Isabella Bird, a name dear to the hearts of many who know and love Estes Park. The English writer was also known as an explorer, photographer and naturalist. Born in 1831, Bird’s 19th-century adventures took her to places like Hawaii, Australia, and as part of her exploration of the United States, Colorado!
Here in Estes Park, Isabella Bird is admired not only for her 1873 summit of Longs Peak, a feat she completed with her rumored love-interest, Rocky Mountain Jim, but for her legacy as a woman challenging the standards of her generation. This year marks 150 years since Bird’s time in Estes Park and her climb of the iconic peak. As part of our celebration of her, we set out to learn more about her life.
In this interview with Paula Williams, Curator for the National Library of Scotland, we learn more about Isabella Bird’s early life and the impacts of her legacy. Read the full interview below.
(Pictured: Paula Williams- National Library of Scotland, Curator)
We know so much about Isabella Bird when she came to the United States and during her time in Estes Park, but what was she like before she came here?
Bird suffered from a spinal condition and neuralgia and spent much of her time feeling ill and unable to move or socialize. Aged only 23, her doctor recommended sea travel to raise her spirits. She began traveling and never stopped!
Bird always felt much better while she was traveling, probably partly due to the often warmer weather in the areas she visited, but also due to the mental stimulation and excitement of meeting new people and seeing new places.
What was her family-life like? Did she come from a large family? Did she have any children?
Born 1831 into a loving and supportive family, Bird was very close to her sister Henrietta and wrote to her constantly when they were apart. When their clergyman father died, they moved to Edinburgh and the city remained their home. Following their mother’s death, Bird used her travel writing to support herself. She didn’t marry until later in life, and didn’t have any children.
What was her life like after she returned to Europe?
After returning to Europe, Bird lived in Edinburgh but also spent time with her sister on the island of Mull and traveled to Switzerland. Following Henrietta’s death, Bird married Dr. John Bishop, their family doctor, in 1880. Sadly, he died only five years later. With no one to hold her in a place she often felt ill. Bird traveled compulsively for most of the rest of her life, until she died at home in Edinburgh in 1904.
Was Isabella Bird a travel-writer or an explorer before she came to the United States, and did she continue exploring after she left?
Three trips to the east coast of the United States and Canada were followed by a journey to Australia, New Zealand and Hawaii, before Bird arrived on the west coast of the United States and began exploring by train, arriving in Colorado in autumn 1873.
After her first trip Bird wrote, The Englishwoman in America, which was published in 1856. This set the pattern for her travels, an adventure followed by a book. The sales of the books, and payment for magazine articles, helped fund further travels.
Following Dr Bishop’s death, Bird traveled extensively in Tibet, China, Korea, Malaysia, Japan, India, Turkey, and Persia. On her final trip, in 1902, Bird rode a black stallion across Morocco.
Did Isabella Bird ever return to Estes Park after her first trip?
Bird stayed much longer in Estes Park than she had intended, and regretfully left in early December when the bite of winter meant food was running low. She never returned.
As she wrote, “[Mr Evans]… was telling me so many things that at the top of the hill I forgot to turn round and take a last look at my colossal, resplendent, lonely, sunlit den, but it was needless for I carry it away with me".
Could Isabella Bird be considered the “Mother of Estes Park,” or would it be more appropriate to deem her the “Mother of Estes Park Tourism?” –some may argue that Flora Stanley or Esther Burnell Mills would be the “Mother of Estes Park."
Estes Park undoubtedly benefited from the favorable descriptions in Bird’s well-written and popular book, but the honor of being a "mother" must belong to those who lived there and extended a warm welcome to their visitors.
Do you think it is true that Estes Park was Bird’s favorite place on earth as her book made it seem?
On arrival in Estes Park, Bird stated it was "everything I have been seeking." She was very happy there. However, she fell in love with many places she visited during more than 50 years of travel.
Do you think Bird could have completed her Longs Peak Climb without the help of Rocky Mountain Jim?
Bird herself says that she had to be hauled to the top by Jim, and later confesses to Hennie that she would never have wanted to do it if she had known it involved actual mountaineering. Her walks up Mauna Kea and Mauna Lua on Hawaii were a stroll in comparison.
The two young men with whom they started the climb found Bird too slow and soon romped on ahead, leaving Jim and Bird alone to make their way to the top.
Why did Isabella Bird choose Estes Park to explore of all places in the world?
Arriving in Greeley by train, Bird loved the mountains of Colorado and became obsessed by Long’s Peak. With its pure air and beauty, Estes Park was recommended to Bird to ease her ongoing ailments. Whilst staying in "Longmount" she confessed this to her boarding house landlord, as well as her disappointment of not being able to find anyone to help her climb it. Two other lodgers were traveling on to Estes Park the following morning and arranged for Bird to travel with them. The two young men, Sylvester Spelman Downer and Platt Rogers, were rather disappointed when she turned out to be a middle aged rather dumpy woman riding "cowboy style" (which was more comfortable on her back than riding twisted in the more conventional side-saddle).
