Isabella Bird An outsider in America

Isabella Lucy Bird (1831-1904) was the greatest British female traveler of her time. After leaving England in her early adulthood, she traveled to nearly every continent of the world throughout the remainder of her life. Born in Yorkshire and raised in Edinburgh, she lived with her parents and her sister, to whom she later send journals and letters documenting her travels. Isabella Bird suffered from spinal related health problems, frequently showing symptoms of nervous headaches, insomnia, and temperament. She was prescribed an open air life of travel as a cure for her medical issues. Following the doctor’s orders, Isabella Bird spent her life exploring the numerous countries, such as Australia, New Zealand, India, Scotland, and Japan. Her earliest travels were dedicated to the North American continent itself. Throughout her American adventures, she witnessed nearly every aspect of western expansion firsthand.

"Mrs. Bishop at Newcastle" By Lyd Sawyer

In 1854, Bird set sail for America; her first voyage overseas. Contrary to social norms, she embarked on her trip without an escort, allowing her to flourish in her travels as she started in eastern Canada and worked her way west. Emphasizing the rough atmosphere, she documented her journey. Her writing developed into vivid descriptions of homesteaders, vast prairies, and the initial prosperity of western farming. In her eyes, Americans were "a great people" who, though "ivy [respect for tradition] were beyond them," could "make great railroads" and "do go ahead.” These people included "traders, merchants, hunters, diggers, trappers and adventurers from every land" (Bird). To Isabella Bird, Americans were a colorful bunch. Specifically, she noticed a pattern in western females, calling them “a might puny.” It can be inferred that prairie women acted “puny” due to the tedium of homesteading. The women, however, were not as eccentric as the “pickpocket” in Chicago, the “arrogant Englishman” who was forced into an emigrant train car, the “madman murderer” in a boat on the St. Lawrence River, and the Mexican “filthy hotel owner”. Isabella’s works show a wide range of Americans, in addition to the standard cowboys, laborers, and farmers. She wrote of cowboys’ giant leather boots, Mormons traveling to Utah, and Californians “dressed for the diggin's.” Not only were the people fascinating, but the land was as well. Since she explored western America in the early 1850’s, the aridity was not yet a prominent hardship. She refers to Ohio land as “teeming with crops,” with a “forest of splendid timber.” Bird took in the sights, sounds, and people of western America with nothing but a pen in tow.

"The Life of Isabella Bird (Mrs. Bishop)" : Snapshot Taken of Mrs. Bishop at Swatow by Mr. Mackenzie, 1906

Bird was heavily exposed to Native American Indians and buffalo. She seemed to enjoy the company of the Indians, but not so much the buffalo. According to her travel journals, the Indians “retained few of their ancient characteristics, except their dark complexions and their comfortless nomad way of living” (Bird 38). In her Chicago hotel, on the other hand, Bird was disgusted by the dirty buffalo bed blanket. Bird especially admired their “beadwork”, “magnificent eyes”, and tidy way of living. She wasn’t too fond of their buffalo meat, but the surplus of corn sufficed. They lived in small villages, more developed than before, as a result of western crowding. Certainly bothered by this, “they Indians, enraged at the aggressions of the white men, had taken a terrible revenge upon western travelers” (Bird). Bird recounts the Indians fighting for their land. Calling the western area the “land of Indians and wild buffaloes,” Bird understood who really owned the soil. As an outsider, she was well aware of the inequality between whites and Indians.

After traveling elsewhere for some time, Isabella Bird returned to the US in 1873. On this trip, she ventured through Estes Park in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. Her most rewarding travel feat yet, she rode alone on horseback for several weeks and befriended westerners. Along the way, she spent 30 hours herding cattle with a large group of cowboys. The men took her in as part of their own, as she could tolerate the “hard gallop downhill” and the “snow covered slopes” with ease. Perhaps the most significant aspect her journey was her romantic relationship with “Rocky Mountain Jim,” or Jim Nugent. A true mountain cowboy, he was a trapper and hunter, “who bore scars from a native arrow and a grizzly bear” (Bird). Like many cowboys, he passed away at a young age. Although this ended the possibility of marriage entirely, Isabella Bird would never have married a rugged American cowboy, despite her strong affection. Fledged with adventure, independence, and the magic of mountain life, Bird’s second voyage to western America proved to be one of her most memorable.

"My Home in the Rocky Mountains", 1910. By Isabella Bird
"Isabella Lucy Bird Bishop". By: Anonymous

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