Monday, April 1, 2013

Augusta and Horace Tabor: Founders of Leadville, Colorado

Leadville, Colorado 1870s

History books tell us that Leadville, like many other mining towns in the American Old West, was created by the rush of men and women following the silver, gold, and other rich minerals in the Rocky Mountains. When I studied Colorado history in college I was told that Horace Tabor was the founder of Leadville, that he supplied the miners with the money for supplies they needed to survive. I would ask you to withhold your judgement on this version of the Leadville story and instead read this story of the daily struggles, dedication, and dangers faced by his first wife, Augusta, as she followed her husband from camp to camp. I believe the only reason Horace had any money was due to the frugal behavior of Augusta, and if anyone should be given credit for the founding of Leadville it should be given to the hard-working, dedicated Augusta. 

According to The Miners by Robert Wallace, Horace Austin Warner Tabor was born in Holland, Vermont on November 26, 1830. He was one of five children of Cornelius Dunham Tabor and Sarah Ferrin. He left home at 19 and started work as a stonemason in Massachusetts. He then moved to Maine where he worked in a stone quarry owned by William B. Pierce. 

In 1855, Horace joined in an effort sponsored by the New England Immigrant Aid Society to populate Kansas with settlers who were against slavery by farming on Deep Creek in Riley County, Kansas, an area now called "Tabor Valley." In 1856, he was elected to the quickly-disbanded, free-soil legislature. Horace Tabor lived in Kansas during a time of great turmoil referred to as "Bleeding Kansas." His experiences during this time, and the violence and suffering he personally witnessed, may have strengthened his determination to succeed and to help his fellow settlers succeed.

Bleeding Kansas Poster. Kansas was not a safe place to raise a family in the 1850s!

Augusta Pierce Meets and Marries Horace Tabor

Augusta Pierce was born on March 29, 1833 in Augusta, Maine, one of ten children of building contractor William B. Pierce and his wife, Lucy Eaton. She was in her early twenties, an attractive dark-eyed beauty, when she met Horace Tabor who worked for her father in his quarry. 

In 1857, Horace returned to Maine to marry Augusta Pierce and they moved to the Kansas farm. Their son, Nathaniel Maxcy Tabor, was born that same year. Augusta's personality was greatly strengthened through the many dangers she faced raising a child in a troubled land--rattlesnakes living beneath their one-room cabin and the constant threat from local Native American Indian tribes was a lifestyle far different from what she'd experienced in her childhood home.

The Move to Colorado

Fortunately, the Tabors did not stay long in Bleeding Kansas. News of gold in the Colorado mountains sparked the adventurous spirit in Horace Tabor. The Tabor's packed their belongings and followed the Republican River Trail with their son, Maxcy, and two friends. It was a six week walk to the mining camps along the South Platte River and Cherry Creek, an area that was still considered part of Kansas territory and eventually became the City of Denver, Colorado. Augusta carried her son the entire walk, cooked their meals, and collected buffalo chips from the prairie for their nightly fires. 

According to Colorado State Archives, the Tabors arrived in Denver on June 20, 1859. Augusta Pierce Tabor was one of the first women to arrive in the early mining camps in Colorado and she was greatly admired by the primarily male population for her hard work and determination. She cooked for the miners, washed their clothes, and worked as postmistress while her husband, Horace, panned for gold.

The Tabors Follow the Gold

Horace and Augusta Tabor were pioneers in the truest sense of the word. Surprisingly, their opposing personalities were responsible for their ability to succeed. Horace Tabor took risks while his wife remained cautious and frugal. The strength, determination, business savvy, and occasional lucky guess made by Horace and Augusta kept more than one mining camp functioning smoothly.

The California Gulch Gold Mine was discovered south of Leadville in 1860. When Horace heard the news he once again packed his family's belongings and headed west with Augusta and Maxcy. It was a difficult and dangerous move for Augusta who nearly lost her life and child while crossing a river. 

The water was near-freezing when the horses started to cross. The depth of the river was greater than the men anticipated when they started in. Suddenly, the bed of the wagon carrying Augusta and baby Maxcy rose up in the water and started to float, carrying mother and child swiftly downstream. As they floated past a tree hanging over the water, the quick-thinking Augusta reached out for a branch. She clung to the branch with one hand while desperately clinging to her young son with the other until the men were able to rescue her and her child. When they pulled Augusta from the icy stream she collapsed, unconscious, but mother and child both survived. 

