Resurrecting the Colorado Countess

Yesterday, I browsed the women's page of the New York Times -- from August 4, 1901 -- where the very latest "Gowns Worn by Visitors to Our Town" were detailed. Mrs. E. Reeves Merritt, for example, wore " a simple white pique gown" with a skirt that cleared the floor and "was absolutely plain, without even an applied flounce." Mrs. Robert Ralston Crowsby, meanwhile, was spotted "shopping in a deep blue muslin thickly sprinkled with tiny white polka dots," and Mrs. Hildreth K. Bloodgood "was seen in town in a chic frock of denim."

And then, after the fashion update and other important news was breathlessly revealed (the young Duchess of Marlborough -- the former Consuelo Vanderbilt -- now had the "bearing of a matron twice her age," and anyone ignorant of her identity "would probably say that she was a woman with a tragedy in her life"), came his report on "The Colorado Countess":

At the tiny mountain hamlet of Palmer Lake, on the very crest of the Continental divide, fifty miles from Denver, old Countess Murat sits on the porch of her little vine-covered cottage these long summer days. Countess Murat has two claims to distinction. She is the only Colorado Countess, and she was the first white woman to enter Colorado: neither of which claim has ever been disputed.

Countess Murat was born at Baden-Baden on the Rhine seventy-seven years ago. In 1848 she was married to Count Murat. Not much is known of this romance of her life, for the old lady does not care to discuss it. The tradition among the old timers is to the effect that her husband was a wild young sprig of the French aristrocracy; and that upon his culminating a long series of escapades by marrying the pretty daughter of a German innkeeper, he was discarded, once and forever, by his family. They came away immediately to America. Countess Murat traveled with her husband overland to California in 1852, over the old California trail through Wyoming, and back again overland to Denver in 1858, and once overland from Denver to Montana in 1864. Twice since coming to this country she has been back to Europe for a year.

The Indians held up the emigrant train on which she came into Denver, and she, the only woman in the outfit, was concealed among the flour sacks for safety. She and her husband built their cabin on the spot where now stands the Denver Chamber of Commerce. No prophet told them that their site was some time to be the centre of the opulent business section, and later settlers made the fortune they might have had. Their only neighbor then was a great Indian lodge that stood directly across what is now Lawrence Street. The Indian women used to bring water and wood for the young white woman, the first they had ever seen, and they helped her to make the first American flag that ever floated over Denver. She made it out of her own red petticoat, with blue and white cotton bought of a Mexican trader. Count Murat was a well-known character in the early days of Denver. Suave, polished, and agreeable, he was a general favorite. He tried his luck at mining with some success, and two or three times accumulated what would have been a comfortable little fortune for some men. But his passion for gambling was inveterate, and he never rested till he had staked his last penny. During his impecunious seasons he would turn to the trade which seems the natural refuge of exiled Frenchmen, and shave the populace for a living. It came to be one of the attractions of pioneer Denver that it had a real live Count for a barber, and tourists made it a point to be shaved by him. Schuyler Colfax, Horace Greeley, Sam Bowles, and numerous other famous men have sat in his chair.

Finally he died, and left his wife not a cent. And that's the reason old Katherine sits on the porch of her little cottage at Palmer Lake. She earned that cottage herself, with her two hands, washing and doing housework after the Count died. She came up here because she thought she could make her living keeping summer boarders. And so she could, for old Countess Katherine's linen is snowy, and her table smiles with home-made fare. But now rheumatism has lamed her back and crooked her fingers, and erysipelas has impaired her eyesight. So she has but little except her $10 a month with which the Colorado Pioneer Society pensions her.

That's the real story of Countess Katrina -- or close enough. I'm sorry to say that I don't do the woman who was dubbed "Mother of Colorado" justice in the episode of Colorado Inside Out that airs at 8 p.m. Thursday. But I did get to wear a fetching bonnet, if not a "chic frock of denim." -- Patricia Calhoun

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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun