Read about the people who built early Leadville
Big Minnie was first noted in the Leadville records in 1880. Minnie McNamara, also known as Big Minnie, was another influential woman in Leadville. In many articles, she appeared to have fought men, stole money, and got into fights with other women. This shows the tenacity of Big Minnie’s personality, and how she was not afraid to step on anyone's toes. However, it made her a target of violence herself. In one instance, Big Minnie was robbed while unconscious. Big Minnie had substantial economic influence for a woman of this time. She was known to make many enemies, however, her wealth was able to help her hire detectives and cover the risks of anything she was involved in. To have this kind of wealth was uncommon for unmarried women, showing what power she had in Leadville. However, that power only extended so far. Already alienated from Leadville’s middle class, Big Minnie’s romantic partner, John Williams, was African American, which may have contributed to people’s disdain for her. To this day, no one is sure if Big Minnie was murdered and her case remains unsolved today, though John Williams is speculated to be the perpetrator. One night during a fire at her apartment, Big Minnie was said to have ripped a 200lbs steel pole from the building in her night clothes and used it to aid her escape, something very unbecoming for a woman of that time. Big Minnie can be remembered as a powerful example of one of many Irish women who refused to adopt middle-class gender norms and was a force to be reckoned with within the Leadville community.
Women were considered bad luck if they ventured anywhere near a mine shaft and into mining jobs during the 1880s as they were exclusively for men. However, that didn't stop Hellen Donovan of Leadville from working in the mines. In the 1880 Federal Census, one can find 19-year-old Hellen listed as a lodger in a boarding house aside all men and listed as a miner. Unfortunately, this is the only source where Hellen can be found before she vanishes from the historical records, as many other working-class women so frequently did. Many widows in Leadville opened up boarding houses for miners, however, they were spaces dedicated to men and to see Hellen listed as an occupant of the house further shows the determination of working-class immigrants during this time to seek out employment regardless of gender norms.
Rosa Sullivan was born in Ireland in 1852 and married Canadian Ralph Wesley Sullivan before 1880 who owned Centennial State Laundry in Leadville. There, Rosa worked hard as a laundress and when she was not doing work there, she worked as a waitress and dishwasher at an unknown restaurant. Mrs. Sullivan had an abusive relationship with her husband, as it has been documented that they would have frequent verbal fights and a neighbor claimed she was frequently beaten. It has been reported that much of the money she saved would be taken by her husband to spend on alcohol. On May 4th of 1892, Rosa was found dead in her nightgown after being brutally beaten by her husband. Though few details of her life are documented, Rosa’s story is an important one that highlights the domestic abuse many women endured during this time. She will be remembered for the hard labor she was in trying to provide for herself and her household. Ralph Wesley Sullivan only served 8 years for the murder he committed.
Born Della Nora Holmes, D.N. Canfield is believed to be one of a few gender non-conforming individuals in Leadville. In the 1880s, D.N. was said to marry a man by the name of Silas G. Canfield, and together they owned and operated Canfield & Co., a drugstore in Leadville. D.N. is thought to be gender non-conforming due to an article published on July 18th, 1884, where D.N. is listed as Mr., and is referred to many times throughout the article as ‘he’. Though this could be a misprint, it occurs multiple times within the article and it is said that D.N. offered the journalist a cigar upon entering the shop, perhaps an offering to change how they were portrayed. Very little else is known about D.N., their husband soon remarried after their death and continued to keep the store until it went into debt and was eventually sold.
The “Self-Proclaimed King of Leadville” Philip Nash arrived in Leadville in 1883 after he fled from Pennsylvania and adopted the alias of Philip Frenny. He was one of many miners during the 1880s who left the Pennsylvania anthracite region in search of work.