The Tabor's store in Buckskin Joe.

The Tabors arrived in 1862 when the mine was already panned out, so they built a cabin in Buckskin Joe, a mining camp near Fairplay, Colorado. Once again, Augusta washed clothes, cooked for the miners, and served as banker and postmistress. A seemingly frail woman at first, she proved herself to be amazingly strong, capable, and fiercely dedicated to her husband and son. 

Nathaniel Maxcy Tabor. Photo courtesy of Legends of America.

The family continued to follow the miners, and their financial situation improved with each move. They eventually settled in the mining camp that is now known as Leadville, Colorado. They opened a grocery store, offered postal services to the miners, and Augusta sold her homemade bread, pies and butter.

Tabor Grubstakes the Little Pittsburg Mine

The Tabors were both highly respected for their honesty and generosity and Horace often displayed his generosity by grubstaking, or advancing money, to other miners. In 1878, August Rische and George Hook, two down-on-their-luck miners, asked Horace Tabor to grubstake their supplies for $17 in exchange for one-third ownership of whatever they managed to dig up. They dug a hole in the side of a hill for shelter and continued to dig in that hole until it became the legendary Little Pittsburg Mine. 

Little Pittsburg Mine. Photo courtesy of Legends of America.

According to Robert Wallace, author of The Miners, the Little Pittsburg Mine produced $20,000 a week at its peak. Rische, Hook, and the Tabors, were suddenly very wealthy, as were many other miners in this area. The discovery of silver in the Little Pittsburg, along with passage of the Bland-Allison Act allowing free coinage of silver, started the Silver Boom in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. 

Fortune, Fame, and Politics

It was a man's world in the Old West and there is much to say about the life of Horace Tabor because there was so much written about his life, while the dedicated Augusta remained steadfast in the background, showing her dedication to their marriage through her hard work and careful bookkeeping. 

Meanwhile, in 1878, Horace Tabor was elected Mayor of the City of Leadville. He invested in the famed Matchless Mine, another silver mine that gave him an estimated $1000 a day in spending money, and spend he did, investing in numerous additional mines in both North and South America. Horace Tabor also purchased a real estate company, an insurance company, a gas company, the Tabor Milling Company and other investments that left Augusta deeply concerned. 

According to Wallace's The Miners, the conflicts between husband and wife continued to grow along with their great wealth. Augusta preferred security. She did not like risk, and she most certainly did not like the huge diamond ring her husband wore on his finger as he would strut through their town. Contrary to his wife's wishes, Horace insisted on hiring servants to show his great wealth to their friends. Augusta, who spent her days laboring in the home alongside these same servants considered the servants her friends and insisted on allowing them into the drawing room to listen to music and hobnob with the socialites. 

The Tabor's Denver Mansion, 1982. 
Photo courtesy of Legends of America.

Later that same year, Horace Tabor was elected Lieutenant Governor of the State of Colorado. In 1879, the Tabors moved to a 20 room house in Denver. They built the Tabor Grand Theater opera house in Denver in 1881 as well as the Tabor Opera House in downtown Leadville, Colorado.

Horace Tabor is Elected to the United States Senate

In 1883, Horace Tabor was elected to the United States Senate. This was the beginning of the end for Horace as Denver also had a popular newspaper, The Rocky Mountain News, run by a feisty publisher, William S. Byers, who did not like politicians. Horace Tabor's private life became very public when he committed political suicide by leaving the popular and well-loved Augusta to move in with his girlfriend, Baby Doe. The beautiful and seductive Baby Doe, who was also well-known in the mining camps--for different reasons--was 25 years younger than Horace and Augusta. 

At this point, one might think Horace Tabor couldn't possibly make his situation worse, but alas, he did. Tabor faked a divorce so he could marry Baby Doe. 

Baby Doe Tabor. 
Photo courtesy of Colorado Historic Society and Legends of America.

But wait, there's more! When Augusta Tabor filed a petition for support--not divorce, as might be expected--members of Denver's elite society learned that Horace and Baby Doe lived on $100,000 per month, while Augusta and her son received no support from her husband. Augusta survived by renting rooms in their home to boarders. 

