Two Amazing Women and Their 7-Year Journey Through the Americas

Bethany Hughes and Lauren Reed (calling themselves “Her Odyssey”) traveled through two continents starting in 2015 from Ushuaia in Argentina, and ending in Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories, Canada. They traveled by hiking, backpacking, sea kayaking, river rafting, and canoeing across 14 countries, 18,221 miles. No, they didn’t do this all at once, but in multiple legs over almost seven years.

No book (yet), but this article describes some of their experiences. I love their goal of connecting with local inhabitants. Here’s the article in Paddling Magazine.




Helga Estby – Walked Across America To Save Her Family

Helga Estby (left) and her daughter Clara, 1897 in Minneapolis.| Unknown photographer [Public domain]

SPOKANE. Wash., May 4.(1896) -Mrs. H. Estby and her daughter, aged 18, leave tomorrow morning to walk to New York City. They are respectable, but will “rough it” as regular tramps and carry no baggage. Their object is to wear a new style garment, which they will exhibit when they reach New York. Mrs. Estby is the mother of eight children, all of whom are living with their father on a ranch near here, except the one going with her. The family is poor and the ranch is mortgaged. Mrs. Estby, seeing no other way of getting out, concluded to make the journey afoot.


What would you do for $250,000? That’s the equivalent today of the $10,000 promised to Helga Estby for walking across America in 1897 in an effort to get money to save her family farm. Helg’s story is amazing. Even if she only had one adventure, it was quite a big deal.

Helga’s Life Before Her Walk

Helga Estby had a tough life all around. She was born in Norway in 1860. Her father died, her mother remarried, and in 1871, when Helga was 11, they moved to Michigan. At sixteen she married Ole Estby, they had eight children, and they lived the first part of their married life in Minnesota. Their lives were like many pioneer families; the winters in Minnesota were brutal, they had to endure prairie fires, illnesses like diphtheria, hunger and the death of children.

In 1884, seeking an easier life, the Estbys moved to the area around Spokane, Washington. they bought a home in Spokane Falls and lived there with their six surviving children. But bad luck seemed to follow them. Helga was injured in a fall on a slippery street and injured her pelvis, requiring an operation. The family moved once again, to Mica Creek, about 25 miles southeast of Spokane, to a community with other Scandinavian immigrants.

Helga’s Desperate Wager

In April 1893, an economic depression hit the U.S. Ole couldn’t work because of a back injury, and they took out a loan on their property. But they couldn’t pay back the loan. They were in danger of losing their farm. In desperation, Helga somehow found a wealthy sponsor for a trip across America. She would receive $10,000 for making the trip with her 18-year old daughter Clara.

The conditions for the trip were specific: They had to work to get money, they were required to wear and publicize a new type of woman’s clothing (illustrated in the photo above),  and they had to arrive by a specific date, no more than seven months later. They also had to get a signature from the governor of every state they passed through, to document their travels.

Helga’s family and neighbors were not happy about this trip. The trip was seen as irresponsible, unseemly for a woman, and even scandalous. They were advertising Ole’s inability to care for his family, and women in traditional communities should never seek publicity.

I wasn’t able to come up with a name for the mysterious sponsor. One source said it was a woman, and others said it was someone in New York. Being naturally suspicious of anonymity, I read of Helga and Clara’s adventures with increasing concern.

Helga and Clara’s Journey

Helga, 36, and Clara, 18,  started on their 3,500-mile journey on May 5, 1896. They had to walk and decided to follow railroad tracks to keep from getting lost. They knew the tracks would take them into towns where they could buy things and find work. “Putting one foot in front of the other,” they set off, taking only a few things: a revolver, homemade pepper spray, and a curling iron for Clara.

They endured rain and sleet and were not welcomed in some of the towns because they were seen as “scandalous vagrants.” To cross the Blue Mountains, they had no blankets, boots or food. Averaging 27 miles a day, they were in Baker City, Oregon on May 24. In Boise, Idaho, they got their first signature.

In Park City, Utah, they found the Mormons more welcoming, and they got another signature. At this point, they picked up their new ankle-length bicycle skirts and continued.

Through Wyoming, where they were lost in forests and had adventures with mountain lions, they moved into Greely, Colorado. At this point, they needed new shoes (they wore out a total of 32 pairs of shoes on the journey). They were able to find shelter most nights and were often fed, especially as their story became known.

Somewhere after Park City, Helga and Clara started to gather more publicity. Railroad workers left jugs of water by the track for them, and they often received welcoming parties in the towns they visited.  Clara injured her ankle and they had to rest for 10 days. This was a bad setback, putting their trip 10 days behind schedule.

William Jennings Bryan, c. 1896 | Copyright by Geo. H. Van Norman, Springfield, Mass. [Public domain]
Congressman William Jennings Bryan and his wife welcomed them in Lincoln, Nebraska. Bryan was in an election contest for the presidency against William McKinley of Ohio, so both he and the Estbys got publicity from the meeting.

In my research, I found an article Helga wrote while after her trip while she was stranded in New York trying to earn money to return home. The article in a Norwegian newspaper describes Helga’s experiences as a gold and silver miner She used an ordinary frying pan to pan for gold in Boise, Idaho and she was able to go down into a silver mine in Park City, Utah.

Helga and Clara arrived in Des Moines, Iowa on October 17. They bought new shoes and raincoats and headed to Chicago. The weather was turning to fall, which meant rains and cold nights. In Canton, Ohio, McKinley signed a letter for them. They quickly marched through Pennsylvania, fending off two attackers with their revolvers.

They continued trudging onward. Linda Lawrence Hunt, author of Bold Spirit, says, “Each new destination strengthened Helga’s sense of achievement” and her confidence.

The Sad Aftermath of The Journey

Finally, on December 23, 1896, they arrived in New York, at the agreed-upon location of the New York World magazine. The sponsor refused to pay, saying they had arrived late (only a few days, and mostly because of Clara’s injury). They had no money and had to work to survive. All the mother and daughter wanted was to go home. Finally, a wealthy railroad owner gave them a ticket to Minneapolis, but it took them until the spring of 1897 to get back home.

Things got worse. During the time they were stranded in New York, two of her children died of diphtheria. The family blamed her for not being there to care for them. (Yes, that’s irrational; she probably couldn’t have saved them, but it was her duty as they saw it.)

Helga had made extensive notes and kept a journal of her trip, and she hoped to write a book about it for money. She started writing, but couldn’t finish. I was able to find one magazine article from the Minneapolis Star Tribune, that reproduced an article from an interview with Helga.

After Helga and Clara returned, the family farm was sold. They hadn’t saved it after all. Friends and neighbors turned their backs on the family and the family never talked of what had happened. When Helga died in 1942, a daughter burned all her notes.

It was only recently that one of Helga’s descendants found some material, which set Linda Hunt on a search for more, resulting in her book Bold Spirit.

Helga became a supporter of the women’s suffrage movement in later life. I think her journey made her think differently about women’s place in the world and how women can do anything they set out to do. She was brave, if naive, and I admired her courage.


Most of my information came from Bold Spirit. This article from HistoryLink was also a source.

Disclosure: The books featured in my posts have links to, and I receive money if you buy a book from one of these links.








Helga died in Spokane in April 1942. Her obituary in the Spokane Daily Chronicle made no mention of her amazing trip across the U.S.

Weetamoo – An Amazing Warrior In a Clash of Cultures

Weetamoo was an amazing woman, warrior and chief of a native American tribe who lived in a time of cultural change. She was an influential leader, but because she was a native American and not English – and a woman – her story has been mostly ignored. I had to do some digging so I could tell you a more complete story about her.

