Elizabeth “Libby” Minerva Sumner Byers (1834–1920) was a Colorado social reformer who arrived in Denver in the summer of 1859 and spent the next six decades establishing and supporting the city’s early charitable organizations, schools, and churches. Her focus on the poor led her to found orphanages for both girls and boys, an Old Ladies’ Home, and the Ladies’ United Aid Society, which later led to the founding of United Way. While her husband William Byers used his newspaper, the Rocky Mountain News, to bring people into what became Colorado Territory, Elizabeth Byers built the safety net and institutions that allowed people to stay, transforming Denver from a mining town to a capital city.
Born on August 31, 1834, in Chillicothe, Ohio, Elizabeth Minerva Sumner was the third of Horatio and Minerva Sumner’s nine children. Her maternal grandfather, Robert Lucas, was governor of Ohio at the time. After Lucas was appointed first territorial governor of Iowa in 1838, the Sumner family followed him west, settling in Muscatine, Iowa.
On November 16, 1854, Elizabeth married William Byers. Like Elizabeth, William was from Ohio; his family had moved to Muscatine in 1850. A civil engineer and surveyor, William worked for US surveying parties and had visited the California gold fields. In spring 1854, when Congress created the territories of Kansas and Nebraska, William was appointed the first deputy surveyor for Nebraska Territory. He returned to Iowa to wed Elizabeth in the fall, and then she joined him in Omaha. Throughout their marriage, Elizabeth was William’s business partner, first keeping the books for the surveying business in Nebraska and later making real estate purchases in her own name in Colorado. Of the couple’s four children, only the two oldest, both born in Omaha, survived to adulthood. Their son Frank was born in 1856 and daughter Mary Eva (Molly) in 1858.
Arrival in Colorado
The Panic of 1857 devastated William’s surveying company, and the Byers family decided to leave Omaha after hearing news of gold strikes along the Front Range in 1858–59. Using money from Elizabeth’s father to buy printing presses, William published a guide to the new goldfields without ever having seen them. In April 1859, William and four of Elizabeth’s brothers took the presses via oxcart to what is now Denver, where they published the first issue of the Rocky Mountain News on April 23. It was the first newspaper published in what is now Colorado.
In July 1859, the family hired a man with a team of horses to move Elizabeth and toddlers Frank and Molly to Denver. When the team reached Fort Kearney (present-day Kearney, Nebraska), William and Elizabeth dismissed the man who was bringing them to Colorado and instead traveled with the new Overland Stage Company. The company had horses placed every ten miles, but the coaches had not yet arrived. Instead, there was a two-seat buckboard. “When we arrived,” Elizabeth later reflected, “I think I was about the eighth white woman in Denver, and when I climbed out of that little buck board with my two babies, I felt that I was the advance guard of civilization at the foot of the Rocky Mountains.” (Records show she may have actually been the ninth white woman in Denver.)
At the time, the settlements in what is now Denver were divided by the bed of the largely dry Cherry Creek. Auraria was on the west side, while Denver City lay to the east. In August 1860, in an effort to attract advertisers and subscribers from both towns, William Byers moved the Rocky Mountain News to a building on stilts in the middle of the creek bed. Around midnight on May 19, 1864, the creek flooded. Residents lucky enough to wake in time heard a noise like a tornado. Employees of the News, who had been asleep in the building, jumped out of the windows in time to save themselves, but the building and printing presses were lost in the torrent. At the time, the Byers family lived near the South Platte River just south of Denver. The river cut a new path through their land, leaving them stranded by the rising waters. Soldiers under John Chivington, a Methodist minister and Union Army colonel, rescued them by quickly converting a military wagon into a makeshift boat.
Civic and Charitable Work
Not quite twenty-five years old when she arrived in Denver, Elizabeth Byers dedicated most of the next sixty years to building institutions that would soften the city’s “rough edges” and support people in need. Already in January 1860, she hosted a meeting that led to the creation of the Ladies’ Union Aid Society, the first charitable institution in what is now Colorado. As president, she led the society’s members in making underwear, nightshirts, and bandages for Union soldiers in the Civil War. She also proved to be an adept fundraiser, collecting more than $500 in one day for relief efforts during the harsh winter of 1862. In her early years in Denver, Byers also helped found the city’s first school, library, and Methodist church. Meanwhile, she assisted her friends John and Margaret Evans in founding the Colorado Seminary, which in 1880 became the University of Denver. Byers served on its board.
In 1872 Byers worked with Margaret Evans and Frances Wisebart Jacobs to reorganize the Ladies’ United Aid Society into the nonsectarian Ladies’ Relief Society. By the end of the 1880s, the Ladies’ Relief Society had founded a nursery and kindergarten, and it regularly provided free supplies, food, and medicine to the needy. The Ladies’ Relief Society’s work had long-lasting effects. In 1875 the society established the Old Ladies’ Home, which remains in operation today as the Argyle, an independent and assisted-living center. In 1876, through the Ladies’ Relief Society, Byers supported Evans in the foundation of the Denver Orphans’ Home. By 1889 more than 1,000 children had found shelter at the home, which is now called the Denver Children’s Home and still serves children who suffer from neglect, abuse, or mental illness. Meanwhile, in 1887, Ladies’ Relief society cofounder Frances Jacobs expanded the group’s model to create the Charity Organization Society, the forerunner of the United Way.
Life was not easy for Byers. Two of her children died young, and her eighteen-year-old brother died after the doctor told her to give the wrong medicine. One of her houses burned, and another was flooded. William was reckless both financially and domestically; his affair with a woman named Hattie Sancomb ruined his chances of becoming the first governor after Colorado attained statehood in 1876.
Dauntless, Byers used her fundraising, organizational, and artistic skills to continue to help a wide variety of organizations throughout the 1880s and 1890s. In 1885 she established the Home of the Good Shepherd for Homeless Girls, followed in 1893 by the E. M. Byers Home for Boys. In 1887 she helped found the Woman’s Home Club, which later became the YWCA. She was a member of the Woman’s Club of Denver, the Pioneer Ladies’ Aid Society, and the Denver Woman’s Press Club. Elizabeth and William Byers supported women’s right to vote and provided space in the Rocky Mountain News for prosuffrage columns.
In June 1883, Elizabeth and William Byers moved into a new house they had built at the corner of West Thirteenth Avenue and Bannock Street, near their daughter Molly’s family. The Byerses lived at “Victoria,” as they called the house, for six years before building a new mansion in South Denver (later demolished for the Byers School) and selling the Bannock Street house to family friends William and Cornelia Evans.
In the late 1890s, Byers was credited with the decision to have the State Capitol dome covered in gold. Inside the capitol, sixteen stained-glass windows honor people who made significant contributions to Colorado’s early history, including William Byers. The Pioneer Ladies Aid Society nominated Elizabeth as well, but only as the wife of William, not for her own contributions. She did not want such a window for herself. “While I gladly accord my husband every honor he is entitled to, and rejoice that he is so honored and appreciated by his fellow-citizens,” she noted, “I remember that he and I stood shoulder to shoulder through all the trials and hardships of pioneer life, and I feel that I ought not to stand wholly in the light of reflected glory.” A window went to Byers’s friend and coworker Frances Jacobs instead.
William Byers died in 1903 and was buried in Denver’s Fairmount Cemetery. Elizabeth continued to remain active in charities and women’s clubs. She died on January 6, 1920, and is buried beside her husband.