Meet The Chalmers: Lady Isabella Bird finds Scottish Covenanters in the 1873 Colorado Territory
In 1873, an astoundingly plucky young woman made it her strong desire to visit a primitive Rocky Mountain supply outpost in the valley of the Big Thompson river. The place was called Estes Park and it had only recently sprouted up from pure wilderness in Colorado Territory’s northern mountains (Colorado would not enter the union as a state for another three years). Constantly on the hunt for grand adventure, Lady Isabella had heard stories of amazing Rocky Mountain grandeur and the lingering wildness of Estes Park and had determined to get herself, traveling alone, from Cheyenne in Wyoming Territory, south to the wild Colorado Rocky Mountains to see what she would see.
Lady Isabella Bird was an Englishwoman who spent summers in Scotland as a child and who would eventually marry an Edinburgh doctor and settle down in Edinburgh as a base when she was not traveling. Prior to marriage, in 1854, at the age of twenty-two, she left England and began traveling as a hopeful cure for her vaguely ill health.
As we find her in 1873, she is a strong-willed, opinionated, completely independent, remarkably level headed and extraordinarily determined young woman focused on seeing the most fascinating things about the world first hand. This particular 1873 sojourn to the western U.S. was only a part of Isabella Bird’s grand tour of that year, having opened in Hawaii, continuing to the California Sierra and eventually enduring a winter spent in the log and chink settler’s camp at about 7,500 feet at the foot of the final 6,750 or so feet of the mightily impressive Longs Peak (14,256′).
Our window into Lady Isabella’s frontier frolic is given through the wonderful collection of letters that she wrote to her sister back home in England, crafted absolutely contemporaneously with the adventures themselves. The collection has been published as a little book titled A Lady’s Life In The Rocky Mountains and it is wonderful holiday or anytime reading. [NOTE: $2.99 on Kindle now!]
Through parts of the third to sixth letters, we are in the company of the Chalmers family, a Scottish American frontier family with a rather pronounced Scottish identity and somewhat of a special story. Lady Isabella spends a few days with this distinctive family, and it is the Chalmers family that forms the focus of this post.
Meet the Chalmers: Proud descendants of Scottish Covenanters in the middle of nowhere.
Many readers will have visited the quaint mountain village that today hosts the popular Longs Peak Scottish Festival but no state highways led the way to Estes Park in 1873. Indeed, the best indication that a pilgrim might find would be a single track game trail, if that pilgrim knew where to look or was able to scare up a competent guide, of which there were precious few. Lady Isabella set out from Fort Collins, Colorado Territory in September to attain the mouth of a canyon, that she had been locally advised contained a boarding house and a sawmill and some of the most magnificent Rocky Mountain country to be seen. The canyon was also a few miles closer to Estes Park so it seemed a step in the right direction and Lady Isabella took it.
There was no boarding house in the canyon and the sawmill was in very poor repair. Isabella did find, in the mouth of the canyon, the Chalmers family. The Chalmers owned 160 acres of land there and had built the rudimentary sawmill nine years ago. They currently sold milk and butter to an assortment of people who had come to the canyon to enjoy the dry Colorado climate as a recommended cure for Tuberculosis. The current Chalmers patriarch brought his family from Illinois to the place in 1864 for that very purpose. The remedy worked and within two years, Chalmers was healthy and the owner of a 160 acre plot of land acquired under the Homesteading Act passed by the U.S. Congress in 1862. (More about the Homestead Act below.)
Here is some of what Lady Isabella Bird relates to her sister about these lightly peculiar early members of the Scottish American diaspora – and our focus - the Chalmers:
A rough and shaky bridge, made of the outsides of pines laid upon some unsecured logs crossed the river. … On the other side was a log cabin partially ruinous and the very rudest I ever saw. It’s roof being of plastered mud being broken into large holes. It stood close to the water among some cottonwood trees. A little higher there was a very primitive sawmill, also out of repair, with some logs lying about. An emigrant wagon and a forlorn tent with a campfire and a pot were in the foreground.
… I got down and found a single room of the rudest kind with a wall at one end partially broken down. Holes in the roof. Holes for windows. And no furniture but two chairs and two unplanned wooden shelves with some sacks of straw upon them for beds. There was an adjacent cabin room with a stove, benches and table, where they cooked and ate, but this was all.
“Life,” said Isabella, “was reduced to its simplest elements.” As for the Chalmers family members themselves? Lady Bird tells us that they “repelled [her] by their faces and manners.” Mrs. Chalmers was a “hard, sad looking woman” “lean, clean, toothless.” There was a daughter, an “awkward girl of sixteen with uncombed hair and a painful repulsiveness of face” and “a sour repellant looking creature with as much manners as a pig.” A grown son (“a shiftless melancholy looking youth’) and three “hard unchild-like” small children. “They wear boots, but never two of one pair and never blacked of course, but no stockings.”
They are a queer family. Somewhere in the remote highlands I have seen such another. It’s head is tall, gaunt, lean and ragged and has lost one eye. On an English road, one would think him a starving or a dangerous beggar. He is slightly intelligent, very opinionated and wishes to be thought well informed, which he is not.
He belongs to the straightest sect of reformed Presbyterians, psalm singers, but exaggerates anything of bigotry or intolerance which characterizes them. … His great boast is that his ancestors were Scottish Covenanters.
And finally, England:
He hates England with a bitter personal hatred and regards any allusions to the progress of Victoria as a personal insult. He trusts to live to see the down fall of the British monarchy the disintegration of the Empire.
In all, Isabella Bird did not say all that much about the Chalmers family but she certainly said enough to paint a picture of them and their frontier life as she met them in early fall of 1873. What she does not address is the Scottish American background story. What particular set of facts – in Scotland and America - gave birth to this family and brought them to their hard scrabble life?
Lady Isabella’s Colorado Chalmers are likely second or possibly third generation Scottish immigrants that were still defined by their Scottish story and clinging to their Scottish ancestral identity, prejudices and spirituality. We are not told which Chalmers’ Covenanting ancestors came to America or when. We do not even know for certain that Chalmers himself is not the immigrant, however a close reading of Isabella’s letters advises against that. The letters do give us some very juicy clues that allow us to fill out the Chalmers’ likely story, Sherlock Holmes style.
Chalmers: Frenchified Gaels Return as Lowlanders.
The name “Chalmers” itself carries an interesting history. Present understanding is that the name derived from a Scot carrying the surname “Cameron” who entered the French military service and assumed the name of Camerarius/Camerario (in French: De La Chambre), or Chalmers, as to be more ‘agreeable to the language of that country.’ At least one of this fellow’s progeny returned to Scotland and became the ancestor of Chalmers of Aberdeen-shire and other parts of Scotland. Chalmers today is considered a sept of Clan Cameron and the name itself was used as a code name for various Camerons during the 1745 Jacobite Rising. Interestingly then, the Scottish name “Chalmers” carries a Gaelic highland heritage filtered through France and reintroduced to Scottish lowlands as protestant, civilized and very zealous Scots. A double helping of Scottishness.
While somewhat known in America, the story of the Scottish Covenanters who were forced out of Scotland at various times between the 16th – 18th centuries is typically overshadowed by the more popularly understood immigration episodes such as the Highland Clearances and the general long term aftermath of the battle of Culloden. Yet our early Colorado Chalmers’ are of a different migration. Their greatest claim to fame, as they inform Lady Isabella, is that their ancestors were Scottish Covenanters and that they, centuries on and a continent away, steadfastly remained psalm singing reformed Presbyterians with a deep hatred of all things English and imperial.
Scottish Covenanters were 17th century protestants who refused the Stuart kings’ claim to Divine Right and instead believed that the spiritual head of the Scottish Church was religious and not the king. Many of these strong willed dissenters signed the National Covenant to that effect in 1638 and from then until the Glorious Revolution in 1688 they suffered a range of punitive persecution from the Stuarts as well as Cromwell, including transportation as indentured servants to British North America. Others made their way to Ulster in Ireland only to become part of the early 18th century tsunami of Scots-Irish immigration to the American colonies. Provinces such as East New Jersey accepted hundreds of Covenanter refugees during the 1680s who came to the New World initially under the burden of indenture and who worked, eventually, to gain freedom once again.
