Julia Archibald Holmes ignored people who told her not to do it, and on Aug. 5, 1858 became the first woman on record to make the five-day trek up Pikes Peak. And she did it scandalously, in pants.
Julia Archibald Holmes
It wasn’t the first time she’d pioneered something. She and her parents belonged to the first wave of Massachusetts reformers who settled the frontier town of Lawrence, Kans., in 1854. They moved there in the hopes that Kansas would remain slave-free. The settlers named Lawrence after Amos Adams Lawrence, a wealthy abolitionist . Lawrence contributed heavily to the New England Emigrant Aid Society, established to settle Kansas as a free state.
She was born Julia Archibald on Feb. 15, 1838, in Noel, Nova Scotia, the second of eight children. Her family then moved to Worcester, Mass. when she was young. Her mother, a suffragist, was a friend of Susan B. Anthony; her father was an abolitionist. Julia met her husband, James Holmes, through her father’s friend, John Brown. She married him at 19.
Soon Colorado gold fever struck the newlyweds. In less than three years, an estimated 100.000 people struck out for the Pikes Peak country of western Kansas and southwestern Nebraska. Called the “Fifty-Niners,” they traveled in search of gold.
A Climb for Equality
The Holmeses traveled with gold prospectors in a wagon train for a month before reaching Pikes Peak. Julia Archibald Holmes took stands for women’s equality all the way. She wore her “reform dress” — a short dress, moccasins and a pair of bloomers. She walked rather than rode in a wagon, and she shared the men’s guard duty.
Zebulon Pike, after whom Pikes Peak is named, didn’t think anyone could climb Pikes Peak. Julia Archibald Holmes decided to climb it to prove women could do anything men could do.
Holmes, her husband, and gold miners began to hike up the mountain on Aug. 1, 1858. They then reached the summit on August 5. She sat down to write a letter to her mother back in Lawrence. In the letter, she wrote:
Nearly everyone 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.
She read aloud some words from Ralph Waldo Emerson. The party then started to descend the mountain in a summer snowstorm.
She described her mountaineering triumph to publications back east, such as the feminist journal Sybil and the Whig Press.
They found no gold in Colorado, so they pushed on to Taos, N.M. James Holmes won an appointment as secretary of the territory. Julia corresponded for the New York Herald Tribune. They got into trouble, though, with fellow territorial administrators. James helped his family publish an abolitionist newspaper, the Santa Fe Republican, which didn’t help his popularity. He ended up getting arrested for sedition, so he, Julia and their children fled the territory.
By 1870 their marriage failed and they divorced. Julia moved to Washington, D.C., with her four children and then chalked up another first. She became the first woman member of the U.S. Board of Education. She also worked as secretary to the National Woman Suffrage Association. She died at 48 on Jan. 19, 1887.
Thirty-five years after Julia Archibald Holmes conquered Pikes Peak, Katharine Lee Bates would climb it as well and be inspired to write America the Beautiful.
‘JuliaArchibaldHolmes‘ by Agnes Wright Spring. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. ‘Pikes Peak’ by Albert Bierstadt. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. This story was updated in 2021.