Tomboy Bride, by Harriet Fish Backus

Review by Martha Quillen

Coloado History – December 1994 – Colorado Central Magazine

Tomboy Bride – A Woman’s Personal Account of Life in Mining Camps of the West
by Harriet Fish Backus
Published in 1969 by Pruett
ISBN 0-87108-512-7

TOMBOY BRIDE is the memoir of a woman who followed her engineer husband from mining camp to mining camp for a decade (which began in 1908 and ended with World War 1 in 1918). In this case, the Tomboy in the title refers to the name of the mines above Telluride, not to the author’s personality.

But Backus does seem to be game for anything when she goes as a newlywed to live above 11,000 feet in the bowl of an avalanche-prone cirque. Backus writes affectionately about perilous roads, meager quarters, heavy snows, good friends — even pack rats.

As a young woman, Backus delighted in almost everything, especially her husband. A slip on the ice, a headlong tumble into ten feet of snow, the one-hundred-foot snow tunnel leading to their outhouse — all served to amuse her.

While living near the Tomboy, Backus mourned the death of a neighbor’s child, fretted over the treatment of donkeys, mules and horses, and grieved over accidents suffered by miners and freighters alike. But she also loved the place, and that enthusiasm colors every page of her remembrances.

As her memoir continues, the reader feels the author’s growing caution. Children made Backus a different woman. After she and her husband moved away from the Tomboy with their young daughter, her enthusiasm was never quite so strong.

By the time Backus moved to Leadville, after living in Telluride, British Columbia, Nevada, and Montana, she was far more subdued. And her accounts of Leadville reflect it.

In Leadville, George Backus worked for O.A. King at Climax during a time of lawsuits and claim-jumps. At work, her husband was endangered, and at home, the family received threats. They had their second child, and bought their first house. She taught for a time.

The author’s views of Leadville are mixed. But the reader realizes fully that both the author’s fondness for mining camps, and Leadville’s glorious era, had waned by those dark war years. At the end of the war, George took a job in a manufacturing plant in California, thereby ending his family’s tumultuous adventure in the mining camps — probably none too soon.

All in all, the memoirs of Harriet Fish Backus record a cherished time in a long, happy marriage. In the end, however, a subtle melancholy pervades the tale, probably because, even as Harriet Backus lived them, the last real glory days of the Gold Rush West were dwindling. Although mining endured, dreams of mineral strikes more abundant than today’s lottery, no longer stir the heart. Except in books.

Tomboy Bride is a good, clear, generally amusing, but sometimes sad, account of yesteryear.

— Martha Quillen