It was unknown until his gruesome death that he had been a high ranking member of a secret society of Irish miners called the Molly Maguires for decades and had attracted attention from the Pinkertons, a security and detective agency trying to crush the movement. At the time, the Molly Maguires had resorted to violent tactics and were seen as a security threat, which caused many to carry anti-Irish sentiment. On many occasions, the Pinkertons came to Leadville, searching for Mollies that fled from the East; however, Nash avoided capture. It was said that on a few occasions, Nash encountered James McParland, a notorious detective at the time.
Unfortunately after his death, Nash’s name was disparaged for being involved with the Molly Maguires, and his death was sensationalized. Nash can be remembered for his leadership among the Molly Maguires, advocating for workers rights in the mines, and being a leader in the Butlers Township chapter of the Ancient Order of the Hibernians, one of America’s oldest Catholic fraternal organizations. Nash is currently buried in the Evergreen Cemetery Catholic Free Section.
John Gibbons was one of few first-generation Irish immigrants to elevate from the working-class to becoming a white-collar worker. Prior to moving to Leadville, Gibbons, a Molly Maguire, was found guilty by a court for conspiracy to commit murder and was sentenced to seven years in prison. It was then Gibbons took his entire family escaped and made their way to Leadville.
There, Gibbons worked as a miner. The Gibbons’ household once struggled to survive and make ends meet, being threatened by inflated company store prices, poor working conditions, and horrible pay. The appeal of Molly Maguire mentalities appealed to many like Gibbons, where a father and husband tried to provide for his family. He then eventually left the mines to work as a coal dealer and then an agent for the Rocky Mountain News, where he was able to conceal his past. He then started to accrue wealth.
Gibbons’ was not only a respected member of the Leadville community, but through this, he was a living example that proved the Molly Maguires were not as brutal as they seemed. He had been quite contrary to what people believed Molly Maguires to be: he was adored by many, involved in the Catholic church and fraternal organizations, and even ran for political office in Lake County. In his obituary, it was claimed that he was known “favorably” by “every man, woman, and child”. However, many did not know that much like other Molly Maguires, he had joined not to cause discourse within his community, but to fight for the rights and wages that would ensure his and his family's well being.
Michael Davitt was a Catholic from a working class family. He was a convicted gunrunner associated with the Fenian Rising of 1867 against British rule in Ireland.
In 1879, Davitt founded the Irish National Land League, whose mission was to abolish the landlord system in Ireland. They demanded "Three Fs”: Fair Rent, Fixity of Tenure and Free Sale. His vision was to unite Irish nationalists into one coalition known as the "New Departure," and to that end they raised funds all over America. They led mass demonstrations for which there were many arrests, Davitt being among them at least once.
He visited Cloud City to drum up financial support at least twice between 1880 and 1895. His first visit inspired the creation of a local Land League. When Davitt returned to Leadville in the fall of 1886, he praised Leadville for being “the first American city to respond to every call of the Land League for funds." Indeed, in 1881 the Irish World, a publication out of Boston which may have boasted up to 100,000 subscribers, listed Leadville as having been surpassed in donations only by Philadelphia and Chicago. In the context of the poverty and mortality rates faced by the Leadville Irish, this reflects a passion for justice that can only be inspired by such hardships.
The National League continued to be mentioned in national publications well into the 1890s.
Leadville was also home to a Romani population. The Romani are an Indo-Aryan ethnolinguistic group originating in South Asia, who traditionally lead a nomadic lifestyle. Among them was Anna Bolna, who immigrated from Hungary in the late 1880s. Much like the Irish in Ireland, the Romani of Hungary in the 18th and 19th centuries were subjected to cultural genocide and economic oppression. The rulers of the region at the time banned the Romani language, even the use of Romani names themselves, forbade them from owning horses, enacted anti-vagrancy laws, placed restrictions on Romani marriages, and ordered their children taken away to be raised in more upper-class homes, much like the Native American residential school programs of North America. Anna's husband, George, worked as a smelter and laborer, and they had four children in Leadville. Her 15 minutes of fame came in January of 1910, when the local newspaper reported that another Romani woman named Zuzi Bencko had hexed one of Anna's cows, labeling both women witches, saying that "the women had been talking, as women will," and that "in the babel of tongues it was hard to get at the facts." Most Romani at the time were either Christian or Muslim, so it is difficult to ascertain the validity of this account, although–like the Irish–the Romani people infused their religious beliefs with their own traditions and superstitions. Anna died at age 52. After having been bedridden for a number of months, she was apparently trapped in a house fire and died in her sleep of smoke inhalation.
