Isabella Bird explorer, Pioneer, and Trailblazer

Isabella Lucy Bird was one of the most influential female travel writers of the Victorian era. She was also known as a British explorer, missionary, journalist, and author. Bird was viewed as a well-educated woman which was uncommon for this period. Her life was marked by numerous health issues, which consequently affected all aspects of her daily life. (World In The West). In order to relieve her constant pain, physicians recommended to Bird that she embark on a travel regiment. She traveled to the United States, and composed journal entries and letters to her sister, Henrietta. It was this trip that ignited a profound sense of enthusiasm for travel and leisure writing which prompted trips to Korea, Japan, Canada, Hawaii, Tibet, Malaysia, and Colorado. Bird combined personal insight and scientific knowledge of her destinations to provide the reader with an engaging account of her travels. She dedicated her life to challenging Western perceptions of Eastern cultures, critiquing the treatment of women in lower classes, and presenting a vision of places not yet understood by society.

"To a person sitting quietly at home, Rocky Mountain traveling, like Rocky Mountain scenery, must seem very monotonous; but not so to me, to whom the pure, dry mountain air is the elixir of life." (A life in the Rocky Mountains by Isabella Bird)

A Discovery of Character

Isabella's personal mission to broaden her intellect of various cultures and societies began within the confines of the Rocky Mountains. Unlike many explorers at this time, Bird traveled alone in order to truly obtain a vast and deep knowledge of her surroundings without the distractions and influences of others (Englishwoman's Heroic Adventures (EHA). Upon her arrival, it became evident that Bird's host family was "ignorant, inept, and insufficient, even after nine years of attempted homesteading on their 160 acres" (EHA). Thus, she was forced to work the fields and overcame her medical conditions even thriving in many situations. In fact, she relished such tasks one might struggle at such as drawing water from rivers and washing garments by hand (EHA). All these skills proved vital when Bird purchased a log cabin in Colorado. She embraced the domestic tasks, which her own servants performed in England, and therefore became empowered by them. Bird declared that, "I really need nothing more than this log cabin offers (EHA). A far cry from her privileged upbringing in England, Bird's realization of her inner ability to perform daily tasks proved that her survival in the cabin was never in question (World In The West).

Americans specially love superlatives. The phrases 'biggest in the world,' 'finest in the world,' are on all lips. Unless President Hayes is a strong man, they will soon come to boast that their government is composed of the 'biggest scoundrels' in the world. (A Lady's life in the Rocky Mountains)

A Segregation of Americans and Indians

Isabella Bird encountered the cultural divide between Indians and Americans. She stated, "They have treated them after a fashion which has intensified their treachery and "devilry" as enemies, and as friends reduces them to a degraded pauperism." (Letter 12, A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains). The Indian Agency, created to be the link between the government and the Indian population served nothing more than a system of fraud and corruption. Only thirty percent of government money ever reached the Indians and the constant complaints of trashy blankets, damaged flour, and worthless firearms were rampant (Letter 12). Furthermore, even their Indian reservations were not completely their own; for if the cries of gold were heard by the ambitious white men, they were forced to move off the land or were killed (Letter 12). In addition, although the Native American crisis was an American dilemma, Bird was also able to compare the similarities of the Malay Peninsula, a location she explored, which illustrated how money and greed were not just local issues but global problems. (World out West).

“I still vote civilization a nuisance, society a humbug and all conventionality a crime.” (A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains)

Conquering the Stereotypes

Isabella Bird's arrival in the States was met with expected apprehension because of her English descent. Her host family consistently ridiculed England saying, "(we) live to see downfall of the British Monarchy and the disintegration of the empire." (EHA) Although the American Revolution was a century ago, the hatred and rage displayed towards Britain was ever present. Additionally, women were constantly viewed as inferior to their male counterparts. Bird defied this belief in multiple regards, most notably climbing a 14,000 foot mountain while wearing a steel brace to protect her weak neck and back (NCSG journal and EHA). The standard stereotype of a rich Victorian woman knitting and sewing was shattered by Isabella Bird. Despite her multiple health conditions, she constantly would challenge herself physically and mentally to capture the true essence of not just Colorado, but America itself.

“Everything suggests a beyond.” (A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains)

The Artist of the Western Frontier

While many scholarly descriptions of western landscapes and cultures were based upon a global perspective, Isabella Bird's opinions of various countries were always compared to the American West (World Out West). The Midwest was her first area of study as an aspiring travel writer, thus giving Bird a unique perspective to how the world functioned in comparison to America. Therefore, Bird through her writing, became an artist, painting a vivid picture of mysterious lands on the Western frontier. She described the beauty of Colorado as "glorious, combining sublimity with beauty, and in the elastic air fatigue has dropped off from me" (Letter five)." On her daring climbs up mountains and hills, the reader visualized the pine barren woods and the beautiful sunset from the peak of "Long's Peak." Through the stroke of her brush to the reality of her vision, she conveyed a world still in its infancy but abound it beauty and opportunity.

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