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  • “A Transparent Medium”:Mary Hallock Foote’s The Led-Horse Claim and the Mapping of Leadville
  • Amber La Piana

In 1879, Clarence King, director of the United States Geological Survey (USGS), initiated a series of monographs concerning the nation’s mining districts, the purpose of which was to record the locations of metal deposits as well as the manner in which they could be extracted. The inaugural volume of the series, Geology and Mining Industry of Leadville, Colorado: with Atlas, was published in 1886, though the accompanying atlas actually preceded the publication of the monograph by three years.1 In the same year the atlas appeared, Mary Hallock Foote’s first novel came out in book form as The Led-Horse Claim: A Romance of a Mining Camp.2 Foote doesn’t appear to have seen this atlas or monograph, though as the wife of a mining engineer who occasionally worked for the USGS she socialized with both King and the Geologist-in-Charge responsible for executing King’s project, Samuel F. Emmons. However, the kinds of topographical and geological maps collected there were closely familiar to her, and while such maps were meant to advertise the potential for wealth, Foote’s novel calls attention to the potential for violence in western mining districts.

Foote, whom Gary Scharnhorst has called “the most unjustly neglected western realist,” was the first American woman to write fiction based on her experience of living in western mining camps.3 Mary Hallock married Arthur De Wint Foote in 1876 and moved from New York as a trailing spouse, following her husband as he found work in different locations throughout the West. During one of their stays in Leadville, he managed operations for the Adelaide Consolidated Silver Mining & Smelting Co., which shared boundaries with the Argentine Mine. Though there was an [End Page 152] attempt to settle a boundary dispute between the two operations in court, “on the ground,” according to Foote, “it looked like war.”4 Foote describes the event that clearly provided the basis for The Led-Horse Claim, even though she protested that her novel, “with the exception of one incident, which is very much changed, is entirely a story.”5

[T]he Argentines . . . broke into the bottom drift of the Adelaide, the territory in dispute, and set up a barricade with a door in it. The door was not an invitation to the Adelaides to drop in any time to tea—it was a sallyport against the hour when they [the Argentines] should be ready to try the law of possession. The time of course was then—with orders hung up between East and West. But robbery arms did not succeed at that time.6

Foote continues, describing the defense of the Adelaide by a singular foreman against a “gang” of Argentines, a scene she recreates with slight adjustments in the novel. In the novel, the protagonist Hilgard must struggle against the manager and employees of a neighboring mine that has attempted to engage “the law of possession” by illegally occupying property that wasn’t theirs when the law fails to dispense justice because of a technicality.

During her lifetime, Foote was admired by contemporary reviewers as “one of the best known names in American Literature” and for her “artistic sense of proportion and a real though unassuming merit, not often found in like degree in books of Western Life.”7 Despite the praise she garnered for her work while she was alive, it took Wallace Stegner’s appropriation of her personal memoirs to reinvigorate interest in her literary career. Since the publication of Stegner’s Pulitzer Prize novel Angle of Repose (1977), Foote has maintained a periodic presence in American literary scholarship, initially as an adjunct to discussions of Stegner and later as an author in her own right. Even with attempts to draw attention to her during the 1970s and 1980s, including efforts by Richard Etulain, Lee Ann Johnson, and Melody Graulich, it wasn’t until the late 1990s that scholarship surrounding Foote’s life and work gained momentum.8

Since the late 1990s, several scholars have pointed out the usefulness of reading Foote’s fiction through a geographical interpretive...


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