Colorado’s Pioneer Women

Everyone knows about Colorado’s famous women like Molly Brown and Baby Doe Tabor, but far less has been written about “ordinary” women in Colorado.  In reality, Colorado’s early pioneer women often overcame great obstacles and harsh living conditions while helping shape the Colorado we know today.  This Women’s History Month, let’s take a look at some of the resources in our library that tell the story of Colorado’s extraordinary pioneer women.

One of the most engaging ways to learn about history is through the voices of those who lived it.  Many Colorado women kept diaries or wrote memoirs about their lives in early-day Colorado.  Over the years, many of these reminiscences have been published in Colorado Heritage and its predecessor, Colorado Magazine.  The older issues in particular contain many personal stories, as many pioneers were still alive to share them.  Check out the following issues from our library to read the stories of these remarkable women, in their own words:

  • “‘Pioneer Interviews’ Reveal Hardship and Humor,” in the September-October 2014 issue, talks about the interviews of Colorado pioneers undertaken by the WPA during the Great Depression.  Many women were interviewed and the article provides some great quotes.
  • Wilma Davis Gundy grew up on a Colorado farm during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl.  Her reminiscences have appeared in “Snapshots from Old Soddy:  A Farm Girl’s Life on the Eastern Colorado Plains in the 1930s and ’40s,” in the Autumn 2004 issue, and “Plains Grit:  More Memories from an Eastern Colorado Farm,” in the Autumn 2008 issue.
  • The Summer 2003 issue explores early Colorado ranching life through a woman’s eyes in “‘Papa Bought Some Cattle’: The Diary of Mary Davis Painter.”  For more on the Painter family, see the Colorado Encyclopedia.
  • Photographs supplement the story of one pair of sisters in “‘Learn to Labor and Wait’:  The 1899 Diary of Anna Kennicott with the Glass Plate Photography of Eugenia Kennicott,” in the Summer 1999 issue.  See some of the photos here.
  • Frances Clelland Peabody’s memories of the westward journey as a five-year-old can be found in the March 1941 issue of Colorado Magazine in the article “Across the Plains De Luxe in 1865.”  Frances grew up to became Colorado’s First Lady.
  • The November 1937 issue features “Pioneering Experiences, As Told by Emma Doud Gould to Halie Gould.”
    Emma Doud Gould.
  • Susan Riley Ashley contributed “Reminiscences of Early Colorado,” in the March 1937 issue, and “Reminiscences of Colorado in the Early ‘Sixties,” in the November 1936 issue.
  • “Crossing the Plains in War Times,” in the July 1933 issue, is the memoir of Mrs. Halie Riley Hodder.
  • The story of a woman’s westward journey is also told in Elizabeth Keyes’ diary, excerpted in “Across the Plains in a Prairie Schooner” in the March 1933 issue.
  • “Life at Camp Weld and Fort Lyon in 1861-62, an Extract from the Diary of Mrs. Byron N. Sanford” appeared in the July 1930 issue.  Her full diary was later published in Mollie:  The Diary of Mollie Dorsey Sanford in Nebraska and Colorado Territories, 1857-1866.
Mollie Dorsey Sanford, left, and her sister Nan in about 1857.  Photo courtesy Littleton Museum.

For further reading on Colorado’s pioneer women, see the following resources, also available for checkout from our library:

  • Colorado Women:  A History, by Gail M. Beaton, University Press of Colorado, 2012.
  • Long Vistas:  Women and Families on Colorado Homesteads, by Katherine Harris, University Press of Colorado, 1993.
  • On Colfax Avenue:  A Victorian Childhood, by Elizabeth Young, Colorado Historical Society, 2004.  A memoir of growing up in Denver in the 1890s.
  • Pioneer Potluck:  Stories and Recipes of Early Colorado, Colorado Historical Society, 1963.

Search our library’s online catalog for more resources.