I love tales of heroism. They inspire me. And because they do, I am perplexed by those people who are not similarly inspired. As a student and later as a professor, I found professors, teaching assistants, and students who wanted to hear only tales of oppression, repression, and brutality—as long as the oppression, repression, and brutality was perpetrated by white males. I have watched departments of history become departments of victimology, with a kind of competition among various groups for supremacy among victims, leading to an emphasis on stories of those who had suffered and lost, rather than of those who had suffered, endured, and triumphed. The former are worth studying, but the latter are worth emulating.
In 1985, I presented a paper on violence in the Old West at a historical conference. I described how women, other than prostitutes, rarely suffered from violence, were treated with respect, and often displayed extraordinary courage. For this I was attacked by two women professors in the audience. I provided them with a wealth of statistics and dozens of anecdotes. That only made it worse. It was about then that I realized I was confronting the religion of political correctness and that one of the articles of faith was victimhood. These particular women were not delighted to hear of the derring-do and heroism of their frontier sisters. But history is full of such stories.
The first group to travel overland to California was the Bidwell party, also referred to as the Bartleson-Bidwell party. In the group was Nancy Roberts Kelsey. She was all of 18-years-old, had an 18-month-old daughter, and had lost an infant son only three months before the trek began. When asked why she was willing to undertake a journey from Missouri across half a continent to California, she replied, “Where my husband goes, I go. I can better endure the hardships of the journey than the anxieties for an absent husband.” The husband was the redheaded and fiery-tempered Ben Kelsey, like his wife Kentucky born.
In May 1841, about 60 members of the Western Emigration Society gathered at Sapling Grove in eastern Kansas. Many of them had already trekked hundreds of miles just to get there. They were tough, ornery, independent, and optimistic. They knew nothing about the Far West. “Our ignorance of the route was complete,” said John Bidwell. “We knew that California lay west, and that was the extent of our knowledge.” One member of the party produced a map, which showed two large rivers running westward from the Great Salt Lake to California. He suggested that they take along tools for constructing boats so they could float downstream to California on the second half of the journey.
Left to their own devices these pioneers might not even have made it as far as the Great Salt Lake. They had the good fortune, however, to fall in with a party of Jesuit missionaries guided by one of the greatest of all American mountain men, Irish-born Tom Fitzpatrick, and several of his beaver-trapping buddies. He and his men smoothed the way for the missionaries and the Bidwell party all the way to Soda Springs in southeastern Idaho. From there, Fitzpatrick headed for the Pacific Northwest. Half of the members of the Bidwell party decided that sticking with Fitzpatrick was more important than reaching California. Most of them would settle in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.
The other half were determined to continue on to their original destination. Thirty-two strong, they included one woman—Nancy Kelsey—and her daughter, Martha Ann. Fitzpatrick drew them a map in the dirt, warning that if they missed Mary’s River (today’s Humboldt) they would die long before reaching California. In mid-August, without guide or compass, they turned south, following the Bear River into Utah. They skirted the northern shore of the Great Salt Lake and in the blazing desert to the west were forced to abandon their wagons and pack everything on horses and mules. Carrying her baby in front of her, Nancy Kelsey rode bareback. California was hundreds of miles away.
The party stumbled upon the headwaters of the Humboldt and followed its path across Nevada. Occasionally, Paiutes blocked their path. “At one place the Indians surrounded us, armed with bows and arrows,” said Nancy, “but my husband leveled his gun at the chief and made him order his Indians out of arrow range.” The pioneers reached the sink of the Humboldt near present-day Lovelock and began a grueling trek across Forty-Mile Desert. They then moved south to the Walker River and, low on food and nearly exhausted, began the climb into the Sierra Nevada, which Bidwell described as “naked mountains whose summits still retained the snows of perhaps a thousand years.” They did not cross the crest of the Sierra until the end of October.
“We had a difficult time to find a way down the mountain,” said Nancy. “At one time I was left alone for nearly a day, and as I was afraid of the Indians, I sat all the while with my baby in my lap on the back of my horse. … It seemed to me while I was there alone the moaning of the wind through the pines was the loneliest sound I ever heard.”
She and the others were soon on foot. The descent was so steep that riding was impossible. Nancy recalled, “At one place four pack animals fell over a bluff. … We were then out of provisions, having killed and eaten all our cattle. I walked barefooted [her shoes had long since disintegrated] until my feet blistered. We lived on roasted acorns for two days. My husband came very near dying with cramps, and it was suggested to leave him, but I said I never would do that. … At one place I was so weak I could hardly stand.”
They eventually followed the Stanislaus River down into the San Joaquin Valley. Their first meal in California proper was a coyote. Bidwell noted that he “greedily devoured” the lungs and windpipe, his share of the beast. Finally, on Nov. 4, 1841 the Bidwell party arrived at the ranch of Dr. John Marsh near Mt. Diablo and concluded a six-month overland trek. The journey made Nancy Kelsey the first woman to cross overland to California from the United States. By the time she arrived, she was five months pregnant and an inspiration to the men. Said Bidwell party member Joseph Chiles, “Her cheerful nature and kind heart brought many a ray of sunshine through the clouds that gathered round a company of so many weary travelers. She bore the fatigue of the journey with so much heroism, patience and kindness, that there still exists a warmth in every heart for the mother and her child.”