What was her romantic life like after Rocky Mountain Jim?
Dr. John Bishop proposed to Bird several times before she finally married him in 1880, when she was aged 49, following the death of her beloved sister Henrietta. Dr Bishop was completely infatuated with Bird, but it is unclear whether she was equally devoted to him.
Are there any interesting things we know about Isabella Bird that we could not get from her book or some of the other things already written about her?
Here at the National Library of Scotland we are lucky to hold the John Murray Archive. It includes letters between Bird and her publisher and friend John Murray, and some to her sister Henrietta. These letters to "Hennie" are sometimes difficult to decipher, being written in tiny handwriting on both sides of thin writing paper, so haven not been completely transliterated. Some researchers have included particular details from the letters, but there are more details awaiting discovery!
It is worth remembering though that even letters to family were often written with an eye to an audience – they would be read out to other family members, and often consulted upon return home as notes for a forthcoming book. So they may only provide the edited highlights of an adventure or experience!
The Library also holds letters written to and kept by Bird. https://manuscripts.nls.uk/repositories/2/resources/16089
There are also collections of her photographs from later journeys.
(Pictured: one of Isabella's letters from Estes Park- National Library of Scotland)
What made Isabella Bird stand-out amongst other women like her in her time period? How rare was it for a woman like her to take it upon herself to go on this sort of expedition?
It was very unusual for a woman to travel internationally and extensively on her own. Inevitably those who did so were of a particular socio-economic class with funds to do so. However, it was often actually cheaper to live abroad than at home, certainly if you didn’t have your own house and household to maintain. And there was a gentile income to be made from writing articles for magazines and books which could help fund further adventures.
Constance Gordon Cumming was another solo world traveler who wrote about her adventures. Women following after them often mention their books as inspiration for their own travels.
Bird’s writing style is still readable and engaging to modern tastes. She is always curious and engaged with the people she meets. Other writers often hold themselves separate from, and see themselves as above, the people they meet in a manner that makes for uncomfortable reading today. A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains is still a good read!
How unique was Bird in her time?
Bird was one of several female travelers who journeyed around the world at this time, recording and sharing their adventures and partly funding their trips from the proceeds of their writing.
Bird was unusual in that she often traveled entirely on her own. In most cases, even when "solo" the women traveled with servants or a paid companion. But Bird was often genuinely alone. In riding on her own she also engaged in dangerous activities. Obviously, climbing Longs Peak is another example, even although she wasn’t alone on that occasion. It wasn’t considered feminine for "ladies" to be in perilous situations - but Bird did it anyway and wrote about it! Some other female writers at the time glossed over the more extreme parts of their journeys to make it more acceptable to their readers at home.
There is an argument that being on her own enabled Bird to make more and deeper relationships with the people she met – they would welcome her into their homes and lives in a way that is not possible with a larger group.
Do you have any interesting commentary on her claim that Rocky Mountain Jim came to her in a dream the day he died?
I can believe that Bird felt she saw Jim. A visitation from a fetch is not an uncommon belief in Celtic countries. There was clearly an emotional attachment between Bird and Jim Nugent, although the exact nature of the attachment is left vague in Bird’s book and letters she does refer to "what might have been" – a sentence that could easily be finished with "if I wasn’t traveling," or ‘if he wasn’t over-partial to whisky."
What was her relationship like with Griff Evans?
From her own accounts, Bird seems to have got along well with most people she met, being open to new encounters and respectful of people’s ways of life.
Being willing to "muck in" at Estes Park, helping with rounding up the cattle and daily chores would certainly have endeared her to Griff Evans. In return she calls Evans hospitable, jolly, cheery, convivial, social and good natured. Although she also recognized he was peppery, careless and reckless!
Do you think there is enough hype around the legacy Bird left behind?
Bird’s legacy varies in different parts of the world. She is revered in Japan, where researchers have worked on her journeys and letters, and there is even a Manga style graphic novel about her.
In the UK, recognition of her achievements is growing as women’s history becomes more mainstream.
What benefits can come from reminders of her achievements and adventures in today’s society?
Bird’s achievements are still relevant because they show what a lone woman can do. There are still many parts of the world where an individual woman is constrained by society – whether through religion or convention. By being curious and interested in your surroundings and kind and courteous to other people you can make your own way in the world.
Isabella would surely say, “Do not be afraid – get out there and explore the world!”
Stay tuned! We will continue to post monthly blogs throughout the year as we continue to interview historians about the life and impacts of Isabella Bird.