Edwin James at long last might be getting the recognition he deserves.
An abolitionist, author, botanist, doctor, explorer and geologist, James fostered relationships with Native Americans and helped African Americans to escape slavery. James also is credited with having made the first recorded ascent to the summit of Pikes Peak nearly 200 years ago. Yet, for all his achievements, he is virtually unknown to even the most die-hard American history buff.
Mark James wants to change that and hopes to establish his great, great, great, great uncle as an important figure in the early exploration of the American West.
During a July 27 presentation at Bear Creek Nature Center, Mark James shared his passion for bringing Edwin’s accomplishments to light. He wants the community to embrace Edwin’s contributions, and to educate others about his importance and legacy.
A commercial and landscape photographer, gallery owner, historian and photojournalist, Mark has collected documents and letters and created black-and-white pinhole camera images that tell Edwin’s story. Through his traveling pictorial exhibit, “On Common Ground: The Edwin James Bicentennial 1820 – 2020,” Mark chronicles Edwin’s expedition through unexplored territory.
Mark photographed the trails upon which Edwin trekked, hoping to re-create the landscape as it might have appeared during Edwin’s expedition. Through his work, Mark hopes to illuminate Edwin’s story and capture a memory of an unspoiled western landscape. “I want to photograph the landscape as it might have appeared during Edwin’s expedition,” Mark said.
Born Aug. 27, 1797 to Daniel and Mary (Emmes) James in Weybridge, Vt., Edwin attended nearby Middlebury College in 1812. After graduation in 1816, he moved to Albany, N.Y. to study medicine and geology.
Edwin participated in the 1819-1820 expedition into unknown territory acquired in the Louisiana Purchase. Along the way he collected hundreds of plant species, one of which he named, “The Mountain Columbine,” Aquilegia coerulea E.James. Renamed, “Colorado Blue Columbine,” the plant later became Colorado’s state flower.
As part of Mark’s presentation, guests were treated to a hike in the woods to identify plants, including the flower bearing Edwin’s name.
On July 13, 1820, Edwin, 23, and two expedition members set out to scale Pikes Peak, reaching the summit on July 14. Many believe the honor of reaching the summit goes to U.S. Army officer Zebulon Pike, for whom the 14,115-foot mountain was named. Pike and his team attempted to climb the peak in November 1806.
However, waist-deep snow, inadequate clothing and lack of food prompted the team to give up their quest. “Pike didn’t have a chance and deserves more credit for what he endured,” Mark said.
Mark’s wife, Patricia, learned this truth while assisting her husband with his project she said. “It’s been through this journey I learned that Pike did not climb the mountain, and many people believe he did,” Patricia said.
In his later years, Edwin experienced numerous work-related disappointments and became a recluse. He died on Oct. 28, 1861 at age 64.
Mark believes Edwin’s self-effacing demeanor contributed to his obscurity. “Edwin wanted credit for his work. However, he was a humble man and saw himself as being insignificant. I am not trying to right a wrong, but want to dig him out of obscurity, and illuminate him and his contributions,” Mark said.
Edwin’s name isn’t completely lost to society: the 13,294-foot James Peak, centerpiece of the James Peak Wilderness, north of Interstate 70, is a testimony to his influence. “Edwin was very central to Colorado Springs,” Mark said.
Mark plans to scale Pikes Peak on July 14, 2020, the bicentennial of Edwin’s ascent to the summit. He also is attempting to re-trace the route which Edwin walked during his climb. “I just hope my body holds up during the trip,” said Mark, 64.
Local historian Roxanne Eflin described Edwin as an unsung hero of the American West: “He is a fascinating man and I want to learn more about him.”
Mark agreed: “For a man who was so obscure, Edwin had his hand in many areas. If I accomplished half of what he did, this story would be quite different,” he said.