Nancy Kelsey and her husband built a log cabin in the Napa Valley, a mile south of today’s Calistoga. In February 1842 Nancy gave birth to Sarah Jane, who lived only one week before dying. In September 1843 she gave birth to another daughter, Margaret, and in April 1846 to a son, Andrew.
On June 14, 1846, American settlers in northern California launched the Bear Flag Revolt by taking control of Sonoma and declaring the establishment of the Bear Flag Republic. Nancy Kelsey was there, holding two-month-old Andrew in her arms. She watched as the American revolutionaries raised the Bear Flag with its humped-backed grizzly and lone star. She had reason to be proud of the new flag—she had made it using cloth from her own petticoats. She would soon be called the Betsy Ross of California. Ben was a prominent Bear Flagger but got into a dispute with John C. Fremont and gave him a tongue-lashing when the latter assumed command of the revolutionaries. “The Kelseys were well known for their use of wicked and blasphemous language,” said Nancy, “—made a mule-skinner blush!”
When Ben later fell sick with malaria, Nancy swung into the saddle and rode hell-bent for Sonoma and medicine. En route an Indian, known locally as Chief Augustine, tried to lasso her and drag her off the horse. Although Nancy was without her pistol, she managed to escape and continue her wild ride to town. She returned with the medicine and told Ben of the attempted horse theft and of her narrow escape. Ben exploded with anger and bolted out of his sickbed. He tracked down Augustine and killed him with a pistol shot.
Ben battled with various health problems for the rest of his life. Nonetheless, he was an enterprising sort, building saw and grist mills and toll bridges, gold mining, and carving ranches out of the wilderness. He made bundles of money and lost equal amounts. Everywhere he went, Nancy followed, the good trouper that she was. The mountain man James Clyman, who frequently used the Kelseys’ hunting cabins in the northern end of the Napa Valley during the late 1840s, described Nancy as a fine-looking woman. She continued to have children: Mary Ellen in 1848, Nancy Rose in 1851, William in 1854, Georgia Ann in 1859, and Samuel in 1861. On a family trip to Texas in 1861, Mary Ellen was captured and scalped by Comanche. She survived but was never the same again and died five years later. Samuel died at 18 in an accident during a harvest. The same year Ben Kelsey died.
Through all this and more, Nancy Kelsey persevered. After her husband’s death she settled on a ranch in the Cuyama Valley. She raised cattle and chickens, administered pioneer herbal remedies to ailing neighbors, delivered babies, and once rode a hundred miles in one day on a mission of mercy. She died of skin cancer at the age of 73 in 1896 and was buried on her ranch in what is now called Kelsey Canyon. A plaque marks her grave.
There were Nancy Kelseys on every frontier of the Old West. They were in the mining camps, on the cattle ranges, and in the timber towns. They were also on the last frontier, the Far North. No woman there figured more prominently than Belinda Mulroney. Born in Ireland but reared partly in Scranton, Pennsylvania, where her father worked in the coal mines, Belinda left home at the age of 18 to attend the Columbian Exposition in Chicago and make her fortune. She opened a small restaurant and had saved the tidy sum of $8,000 before the exposition closed. Her next stop was California, where she promptly lost her money in a bad investment. Wiser and more determined than ever, she shipped aboard a coastal steamer, City of Topeka, as a stewardess. She quickly gained a reputation for resourcefulness, business acumen, quick wit, and spirit. When a snobbish passenger aboard the ship condescendingly told her to black his boots, she told him that if she saw his boots outside his cabin door she would throw a pitcher of water on them. When a baby had to be delivered, she did the job, while the ship’s captain stood discreetly outside the cabin door reading instructions from a medical text.
The captain was so impressed by Belinda that he soon put her in charge of purchasing supplies for the ship. For her extra duties she received a 10 percent commission on the cost of supplies.
When news of the great gold strike in the Klondike region of the Yukon reached the Alaskan coast during the spring of 1897, Belinda had saved $5,000. She said goodbye to the captain and used her money to buy all the cotton goods and hot-water bottles she could find. She packed her goods from the port of Dyea over treacherous Chilkoot Pass and then floated on a raft hundreds of miles down the Yukon River to Dawson, a mining camp that was fast becoming the great boomtown of the Far North.
Stepping ashore, Belinda threw the last coin in her pocket—a mining camp tradition—into the river and exclaimed, “Never again will I need such small change.” She was right. She sold her cotton goods and hot-water bottles on Dawson’s main street at a 600 percent profit. She opened a diner that was crowded with men daily and built cabins that sold before they were finished. The money rolled in, but she decided to take another gamble and open a roadhouse east of Dawson in the heart of the mines, where Bonanza Creek pours into the Klondike River. By the fall of ’97, her roadhouse, The Magnet, was open. Costs for meals and lodging, and for whiskey and cigars, were the highest in the Yukon. No matter. The Magnet was in the midst of the mines, and the sourdoughs threw gold nuggets onto the bar. Belinda was also in a location to get the first word on every new claim. By winter she was an investor in several valuable mines.
