Isabella Bird, Rocky Mountain Explorer

Isabella BirdIf I asked you to name some explorers, how many could you name? Now, let’s say you’re on a game show trying to win a trip around the world and a lifetime supply of Rice-a-Roni. Get to it! It’s the “Lightning Round” and the clock is ticking. There’s Magellan, da Gama, Columbus, Ponce de Leon, Lewis and Clark . . .now, quick, name female explorers! If the only name on your list is Dora the Explorer, you’re never going to make it to Rice-A-Roni territory. For that, you’re going to have to offer up a more unexpected name. Howzabout Isabella Bird?

The Early Bird

Isabella Bird was born in England, in 1831. She was as sickly as a character from a Dickens novel, but she had a hankering to see the world. When she was 22-years-old, her doctor suggested that to help her health, she should take an ocean voyage. Hmm… Allrighty then. I confess that I got a little hung up on this point because it was 1854 and we weren’t exactly talking about taking a cruise on The Love Boat, sipping drinks with little umbrellas in them on the Lido Deck. It was a good deal more “rustic” back then! But, hey, I’m not a 19th century doctor, so perhaps that was a perfectly logical suggestion. Isabella’s father presented her with £100 and quite literally shipped her off to stay with relatives in America, for as long as her money lasted.

Isabella Bird travelsThe doctor must have known what he was talking about because Isabella did seem to forget about her health woes during her travels. She sailed across the ocean blue to the shores of Canada before traveling on to the Eastern and Midwestern U.S. Isabella broke the protocol of the day by traveling without an escort. Gasp! That was pretty scandalous. But she enjoyed meeting people and loneliness was not an issue. Plus, there were those American relatives to visit.

Free as a Bird

Isabella BirdIsabella really did seem to flourish during her travels. Travel seemed to be just the tonic she needed. It’s interesting to note that many girls of the time were “a might puny”. I have often wondered if this is because they were just plain bored out of their minds! It’s not that needlepoint and writing correspondence weren’t fine pastimes, but some girls needed more.

The Englishwoman in AmericaWhen her cash ran out, Isabella returned to England, but she didn’t return to needlepoint and letter writing. She wrote a book! An Englishwoman in America was published in 1856 and was a smashing success. The caged bird was free and she was not going back in the cage!

Over the next few years, Isabella made multiple trips to Scotland and wrote several magazine articles. She found a cause! She became a champion for Scottish crofters (tenant farmers, similar to U.S. sharecroppers). She wrote articles about the plight of the crofters and used the money she made to help crofters emigrate to the U.S.

Bird’s Eye View

Isabella Bird in her Hawaiian Riding DressWhenever Isabella spent too much time in England, her poor health would return. So, in 1872, she decided to travel to Australia. From there, she went to Hawaii. It’s funny to think that the woman who was traveling for her health managed to climb an active volcano, in Hawaii! She published the details of that trip in the book, The Hawaiian Archipelago.

Now, you might be thinking to yourself, “Hey, Anita, I thought you said she was an explorer! Perhaps you need to look up the difference between ‘explorer’ and ‘traveler’.” Patience please, I’m getting there. I’m just taking the scenic route!

Isabella Bird on HorseIn 1873, Isabella, once again, arrived in the United States. This time, she traveled to California and took a trip on the Transcontinental Railroad. She stopped off in Truckee because she wanted to see Lake Tahoe. She rented a horse and set off in the general direction of Lake Tahoe, but enroute, a bear spooked her horse. The horse didn’t stick around to check on her, so Isabella had to walk back to Truckee.

Things like that didn’t get a woman like Isabella down. Although she didn’t make it to Lake Tahoe, she did what my GPS would suggest . . . she began “recalculating!” She took the train to Cheyenne, Wyoming and then took another train to Greeley, Colorado. It was in Colorado where she really crossed over from traveler to explorer.

While in Colorado, she met up with a mountain man named Jim Nugent, otherwise known as Rocky Mountain Jim. Anytime a 19th century woman selected a companion with a name like Rocky Mountain Jim, it was a safe bet that she was in for an adventure!

Birds of a Feather

Together, Isabella and Rocky Mountain Jim set off to explore, starting off with Estes Park. With Nugent’s help, the little Bird climbed all the way to the top of Long’s Peak! This is another one of those times when I find myself wishing that there had been cell phone cameras in the 1870s. (Yes, believe it or not, this is not the first time I have wished I could see a selfie of someone from the 1870s!) Goodness!

Rocky MountainsRocky Mountain Jim fell in love with the lady Bird, but she wasn’t interested in pursuing a future with her traveling companion. As she wrote to her sister, “He is kind of man any woman might love, but no sane woman would marry.” A few years later, Nugent was involved in a quarrel that ended with a gunshot and his death.

Bye-Bye Birdie

A Lady’s Life in the Rocky MountainsIn 1879, Isabella’s book, A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains was published. All told, there were seven editions printed, but the book’s immense popularity wasn’t surprising. It allowed women all over the world, whose days were occupied with needlepoint and writing correspondence, to read about the adventures of a real, honest-to-goodness, lady explorer. It was better than a lifetime supply of Rice-a-Roni!

Isabella went on to travel to all corners of the globe, and to write about those explorations as well. The list is astonishing: Japan, China, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, India, Tibet, Persia, Kurdistan, Turkey, Iran, China, Korea and Morocco. She was the first woman ever to be inducted into the Royal Geographical Society. Her American explorations were very much just the tip of the iceberg!

Learn a bit more about the remarkable explorer Isabella Bird in this documentary from the National Library of Scotland:

Happy Trails, y’all!
Anita Lequoia

8 Replies to “Isabella Bird, Rocky Mountain Explorer”

  1. I first hear of Isabella Bird about 5 years ago and was quite impressed. It’s hard to imaging climbing up the Rockies or a volcano in the shoes and dress of her day. I’ve been wanting to read some of her books but haven’t gotten to it yet. Have you read any of them Anita?

    1. Hi Carole, yes it boggles the mind to think of all Isabella accomplished in her lifetime, and did it all in long skirts and heels! I did read “A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains”, and I think you’d really enjoy it!

  2. As a Tahoe area writer I enjoyed reading about Isabella’s adventures in Tahoe and Truckee…and I can assure you that while her description of Tahoe sounds a bit embellished, she certainly did visit the lake.

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