The history of Horace, Augusta and Elizabeth McCourt Baby Doe Tabor is a rags to riches story full of scandal and intrigue in the Rocky Mountains. Horace Tabor, a simple merchant, grubstaked a couple of miners in Leadville, Colorado, and soon became wealthy and influential. He left his wife for a much younger woman — Baby Doe, resulting in high scandal. He died in poverty.
Horace and Augusta
Horace Tabor was born on April 6, 1830 to Cornelius Dunham Tabor and Sarah Ferrin in Holland, Vermont and had a sister and three brothers. When he was 19, he left home to work in the stone quarries of Massachusetts and Maine. William B. Pierce, who owned a quarry in Augusta, Maine, hired both Horace and his brother, John, and would later become Horace’s father-in-law.
Augusta Pierce was one of seven daughters and three sons born to William B. Pierce and Lucy Eaton. Growing up in a comfortable middle-class home, she was a fragile child but also strong willed. Horace and Augusta began a courtship that would eventually lead to marriage.
In 1855, Horace joined a group organized by the New England Immigrant Aid Society to populate the Kansas territory with anti-slave settlers. He moved to Kansas and homesteaded a piece of land on Deep Creek in Riley County, which is called “Tabor Valley” to this day. His hard work and willingness to help the anti-slavery cause got him elected to the “Free Soil” legislature, which sat in defiance of the so-called legitimate territorial government during a violent period of civil unrest, which earned the territory the name of “Bleeding Kansas.”
Early in 1857, he returned to Maine to marry the twenty-four year old Augusta Pierce and bring her back to Kansas. Rattlesnakes and Indians too often visited the area and Augusta, appalled by the raw ruggedness of the territory and the rough cabin, often fell to tears. However, they spent the next two years trying to make the farm productive until Horace began to hear stories of gold discoveries in the western part of the Kansas Territory (now Colorado.)
In the spring of 1859, they left Deep Creek with their baby son Maxcy and two friends from Maine. Following the Republican River Trail, they walked across the barely explored landscape of northern Kansas and southern Nebraska until they reached Denver. While the men hunted for food, Augusta tried to keep the campfire alive, often with only buffalo chips, since there was no wood on the high plains. It took them six weeks to make a trip that could be made a decade later by train in under thirty hours. Just one month after their journey on the Republican River Trail, Horace Greeley took the same route, describing it as “the acme of barrenness and desolation.”
Though Horace at first tried to prospect in fields close to Denver, he decided to try his luck farther inland, and in the spring of 1860, they headed to California Gulch, just south of Leadville. Their previous journey across the high plains was easy, compared to their trip to California Gulch.
Dragging loaded wagons over steep snow-bound mountain passes, they could still sometimes see the remains of the campfire they made from the night before. Augusta cleaned their clothes in icy streams, prepared meals from the barest of rations, and took care of baby Maxcy, during the journey. At one point, she almost lost her life while crossing a river, when the bed of the wagon rose from the swift running water and started taking her and the baby downstream. Catching a tight hold of some branches bought her enough time for the men to come to the rescue, after which she collapsed unconscious.
Their arrival in the gold camp at California Gulch made a curiosity of Augusta, the first woman known to venture into those parts. She endeared herself to the miners by becoming the camp’s cook, laundress, postmistress, and banker, using the gold scales she and Horace had brought with them to weigh the “dust.”
That first summer in the mountains earned them enough money to return to Kansas to buy more land, and to spend the winter in Maine. In the spring of 1861, they returned to Colorado, where they began to follow a succession of mining camps as they appeared, flourished and then dropped out of sight.
Traveling from one mining camp to another on the eastern slope of the Continental Divide, they prospected at Payne’s Bar (now Idaho Springs), Oro City 1, California Gulch, Buckskin Joe and Oro City 2. At each mining camp, she and Horace became the camp’s provisioners, a pattern that they were to repeat at other times in the next twenty years. Their travels took them twice more over the great Mosquito Range, and eventually to the place just outside of California Gulch that was to become Leadville.
Typically, Augusta would board and bake for the miners, while Horace tried his luck at placer sluicing or some other means of getting at the precious minerals. Mostly, he was Augusta’s partner in keeping store, running the post office and the bank for the various camps. Considered “sturdy merchants” by their neighbors, they were beloved for their honesty and Horace’s generosity.
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