Belinda was tough and canny but played straight and square. It was not always reciprocated. When a boat loaded with supplies was wrecked on a sandbar in the Yukon River, Belinda went into partnership with Alex McDonald to salvage the cargo. “Big Alex” stood well over 6’7” and weighed nearly 300 lbs. He had begun his stay in the Far North as a laborer and had worked his way up to managing an Alaskan trading company. Through the acquisition of one mine after another he become a multimillionaire and would soon be known as the “King of the Klondike.”
Mulroney and McDonald had a crew salvage the cargo, but McDonald had the goods divided before Mulroney arrived at the site. McDonald took crates full of foodstuffs for himself and left cases of whiskey and boxes containing rubber boots for Mulroney. With winter approaching and starvation a real possibility that first season of the rush to the Klondike, foodstuffs would be at a premium. “You’ll pay through the nose for this,” Belinda told Big Alex.
The winter was severe, and McDonald made a small fortune on his stores of food. Early in the spring of 1898, however, there was an unusual heat wave, causing a sudden thaw and flooding the Klondike. Work in the mines was impossible without—rubber boots. None other than Big Alex arrived at Mulroney’s, pleading for rubber boots for his men. Belinda sold him the boots but made him pay $100 a pair, the equivalent of $3,000 in today’s money. Belinda used those profits and others to build the Fairview Hotel on Dawson’s main street during the spring and summer. The most elegant hotel in the Far North, the Fairview had 22 steam-heated rooms, electric lights, Turkish steam baths, dining tables spread with linen, sterling silver, and bone China, cut-glass chandeliers, and an orchestra playing in the lobby.
Nearly everything that went into the Fairview had to be freighted from the port of Skagway. Belinda made the long and dangerous journey to the Alaskan coast to personally supervise the operation. She arrived there only to learn that Joe Brooks, the packer she had hired, had moved her goods just two miles inland before dumping them when getting a better offer to transport whiskey for Bill McPhee. Joe Brooks was now about to learn what Big Alex had learned—don’t cross Belinda Mulroney. Belinda marched to the Skagway wharves and hired the roughest men she could find. Legend has it that she then instigated a fight among them and made the last man standing her foreman. Whether that’s true, she was soon leading these lads up the trail. They caught up with Joe Brooks and his crew and quickly made the freighter regret his decision. Dumping McPhee’s cases of whiskey on the side of the trail, they loaded the goods intended for the Fairview onto Brooks’s pack mules and, with Belinda sitting on Brooks’s own pinto horse, climbed White Pass.
The Fairview Hotel was a cash cow. The bar alone took in $6,000 during its first 24 hours of operation. The dining room was equally lucrative.
By the fall of ’98, Belinda was known internationally. Scribner’s magazine was calling her “the richest woman in the Klondike” and others had christened her the “Queen of Grand Forks.” She became a character in the novels of James Oliver Curwood, and her dog, Nero, became immortalized as Buck in Jack London’s The Call of the Wild.
In 1900, Belinda Mulroney married Charles Eugene Carbonneau, purportedly a French count with estates in Europe. He was bold, dashing, and French-Canadian but no count of any kind. Before the truth leaked out, the couple honeymooned in Europe as the Count and Countess. In Paris they rode about in a carriage pulled by a matched pair of snow-white horses. An Egyptian footman unrolled a velvet carpet whenever they stepped from the carriage.
Upon their return to the Klondike, Belinda became the manager of the Gold Run Mining Company. When she took control of the company it was bleeding red. Within 18 months she had it making millions again. The “count,” meanwhile, was using millions of Belinda’s money to invest in European business ventures, but the Great War ruined his fortunes. He went quite mad and spent the rest of his life institutionalized.
Through hard work and daring gambles, Belinda recovered her lost fortune. One of her new businesses was the Dome City Bank of Alaska. When an investor accused one of Belinda’s sisters of embezzling from the bank, Belinda collared the man and horsewhipped him until, in the words of the Fairbanks Times, he “cried like a baby.” The man later claimed that Belinda had two men help her. “I needed no help,” she replied. “Twenty friends, all old sourdoughs of Alaska, begged to be allowed to take the work off my hands, but it was a family affair and I attended to it to the best of my ability. A blackmailer simply received a little Alaska justice.”
Belinda eventually left the Far North and built a large estate near Yakima, Washington. She lived there until shortly before her death at the age of 95 in 1967.
I suspect that if some professor told Nancy Kelsey or Belinda Mulroney, or the thousands of heroic sisters who came between them, that they were oppressed, repressed, and brutalized victims, they might give that professor a little Alaska justice.
Roger D. McGrath is a historian in California.