Meet the World’s First Solo Female Travel Writer

24 Jul

In 19th-century Europe, women rarely traveled far, especially not alone, so Ida Pfeiffer had to come up with a good excuse. The Viennese housewife told her friends and family that she was going to visit a friend in Constantinople, but she really planned to go all the way to what is now Israel. Later, when questioned about her audacious journey, she said that her trip was a religious pilgrimage. The real reason, however, was that she wanted to explore the world like a man could—bravely, independently, following her curiosity.
 
At the time, travel in these regions was perilous, especially for a solitary woman. Pfeiffer, 45 years old, with neither status nor wealth, felt there was a high chance she would not return. In 1842, she got her will in order and set off down the Danube on a steamer. Over the course of about nine months, she passed through the Black Sea to the Holy Land, down to Egypt, and finally to Italy before arriving back home. Along the way, she sailed through river rapids, rode long hours on horseback through the desert, and braved mobs who stared at and manhandled her because she was such an extraordinary sight.
 
It would have been seen as immodest for a lady to pursue writing about her adventures, but a savvy publisher persuaded Pfeiffer to let him print her observations and reflections—anonymously at first, then under her own name. The book, Journey of a Viennese Lady to the Holy Land, became the first of a string of bestsellers and launched her travel career, which spanned 16 years, 150,000 miles by sea, and 20,000 miles on land, including two trips around the world. No known woman had ever traveled alone so far and lived to write about it. 
 
“That’s what made her so famous,” says John van Wyhe, a historian of science at the National University of Singapore and the author of Wanderlust: The Amazing Ida Pfeiffer, the First Female Tourist, which was released this month. “Everywhere she went, people were just astonished that she was traveling by herself. She’s such an improbable hero—she’s not wealthy, she’s not beautiful, she’s not educated—and yet she does all of these amazing things.”

Pfeiffer was born in 1797 in Vienna, and she endured an unusual upbringing that prepared her well for her later pursuits. Her father was a well-to-do merchant but ran an austere household, toughening up his seven children with meager diets and few comforts. But he also allowed young Ida to wear boys’ clothing and romp around with her five brothers. (She also had a sister who was born later.) “I was not shy,” she wrote decades later of her childhood, “but wild as a boy, and bolder and more forward than my elder brothers.” 

  

When she was almost nine, Pfeiffer’s father died, and her mother began imposing the strictures of girlhood that Pfeiffer detested, like wearing dresses and playing the piano. She read travelogues and, when she realized she was barred from joining the military because of her gender, set her sights on travel and science. When Pfeiffer was in her early twenties, she was married off against her wishes to an affluent widower and gave birth to two sons. For a couple of decades, Pfeiffer raised her children and, when her husband couldn’t find work, lived in poverty. She taught drawing and music lessons to keep the family afloat. After her sons had homes of their own, she started daydreaming again about seeing the world.
 
At the time, there were some popular women travel authors, such as Isabella Frances Romer and Lady Hester Stanhope, who journeyed with their husbands or male escorts. Pfeiffer’s husband was too old to travel (and she may not have wanted him to come), and she was not wealthy enough to travel in style like the authors she had read. But with a small inheritance from her mother, who died in 1831, she set off anyway. 
 
On her second expedition, in 1845, she headed north to see Scandinavia and Iceland, traipsing between hot springs and geysers and climbing up an active volcano. She taught herself to speak English and Danish, take daguerreotypes, and collect and preserve animal, mineral, and plant specimens. Upon her return to Austria, she sold the specimens to museums and wrote another book, financing her biggest undertaking yet: a trip around the world.
 
In 1846, she took off on a sailing ship (sailboats were cheaper than steamers) across the Atlantic to Brazil. Over more than two years, she plunged into the rainforests of South America, weathered the turbulent waters of Cape Horn, hopscotched across South Pacific Islands, made fast friends with the queen of Tahiti, accompanied a tiger hunt in India, and visited a harem in Iran. While Pfeiffer was attacked several times and barred from entering certain places that were reserved for men, she was mostly treated kindly. Some historians say she may have even enjoyed more safety traveling as a woman, simply because she was such a curiosity. 
 
By this time, Pfeiffer was famous. News of her uncommon exploits splashed across newspapers around the world. Later in her travel career, hotels and ships offered her free rooms and passages because of her celebrity. She was described as petite, plain, and slightly stooped, but one who moved with deliberation. Although she was staid and reserved, she also had prodigious energy, going to places few Europeans had ever seen. 

She plowed through jungles at an indomitable speed, tiring out her guides, and once asked the crew of a sailboat to tie her to a mast, like Odysseus, so she could fully experience the fury of a storm without being swept away, according to Van Wyhe. She also didn’t take any nonsense—when one donkey driver tried to cheat her in Alexandria, Egypt, for example, she pulled out her horsewhip and gave him a couple of good smacks. 
 
