Isabella Bird: living with the cowboys of America’s Wild West

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Nestling into the hillside above Tobermory is a little white cottage that was once the home of Isabella Bird.  A daring explorer, Isabella followed her heart and roamed all over the world during the late 1800s;  she had some hair-raising experiences, and in spite of her occasionally scandalous behaviour, she became a best-selling author and a talented travel photographer.  In the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, she tried her hand at being a cowgirl… and met the love of her life.

Isabella Bird

‘I have just dropped into the very place I have been seeking but in everything it exceeds all my dreams.  I have a log cabin, raised on six posts, all to myself… and a small lake close to it.  There is health in every breath of air…’

When Isabella arrived in a region of Colorado called Estes Park in the autumn of 1873, she was delighted with what she found.  She was travelling alone, which she knew was risky. This was untamed country of fur-trappers, gold prospectors and cattle ranchers.  Arguments were often settled at gunpoint and questions asked later, if at all.  But she had an insatiable curiosity about life and people, and she was an excellent horsewoman.  Within a few days of her arrival, she was comfortably installed in a log cabin on a ranch managed by a Welshman named Griff Evans.

A perceptive judge of character, Isabella soon summed up Griff Evans and his wife as ‘jovial, hearty Welsh people from Llanberis, who laugh with loud, cheery British laughs’, and noted with delight that the whole family, including the children, could sing naturally in harmony.  But Isabella was never one to sit and warm her hands by the fire when there were adventures to be had.  She lost no time in getting herself acquainted with her neighbours, and one of them was a notorious outlaw named Rocky Mountain Jim.  She walked up the valley to find his cabin, where she discovered piles of animal pelts and deer antlers around the door.

‘It mattered not,’ remembered Isabella, ‘that it was the home, or rather den, of a notorious “ruffian” or “desperado”… I longed to speak to some one who loved the mountains.’

When Jim emerged from his cabin, Isabella saw that he was a heavily-built man of about 45, only a few years older than herself.  He wore a ragged hunting suit, and a revolver protruded from his coat pocket.  Isabella’s gaze, however, was riveted on his face.  From one side, he was strikingly handsome; but the other side of his face was horribly disfigured and one eye was missing, the result of a close encounter with a grizzly bear many years ago.  While Isabella hesitated, Jim raised his cap and asked if he could be of assistance.  She asked if she might have a glass of water, and he brought her a drink in a battered tin can.  So began the most unlikely of friendships.

Isabella was always ready for a challenge and set her heart on climbing a 14,200-foot mountain known as Long’s Peak.  She asked Jim to be her guide and they set off on a journey that would take several days.  Sitting around a camp fire in the evenings, they sang, told stories and recited poetry.  Isabella was in her element.  She wrote: ‘The long shadows of the pines lay upon the frosted grass, an aurora leaped fitfully, and the moonlight, though intensely bright, was pale beside the red, leaping flames of our pine logs…’  At the summit of the mountain, Jim and Isabella placed their names in a tin which they secreted into a crevice, and started back down.  They arrived home just days before the winter weather closed in.

Over the next few months, Isabella helped out with the cattle-driving, which involved long and arduous days in the saddle.  Trusting as she was, she slept with a revolver under her pillow.  She developed a fondness for Jim, although he had dark moods and she knew he had a violent past.  She wrote: ‘He made me promise to keep one or two things secret whether he were living or dead, and I promised, for I had no choice;  but they come between me and the sunshine sometimes, and I wake at night to think of them.’

Jim made Isabella a proposal of marriage.  Isabella, heartbroken but adamant, refused.  He was, she admitted, a man whom any woman could love, but no woman could marry.  She knew her stay in Colorado had to come to an end.  Sadly, Jim escorted her out of Estes Park and bade her farewell on her long journey back to Britain.  In July 1874, Isabella received news that Jim had been shot dead in a drunken brawl.

After her Rocky Mountain adventure, Isabella’s career as an explorer, photographer and travel writer took her all over the world, including much of Asia and the Far East.  She was briefly married to a surgeon from Edinburgh named John Bishop, but she was widowed within five years.  Rocky Mountain Jim was undoubtedly the love of her life.  In her book, A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains, Isabella described her time in the Wild West and managed to maintain her reputation as a respectable woman traveller even in the censorious Victorian era.  Travellers, she once said, were allowed to do the most improper things with perfect propriety.

In her later life, Isabella divided her time between her home in Edinburgh and a cottage above the harbour in Tobermory, which she shared with her sister, Henrietta.  The two women made many friends and became well known for their tea-parties. The town clock that stands on the seafront in Tobermory was erected at Isabella’s request, in honour of Henrietta.  It bears Isabella’s married name – Mrs J F Bishop.

In 1890, Isabella Bird was made the first female Fellow of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society.

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