The time was the 1670s, in New England (Massachusetts and Rhode Island) a hundred years before the Declaration of Independence. The Salem witchcraft trials were about 20 years in the future (1692-93). Colonists from England had been living in the area for about 50 years and interacting with the native tribes.

Weetamoo was a sachem (actually a sunksqua) – a head chief of the Wampanoag, a group of native Americans. The term “squaw” comes from the word “sunk-squa;” it was a derogatory term used by the English colonists for women native Americans.

We know nothing about Weetamoo’s childhood, but it’s believed she was born about 1635, in what is now Rhode Island, as a member of the Wampanoag tribe. She comes into the records after she became sunksqua, on the death of her father.

Weetamoo as Chief

The conflicts between the native tribes in New England and the English settlers began almost immediately after the English arrived.  As more and more settlers came and needed land, they found new ways to take land away from the native tribes. For example, the settlers brought pigs and cattle with them. Of course, these animals would roam widely, onto Indian fields, eating their crops and stomping on the tender plants.

Sometimes the colonists would trick the native tribal leaders into signing away their lands.  The Indians thought they were just signing treaties of friendship, only to find that the colonists were claiming ownership of the lands. Then the colonial authorities jailed or fined the tribal leaders and took their land in payment for their “debts.”

The sachems in 17th-century tribes were not just leaders. They were diplomats and negotiators, trying to keep the peace while protecting the rights of the tribe. As chief, Weetamoo often went to the colonial court to argue against the confiscation and theft of Indian lands. She is said to have been a skilled negotiator, but it was difficult to fight the English. They believed God had given them this land and they weren’t about to let pagans keep it.

Weetamoo in King Philip’s War

Puritans Attacking King Philip’s Fort**

King Philip’s War is a little-known conflict between the native tribes and the English settlers in New England  (1675-76).

One native tribal chief was Massasoit; you may have heard of him in stories about the Mayflower settlers. (Actually, his name was Ousamequin; Massasoit means “chief.”) At the beginning of settlement by the Pilgrims, he had good relationships with them.

He had two sons – Wamsutta and Metacomet, also known as Philip because he was also friendly with the colonists. Wamsutta was the second husband of Weetamoo. (She had several husbands, as was the custom among the tribal women in this area.)

Death of Alexander (Wamsutta)#

Wamsutta (whom the English called Alexander) died in mysterious circumstances on his way home from a meeting with the English (1662). There is some concern that he might have been poisoned, but there’s no way to know. His death is one of the events leading up to King Philip’s War.

As I said above, tensions had been growing, and a couple of incidents set off the sparks that led to the conflict that began in 1675. Weetamoo led a band of Wampanoag fighters in several battles. The most famous was the Great Swamp Fight.

She was responsible for the safety of the elders, women, and children of the tribe, and she led the English troops on a frustrating march through the swamps until she and her people finally escaped. Weetamoo and her second husband Quinnapin led the tribal group north to Narragansett territory, away from the fighting.


Metacomet | Internet Archive Book Images [No restrictions]
While the English troops focused on Metacomet, they also targeted Weetamoo, knowing that she was a leader and that killing her would cause the fight to go out of the tribe.

Weetamoo and Mary Rowlandson: A Clash of Cultures

In February 1676, Weetamoo and Qunnapin attacked a colonial settlement and captured several inhabitants, including Mary Rowlandson. Mary later wrote an account of her capture, and she described Weetamoo:

Mary Rowlandson’s narrative | John Carter Brown Library [Public domain]

A severe and proud dame she was, bestowing every day in dressing herself neat as much time as any of the gentry of the land: powdering her hair, and painting her face, going with necklaces, with jewels in her ears, and bracelets upon her hands. When she had dressed herself, her work was to make girdles of wampum and beads.*

Mary despised Weetamoo. They were very different, in great part because they were women in different cultures. Mary didn’t understand that Weetamoo was a leader. Mary thought that making wampum was “women’s work,” but it was actually the work of chiefs; wampum was used as money and only the chiefs could make it.

Notice how Mary focuses on Weetamoo’s appearance. She seems to be saying that Weetamoo was trying to make herself into “gentry” (a high social position just below nobility). To Mary, a mere “squaw” couldn’t possibly be of high status.

Women in native American tribes were considered equal to men. They worked alongside them, trained as warriors, became chiefs, and led their people. They could marry and divorce as they pleased and they could hold property in their own right, all rights not allowed to women in colonial New England. Mary had a difficult time figuring out Weetamoo.

The two women had several memorable clashes, described in Mary’s narrative. Mary was supposed to work, but she sometimes rebelled. When she refused to work one day, Weetamoo picked up a stick and beat her. I’m sure Mary was surprised and angry.

Another time, Mary was reading her bible on the Sabbath when Weetamoo grabbed it from her, tore it up, and threw it away. The Puritans in New England at this time were actively trying to convert the native tribes to Christianity. Weetamoo was reacting against these attempts, as did many other native Americans of the time.

Weetamoo’s baby died on this trek, but Mary refused to mourn him. She said she was happy that now there was more room for her. It’s sad that these two strong women couldn’t connect with each other, but the cultural divide was too big to cross.

What Happened to Weetamoo

After almost a year of fighting and running, everyone was tired. The colonial leaders promised to let the tribes return to their lands and the native American agreed not to destroy colonial towns. Weetamoo and Quinnapin negotiated for their reward for the release of Mary Rowlandson and they headed home.

Of course, the English lied. Using some feeble excuses and the help of natives who allied with the colonists, they began attacking the native tribes. This time the tribes were not able to get to the swamps. One by one, the tribal leaders were captured and killed. In early August, Weetamoo’s sister and her son were captured. Quinnapin was captured in mid-August and Philip was pursued, cornered and killed.

Weetamoo and her family were relentlessly pursued. Someone betrayed them, and they were attacked. Everyone was taken prisoner except Weetamoo, who managed to escape. But not for long. There is no clear information about how she died. She may have drowned trying to escape and was found “newly dead.” Her head was cut off and set on a pole in Taunton. When the captives say her they “made a most horrid and diabolical lamentation.”

While the settlers would have liked to think the war was over, it wasn’t. In Our Beloved Kin, Lisa Brooks says:

The conflict that began in Metacom’s homeland continued long beyond his death, perhaps for another hundred years.” 

When two cultures collide, sparks fly. In this case, differences in beliefs about land led to armed conflict The colonists claimed victory, but at a high cost.

King Philip’s War is considered by many historians to be the deadliest war in American history in terms of losses. More than half of the colonial villages were destroyed or damaged by the native Americans, and both the tribes and the colonists lost many people. The tribal tradition at the time was for warriors to take their families with them, so when a tribe was attacked, a whole tribe could be wiped out.

Weetamoo was involved in this conflict and also a more personal conflict in her interactions with Mary Rowlandson. I doubt if the views of either of these women were changed by their clash, but we can see how it happened. And we can grieve for both of them. Both were proud and brave women.

Note: About 3000 Wampanoag still live in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, on a reservation.



Our Beloved Kin, by Lisa Brooks, is a more scholarly discussion of King Philip’s War and Weetamoo’s place in that war. Much of the detail about Weetamoo, including her interactions with Mary Rowlandson, are from this source.

Weetamoo: The Heart of the Pocassets by Patricia Clark Smith. Pictured above, this is a fiction work for ages 7-10, part Scholastic’s Royal Diaries series.

*”A Severe and Proud Dame She Was”: Mary Rowlandson Lives Among the Indians, 1675, in

**The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. “Puritans attacking King Philip’s fort” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1865.

#The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. “Death of the Indian Chief Alexander” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1885-11.


