In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Emily Dickinson’s Colorado
  • Georgiana Strickland (bio)

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Figure 1.

Samuel Bowles (1826–1878), editor of the Springfield Republican. Courtesy of the Jones Library, Inc., Amherst, Massachusetts.

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Figure 2.

Frontispiece to Our New West (1869). Author Samuel Bowles is at lower right, with his two traveling companions, U.S. Vice President Schuyler Colfax (upper center), and William Bross, lieutenant governor of Illinois.

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Figure 3.

Gray’s Peak, Colorado, then believed to be the highest of the Rockies. Original source unknown. From a scrapbook of the 1850s–1860s, author’s collection.

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Figure 4.

Helen Hunt Jackson (1830–1885). By permission of the Jones Library, Inc., Amherst, Massachusetts.

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Figure 5.

Colorado Springs, Colorado, with Pike’s Peak and Cheyenne Mountain in the background. Frontispiece to Helen Hunt Jackson, Bits of Travel at Home (1878).

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Figure 6.

“Cute Corners.” From Harper’s New Monthly Magazine 60 (February 1880): 391.

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Figure 7.

A company of Ute Indians. From Samuel Bowles, Our New West (1869).

Emily Dickinson never visited Colorado, and any essay purporting to center on her relationship with that state has the immediate task of justifying its own existence. The present essay originated in a particular occasion, the tenth-anniversary meeting of the Emily Dickinson International Society, held in Boulder, Colorado, in July 1998. “What has Colorado to do with Dickinson?” may have been a question in a number of minds on that occasion. I hope to demonstrate here that in some corner of Dickinson’s vast imagination there lived a vivid and frequently revisited picture of the Centennial State.

Mountains are Colorado’s most conspicuous natural feature, and mountains form an equally vivid presence in Dickinson’s poetry. That Colorado’s mountains are referred to nowhere in her poetry may be partly a matter of sensibility. Poetically speaking, “Gray’s Peak” cannot hope to compete with the more exotic-sounding “Chimborazo.” But more important perhaps, Dickinson’s knowledge of Colorado came after the “flood” period of her poetic output, the early 1860s, and, as Jack Capps (6–7) has observed, her use of place names in general decreased after 1862. Yet, while we cannot pin down specific references to Colorado in her poetry, it is worthwhile to examine what Dickinson knew about Colorado, how and when that knowledge reached her, and why it had special meaning for her.

Exactly when Dickinson first acquired knowledge of what we now know as Colorado is difficult to determine. Her school books would have had little specific to say about the area beyond general descriptions of the Rocky Mountains. Parts of present-day Colorado became United States territory only in 1848, just weeks after Dickinson began her final term at Mt. Holyoke, when Mexico ceded to the United States much of the Southwest, including southern and western Colorado, at the conclusion of the Mexican War. The portions of [End Page 1] the state north and east of the Arkansas River had been acquired from France as part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. There had been a few parties of exploration in the following decades, most notably those of Zebulon Pike, Stephen Long, John C. Fremont, and John W. Gunnison. The “mountain men” had come for beaver pelts, and a few trading posts had sprung up. But large portions of present-day Colorado — and indeed much of the West — were still terra incognita to most Americans in Dickinson’s early years. As one contemporary observer noted, “The scenery of the grandest half of the country was far less known to the people of the other half than that of Europe” (Merriam 2:2).

Probably Dickinson’s first specific knowledge of the region came in 1859, when gold was discovered in the Clear Creek area west of Denver. The gold rush that followed — with its motto “Pike’s Peak or Bust” — drew 50,000 would-be millionaires to the area, which was not yet a territory in its own...

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