Eventually, Augusta was given $300,000 in a divorce settlement, but she ended the divorce hearing by declaring to the judge that she had never wished for, nor asked for, a divorce from her husband. Augusta Tabor remained a dedicated wife to the very end. 

Horace Tabor was not re-elected to the Senate.

The Fall of Horace and Baby Doe, and Continued Success of Augusta

The financial panic of 1893 brought an end to Horace and Baby Doe Tabor's great wealth and they were forced to move into a small hotel room with their young daughters, Rosemary Echo Silver Dollar Tabor and Elizabeth Bonduel Lillie Tabor. Horace eventually retained his position as Denver's Postmaster to financially support his new family. 

Augusta Tabor, on the other hand, maintained the Denver mansion in the divorce. Remaining true to her own beliefs in charity and frugality, Augusta rented rooms to boarders and invested wisely. She continued to donate to charitable events and was a member of the Pioneer Ladies Aid Society. 

Horace Austin Warner Tabor died in 1899 of appendicitis. Augusta Pierce Tabor died in Pasadena, California on January 30, 1895, leaving her son, Maxcy, a 1.5 million dollar inheritance.

Tune in tomorrow for the continuing drama of the Tabors--tomorrow's story begins with B for Baby Doe! 


  • Kanzig, D. "Elizabeth Bonduel McCourt "Baby" Doe Tabor." Doeheads. Retrieved February 9, 2011.
  • "Leadville, Colorado History." Denver-Colorado Tourist Guide.Com. Retrieved February 9, 2011.
  • "Leadville's Famous Love Triangle: Horace, Augusta & Baby Doe Tabor." Retrieved February 9, 2011.
  • "The Rush for Gold." The Real West. History Channel Documentary. Originally aired Nov. 19, 1992.
  • Wallace, Robert. "The Halls of the Mining Kings." The Miners: The Old West. Time Life Books. New York: 1976.


J.L. Campbell said...

Interesting stuff. If you write historical fiction, you have great background information here.

Darla Sue Dollman said...

In addition to magazine and newspaper articles I also write short Western fiction stories in my spare time. If I ever take a break from blogging (the research for this blog is addicting to me!) I may even try to publish some of my stories! The American Old West is fascinating to me!

Greta N said...

It's great to hear some support for Augusta Tabor--She was clearly the brains and business manager in the family, and it irks me to continually read that "Horace did this" and "Horace earned that" on other websites, when in truth, they were business partners. Because she was married, cruel property laws of that era prevented her from owning her own money; the law said it was all the husband's--That's why he could take it from her so easily. Married Women's Property Acts passed in different states were the reforms that slowly gave successful married women the right to hang onto their bucks, even if Baby Does came looking to cash in on someone else's earnings.

Darla Sue Dollman said...

And yet, in spite of the laws and the cruel treatment of her husband--she fought so hard against that divorce--he died broke, and she left their son millions of dollars because, as you said, she was the brains behind the operation. He wanted the attention and praise, so he gave everything away. She knew how to invest, and when. Thank you for reading! And thank you for recognizing the goal of my post. I was, indeed, trying to acknowledge the contribution of Augusta Tabor to Colorado. She does indeed deserve more recognition.

J L Chadwick said...

It saddens me that the name most easily recognized today from this story in Colorado history is that of Baby Doe Tabor.

Darla Sue Dollman said...

Yes! My point exactly! Augusta was a true pioneer woman. A hero. A highly-respected businesswoman who dedicated her life to providing for her husband and son and she fought for her marriage and fought for her family, and she is the one we should admire.

Unknown said...

Hello Darla Sue!
Finally i think like you and i support Augusta because i am her descendant and because my granny talked to me about her whith much respect. My name is Dorothy sastre Laforgue. Thank you for all that you do and sorry for my bad americain but we are french now.

Darla Sue Dollman said...

Oh, I am SO excited to hear from you! Do you have any more information about her life? I have discussed writing more about her with a book publisher. I think SHE is the hero of this story and I always have admired her strength, intelligence and determination. Thank you for writing!

Christmas dinner for a family, from a series of photos documenting Gen. John J. Pershing's 1916 Punitive Expedition into Mexico. ...