Disclosure: The books featured in my posts have links to, and I receive (a little) money if you buy a book from one of these links.

Ani Pachen – Brave Tibetan Buddhist nun and warrior

Ani Pachen | Nicolehood [CC BY-SA 4.0 (
Ani Pachen wanted to spend her life in simplicity and quiet contemplation in a Buddhist monastery in Tibet. Instead, she became a resistance fighter against the Chinese invaders in the 1950s, was captured and spent over 20 years in prison. But she was finally able to fulfill her lifelong dream. Her story is one of great courage and steadfast endurance.

Ani’s Commitment

Ani Pachen was born in 1933 and she grew up as a privileged daughter of a chieftain in eastern Tibet, in the town of Lemdha in the Kham province. Buddhism was the religion of Tibet, and she had an early calling to be a nun.

At 17, she overheard her parents discussing a man they were going to force her to marry. She was NOT going to marry, she decided. She got help from one of her parents’ servants when she threatened to jump off the roof, and she went to a monastery. Her father finally relented and said she didn’t have to marry; only then did she agree to come home.

When she came back, she settled into her life of contemplation. Then, in 1950 everything began to change. The Chinese invaded Tibet.

Ani as Rebel Leader

Her father was a chief and he and others began resisting as they saw the Chinese takeovers of villages and the humiliations and torture of Buddhist monks. The Chinese first promised a lot of things, but gradually things got worse, and it was obvious the Chinese were going to wipe out the Tibetans and their Buddhist heritage. “We have to make plans,” her father said.

In 1958, her father’s health began to decline and he died. He had groomed her to take over for him, even training her how to shoot if necessary. She wasn’t sure she could do it, but she knew she had to fight for Tibet.

Tibet’s culture at the time was one of equality; women and men worked side by side and women were fighters. As soon as her father died, the resistance fighters turned to her as a leader.

“That day I passed from my childhood. In a moment, I knew that my dream of a life devoted to meditation and prayer was no longer possible. Unable to follow my heart, I was bound by duty to carry on my father’s work. With my country threatened and my family in danger, I set about making preparations for war. From that time forward, my life was never the same.” (SM, p. 123)

Ani Pachen had to make decisions on where and when to fight. She was responsible for many lives and she had to keep encouraging them to fight. She had to be tough with her “troops;” at one point she ordered a man whipped who disrespected her. She hated doing that; it went against all that her non-violent Buddhist training had instilled in her. Even though she had a gun, she wasn’t sure she could kill.

More and more Chinese troops were pouring into eastern Tibet. The resistance fighters were able to buy weapons and the American CIA began to help them, mostly training resistance fighters. Ani’s troops headed for Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, but then they learned it had already fallen to the Chinese. They learned later that the Dalai Lama had already fled to India.

Tibetan monks in captivity | unknown. Public Domain.

Capture and Prison – For Over 20 Years

“Fear always followed us: fear of being captured, fear of being killed. At times the fear had no object, but floated like a vapor around us.” (SM, p. 163)

The Tibetan resistance fighters and their families lived scattered about Kham province, waiting for food and weapon drops by the Americans. Then the Chinese attacked from all directions. Ani and her fellow resisters tried escaping over the Himalaya mountain passes to India, but Ani and about 100 others were captured and marched away.

Ani Pachen spent the next 20+ years in various prisons and work camps. Each one was terrible, some more so than others. Her autobiography Sorrow Mountain tells of her life during those years. She was interrogated, beaten, starved, tortured, lived in squalor, held in isolation, and denied the ability to worship. Her treatment was worse than for other women because of her “crimes” (resistance) and her status as a “commander in chief.”

Many times she was told to give up and confess to receive special treatment. She didn’t believe the Chinese and she said she would never confess.

In one prison she worked in a laundry washing the clothing of Chinese soldiers; the clothing was full of lice. In keeping with her belief in no-violence, she would brush off the lice and seep them onto the ground so they wouldn’t be boiled and killed. She had to be careful not to let the guards see her.

For several years she was in a prison close to her mother and she was able to see her occasionally; after she was moved from that prison, she never saw her mother again.

During the Cultural Revolution in 1966, she was forbidden to speak Tibetan, wear Tibetan clothing, or practice Tibetan customs. The sacred texts were burned all over the country and any monasteries still left were destroyed.

“Seeing the smoke rise up from the direction of Sera [monastery] was more painful to me than being beaten.” (SM, p. 220).

She had a special turquoise bead that she had kept hidden in her clothes for many years. She hit it in a chink in a wall above a toilet. The guards tried to find it but didn’t. When she went back for it, it was gone.

After Her Release – a Dream Come True

Someone asked her many years after she came to Dharamsala, “What kept you going?”

“The wish to see His Holiness….”

Dharamsala, India  | Gayatri Priyadarshini [CC BY-SA 4.0 (
The 14th Dalai Lama is a special person to Tibetan Buddhists. They call him “The Precious One” and believe he is the reincarnation of the Bodhisattva of Compassion. He was the spiritual and temporal leader of Tibet and he is still a symbol of Tibetan freedom. The Dalai Lama’s escape from Tibet in 1959 freed the Tibetans to continue their resistance.

Since his escape, the Dalai Lama has been living in Dharamsala, India, as head of the Tibetan government-in-exile. Thousands of escaped Tibetans have come to this city to be near him.

After her release, Ani Pachen spent several years on pilgrimage throughout Tibet, including several years in solitude in a cave. Then she came to Lhasa to participate in the continuing resistance there. Finally, in  January 1981, with the Chinese watching her again, she was persuaded to escape to India.

It was shortly after her arrival in Dharamsala that she was able to meet with the Dalai Lama. They talked for a long time and cried when they spoke of their sorrow at what was happening to Tibetans.

Ani Pachen continued to live in Dharamsala in a nunnery. She died in 2002, at the age of 69. At the end of Sorrow Mountain, she said,

“As for me, the story will go like this: She led her people to fight against the Chinese. She was present at the protest in Lhasa. She worked to save the ancient spiritual teachings. When I die, just my story will be left. “ (SM, p 282)

Ani- Pachen’s life, her resistance, and her 20-year endurance were a testament to her faith. Could any of us endure as long as she did, continuing to fight for what we believe in?



Most of my information and the quotes above are from this book:

SM: Sorrow Mountain: The Journey of a Tibetan Warrior Nun. Ani Pachen and Adelaide Donnelly. Kodansha International. 2000. It’s part autobiography and part reflections. Although the accounts of her ordeals in prison were disturbing, I found the book interesting and inspiring.

I also got information from Buddha’s Warriors about the last days of Lhasa, the escape of the Dalai Lama, and the CIA’s involvement in aiding the Tibetan resistance.

You might also be interested in another book called Escape from the Land of Snows, which tells more of the dramatic story of the fall of Lhasa and the young Dalai Lama’s “harrowing flight to freedom.” I found this book at a library book sale and it has started a multi-year study of Tibet, Tibetan adventurers (like Alexandra David-Neel), and the history of Buddhism.




Disclosure: The books featured in my posts have links to, and I receive (a little) money if you buy a book from one of these links.

Marthe McKenna: Codename Laura – A Brave World War I Spy

Are spies adventurers? I’d say yes. Case in point: Marthe McKenna, a brave young woman who spied against the Germans in World War I.

Life in Belgium in the first part of the 20th century must have been idyllic. In 1892, when Marthe Mathilde Cnockaert was born in the village of Westrozebeke in the Belgian province of West Flanders, it would have been quiet countryside. But then came World War I, and the German army barrelled through on their way to Paris. And, worse, they stayed.

German troops invading Belgium. Deutscher Sturmwagen in Roye/Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-P1013-316 / CC-BY-SA 3.0 [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (

Life Under German Rule

Life was bad for the people of Belgium. The Germans took all the good food and supplies and left the people with almost nothing. There was bacon, putrid stuff nicknamed “Wilson” (after U.S. President Woodrow Wilson) and a kind of maize (corn) called “Hoover” (chair of the U.S. Relief Committee and later U.S. president) by the residents.

The Germans took their clothing to make sandbags, so they had to use blankets, tablecloths, curtains, and sheets for clothing.

Animals were also hard to find because the Germans took them too. One of Marthe’s neighbors had a goat that she loved and that gave good milk. She trained the goat to hide every time someone came into her house, by climbing into a hole between two houses!

How Marthe Got Started Spying

Marthe and her family were burned out of their home and had to move to a different town. She had been enrolled in a medical school, but it closed because of the war, so she found the only work she could do – as a nurse in a German hospital.

Like Rose Zar in World War II, Marthe was for a while living “in the mouth of the wolf” by working alongside the Germans. It was ironic that the Germans valued her services so much she was awarded their Iron Cross for distinguished service.

The dilemma for Marthe, like many people in Europe during wartime, was whether to help the hated Boche, as they were called to keep her family alive and get privileges or to resist and possibly be killed. Marthe found an uneasy balance – she worked with the Germans but she also spied on them. It was a dangerous life for a young woman with almost no training. She was even asked by one German officer to spy for the Germans and get more privileges! If she had said no, she would have been under his suspicion. She did some spying, but very little, toward the end of the war.

Marthe’s spying began when an acquaintance noted her liked Marthe’s cool, calm personality and intelligence and she persuaded her to spy for British Intelligence. She learned how to recognize fellow resistance fighters by the “two safety pins” they wore under their coat lapels. in the Philippines in World War II, Marthe worked in her father’s café in the evenings, where she passed on information she overheard. Like Joey Guerrero in World War II in the Philippines, she delivered messages and noted troop movements. Later she was asked to get information, which involved getting into restricted areas, a more dangerous task.

It’s ironic that women in Belgium during World War I were not able to vote or hold political office, but they could serve – and die for – their country by spying. 

How Marthe’s Dilemma Played Out

The central dilemma of all spying is whether or not to act on the information you have found. If you find out about something by spying, and you act on it, you might be able to stop the enemy temporarily, but the other side knows you were spying on them and they find new ways to communicate. If you don’t act on the information, you take the risk that your own troops or civilians will be killed.

Several times Marthe’s spying cost Allied lives. At one point, she notified the Allies of a big German ceremony in another town. The doctor at the German hospital wanted her to take some of the wounded German soldiers to the parade. Marthe had already told the Allies about the parade and she knew they were planning on disrupting it, possibly with bombs.

When she found out that she would have to be there, she tried to get word to the Allies, but it was too late. She was lucky that she wasn’t in the area where the bombs went off – it could have cost her her own life.

Mata Hari | Lucien Walery [Public domain]

Marthe  Was Not a Mata Hari

One part of the spying business that Marthe didn’t like was having to deal with German soldiers and officers. According to Tammy Proctor,* “Women, particularly working-class women, were seen as sexually available by many soldiers.” Woméen who ran boarding homes or cafés were particularly vulnerable and Marthe’s family ran a boarding house with a restaurant attached.

She had to pretend to be the girlfriend of a German officer and even spend a night with him, in order to get information. She always managed to avoid becoming intimate (or so she reports in her autobiography), but it was difficult.

The Most Terrible Secret Marthe Found

Marthe and another spy were digging in a yard when they found some suspicious cylinders.

Gas attack. United States. Army. Signal Corps. |[Public domain]
They reported the cylinders to the British authorities, who didn’t think they were important and called Marthe’s suspicions “highly speculative.” The true purpose of the cylinders became obvious on April 23, 1915, when the first choline gas attack was launched against the French at Ypres, Belgium. This was after the tear gas attacks and before mustard gas was used. Terrible way to kill people.

Marthe’s Life after the War

Marthe managed to survive the war without being captured. She was awarded honors by Britain, France, and Belgium for her espionage work. She married a British army officer named John “Jock McKenna.

During World War II, she was living in Machester, England, but she was still under suspicion by the Nazis and listed in Hitler’s “Black Book”  to be arrested if they invaded Britain. She died in 1966.

In his Foreword to her autobiography, Winston Churchill said,

“[She] fulfilled in every respect the conditions which make the terrible professional of a spy dignified and honorable. She reported the movement of troops; she destroyed, or endeavored to destroy, ammunition dumps; she assisted the escape of British prisoners; she directed the British airplanes where to strike at the billets, camps, and assemblies of the German troops, and thus brought death upon hundreds of the enemies and oppressors of her country.”


Sources: Most of the information for this article came from Marthe’s autobiography, I Was a Spy. The New York Times, in its article on Marthe McKenna in its Overlooked series, said, “Much of the account was later determined to be invented….”

*I also used information from the section on Marthe in Female Intelligence: Women and Espionage in the First World War. Tammy Proctor. NY University Press 2003


Disclosure: The books featured in my posts have links to, and I receive (a little) money if you buy a book from one of these links.

Anita Garibaldi – A Warrior and Adventurer for Love

Anita Garibaldi. By Gaetano Gallino (1804 – 1884) [Public domain]
Anita Garibaldi was a bright flame who shone briefly in her native Brazil and Italy.  She was the companion in arms and wife to Giuseppe Garibaldi and a hero in her own right. Her story is wonderfully romantic and tragic.

Anita’s Early Life

Born in 1821 in Brazil, Anita (named Anninha) was her father’s daughter. She loved being with him breaking horses or helping with the herds, rather than sewing for her wedding chest. She had her father’s love for the outdoors, mountains, streams, flowers, and trees.

When he died in a construction accident, Anita was devastated, and her mother was left destitute.

Statue of Guiseppe Garibaldi, Nice, France. Miniwark [CC BY-SA 3.0 (
Women in South America at that time were expected to marry, in part because they had no other way of making a living. Anita’s mother remarried quickly after her husband’s death, and she expected her three daughters to marry too. But Anita was willful.

Her father had said she would probably want to find her own husband. She agreed. But when her mother begged her to marry a shoemaker who was much older, she did, to get stability. He turned out to be a brutal, violent man. Her life was boring when he was sober and terrifying when he was drunk.

Then Anita met Guiseppe Garibaldi.

Giuseppe Garibaldi was a larger-than-life figure in European history. He was a freedom fighter who fought throughout his life for the cause of Italian liberation and unification. At the time they met in 1836 he came to South America as a political exile but also to help the Brazilians fight for their freedom.

He had long red-gold hair, dark blue eyes, and great charm. Just the sort of person Anita might fall for. It was love at first sight, for both of them. He was 29, and she was just 15. When he sailed on a short journey, she begged to go with him. He told the crew she was his wife. Anita loved the life of the sea and she quickly took on sailor’s duties and won the admiration of the crew.

Her Most Dangerous Adventure

Anita became Garibaldi’s companion in arms, went everywhere with her “Jose,” as she called him.  She fought with him and cared for the troops as a nurse after the battles were over. A few years after they met, on a campaign against the Brazilian empire, she was captured and put into prison. She shared her daily meal with other prisoners, refusing special treatment because she was a woman.

She managed to escape from the prison and hid in the woods until dawn. She got some help from a farmer and his wife and she headed south on a horse, through a summer storm. For two days and two nights, she got little rest and food, eating grass to keep going.

On the third day, she crossed a desert and a raging river. As she stepped out of the river, an imperial guard saw her, as her hat came off, revealing her hair. He fled as if he had seen a ghost. She finally found Garibaldi and his soldiers.

It didn’t take long for her to become pregnant, but she didn’t let it stop her from traveling with Jose as a guerrilla fighter. Twelve days after she had the baby (a boy named Menotti) she wrapped him in a blanket, slung him on her saddle, and rode with the men.

Italian Flag. I, Sailko [CC BY-SA 3.0 (
In 1840, Jose and Anita and their son went to Uruguay. He tried to settle down, but it wasn’t the type to do that. He soon took a post with the Uruguayan navy.

It was during this time that she made his famous “red shirt” uniform, and his comrades in Italy took on that name when they fought for freedom.

They had three more children, one dying from pernicious anemia. Garibaldi wanted to go back to Italy, even though he had a death sentence on his head in Sardinia.

Anita and the children went ahead of him in 1847 and lived with his mother in Nice. When they left, Anita told him she was taking red, white, and green cloth with her on the journey, to make him a flag to carry when she met him on his return to Italy.

Sure enough, in June 1848, she met his ship with the flag waving by her side.

Fighting in Italy – and Her Death

Garibaldi stayed only a few days in Nice after he landed. He took off immediately for Rome and she followed, leaving the children with his mother, determined to fight by his side.

They couldn’t conquer Rome, so they headed for headed off to fight in Milan. I can see her in her legionnaire uniform of “red shirt, baggy pants tucked into her boots, large round hat with a plume, concealing her hair.”

Anita was pregnant again, but she refused to go home. The Apennine mountains were difficult, and she was feverish and in pain. Her tent was lost on a pass, and she slept on a bed of leaves. In Venice, a doctor told her not to travel further, but she lied to Jose and didn’t tell him about the doctor’s orders. Through her “amazing willpower” she kept going as Garibaldi and his legionnaires tried to avoid the Austrian troops and escape to Switzerland to avoid a death warrant on him. She was weaker and weaker, stubbornly continuing to walk.

Finally, they found her a bed in the home of supporters and her body finally gave in. She died on August 4, 1849. Garibaldi had to leave immediately after she died because the Austrians were chasing him

Anita – After Her Death

Anita Garibaldi’s body was buried as an “unknown woman” to keep the Austrians guessing, but the neighbors knew exactly where she was. In 1859, Garibaldi and his two surviving children took her body to Nice to be buried.

You may be wondering why she would leave her children to fight with her husband. It’s simple. She said,

“I love my children, but…I love Jose more than I love any other creature in the world.”

Anita Garibaldi’s Monument in Rome / Sergio D’Afflitto [CC BY-SA 3.0 (
In June 1932, her ashes were taken to Rome, where a monument to her still exists. The Lisa Gergio, the author of the biography below, says,

“On the summit of [the hill of] Janiculum, her body outlined against the Roman sky, she leaps with her horse, not as an Amazon, but as a wife and mother who had turned warrior for the sake of the man she loved and of the freedom she learned to love.”



Most of the information in this article and all the quotes come from I Am My Beloved. Unfortunately, the price of this book is high ($45.19).

I also found information in Rejected Princesses: Tales of history’s boldest heroines, hellions, and heretics by Jason Porath. 2016.



Disclosure: The books featured in my posts have links to, and I receive money if you buy a book from one of these links. 


Rose Zar – A Courageous Woman In World War II Poland

Like many Jewish women in World War II, Rose fought for her life. Hers is a story of courage in the face of the threat of Auschwitz and death. Some of this is difficult to read but I wanted to share Rose’s story with you. She was truly a courageous adventurous woman.

Rose tells her own story in the book she wrote in 1983 called In the Mouth of the Wolf. Here are the highlights:

Fleeing the Ghetto – and the Extermination Camp

Rose Zar was born in 1922 and she was 19 and living in Piotrkow, a small town just outside Warsaw when the people there heard that the Nazis were rounding up Jews to be taken to extermination camps.

Rose’s father Herman Guterman, a smart man, realized that two of his children – Rose and her brother Benek – had a chance to get away and live hidden in plain sight. He said to them:

“If you’re ever on the run and have to hide, the best place is right in the mouth of the wolf.”

Rose and Benek didn’t look especially Jewish and they spoke Polish with no Jewish accent. They had also been taught enough about Catholicism that they could talk about it if necessary. Herman got them real Polish passports, changed their names to more Polish ones (she became Wanda Gajda) and added their photos. He told them not to stay together because one person could hide while two was too suspicious. So Rose was on her own – alone.

Benek found a job in another city and Rose found one in Warsaw in a leather shop making leather uppers for shoes. She said it was difficult because she had to listen to the anti-Semitic remarks by the shopkeeper and she had to watch them tear up copies of the Torah (the Jewish bible) for shoe linings. “It was hard wearing that mask,” she said in her book. “Very hard.”

This was only the first of many times she found it heartbreaking to be Jewish and not be able to react to anti-Jewish people. Finally, the repeated sexual advances by the shopkeeper forced her to leave.

Warsaw Ghetto. National Archives and Records Administration [Public domain]
About this time she found out that her father was forced to go to the ghetto in Poland but his wife and six-year-old daughter were sent to the prison camp. I found this part difficult to read, but it might have been terrible for her to learn about.

Hiding in Plain Sight

For a while, Rose went from job to job and shelter to shelter, always trying to stay inconspicuous. She said, “The key to survival under false papers lies in making yourself as inconspicuous as possible.” She learned to keep her papers and some money sewn in a belt, so she could walk away from a situation if she felt it was dangerous.

Sometimes she had to leave a house quickly, with no place to stay. One Christmas Eve she was staying with an old man and woman. The woman decided Rose/Wanda had to go. Rose couldn’t be out after curfew so she found a little shelter behind a garbage can in the cold and snow. As she tried to sleep she heard Christmas bells and thought,

Peace on earth, goodwill toward men. But not for Jews.

She said she could never hear church bells the rest of her life without thinking of that moment.

One day she met a man she knew from her home town who was also a hidden Jew. She liked him and was eager for a Jewish friend, someone who remembered the town. But she was also concerned that he was too open. He kept coming to her work and his presence outside made her conspicuous. He also has some problems with Polish, saying some things with a Jewish accent. Something as small as that could mean being arrested and taken to a prison camp.

Rose wasn’t interested in him romantically. She had a boyfriend back in the ghetto and she knew she couldn’t afford the luxury of a love affair.

The Germans occasionally took her and interrogated her, trying to trick her into revealing herself One German sang Ave Maria to see if she could recognize it. (Luckily, she did.) She had several close calls and learned to trust her instincts. She had been receiving letters from her family and she didn’t want to throw them away. But one day she decided to clean them out. That night, walking home from work, she had a premonition that she shouldn’t go home. After taking a long way home, she learned that a Nazi had been looking for her and had left just before she arrived home.

Rose in the Mouth of the Wolf

Krakow, Poland, WWII. S. Frąckiewicz [Public domain]
Finally Rose got what seemed like a dream job, as a housekeeper and companion to the wife of a Nazi colonel, the Kommandant in Krakow. She and the Kommandant’s wife became friends, and she took care of their baby when it was born.

She lived every day in fear of being found out, but she knew that she was probably safer in the home of a Nazi than just about anywhere else. The Colonel liked her and wanted her to marry a nice Nazi.

He was a cruel man, to his wife and to Rose/Wanda. Once, when his wife was away, he made her drink seven glasses of brandy; to the end of her life, she couldn’t stand the smell of it.

She would go to concerts with the colonel’s wife and sit with Nazi officers and their wives. She thought about sitting there with them not knowing she was Jewish. They couldn’t tell!

About this time, she read Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell’s classic story of the fall of the culture of the South. It had a profound effect on her. She said that before she read it, she had thought that after the war everything would go back to the way it was and they would all live happily ever after. Now she realized she was fooling herself. The Pietrkow of her childhood was gone.

Never again would I walk those familiar streets…that world was gone forever….No matter what the future may bring, it will never bring back the past.

In 1944, the Germans were in retreat from Poland as the Russians advanced. The Colonel sent his wife and child away. When he was ready to leave for Germany, she hid from him, coming out only when she was sure the Germans had left.

Life After the War

If you talk to people who lived during this time in Europe, their lives seem to be divided strictly in terms of “before” and “after” the War. The people of Poland welcomed the Russians (formerly their enemies) as they took over Poland.

Rose went back to Piotrkow and married her childhood sweetheart. They helped smuggle Jewish children out of Soviet-occupied Poland and lived in Germany for a while. Finally, they went to the U.S. and spent the rest of their lives in South Bend, Indiana. You can read more about Rose’s work after the war in the “Overlooked” article about her in 2018 in the New York Times.

The Courage of Rose Zar

Courage comes in many forms. Rose Zar had a strong will to live and she spent over three years in constant danger, but she focused on survival. How exhausting it must have been for to have been always looking over her shoulder, wondering when she might be grabbed. Every word, every gesture, could bring her to the attention of the Nazis and a trip to Auschwitz, which was only an hour away from Krakow.

Was Rose Zar an Adventurous Woman? Well, her adventure wasn’t a choice. Like Ada Blackjack, she was forced into her adventure by circumstances. And she certainly had adventures. But her attitude toward her fate and the courageous way she fought to stay alive makes her, I believe, truly an woman adventurer.

Rose’s story is worth reading. It would make a great book club book.


Disclosure: The books featured in my posts have links to, and I receive money if you buy a book from one of these links.

Caroline Weldon and Sitting Bull – The True Story

Sitting Bull. By Susanna Carolina Faesch, a.k.a. Caroline Weldon [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
Caroline Weldon was an Indian rights activist who decided she wanted to help the Sioux in their fight against the Indian Affairs people. She also wanted to paint Sitting Bull, the head of the Hunkpapa Sioux tribe and one of the most famous Native Americans of all time. Her story has been told in books and in a recent (2018) movie Woman Walks Ahead.

Movies and books often take artistic license by revising situations to suit narrative flow or other artistic interpretations. But this movie goes too far. A review on Rotten Tomatoes accused the movie of “grave historical inaccuracy.” Rolling Stone called the movie “one big falsehood” and says it “promotes a feminist agenda by painting over the pesky facts to make the story more palatable to lovers of romance novels.”

I was doing my research on Caroline Weldon when I came across the movie and I was appalled at the misrepresentation of her and of Sitting Bull. So I’m changing my usual narrative to contrast the “facts” with the movie version. I don’t want to stop you from enjoying the movie, just be aware that it’s far from historically accurate.

Why Caroline Weldon Came to the Dakotas

Caroline in 1915. Henry Sauerland, Mount Vernon, NY, USA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Caroline Weldon* was born Susanna Karoline Faesch in Switzerland in December 1844, which would make her about 45 at the time she was with Sitting Bull (not the beautiful 30-something portrayed in the movie.) Sitting Bill, chief of the Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux, would have been about 59 at his death in 1890 (not the virile 40-something of the movie). Yes, she was overdressed and she did, as the movie shows, tame down her wardrobe and hair after she came west..

Caroline was a widow with a young son, Christie (his existence is ignored in the movie). She was involved with a group called the National Indian Defense Association, who were protesting the break-up of the tribes. Her plan was to help Sitting Bull by being his secretary and translator and to paint his portrait.

A bit of background:

The U.S. government had been gradually taking over Native American lands. At first, they sent the tribes to reservations; the Five Nations owned about 21 million acres of land. The U.S. government believed the tribes would be “better off” if they had their own plots of land and farmed (the tribes didn’t want to farm). The Dawes Act of 1887 allowed the government to divide tribal land into allotments. The “excess” land would be sold to whites at market prices. (You can see where this is going.)

At the time Caroline was with Sitting Bull, government land agents were working hard to get the tribes (men, of course) to sign agreeing to the allotments. The situation was made more difficult by several things:

  • Gold had been discovered in the Dakotas. On Native American land.
  • The Indian rights people were trying to persuade the tribes not to sign.
  • The land agents were cutting food rations for the tribes, trying to force them into signing.
  • The U.S. Army still hated the tribes for Little Bighorn, where General Custer and his troops were all killed. Sitting Bull was blamed for leading the battle, but he actually wasn’t in the fight that day.

The final event that caused the government to become more aggressive was the emergence of a messianic cult that was inciting the Sioux and other tribes into a phenomenon called Ghost Dancing. The dances made the settlers and the Army nervous; they were afraid the tribes were getting ready to strike.

Back to the story…

Caroline made three trips to what was then called “Dakota,” to Ft. Yates and the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, where Sitting Bull lived. Her first visit was just for a few weeks, without her son. The second time, with Christie, she spent some time living with two women on a ranch 25 miles from Sitting Bull, and for a brief time moved to his home (but she stayed in a small house, not his cabin). The Sioux started calling her “Woman Who Walks Ahead” because she walked ahead of or with Sitting Bull, which a Native American woman would never have done.

Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill. Henry Sauerland, Mount Vernon, NY, USA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
She was forced to leave by the Indian Agent, McLaughlin. He twisted her words and portrayed her in the press as insane. (Really.) The press didn’t like the idea of a woman acting out of character for that time. They castigated her for leaving her son in New York, and they reviled her for bringing him into danger in Dakota. She couldn’t win with them.

Major James McLaughlin is portrayed in the movie as a terrible man. He at first liked the Indians, as long as they were compliant.  McLaughlin actually wrote a book called My Friend the Indian (1915)! He personally hated Sitting Bull, in part because of Little Big Horn. He liked to show off Sitting Bull, taking him on trips, including one to Washington, D.C. to “discuss” the Dawes Act.

McLaughlin told Sitting Bull what he could do and where he could go. In 1885 he allowed Sitting Bull to go to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, where the chief rode in the opening parade for a few months.

What Happened in the End?

Caroline begged McLaughlin to be allowed to come back to Dakota a third time, with her son. She returned in October 1889, planning was to spend the rest of her life living with Sitting Bull and his people. She loved the prairie and the Sioux way of life, and she had nothing and no one back East.

She came back to a volatile situation, with the Ghost Dancers stirring up trouble and Sitting Bull sick and tired, looking years older. She accosted the messiah and denounced him, which didn’t go well with the tribes – and Sitting Bull. He sided with his people and turned his back on her. He said he was ready to die, and in fact, he predicted his own death.

One source quotes her as saying,

“There I had been working for his interest and the interest of the Indians for years, was ready to share all the dangers, and he was foolish enough to believe me to be his enemy.”

She was furious with him for not stopping the Ghost Dances because she was (rightly) afraid that their actions would lead to violence. But Sitting Bull, as chief, couldn’t and wouldn’t interfere with the right of his people to celebrate their religion.

She left with her son for Kansas City. Her son, who probably had tetanus, died on the way. Sadly, she was castigated by the press for “neglecting” him (she didn’t).

McLaughlin, convinced that Sitting Bull was “in open rebellion against constituted authority, was defying the Government,” decided to arrest him. Sitting Bull was arrested by the Army and some of his own people on December 15, dragged out his bed. He protested the indignity, and in the process, he was killed accidentally by One Bull, his adopted son. Caroline had already left for Kansas City and she was nowhere near Dakota when he died. (That dramatic movie scene where she runs around in the snow never happened.)