Although the Glorious Revolution and actions of King William essentially obviated the context for Convenanting Prebyterianism in Scotland, the zealous fervor and prejudices followed immigrants to America and Mr. Chalmers appears to be everything that might be expected of their progeny – even after the intervention of two centuries.
Lady Isabella describes the Chalmers operation in fairly unflattering terms and in particular she highlights the abysmal failure of their life as Colorado homesteaders.
They have 160 acres of land. A squatters claim and an invaluable water power. He is a lumberer and has a sawmill of a very primitive kind. I notice that everyday something goes wrong with it and this is the case throughout. If he wants to haul timber down one or other of the oxen cannot be found. Or if the timber is actually underway, a wheel or part of the harness gives way and the whole affair is at a standstill for days.
The cabin is hardly a shelter but is allowed to remain in ruins because the foundation of a frame house was once ‘a-dug’. A horse is always sure to be lame from want of a shoe nail or a saddle to be useless from a broken buckle and the wagon and harness are a marvel of temporary shifts, patchings and insecure linkings with strands of rope. Nothing is ever ready or whole when it is wanted.
Yet Chalmers is a frugal, sober hardworking man and he, his eldest son and a hired man rise early, going forth to their work and labor till the evening.
The Chalmers’ homesteading failure is certainly not due to the strict and deep Presbyterian faith and dogma that Mr. Chalmers imported from Scotland. Indeed, Lady Isabella describes the Chalmers as the frontier equivalent of the modern workaholic, sparing little time for anything other than work and religious devotion. Yet they seem never to get anywhere.
The Chalmers sawmill is described as having become decrepit after only nine years of operation and as soon as one thing is fixed another two are broken at the homestead. We are not told what line of work Mr. Chalmers was in while in Illinois. He may have been, like so many others, unprepared by background, skill and knowledge to succeed on the Colorado frontier, even though the United States Government and various private interests aggressively solicited men like Chalmers to give the frontier a try. If so, he would not be the only Scottish American and Scottish immigrant lured west by the offer of “free land.”
In the late 1850s and early 1860s the United States was engulfed in issues surrounding slavery, free labor, small versus large landholders and civil war. In 1862 the U.S. Congress passed the Homestead Act as part of that conflict.
The Homestead Act of 1862 provided that any adult citizen (or person intending to become a citizen), including free slaves, who headed a family could qualify for a grant of 160 acres of public land by paying a small registration fee and living on the land continuously for five years and by making necessary improvements to “prove up” a homestead clam. If the settler was willing to pay $1.25 an acre, he could obtain the land after only six months’ residence. Families picked up what they had and gambled it on free land in the west.
Despite an aggressive campaign to draw Americans and fresh immigrants to the western frontier, the law ultimately did not provide the catalyst to create a new class of small landholding farmers and such from the stock of eastern and Midwestern urban dwellers. While an enormous amount of land was transferred from First Nations, to the U.S. Government and into white private landholders, much of the land granted under the 1862 Homestead Act fell quickly into the hands of speculators. Some land was hoarded into huge land owning conglomerates and much was resold at great profit while new immigrants were left wondering how to make it in the New World.
The Chalmers sawmill story smacks a little of all too this common homesteading story. The mill itself was likely constructed as a necessary improvement to prove up a homestead claim. Following issuance of the homestead “patent” that granted private title to the land, Chalmers seems to have dropped the ball and allowed the mill and homestead to fall into serious disrepair. While he got his mill built, no one, it seems, told Mr. Chalmers how to run it.
These were the Chalmers, one of so many Scottish American families who brought their ancestry and added what they were able to a new nation. They may not have succeeded at the sawmill business but perhaps that “invaluable water power” ultimately brought prosperity to a deserving psalm singing Presbyterian Covenanting family carrying on Scottish traditions in America.