think of. There are a great many southern men here who cannot get home. They have families in the south and are very anxious to go home, but dare not start, you know that a southron is not allowed to pass the line to go south, without being stripped of their arms & money. It seems a little tight, but I think it is right. They are getting their pay in their own coin.”

Although members of Nancie’s family seemed to realize the enormity of the conflict (“You say Father says he is afraid the war will last a long time. Tell him if it does we shall come home before it closes, if possible”), Nancie herself, like so many others, didn’t believe it was possible. “I am in hopes the war will close by another summer,” she wrote in the fall of 1861. “I don’t see how it can last any longer.”

Unfortunately for Nancie, it obviously did not come to a quick close, and it’s difficult to read her letters relentlessly expressing her wish to return home to Maine so she can see her family and have them meet her baby. Sometime in the fall of 1862, she, Miles, and the baby moved to Missouri City, where Miles spent his time as a teamster and dairy farmer. Her last surviving letter, written to her mother, is dated July 12, 1863, and hints that there is soon to be another child.

Letter from Miles Hartford to Nancie's mother, June 26, 1864.
Letter from Miles Hartford to Nancie’s mother, June 26, 1864.

What happened in the intervening year is unclear, but a letter from Central City dated June 26, 1864, from Miles to Nancie’s mother, tells the heartbreaking end of Nancie’s story. “My Dear sweet Wife has been taken from me by death, my loss is hard to bare it is all I can stand under to be left a lone in a country like this, with two little children to take care of….I expect to be at home [in Maine] in November with the children and Nancy’s remains, she died very unexpected to her self and to me.” Nancie’s particular malady is never identified, but it affected her lungs and constricted her ability to breathe. “I could not eat any thing, but gruel for four days after her death,” wrote Miles. “Her children are all I have left that is any comfort to me them I love with all my heart.” The apparent penmanship practice visible under the scribble on the back of Miles’s letter—possibly written at a later date by the children (the older child was only two at the time of its writing)—serves as a reminder of a family life unexpectedly shattered.

Miles did eventually make it back to Maine with the children, and the oldest child, Evelyn (called Evie), married Jahaziah Shaw Webb of Bangor, Maine, in 1881. One of Evelyn’s daughters, Anna Leonard Webb Sinclair, donated these letters to AAS in August 1955.

It’s a cruel irony that Nancie was able to keep Miles out of the army and safe from harm, but nonetheless felt the war’s tragic effects. In some ways, though, it is exactly this irony that makes her story of early marriage, frontier-living, and war so powerful. Her perspective is rooted in both timeless truths of humanity and the history of a specific time and place, a combination that so often makes for the best historical stories.

Published by

Kayla Haveles

Outreach Coordinator, American Antiquarian Society

6 thoughts on “The Life and Times of a Miner’s Wife: Part III”

  1. Not very happy with Nancie’s demise but a great story told well!
    Thanks for a great example of how live’s lived in different times often still have the same basic factors – love, lust for adventure, dreams and sometimes tragedy.

    1. I was equally not happy with Nancie’s demise! Getting through that whole folder of wonderful letters only to come to her husband’s after her death was quite sad. But thank you so much for the kind words, and I’m so glad you found Nancie’s story as compelling as I did.

  2. I loved reading these very touching letters. How wonderful that a family preserved them and passed them along to AAS for safe keeping.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed reading them, Beth! And yes, even the story of how they came to us is a reminder of the important work AAS does – so that we can enjoy and learn from them generations later!

  3. What a fantastic series of posts on these letters! I appreciate in particular this final piece on the Civil War in the western territories, a theater of war that does not receive much attention in Civil War studies. I will definitely come to AAS to read through these letters (and to see the Mathews lithographs in person) later in the fall. Does the AAS have other manuscripts and graphics from Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona produced during the 1860s?

    1. Thank you, Megan! I’m so glad that you enjoyed reading them and that you plan on coming to check them (and the Mathews images) out in the fall. AAS does have a few other manuscripts from the area, although our manuscript collection, unlike the other collections, tends to focus largely on New England rather than the entire nation. But you may want to take a look at the Hiram S. Rumfield letters, 1849-1866, the Brooks Family papers, and some of the Charles Sumner papers. There are also several images from these areas, although I think you’ll find many of them from the 1850s and 1870s as well. I hope this helps and feel free to ask the reference staff in the library for more hints when you come!

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