One incident that’s true – kind of – is the horse. The horse, a circus horse, was a present to Sitting Bull from Buffalo Bill. The rumors were that when the horse heard the gunshots in the fight, he followed his training and started dancing (the movie version). Another rumor was that he bowed his head. Who knows?

What Was the Relationship Between Caroline and Sitting Bull?

Caroline’s role with Sitting Bull was as a secretary, translator, and liaison. They were very different, culturally and personally, but they clearly liked each other. Were they romantically involved? There’s absolutely no evidence of that. Sitting Bull had 5 wives and more than one at a time. (No wives in evidence in the movie.) And she did paint several portraits of him, one of which was hanging in his cabin when he was killed.

There is evidence that he asked Caroline to marry him. She was insulted and refused. It’s quite possible that the proposal was a way of protecting her from rumors, but not because he “loved” her. That concept wouldn’t have been in his vocabulary. And the steamy scenes in the movie would never have happened.

The movie portrayed her as being instrumental in getting Sitting Bull to fight the allotments, but a Native American man probably wouldn’t listen to the advice of a woman.

He wanted peace, but he also wanted freedom. Tough dilemma.

Of her life in Dakota with Sitting Bull and the Sioux, she said (quoted in Woman Walking Ahead),

“No one in the world was as happy as I, and I wish that all might have shared in that happiness. A city seems a prison to me….I enjoyed the freedom of the wilderness…I love the solitude, …and I was loath to leave it. But I had to go, as my life was in danger.”

Caroline went back to New York and obscurity. Unlike other women of the time, she never published any memoirs. Maybe the memories were too difficult to bear. She died in 1921 and is buried in Brooklyn, N.Y, in Green-Wood Cemetery. In 2018, the cemetery featured her in a celebration for Women Who Walked Ahead.


This NPR article interviews Michael Greyeyes, who plays Sitting Bull in the movie. He discusses the changes in the portrayals of indigenous people in tbe movie.

Willis Fletcher-Johnson. The True Story Behind “Woman Walks Ahead”- A Brief Historical Account of Caroline Weldon (part of a larger work). Johnson notes that Weldon didn’t begin using the name “Caroline” until after she left the reservation.

*Eileen Pollack. Woman Walking Ahead: In Search of Catherine Weldon and Sitting Bull. Bookbaby, 2018. Pollack, on the basis of Johnson’s book (above), chooses to use the name “Catherine.” Because she is included in Wikipedia as “Caroline,” I chose to use this name to make it easier for readers to find information about her.

Disclosure: The books featured in my posts have links to, and I receive money if you buy a book from one of these links.

Alexine Tinne – Intrepid Adventurer or Spoiled Tourist?

Alexandrine Tinne By Robert Jefferson Bingham (RKDimages, Art-work number 157161.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Alexandrina Petronella Francine Tinne in this image gives us a hint of her strong will. They say our character flaws are our strengths in excess. This was certainly true of Alexine, whose strong will may have been the cause of her downfall. Her various biographers differ on whether she was a true adventurer or just a wealthy woman traveling for pleasure. In this article, we’ll look at both sides of the controversy and how she met her fate.

Alexine was the only daughter of Henriette Tinne, part of the Belgian court and the second wife of an extremely wealthy man in Belgium. Born in 1835, Alexine was certainly spoiled. She had the run of her father’s library containing many geographies and travel books, and she got the travel bug. After her father’s death when she was 9 years old, Alexine and her mother traveled – a lot.

And they traveled in style. A typical trip included “mountains of luggage” and servants. Neither of these ladies was willing to give up any comfort to travel. By the time Alexine was 19, they had turned their eyes on Egypt and the Nile River.

Travels in Egypt and on the Nile

On their first trip to Egypt, they rode camels, with Henrietta (in her 60s) on a chair carried by two mules. They stayed with the Viceroy, put on plays, went to a society wedding, and met important people. Not much adventure here.

Dahabiyeh 1800s By Charles E. Wilbour (Brooklyn Museum) [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons
Always looking for more worlds to conquer, Alexine set her heart on another trip down the Nile. She had met some explorers (Speke and Grant) who thought they had found the source of the Nile, and she wanted to find it too. So she and her mother set off up the Nile, with the hope of getting to Lake Victoria.

On her third – and last – voyage down the Nile in 1863, she overspent on everything because of her trusting nature and the rogues she had to deal with and also because she had to take EVERYTHING. She knew little about the country she was going to travel through, so she didn’t take much that she needed (like enough food and goods to barter with).

Just to give you an idea of the scope of the expedition, she and her mother each had a boat, there were 10 months worth of provisions, 200 people, including 65 soldiers, 4 camels, 30 donkeys, and 12,000 cowry shells for bartering. The first captain they hired put a hole one boat in Khartoum because he didn’t want to go on the White Nile.

As you can see, Alexine was determined that she and her mother would go in comfort. They rode on sedan chairs or on their boats, never walking. They also had personal maids and pets with them. They didn’t get up early, taking their time in the morning, so they would only travel in the afternoon when the sun was hottest.

On the White Nile in an area called the Suud, they were in the rainy season, and were plagued by mosquitos, dysentery, and scurvy. Alexine had to deal with stubborn porters, at one point having to threaten them at gunpoint. Shortly after that, she was stricken with fever and had to be carried on a stretcher.

I could go on and on about the terrible conditions, but I’ll cut to the end. Harriet and her maid died. Alexine finally gave up after that and struggled to get back to Khartoum (bringing the caskets back with her).

After the Nile – and Her Death

After the disastrous end to her last trip, Alexine retreated to Cairo, where she lived for several years, alone with her grief. But then she began making new plans. She had no intention of returning to Belgium, where nothing and no one waited for her except the condemnation of society.

Public Doman from Wikicommons

She traveled “alone” in the Sahara in 1869(with a large retinue, of course), planning to travel from Tripoli to Timbuktu. Still naive, she traveled with the Tuareg tribe of nomads (and no European protector).

On August 1, she was killed when her camp was raided. There are differing accounts of the motive, and her body was never found. She was immediately hailed as a heroine and called “the first white woman to attempt to cross the Sahara.”

Differing Opinions on Alexine

Other explorers at the time had mixed reviews of her. Samuel Baker said, “…They must be demented! A young lady alone with the Dinka tribe…they must be mad!” (Of course, Baker was angry that they had taken the only steamer on the river.)

Dr. David Livingstone, famous explorer, wrote a positive review of Alexine saying that no African explorer was higher than she because she faced “the severest domestic affliction” and “nobly persevered in the teeth of every difficulty.” His estimation was influential and it affected Europe’s views of Alexine as a great explorer.

In 1907 William Wells wrote a short biography of her for Sunday School children, saying that her journeys were “done solely out of love to the cause….of exploring Africa and carrying intelligence to the poor [natives], and doing what lay in her power to abolish …the infernal slave-trade.” Of course, Alexine was appalled at the slave trade and she did her best to free some slaves to set them free, but he exaggerates. In addition, he says that she “seemed to have no love for fashionable and courtly society.” Really!?

More recent work gives us another view. Robert Joost Willink, the author of The Fateful Journey, spares no sympathy for her, saying that their journey was “far from successful.” He says they had no idea what faced them, especially in the Sudd,, their trips were terribly planned – they brought all the wrong things and nothing of the right ones. She was demanding, stingy to von Heuglin (a scientist going with them), making him pay his own way. Willink said she was “no intrepid traveler.” She drifted along on the tide, and she seemed to “be propelled by events that were beyond her control.”

