Julia Archibald Holmes (February 15, 1838 – January 19, 1887) was born in Nova Scotia but moved with her family to Massachusetts when she was ten. Her parents were the major influence in her life – her father was a firm abolitionist, and her mother labored in women’s suffrage. Their zeal was so fervent, that they helped found Lawerence, Kansas on the Wakarusa River during the Bleeding Kansas time, moving there when Julia was sixteen, a few years ahead of the Lawrence Massacre. There was a movement at the time sponsored by abolitionist societies to move people from Massachusetts to Kansas, in an attempt to prevent Kansas from entering the Union as a slave state. Her father was a friend of John Brown, leader of the failed slave rebellion at Harper’s Ferry. In Kansas, their home served as a depot on the Underground Railroad, moving enslaved people north to freedom.
John Brown was a visitor in their home and brought along other acquaintances. One of these was James “Henry” Holmes, an abolitionist sympathizer and agricultural experimenter. The Kansas Historical Society retains some of the correspondence between Holmes and Brown. Holmes’s spirited defense of the abolitionist cause caught Julia’s imagination. Romantic sparks flew, and a courtship began, resulting in their marriage in 1857 when Julia was nineteen. They initially tried farming around Emporia, KS. but that lifestyle did not suit them.
The following year, Julia and Henry followed the new gold rush to Colorado. Arriving at Pike’s Peak, they decided to join another party, attempting to climb it. They reached the summit on August 5, 1858. She celebrated by reading Emerson’s poetry aloud, and then at the summit wrote a letter to her mother about the experience.
“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.“Robertson, Janet (2003). The Magnificent Mountain Women: Adventures in the Colorado Rockies. University of Nebraska Press. pp. 2–6. ISBN 0803289952.
Julia thus became the first recorded white woman to reach the top of Pike’s Peak. She said she wanted to show that women could do anything men could do. She climbed the peak in a “bloomer dress”, a controversial new fashion. Her account written for the feminist journal Sybil gained attention. She wasn’t a timid woman or one given to being discouraged. She wrote about life in Colorado’s gold camps, drinking from hot springs, and challenging feminine stereotypes.
Henry and Julia ultimately settled in New Mexico and eventually had four children. A trip to Washington D.C. landed Henry a territorial government position. The long trip back to New Mexico by mail coach was tough on a new mother. Henry’s strong abolitionist views put him in conflict with other government officials, and he moved to the newspaper business, working for the Santa Fe Republican. Henry felt that with his newspaper job, they were well enough established, and Julia should concentrate on domestic activities. Julia was unwilling to give up her career aspirations of writing for motherhood and became a correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune. Her columns were widely reprinted in Colorado, giving her some measure of fame. Meanwhile, Henry was arrested for sedition for his views in the Republican, but released after a short time in jail. Julia’s job became a source of dispute with Henry, and she divorced him in 1870, after thirteen years of marriage.
She looked for a fresh start, moving to Washington, D. C., where she met and became friends with Susan B. Anthony, women’s suffrage champion. She became a division chief in the federal Bureau of Education, the first woman to do so, and got in trouble for attempting to register to vote in 1871.
Julia continued in her fight for women’s suffrage, becoming secretary of the National Women’s Suffrage Association. Around Christmas of 1886, Julia fell ill. She died on January 19, 1887, and is buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in Washington, D.C.
In 2014, the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame admitted Julia Archibald Holmes, calling her a champion of women’s rights, and a model for women everywhere.
You can listen to Julia’s own words about her trek: