The Mexican cattle and rattle snakes made life a

terror for them in Eastern Colorado.… They are

certainly a strong testimony of woman’s endurance

and ability to care for herself.


An unseasonable cooling trend, causing daytime temperatures to dip fifteen degrees below normal to the low 50s, provided cloudy days for comfortable walking from Cheyenne to Denver. The cinderblock rails, however, tore the soles on their shoes, so on September 1, they stopped in Greeley, Colorado, at the King Shoe Company to buy some new “stout footwear.”1 A reporter heard about the “two females that stalked” into Greeley from “parts unknown.” The $10,000 wager and their “claim” to have been “hoofing” it from Spokane, with the goal of continuing to New York, seemed unfathomable. The reporter conceded, however, “that they were doing the pedestrian stomp, no one could dispute,” for their “appearance indicated wear and tear.” They were “tanned like baseball players and wore a faded, frayed-out Weary Waggles cut bias.” The reporter concluded skeptically, “They gave their names as Mrs. H. Estby and daughter Clara. The fakes left this city for Denver.”2

Such doubts over a woman’s claim to have walked unscathed through five sparsely populated western states, across high mountain passes and nearly deserted deserts did not surprise Helga. Her family and neighbors in Mica Creek doubted her, too. So, Helga kept a detailed notebook, recording faithfully the events and observances of the day “for a book which they calculated to publish when they got through.”3 She also sent hundreds of pages home to Ole and their children, keeping them aware of their daily progress.4 She likely included the little things that reporters seldom asked her about, like how the carol of the meadowlarks gave joy to their morning walks or how she and Clara rubbed each other’s feet at night to ease the pain. Did they include details on bathing in mountain streams, or did their modesty or fears of molestation keep them from such exposure? She surely wrote about the Indian Chief who befriended them and gave them trinkets that she proudly wore and how her earlier fear of Indians was changing.5

Besides the important connection with the family she loved, she believed their experiences would intrigue others. She wanted readers to hear about the generous hotel owners who gave them housing and refused to accept payment, and of the many farmhouse families who kindly sheltered and fed them. An accomplished seamstress, interested in fabric and design, she noticed the homemade quilts, lacework, and stylish fashions she saw in farmhouses and cities. These were good stories, of a good land and good people. Her abiding love for America, nurtured as an immigrant child, deepened daily.

While in Denver, the vibrant capital of Colorado, Helga visited Governor Albert W. McIntire’s office and added his prestigious signature to her document.

Courtesy Colorado Historical Society, photo by Harry H. Buckwalter, CHS-B980, 200030980.

Now much more interested in politics and society, her letters home likely told of her thoughts about women having the right to vote, what westerners said about Bryan, or the response of strangers to their short skirts. Did she admit to her discouragement, or did she abide by the western code of “swallowing your complaints … don’t talk about trouble”?6 Each day of travel expanded Helga’s awareness of her own physical and mental strength. But it also immersed her into the swirling ideas of a turn-of-the-century country in tension and transition.

The “pedestrians” exerted exceptional effort to visit Cripple Creek, which like Leadville, Colorado, had labor unrest in the mining district that kept federal troops in the region.

Courtesy Colorado Historical Society, photo by O’Keefe and Stockdorf, CHS-X4591, 20004591.

Outside of Denver, a bold highwayman attempted to rob them. Undaunted, Clara sprayed the dangerous man with her pepper gun and “rolled him down a hill.”7 This could be the same robber of whom Helga later claimed proudly, “I knocked him down.”8 They arrived unharmed to Denver, the capital of Colorado, a vibrant city of over 100,000 residents that emerged as a regional center for mining, transportation, and commercial interests as settlers moved west.

In Denver, Helga saw women’s strong interest in the campaign for the presidency because this election gave them their first chance to cast their ballot. Colorado passed women’s suffrage three years earlier in 1893, and now women actively organized for both McKinley and Bryan. In 1877, an earlier suffrage referendum for Colorado failed, partly out of many women’s apathy or disdain for the reform.9 But this changed in the following years, accelerated through the formation and growth of less threatening women’s organizations, such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, Ladies’ Aid Societies, literary clubs, and unions. Women in Colorado began to have a variety of opportunities for participation in social issues, intellectual stimulation, and political organization, and the idea of suffrage stayed alive. With an active Women’s Temperance Union, middle-class women began to see the ballot as a powerful tool for moral reform. The women Helga and Clara met throughout both Wyoming and Colorado in 1896 held a political power that Helga and Clara now recognized they lacked. While in Denver, Helga visited another powerful politician, Governor Albert W. McIntire, who added his signature to her document.

Helga wanted to visit the Cripple Creek gold-mining area where labor troubles were brewing, even though this detour added a few extra days, and even though two raging fires in April had destroyed the business district and hundreds of homes. So, on Sunday, September 6, they followed the railroad spur into the mountains. With the economic depression following 1893, miners throughout America were upset both by loss of jobs and unjust salaries. The miners in Cripple Creek, by striking, prevented the lengthening of the working day in 1893, and their union won another substantial victory after striking against mine owners in 1894.10 Because Ole belonged to a union, and Spokane Falls served the nearby mining areas, Helga may have been interested in labor unrest, or she may have been gathering observations for her potential book.

Helga’s frustration at their slow pace surfaced. The sponsor’s twin stipulations that the women must earn their own way across and meet a time deadline placed them in a double bind. With the journey only half completed and just over two months of time remaining, being bound by their contract to “not receive a cent in aid of their own expenses” was proving unworkable.11 The pattern of staying in a town for a few days to earn their own way by washing, scrubbing, or cleaning houses simply took too long.

Somewhere in Colorado, Clara fell on rocks. She severely sprained her ankle, which caused a ten-day delay and further risked their ability to fulfill the contract.12 With the December deadline looming, they needed to find a faster way to earn their travel expenses. Time was getting short.

Helga and Clara saw an abundance of natural beauty in the American landscape, such as the front range of the Rocky Mountains at Pikes Peak near Colorado Springs.

Courtesy Colorado Historical Society,

photo by Wm. H. Jackson, CHS-J2902, 20102902.

Detail of this photograph on this page.

Their trek out of Colorado Springs took them past the splendor of Pikes Peak, where the early morning sun cast a purple hue over the imposing mountain. Returning to Denver, they cut through the northeast part of Colorado, following the rails to Omaha.

As the ordinary and the famous citizens of America began to learn about the Estby women’s achievement, the sheer audacity of their accomplishment disputed the validity of the commonly held beliefs that women were physically inferior to men, they were a weaker sex that must be protected, and that biology was destiny. Victorian restraints emphasized that the female body should always be covered, that ladies must never sweat, and that physical exertion should take place in private. When women pedaled or walked the streets without corsets or padded clothing, and shortened their skirts, they broke with genteel conventions.

In the mid-1870s, a few women challenged these assumptions when they competed as pedestrian endurance walkers in women’s footraces, performing before large crowds in America’s major cities. Two such female athletes, American Mary Marshall and German Bertha von Hillern vied against each other in six-day walking races in Chicago and New York, which drew thousands of spectators. Von Hillern continued solo exhibits of walking one hundred miles around a track in thirteen cities, and one time performed the extraordinary feat of walking 350 miles in six consecutive days and nights.13 The Woman’s Journal, a leading women’s suffrage newspaper, asserted that her accomplishments refuted Victorian beliefs and medical claims that women were too frail to be full citizens.14

In 1878, a middle-aged performer, Ada Anderson, began walking exhibitions. Rather than the one-day walks of von Hillern, hers lasted almost a month and spanned hundreds of miles as she circled a track in the Mozart Garden in Brooklyn. In Chicago, Anderson’s exhibition sold more than 24,000 tickets to fans wanting to watch her spectacular proof of women’s strength.15 By 1879, more than one hundred women were walking for money and hundreds of newspapers chronicled these endurance efforts.

For a brief period, women suffragists saw these walkers as symbols for women’s rights and the sport received a measure of legitimacy. But the challenge to Victorian morality upset temperance and religious leaders who considered the women pedestriennes as disreputable. “Our modern female pedestrians are a disgrace to themselves and dishonor to society,” claimed a letter to the editor of the Chicago Tribune, “and an outrageous insult to every virtue which adorns true womanhood.”16

Controversy also arose over the public brutality of such sporting exhibitions sometimes promoted by unscrupulous, profit-hungry managers, who caused women competitors such as Anderson to walk in agony. This perception heightened public efforts to get the government to stop women’s sports for their own protection. Legislation against cockfighting and dog-fighting had already occurred because of cruelty to animals, and some argued that certainly women deserved equal protection from abusive practices.17 This fueled public disapproval, and the popularity of these events waned. Entrenched Victorian attitudes extolling the myth of women’s frailty, despite evidence to the contrary, still prevailed during 1896 when Helga and Clara walked across the continent.

Popular literature and newspaper advertisements caricatured women as the victims of a host of female complaints, and the rise in sales of vegetable compounds such as Lydia Pinkham’s marked the era.18 Exerting a woman’s intellect was even suspect. The popular health writer and prestigious doctor, Weir Mitchell, argued that a young woman’s “future womanly usefulness was endangered by the steady use of her brain.”19 “New women” challenged these common stereotypes, especially at women’s colleges that instituted rigorous physical education programs and active sports, like basketball. For some middle class and wealthy women, horseback riding, cycling, and golf became attractive activities. By wearing the reform costumes, Helga and Clara became identified in the public eye as examples of these new women.

Many doctors, however, perceived that an almost epidemic level of nervous afflictions were caused by these new women seeking greater involvement in public life. One leading male physician in the 1890s warned: “Women’s efforts, acted out rashly and foolishly, make her ultimately unfit for active life because of the perilous injury brought on by the deleterious irritations of the outside world.”20 This cultural attitude affected the first group of college-educated women, including Jane Addams, the eventual founder of Hull House in Chicago. Because most professional careers remained closed to educated women, many unemployed postcollege graduates with money took extended trips to Europe on “grand tours” to gain a greater sense of culture. Addams, who took two such tours in her twenties, lamented over this substitute for meaningful work. “I have been idle for two years—I have constantly lost confidence in myself and have gained nothing and improved in nothing.”21

Theological assumptions that God created women to function in separate spheres from men reinforced these beliefs. Senator George Vest, speaking about women’s roles in 1887, expressed the contemporary view: “I do not believe that the Great Intelligence ever intended them to invade the sphere of work given to men, tearing down and destroying all the best influences for which God intended them.… Women are essentially emotional. It is no disparagement to them they are so.”22

Some society women succumbed to a semi-invalid status, almost a fashionable disease, or endured bed rest strongly recommended by doctors. But women settling the West rarely lived genteel lives. Like Helga’s reality on the prairie, their daily survival often demanded physical strength, whether clearing the land with their husbands, tending to several children, farm animals, and a home, or planting and harvesting acres of farmland. When Helga’s fall on Riverside Avenue in Spokane led to her earlier bedridden status, she saw no glamour in the confinement. Instead, she risked experimental gynecological surgery to restore her robust health.

Helga’s and Clara’s actions showed assertiveness, required maximum effort and sweat, aggressiveness, intrepid independence, courage, and sustained physical activity. This journey also immersed them in nature, and the act of walking made them stronger. Traveling through the lonesome land of east Colorado, with the placid South Platte River meandering alongside, the women now contended with temperatures in the 90s. Whistling winds blew prairie dust deep into their clothes. With little human habitation, their companions became white-tail jackrabbits, antelope, prairie dogs, wild range horses, and pheasants. When Helga and Clara paused to rest, they found arrowheads from when the Arapaho and Cheyenne Indians hunted herds of buffalo to feed and clothe their tribes. Now settlers hunted the abundant geese, ducks, deer, and wild turkey. The sharp scent of silver sage, the turbulent moods of the sky, and the yip of a coyote calling its mate helped them endure the monotony of dry grasslands. They trudged northeast through Fort Morgan, Marino, and the abandoned city of Fleming on their route to Sterling. Here they saw the large fields of sugar beets, a major source of income for local farmers’ crops.

Always alert, Helga and Clara listened carefully for the dreaded sound of the diamondback, a terrifying rattle in the sandy regions that were “so thick with rattlesnakes as to make it almost impossible to get along.”23 They stepped carefully, always aware of their surroundings. Equally fearsome were the “Mexican cattle,” probably longhorns, “that are only afraid of mounted people.” As the women followed along the railroad tracks, they used their revolvers freely to protect themselves from the cattle.24 Earlier pioneers crossed this Overland Trail, many perishing en route as they sought to fulfill their own dreams. Step-by-step Helga and Clara kept trudging along, growing more aware daily of why Americans marveled when they arrived safely at each new destination.

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