Thoughts on Alexine

Alexine Tinne was brought up in a certain way, with specific expectations of how life was going to be. You know the type – nothing bad ever happened to her and she thought she could snap her fingers and everyone and everything would bend to her will. And then she came upon Africa and the Nile. The culture and climate were completely different from anything she had ever experienced. Running over everyone and making the world comply with her demands just wasn’t going to work anymore.

Her naivety and dominating personality caused her to take on an impossible adventure and to travel the way she had always done, not realizing she was up against an even more dominating place. The overwhelming heat, the disease, the natives, the animals, the Sudd, all combined to conquer her. Her mother joined her willingly, and Henrietta was the one who dismissed the warnings of John Speke, but the maids had no choice. Did Alexine cause the death of these women? I believe so, but do believe it was impossible for her to turn away. Joost says that “the traumatic impact of the journey would bring a radical change in her experience of travel.”

In her last journey, Alexine shows some maturity and bravery. By going into the Sahara on her own, she was just beginning to become a true adventurer and to become truly brave. But she was also foolhardy. Old beliefs die hard; she never really grasped how vulnerable she was. I was sad to read of her death. I believe she could have gone on for many more years, adventuring through the Sahara and who knows where else. But we’ll never know…



Travels with Alexine, by Penelope Gladstone, an even-handed biography.

The Fatal Journey,  by Robert Joost Willink, focuses on the final voyage and takes a negative view of Alexine, portraying her as dominating, thoughtless, spoiled. It does include some nice images of artifacts Alexine and von Heuglin brought back.


Disclosure: The books featured in my posts have links to, and I receive money if you buy a book from one of these links.


Isabella Bird – Rocky Mountain Adventurer Falls in Love

Isabella Bird. Public Domain. On Wikicommons.

Isabella Bird Bishop was feminine, dressed in women’s clothes and rode side saddle (only in town). She also was an experienced traveler who wasn’t afraid of anything or anyplace. Miss Bird, as many called her, was a world traveler, but I have been especially interested in her travels in the Rockies in the 1870s, in part because it was here that she met her “dearest desperado,” who was the love of her life.

Isabella is probably the best-known woman adventurer, next to Gertrude Bell. I talk to people about the Women Adventurers series, they will often mention her. This article focuses on her trip to the Rockies in 1873, with a focus on her travels in the mountains and her relationship with Jim Nugent.

Isabella’s Early Life

Isabella Bird was born in Yorkshire, England, on October 15, 1891. Her father was a clergyman who had trouble keeping a position, so they moved often. From childhood, she was frail, with spinal issues, nervous headaches, and insomnia. Because of her illnesses, she was taught at home. A fibrous tumor was removed from her spine, but she still continued to have problems, and the family spent summers in Scotland to see if it would improve her health.

She was an outspoken child, bright, curious, and a great reader. Her father taught her botany and she enjoyed looking for specimens on her travels.

Isabelle’s first trip was a family trip to the U.S. in 1854, and her letters back home were the basis for her first book, An Englishwoman in America (1856). The book was well received and she was on her way to becoming a celebrity.

Off to the Rockies

In 1872 Isabella started a long journey. She found that travel invigorated her; she wasn’t prone to seasickness and she enjoyed much better health when she was traveling.

Fall River @ Estes Park. Ewing Galloway [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
This trip began in Australia (which she disliked) and New Zealand (she liked it), and then she went to the U.S, with the aim of seeing the Rocky Mountains.

On her way to Estes Park, she stayed with two couples, and her time with them reveals the types of people who were living in Colorado in the 1870s. The first couple, the Chalmers family from Illinois, were “in all ways hard.” In A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains, Isabella described their faces “like granite,” their meanness, suspicion and ill humor.

They were also “simply incompetent.” When Mr. Chalmers offered to lead her to Estes Park, she had clear evidence of this: On the way, their horses took off because he forgot to tether them. And he lost his way and couldn’t find the trail; he even forgot the way home! Isabella, of course, took charge.

She also stayed with the Hutchinsons, a “more agreeable” young doctor and his wife. They were from Britain and not used to the ways of rough citizens of Colorado. The settlers “shamelessly” cheated them and they had no farming or domestic skills. Isabella again took charge.

Isabella was at her best and healthiest when traveling, and she was “enchanted” with the mountains, with the brisk air and beautiful scenery.

Isabelle and Jim Nugent

Mountain man. Internet Archive Book Images [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons
When Isabelle reached Estes Park in 1873, she saw a “rude black log cabin” with a dog out front and “a broad thickset man, about middle height. He wore an old cap, a ragged hunting-suit, and mocassins on his feet. He had only one eye and “‘Desperado’ was written in large letters all over him.” * He actually kicked the dog as he raised his cap. This was Jim Nugent, “Rocky Mountain Jim, AKA “The Mountainous One” “because of the extraordinary altitude of his lies.”

But she was shocked when he began to speak, because, she said, his manner was that of a chivalrous gentleman, “easy and elegant” and cultured. “I hope you will allow me the pleasure of calling on you,” he said to her.

I wasn’t surprised to hear he was Irish, born in Canada; this was a complex man. He had run away from home because he couldn’t marry his first love. He had been a fur trapper and Indian scout (he was about 45) and he did trapping and guiding and stock raising to get money to spend on “orgies of drunkenness and ruffianism.” But he also wrote poetry and was vain about his reputation. He was gentle and children adored him.

He offered to guide her through Estes Park and a spark was quickly lit in their relationship as they traveled and talked. She said Jim was “cultured, erudite, delightful.”

Long’s Peak from Mont Alto CO, Library of Congress[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The description of their attempt to climb Long’s Peak (14,700 ft) was comical. Picture Isabelle, who described herself as  a “short, plump, devout, high-minded English spinster of over forty…” (she was 45) in cumbersome Victorian dress and petticoats. She wanted to prove her bravery and courage by climbing the mountain, but her physical state wasn’t up to the challenge. She had to be “half-dragged” by Jim to the summit, as he tied her to himself and basically climbed with her on his shoulders. At times she crawled on her hands and feet.

Continental Divide / Bureau of Land Management [CC BY 2.0 ( or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Toward the summit, the last 500 feet was a “perpendicular crawl up a smooth cracked face of pink granite.”

After this adventure, she stayed in a cabin (not the same one where Jim was) and enjoyed his company and that of his friends. She knew she was falling in love with him and didn’t know what to do. So she went on a trip to Denver and Colorado Springs and was able to find her way to the Continental Divide.

She was running out of money and came back to the cabin, where their relationship became more and more complex and “emotionally charged.” She knew, she said, that

“He is a man whom any woman might love but whom no sane woman would marry.”

Although she doesn’t come right out and say it, it appears that he declared his love for her and asked her to marry him. Finally, after a good deal of soul-searching, she wrote to him saying “there can be nothing but constraint between us…It is my wish that our acquaintance should at once terminate. Yours truly, ILB.”

Pat Barr, who recounts this story in A Curious Life for a Lady, suggests that Isabella had a strong sense of self-preservation and her Victorian upbringing wouldn’t let her tie herself permanently to the man she called her “dear ragamuffin desperado.”

She left Colorado to avoid being stuck there all winter. She found out about a year later that he had been killed in a fight.

Somebody should do a movie about this adventure. It reminds me of The African Queen, with Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn, only their story ended more happily. Just for fun sometime, try the original of The African Queen, the book by C.S. Forrester.

Isabella had more adventures in many countries and she did marry a Scottish gentleman who hated traveling. I’ll be writing more about her story in a future article.

* The quotes from this article are by Isabella, quoted in Patt Barr, A Curious Life for a Lady.


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