Augusta Tabor (1833–95), born Augusta Louise Pierce, came to Colorado with her husband Horace and young son during the Colorado Gold Rush of 1858–59. As an astute businesswoman and careful money manager, she helped her husband become one of the country’s wealthiest men in the late nineteenth century. Horace later left Augusta for Elizabeth McCourt Doe, but Augusta continued to prosper financially and was one of the wealthiest women in Denver at the time of her death.
Augusta Louise Pierce was born in Augusta, Maine, on March 29, 1833. She was the third of William and Lucy Pierce’s ten children. In 1853 she met Horace Austin Warner Tabor when he came to work for her stonemason father. They began courting and were engaged in 1855. On January 31, 1857, Augusta and Horace married in the Pierce home. A month after their wedding, the Tabors moved west to a farm in Zeandale, Kansas.
The Tabors arrived at their new home on April 19, 1857. They farmed in Kansas for two years. Although isolated from her family and friends, Augusta proved to be a hard worker and made a life for Horace and herself. In October 1857 she gave birth to the couple’s only child, Nathaniel Maxcy. The Tabors named him after a friend who helped deliver him, and they always called him by his middle name.
When the Tabors heard of gold in the Pikes Peak region in February 1859, they decided to move to the area. Horace, Augusta, Maxcy, and their friends Samuel Kellogg and Nathaniel Maxcy, left Kansas on May 5, 1859. It was a difficult trip. In addition to the usual hardships, Augusta was sick and had to care for Maxcy, who was also ill. After a long journey, they arrived in Denver in June.
Settling in Colorado
After spending a couple of weeks in Denver to rest their cattle, the Tabor party moved to the area now known as Golden. After setting up a tent, Horace, Nathaniel, and Samuel left Augusta and Maxcy with the cattle and headed up Clear Creek to Gregory’s Diggings, a gold strike about twenty-five miles west of Denver. The men returned for Augusta and Maxcy three weeks later and the whole party traveled to Payne’s Bar, now called Idaho Springs, where they settled in August 1859. While Horace spent his days searching for gold, Augusta established a bakery and earned money by selling pies and bread. She also sold milk, cooked meals, and nursed sick miners.
The Tabors spent the winter of 1859–60 in Denver, where Augusta continued to earn money by cooking. In the spring they moved briefly to South Park before continuing across the Mosquito Range to California Gulch near the upper Arkansas River. The Tabors arrived in California Gulch on May 8, 1860. Again, Augusta made money by feeding miners, doing laundry, serving as postmistress, and weighing gold dust.
Dreams of getting rich from gold led the Tabors to move back to South Park in August 1861. For the next seven years, the family lived and worked in Buckskin Joe, near present-day Fairplay in Park County. They ran the most successful store in the area, and Horace started to get involved in local politics. Horace was named postmaster, but Augusta did most of the work at the post office.
Despite their success in Buckskin Joe, the Tabors moved yet again in 1868, this time back across the Mosquito Range to Oro City near present-day Leadville. There they set up another post office and store. Over the next decade, Horace and Augusta ran three stores in the Oro City area. Augusta took on at least half of the workload by running the store, boarding residents, and managing the mail at the post office. Meanwhile, Horace traded equipment with miners in exchange for a piece of whatever riches they found, a practice known as grubstaking.
Striking It Rich
The hills around Oro City experienced a tremendous silver boom starting in 1877, when a new smelter built nearby made it possible to extract silver from the area’s lead carbonate ores. The area’s center of population shifted closer to the new smelter at the base of Carbonate Hill, where a city called Leadville was incorporated. The Tabors moved there from Oro City, and Horace continued his practice of grubstaking the growing number of speculators.
The Tabors found fortune in Leadville in 1878. That April, two prospectors named August Rische and George Hook visited the Tabors’ store. Horace grubstaked them, and the prospectors discovered a rich silver lode that became the Little Pittsburg Mine. Soon the mine was producing around $10,000 per day. Horace later sold his one-third share of the Little Pittsburg and used the proceeds to buy the Chrysolite and Matchless Mines, which made the Tabors millions of dollars.
Already by the end of 1878, Horace was one of the richest men in Colorado and had been elected lieutenant governor. Flush with cash, he began to spend indiscriminately. Augusta, on the other hand, did not like to waste money. Disagreements over spending caused many marital disputes. In January 1879 the couple bought a mansion in Denver, but soon they spent more time apart than together. By the summer of 1880, Horace had moved out of the Denver mansion, where Augusta continued to live, and was spending his time at the Windsor Hotel, where he carried on an affair with a beautiful young divorcée named Elizabeth McCourt Doe, also known as “Baby Doe.”
Pent-up tensions between the Tabors burst into the open in 1882, when Augusta charged Horace with desertion and sued him for $50,000 per year in “maintenance and support.” Both looked bad as the case dragged on throughout the year. Finally, toward the end of 1882, Horace pressed Augusta for a divorce, which was finalized in January 1883. Even though Augusta had played a huge role in earning the Tabors’ fortune, she received only a small portion of it. She got two properties valued at $250,000 out of an estate worth several million dollars. Within months Horace married Baby Doe. Stories soon circulated about a secret (but illegitimate) divorce between Horace and Augusta in Durango a year earlier as well as a secret (and legal) marriage between Horace and Baby Doe in St. Louis the previous September. At the time, Horace Tabor was one of the wealthiest men in the United States and was also serving as Colorado’s interim US senator, so the scandalous affair made headlines throughout the country.
After the divorce, Augusta lived a quiet life left out of the tabloids, but she did not withdraw from society. Instead, using the skills that had always served her well in ventures with Horace, she became deeply involved in business and philanthropy. Shrewd investments in Colorado and New Mexico properties restored her former wealth. She used that wealth to support the Unitarian Church in Denver. She also devoted herself to the Pioneer Ladies’ Aid Society, a charitable group that she had founded in 1860 with Elizabeth Byers and ten other women.
In 1893 Augusta leased her Denver mansion to the Commercial Club of Denver and moved to the Brown Palace Hotel, where her son, Maxcy, worked as manager. Toward the end of 1894, she developed a cough that refused to go away. Hoping that warmer weather would improve her health over the winter months, Augusta traveled to Pasadena, California, where she lived at the Balmoral Hotel. Unfortunately, the cough worsened as a case of bronchitis developed into pneumonia. Augusta died on January 30, 1895, at the age of sixty-two. While the fortune of her former husband, Horace, had been lost in the Panic of 1893, Augusta’s hard work, shrewd investments, and careful money management left her with an estate worth at least $1 million, making her one of the wealthiest women in Denver.
Earlier generations of historians sometimes portrayed Augusta Tabor as a nagging, frigid wife, but today she is remembered more admiringly for her toughness in navigating male-dominated mining towns, her sharp business sense, and her central role in making the famed Tabor fortune possible. In 1955 a monument in her honor was erected near the Tabors’ Kansas farm. That same year, the Tabors’ house on East Fifth Street in Leadville was turned into a museum. In 1991 Tabor was inducted into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame and the National Mining Hall of Fame.