19th Century Iowa Girl Goes From Mining Camps to New York City Jack-Of-All-Trades

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Courtesy Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division

Cynthia Westover Alden

“Father was a gold seeker, and when he determined to adopt the roving miner’s life he put me in training for rough experiences, for I had no mother and he would not leave me behind,” Cynthia Westover described her early childhood as the daughter of a geologist father. “He taught me to shoot, I could handle a rifle, and always carried a small Colt’s revolver in my belt.”

Born in Afton, Iowa, in 1858, Westover traveled frequently with her dad across the Plains. Her trip in a covered wagon in 1865 was the first of many. Spending much of her childhood moving between mining camps, Cynthia’s school attendance was sporadic. However, her well-educated father taught her to read with his geologic books, and she picked up math skills from watching miners’ card games. “I used to sit at the mouth of the mine studying my books, and father or some of the miners would help me out with tough exercises when they came up from below,” Westover told George L. Kilmer, a writer from the American Press Association.

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According to Kilmer, who interviewed Westover and published a detailed news article about her in 1892, she led an astonishingly adventurous life in the wilds of Colorado. The tales might make a reader question their accuracy, but they were entertaining. Once on a trip near Central City, Cynthia was chased by a black bear as she ran to an abandoned cabin where she slammed the rickety door shut in the bear’s face.

Even Westover admitted it was surprising that as a child she had the wherewithal to wedge her gun between the cracks in the log door and shoot the creature. And there was the time she was a passenger on a stagecoach when robbers approached the riders demanding valuables. According to Westover and Kilmer, she joined the driver in using her weapon to scare off the bandits.

Fact, fiction or exaggeration? Whatever could be said about her childhood adventures, Westover’s later accomplishments as an adult were factual and remarkable.

Despite her unusual early education experiences, Westover graduated from the university at Boulder, Colorado, in 1880. She moved to New York City for a time performing as an opera singer, before taking a civil service position working in a customs house, where she was hired to uncover female smugglers. In 1891 she took a position with the city as private secretary to the street commissioner. She often performed his duties—inspecting streets and superintending the all-male crews, managing them so skillfully that some said “they forgot how to swear,” according to the Atlanta Constitution newspaper in 1895. And the Italians on the crews were startled to find Westover was fluent in their language.

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Later, Westover put her scientific background to work as a cataloger of precious gems at the American Museum of Natural History. And while there she co-authored a guidebook, Manhattan, Historic and Artistic, an illustrated booklet featuring the sights a tourist should enjoy on a six-day visit to the city. For a time she held a position as editor of the women’s page at the New York Recorder newspaper. And the Academy of Inventors of Paris honored Westover for her patented hand-cart invention.

Westover became best known as the founder of the International Sunshine Society, which offered services for blind babies, with branches all over the world. Until the establishment of the agency, existing institutions admitted no one under the age of eight.

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Sources

  • “Cynthia May Westover Alden,” https://www.britannica.com/biography/Cynthia-May-Westover-Alden
  • Kilmer, George. “The Colorado Girl,” Roanoke (VA) Times, Dec. 14, 1892.
  • “Mrs. John Alden, Friend of Blind Babies, Dies at 70,” Brooklyn (NY) Daily Eagle, Jan. 8, 1931.
  • “She Is An Iowa Woman,” March 28, 1895, Dubuque Times.
  • “Some Noted Women Who Are Coming Here,” Atlanta Constitution, Nov. 10, 1895.
  • “Thought She Was a Man,” Elwood (Indiana) Daily Press, Jan. 9, 1893.

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