By Virginia McConnell Simmons
It was sometimes said that she was frail, but in fact she was a tough survivor, her weapons being a sharp mind and a sharp pencil to protect her financial and psychological survival. As a girl, a photograph shows Augusta Pierce with an unsmiling expression and a thin body, a description that would fit her the rest of her life. As a baby, Augusta (1833-1895) received the name of the growing state capital, Augusta, Maine, where her father was a prosperous quarry owner. She grew up with the rock-solid New England virtues of living thriftily and abstaining from ostentation, although she also was a proud cousin of the abolitionist Franklin Pierce, who won election for President in 1854.
Perhaps it is surprising that the plain, prim Augusta appealed to the more gregarious, relaxed Horace Tabor, a stonecutter from Vermont who worked at Pierce’s quarry. But there was no rush. First he went to Kansas with a party of abolitionists and took up a piece of land for starting a farm. Two years later he went back to Maine and married the boss’s 24-year-old daughter in 1857.
For Augusta, memories of the wedding and honeymoon trip West were soon forgotten in her shock upon beholding Kansas, moving into the crude cabin Horace had built, and birthing a child, Nathaniel Maxcy Tabor, by late 1857. The baby, always called Maxcy, was named for a relative who apparently had come West with Horace. (Note for genealogy buffs: In 2018 a newspaper in rural Sutherland, Nebraska, reported a funeral service for a young musician named Nathaniel Maxcy.)
The subsequent two years of farm life were dispiriting for Mr. and Mrs. Tabor. When exciting news about the Fifty-niners in Colorado Territory reached Kansas in 1859, both were more than ready to trade farming for prospecting. Accompanied by little Maxcy and big Maxcy, they set out on the journey to Cherry Creek with an ox-drawn covered wagon for hauling the supplies and sleeping and buffalo chips for cooking.
After reaching Cherry Creek, they reconnoitered Idaho Springs, where Augusta was the first white woman in the camp. With good claims already being scarce, they moved on, back to Denver, down to Colorado City (the west side of today’s Colorado Springs) and up the roadless Ute Pass, hacking a passage for their wagon at they went and finally reaching Wilkerson Pass and the beautiful South Park. After prospecting in Buckskin Gulch, they made a horrendous crossing of the Mosquito Range to California Gulch and Oro City, where they stopped.
Horace was a moderately successful, hard worker. And so was the supposedly “frail” lady from Maine, who now was cooking and doing laundry for prospectors, waiting on customers in the store they opened, sorting the mail, and tending little Maxcy and their cache of cash. After the season of 1861, they had enough money to go back to Kansas and buy more farmland and dream about having a comfortable home and bountiful crops someday. In the spring, they returned to Oro City. But prospects were playing out by the mid-1860s, so back to Buckskin Joe they went for several more years with a store, post office and more prospecting.
By the mid-1870s, someone had figured out that the black stuff in the Upper Arkansas’ pans and sluices had really been a kind of silver, so by 1877 another big rush was on. Horace, Augusta and Maxcy, who now was nearly 20 years old, joined the throng and opened their store with a post office in the roaring new city of Leadville. Horace, meanwhile, was providing supplies and food for a couple of grubstakers while Augusta ran a boardinghouse.
In 1879 the Little Pittsburgh Mine was discovered, making the Tabors and their grubstakers extremely rich. Inevitably a fortune huntress, Baby Doe, soon appeared, while Augusta was vainly attempting to look prettier by plastering a ring of curls to her forehead. By 1881, Horace and Augusta were no longer cohabiting, and by 1883 the divorce was finalized. Humiliated, Augusta consoled herself with now being a very wealthy owner of valuable land in downtown Denver and of the Tabor mansion.
Formal portraits showed her with her customary unsmiling visage and pince nez. She traveled, supported philanthropies such as the Unitarian Church, and kept careful accounts of her properties with a sharp pencil. In 1892 she decided to move into the Brown Palace, where son Maxcy was manager.
Greater changes were about to occur in the wider world, though. The price of silver plummeted in 1893, and Horace was wiped out. Augusta’s carefully husbanded fortune was not. The following year she moved to fashionable Pasadena, California, and, there she was finally conquered by pneumonia during a short illness in January 1895. She was buried in Denver’s Riverside Cemetery. ?
Many of Augusta’s adventures took place in the beautiful areas about which Virginia McConnell Simmons has written books – Ute Pass, South Park and the Upper Arkansas.