A History Mystery

Our story begins in a small eastern Iowa farming community in 1840. It ends at a lonely grave along the old stagecoach road between Leadville and Buena Vista, Colorado. The headstone reads, “My Wife – Jane Kirkham – died March 7, 1879 – Aged 38 Years 3 Months 7 Days.”

Within those 38 years is the untold story of a pioneer woman who bore three children, traveled by wagon to Montana in the very early years of Montana settlement, where she bore another child. Then, she traveled the frontier to a yet-to-be-platted Colorado mining town and bore a fifth child. Finally, she was among the thousands that flocked to the boom town of silver-rich Leadville, Colorado, probably in 1878.

Eliza Jane Harris was born in Tama, Iowa, on November 28, 1840. She had an older brother, a younger brother, and two younger sisters. The youngest sister, Mary, was born in 1847, the year their father died.

In 1855, Eliza Jane’s widowed mother, Sibel Harris, along with her older brother, Martin Van Buren Harris, and her youngest sister, Mary Elizabeth Harris (Edwards), traveled in a wagon train from Tama, Iowa, to the Bitterroot Valley of Montana, leaving 15-year-old Eliza Jane along with a younger brother and younger sister in Tama. Why would a mother leave three children behind while she took her youngest daughter, then eight-years-old, and her oldest son, 16, to Montana at a time when Montana was just beginning to be settled? (The territorial capital of Montana, Virginia City, wasn’t begun to be settled until 1863.)

Who did they travel with? It would have been very unusual for a woman and two children to travel alone.

And, what were the prospects in Montana in 1855 for a woman and two children? She wouldn’t have been a prostitute with two children. School teachers had to be single. Laundress?

Back in Tama, Iowa, on July 30, 1857, 17-year-old Eliza Jane Harris married 20-year-old Philip Daily. Daily had joined the family in Tama from Indiana just one year earlier. Philip and Eliza Jane had three children born in 1858, 1859, and 1864. Then, sometime before 1868, Eliza Jane Daily, like her mother before her, traveled by wagon train to Montana, where she joined her mother and younger sister in Missoula. (Her husband remarried in Tama, Iowa, on July 28, 1868.)

Why would a mother leave three children behind to live with her in-laws? In the small farming community of Tama, Iowa, where everyone knew everyone else, is it not likely that Eliza was “asked to leave” (run out of town), possibly because of an affair?

In Montana, Eliza Jane, who went by Eliza or Eliza Jane in Iowa, now goes by Jane and marries Benjamin Franklin Kirkham, Jr. (He is listed in various sources as Ben, Frank, and B. F. Kirkham.) Did Eliza change her name to Jane to hide her past?

On June 29, 1869, the now Jane Kirkham gave birth in Missoula, Montana, to a son, James Oscar Kirkham, Oscar being the name of her younger brother.

On July 22, 1872, Jane gave birth to her fifth child, Mary Elizabeth Kirkham, in Colorado. The birth is listed in family records simply as occurring in Colorado, possibly because the birth occurred outside a designated city, town, or even county at the time.

Next, we find Jane Kirkham and her husband in Rosita, Colorado, a now-defunct mining town in southern Colorado that was not platted until 1873. In fact, Frank Kirkham is listed “as one of the first to arrive in Rosita” by the Pueblo Chiefton.

An 1874 report indicates that “the Ben Franklin mine, two miles north of town, is nearly 300′ deep and has yielded high-grade ore.” Later that year, Jane’s husband is reported in the Pueblo Chiefton newspaper to be the co-founder of the Golden Eagle mine located seven miles east of Rosita, yielding two to five ounces of gold per ton. Various quit claim deeds have Jane and her husband buying and selling town lots between 1873 and 1875.

The mines in Rosita began playing out after 1875. The silver “boom” in Leadville, Colorado, formed in 1878; in the meantime, the Kirkhams undoubtedly moved there.

There is no record of Jane Kirkham in the Leadville directory, first published in 1879. That is undoubtedly because she passed away before the directory was published in June 1879. However, her husband, Benjamin Franklin Kirkham, Jr., is listed in the 1880 census (after Jane’s passing) as living in Leadville, Colorado, with a younger brother, his wife, their children, and another brother. He is listed as a miner who has not worked in 10 months because of dyspepsia. Perhaps he was despondent over the death of his wife. He cared a great deal for her as her headstone was costly, and it took a great deal of effort to haul it by wagon 15 miles to the grave site.

Still, the question remains: Why is Jane Kirkham buried in a lonely gravesite 15 miles from Leadville?