When word of recent gold discoveries in the Pikes Peak Region reached eastern Kansas in the spring of 1858, several dozen settlers near Lawrence decided to head west. Accompanied by her husband James and her eighteen-year-old brother Albert, Julia Archibald Holmes set out to join the newly formed Lawrence Party along the Santa Fe Trail. She became one of the first Kansas gold-seekers to visit present day Colorado.
Julia Archibald was born on February 15, 1838 in Noel, Nova Scotia. Her reform-minded parents, John and Jane Archibald raised their eight children in Worcester, Massachusetts. Strong Abolitionists, the Archibald family moved west shortly after the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 and helped found the town of Lawrence, Kansas.
Julia Archibald married fellow Kansas Abolitionist James H. Holmes on October 9, 1857 and eight months later the two set out on a great adventure to the Colorado goldfields. As staunch advocate for women’s rights, Julia scandalized fellow members of her party by wearing the highly controversial “Bloomer Costume,” walking instead of traveling in a wagon, and volunteering for the men’s-only job of guarding cattle at night.
The “Bloomer costume” seen here belonged to Anna Bartlett Taylor, a Quaker from New York, and grandmother of Prudence Sinton Mick of the Sinton Dairy family in Colorado Springs. Most men and women of the era thought the costume disgraceful, as the shorter skirt with pantaloons underneath was thought to accentuate women’s legs, previously unseen under long and heavy skirts. Julia Archibald Holmes wore a similar costume on her trip west.
She described her choice of outfit, “I wore a calico dress, reaching a little below the knee, pants of the same…However much it lacked in taste, I found it to be beyond value in comfort and convenience, as it gave me freedom to roam at pleasure in search of flowers and other curiosities…” Unfortunately, the men of the Lawrence Party, with the exception of her husband, did not approve of her attire. Neither did the only other woman on the trip, a Mrs. Robert Middleton who advised her, “If you have a long dress with you, do put it on for the rest of the trip, the men talk so much about you.” Julia declined.
Reform dress was given the nickname of the “Bloomer costume” after Amelia Bloomer, an activist known for her work in the temperance movement and on behalf of women’s suffrage. Dress Reformers sought to eliminate restrictive clothing for women, which they thought to be mentally and physically unhealthy. Bloomer later wrote, “I stood amazed at the furor I had unwittingly caused. However, there were women ready and eager to adopt the radical clothing.”
Arriving near the Garden of the Gods on July 8, 1858, members of the Lawrence Party searched in vain for gold. After spending several weeks in camp, Holmes and her husband loaded up packs and departed for an arduous but successful climb up Pikes Peak. Julia Archibald Holmes documented her remarkable journey west in a series of letters later published in her hometown newspaper, the Lawrence Republican.
Describing her approach to the summit of Pikes Peak, “Two days of very hard climbing has brought me here – if you could only know how hard, you would be surprised that I have been able to accomplish it. My strength and capacity for enduring fatigue have been very much increased by constant exercise in the open air since leaving home or I never could have succeeded in climbing the rugged sides of this mountain…”
Three days later she and James reached the summit. She described with pride: “I have accomplished the task which I marked out for myself, and now I feel amply repaid for all my toil and fatigue. Nearly every one tried to discourage me from attempting it, but I believed that I should succeed; and now, here I am, and I feel that I would not have missed this glorious sight for anything at all…How I sigh for the poet’s power of description, so that I might give you some faint idea of the grandeur and beauty of this scene…”
Julia Archibald Holmes and her husband James reached the summit of Pikes Peak on August 5, 1858. She is credited with being the first woman to climb the 14,115 foot peak and document the trip. By publishing her detailed accounts of her trip west, Julia left us a fascinating glimpse of her equally fascinating character.