Catherine Ferguson was a Black restaurateur (it is unknown whether she was the employee or owner), born in 1830, who lived in Leadville from at least as early as 1881 until at least 1913. She was one of several known Black Fergusons living in Leadville around the time, though it is unknown if they were all related. She was so well liked by the community that, in the early 1880s, the town threw a benefit festival in her honor. It is believed that her son, Charles, was involved with a liberal group called the Blaine and Logan Club, who supported James Blaine of Maine, who went on to receive the Republican nomination for President, but ultimately lost to Grover Cleveland. Blaine was the son of an Irish Catholic woman, which was unusual at the time for the distinctly anti-Catholic Republican Party, but he felt that his longtime opposition to the British government would resonate with Irish-Americans. Charles was chosen as a representative for the Club when it went to a conference in Buena Vista. Catherine lived with her son and his family until her death in November of 1914 at 85 years of age, having been preceded in death by her husband and son in years previous.
Michael Mooney was a Leadville miner, turned organizer, who had been born in Dublin around 1852 and immigrated to the U.S. as a teenager. In Leadville, he was an organizer for the Knights of Labor as well as a leader in the Wolfe Tone Guard, Leadville’s Irish militia with ties to Clan na Gael, an Irish Republican organization. In 1880, miners went on strike against the Chrysolite mine, demanding a raise from $3/day to $4/day, and Mooney was selected as their leader.
Mooney was a charismatic speaker with a keen eye for public relations. Knowing anti-Irish stereotypes would be leveraged against them, he forbade the miners from drinking or fighting while on strike. The strike was guided by values of respectability, nonviolence, Irish nationalism, and ethnic pride, rooted in Mooney's beliefs in the value of all workers and their rights to share in the fruits of their labor.
After the strike, Mooney married Sarah Gilgallon, daughter of an Irish miner who had moved to Leadville around 1880 from the Anthracite region of Pennsylvania. They had seven children, five of whom survived to adulthood.
Mooney was made to pay for his activism. He was blacklisted by the mine owners, and never worked again in a Leadville mine. But he persevered, ultimately becoming a well-known labor leader, delivering speeches across the American West. After the strike, he worked as a saloonkeeper for a while, then ran for Leadville’s city council in 1883 on the Greenback-Labor ticket. In 1887, the Mooney family finally abandoned Leadville. They moved to Seattle, then Butte, Montana in the 1890's. There, Mooney rose to a leadership role in the Butte Miners Union, a branch of the Western Federation of Miners.
Mooney ultimately settled in Los Angeles, where he lived from the early 1900s until his death in 1923 at the age of 71.
Clara Shimmin was an immigrant from Mexico. She was born in 1860 in Mexico, and was wed at age 15 to a man with the surname Clark whose given name is not known. Sometime after marrying, the Clarks moved to Leadville. By 1900, Clara was living alone--still married, but listed as head of her household and hosting lodgers. One such lodger, named James Shimmin, she married at some point. It is not known what became of Mr. Clark, exactly. James was an Englishman who had immigrated from England in the mid 1880s. 1906 records show he was working as a miner Western Mining Company. As of 1908, Clara had carved out a place for herself as the owner of a confectionary shop, and in 1909 worked at a notions store selling needles and other sewing materials. She died of unknown causes in October 1911, aged 51. It is not known if she had any children, surviving or otherwise.