By Katherine Browne
I stumbled upon Martha Maxwell during my search for this week’s Woman of the Week on the website for the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame which is a veritable gold mine of amazing women. I had never heard of Martha before but I am so glad I found her. Not only was she an amazing huntress, she was also a pioneer in taxidermy. The following information was taken directly from the National Cowboy Museum website (http://www.nationalcowboymuseum.org/research/cms/Exhibits/DidSheKillEmAll/tabid/129/Default.aspx) along with the photos used in this post. Thank you for taking the time to learn about this incredible lady.
“‘How could a woman do it?” “What sort of a woman is she?” “How did she stuff ‘em?” “I don’t believe them critters was shot; I’ve looked ‘em all over and I can’t see any holes. Did she pisen ‘em?” “Did she kill them all?”
These were some of the questions with which visitors to the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, bombarded Mary Dartt while she relieved her half-sister Martha Maxwell from the same interpretive duties. Martha Maxwell had been asked to represent Colorado Territory at the Centennial by displaying her collection of wildlife specimens presented in natural habitat groupings. Fascinated by unusual animals and “living curiosities,” most Americans would not have been able to see these creatures of the West unless they were displayed. Frustrated by visitor incredulity that a woman could have conceivably done all this, Maxwell put up a sign that read, “Woman’s Work.” From May 10 to November 10, 1876, the Centennial Exposition ran and attracted an estimated 9.8 million visitors.
Dartt reassuringly wrote, “Mrs. Maxwell is the woman who made a collection of the animals of Colorado, procuring herself, either by shooting, poisoning, trapping, buying, or soliciting from her acquaintances, specimens of almost every kind of living creature found in that region, skinning, stuffing, or in other ways preserving them.”
Naturalist, taxidermist, and markswoman, Martha Maxwell is worthy of historical scrutiny. One historian wrote, “Martha had come to see her work as the best way for her to demonstrate the abilities of women and thus to support the cause of feminism.” Another historian wrote, “What distinguished Martha from other taxidermists of the day was that Martha Maxwell always attempted to place stuffed animals in natural poses and amongst natural surroundings. This talent was what would separate her work from others and make her animals so popular with exhibitors and viewers alike.” About herself Martha wrote, “My life is one of physical work, an effort to prove the words spoken by more gifted women….The world demands proof of womans [sic] capacities, without it words are useless.”
Martha Maxwell was the first woman field naturalist who obtained and prepared her own specimens in the same manner as her male contemporaries and brought innovation to the design of natural history dioramas. In 1877 Smithsonian ornithologist Robert Ridgway named the little screech owl, Scops asio maxwelliae, after Martha for her discovery of this subspecies of owl.
Born on July 21, 1831, Martha Ann Dartt lived in Pennsylvania until she was sixteen when the family moved to Baraboo, Wisconsin. After attending only a year of college at Oberlin College in Ohio due to a shortage of funds, she returned to Wisconsin in 1852 to teach school. In exchange for tuition and living expenses to continue her education, Martha accompanied the two oldest children of widower James A. Maxwell to Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin. On March 20, 1854 they married. James was 20 years older than Martha and had six children. In less than two months Martha’s commitment to the temperance movement was evidenced when she was arrested, fined, and set free following her complicity in a raid on the Brick Tavern. Many bottles were drained in what was called the Whiskey War of 1854.
Following the financial crash of 1857 and the birth of their daughter Mabel on November 17, the Maxwells lost their fortune. This along with the lure of gold in the Rocky Mountains and the spring “Rush to the Rockies” in 1859 by gold seekers prompted the Maxwells to go west. By the spring of 1860, they had arrived in Denver. James took to mining, while Martha ran boardinghouses.
In 1862 Martha returned to Baraboo and to her daughter Mabel, who had been staying with relatives. For the next five years she focused her work in taxidermy and temperance reform being elected secretary of the Loyal Women’s League of Baraboo. By September 1866 suffering from poor health, Martha entered the sanitarium at Battle Creek, Michigan and remained there until the spring of 1867 when she returned to Baraboo. Shortly, she moved with Mabel to Vineland, New Jersey, a temperance community founded on idealistic and visionary principles. But, estranged husband James coerced Martha back to Boulder, Colorado.
Martha began collecting and preparing specimens in a feverish way. At first relying primarily on boys in the neighborhood for specimens, Maxwell obtained a gun, practiced her marksmanship, and began a series of collecting trips into the mountains. By September 1868, Martha had gathered 600 specimens and had taken them to the Third Annual Exposition of the Colorado Agricultural Society held at the Denver fair grounds. Governor Alexander Hunt of Colorado was so impressed with her collection that he asked her to represent Colorado at the St. Louis Fair in 1870. Selling this collection to Shaw’s Gardens for $600 in 1870, she set about over the following months to collect and stuff a new collection.
On June 4, 1874, Martha Maxwell opened her own Rocky Mountain Museum which inhabited three rooms on the second floor of the Dabney-Macky block at the corner of Pearl and 12th streets in Boulder. Admission was 25 cents. By the end of 1875, Maxwell had moved the Museum to Denver located in a building situated on Lawrence Street where the Park Central complex is today. During the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, Martha received national recognition and fame for her natural habitat displays and her taxidermic artistry. ”
Martha’s displays were a huge success and were predecessors of the dorammas we see today depicting animals in their naturals setting. She showed the world that a woman could be a capable hunter and taxidermist and played a part in the struggle for women’s equality.