While Pfeiffer insists on her own simplicity and humility in her books—perhaps an attempt to adhere to gender norms—she was also keenly observant, unsparingly judgmental, and wry. “Much was spoken, and little understood,” she wrote about dining with a family in Jaffa (which she refers to as Joppa), Israel, and navigating a language barrier. “The same thing is said often to be the case in learned societies; so it was not of much consequence.” 
 
In her own lifetime, Pfeiffer’s books were translated into seven languages. The king of Prussia awarded her a gold medal in the arts and sciences. Explorer Alexander von Humboldt and the geographer Carl Ritter extolled her accomplishments, helping her to become the first woman recognized as an honorary member in the geographical societies of Berlin and Paris. Today thousands of Pfeiffer’s specimens remain in European museums and institutions, and several species are named after her.
 
On several occasions, Pfeiffer considered retiring, but her curiosity and restless spirit compelled her abroad. On her last trip, to Madagascar and Mauritius, she was caught up in a coup, expelled, and fell ill, perhaps with malaria. She never fully recovered and died in Austria on October 27, 1858. She was 63.
 
After her death, Pfeiffer’s books remained popular through the 1880s but then fell out of print. Inspired by her example as well as others, more women started traveling alone, and the late 19th and early 20th centuries spawned a cohort of famous and adventurous solo women travel authors, including Isabelle Eberhardt and Freya Stark. One can only imagine Pfeiffer’s astonishment. 

The Woman Who Charted the Last American Wilderness

13 Oct

Mina Hubbard, a mild-mannered farm girl and nurse from Ontario, Canada, never set out to be a great explorer. But in January 1904, the safe, happy existence she had established with her young husband shattered, setting her life on a different course.

Nearly six months earlier, Leonidas Hubbard had set off from their home in New York in an attempt to become the first nonnative to cross the interior of Labrador, one of the last unmapped swaths of North America. With his expedition mates—Dillon Wallace, a portly middle-aged lawyer, and George Elson, a half-Scot, half-Cree guide—Hubbard retreated after getting lost in a labyrinth of swamps and waterways. On October 18, shivering in a silk tent, he died of starvation as his expedition mates went for help.

The Badass Women Chronicles

Women have been exploring new territory for centuries, but their stories often go untold. In this series, we share tales of women who accomplished great feats of adventure and athleticism—cultural norms be damned.

“I am not suffering,” Leonidas wrote in his diary, likely mere hours before he died. “The acute pangs of hunger have given way to indifference. I am sleepy. I think death from starvation is not so bad.” It took nearly three months for the news to reach his widow.

Mina was devastated, but within a year, her grief turned to rage. She had encouraged Wallace to write a book memorializing her husband. Instead, in January 1905, he released The Lure of the Labrador Wild, painting Leonidas as a lovable but bumbling amateur largely responsible for the expedition’s failure. Mina was incensed. Despite having no expedition experience, she decided to reclaim the honor of her husband’s name by completing what he set out to do. Meanwhile, Wallace also planned to finish the unsuccessful mission.

Newspapers in New York caught wind of the competing trips, and headlines spread across the East, much to Hubbard’s embarrassment. Private and circumspect, she did not seek attention; Mina simply wanted to reclaim Leonidas’ reputation. The early 20th century was a golden age of exploration, and the public devoured news of dashing adventurers racing to claim the world’s last uncharted objectives. But a woman setting off into the wilderness? In competition with a man? At the time, the idea was scandalous.

“Leonidas Hubbard never would have dreamed of taking his wife with him,” says Roberta Buchanan, co-author of The Woman Who Mapped Labrador: The Life and Expedition Diary of Mina Hubbard. “People didn’t really welcome woman explorers, because they thought of exploration as a masculine enterprise. It was all about proving your manhood and triumphing over nature.”

In contrast to her husband’s expedition, which was ill-supplied and under-researched, Mina’s was exceedingly well-organized. She learned mapping skills, compulsively investigated supplies and equipment, consulted with men who had traveled the outer reaches of Labrador, and persuaded George Elson, her husband’s strapping, loyal guide, to accompany her. She also hired other three part-native guides, although only one was from the region.

Near the end of June 1905, both Wallace’s and Hubbard’s teams left Northwest River, a trading post at the mouth of Grand Lake. At that time, fishing families eked out a living on Labrador’s frigid, rocky shores, and trappers ventured short distances into the spruce-choked mountains. But no white people had plunged deep into the interior, and almost no one had met the region’s Naskapi Indians. The wilderness was seen as a hostile netherworld of violent rivers, swamps, mountains, and tundra. Even today, few roads pierce the remote Ungava Peninsula, still the haunt of bears, caribou, and packs of wolves. Hubbard woke to noises in the middle of the night and trembled in her tent, clutching her revolver. But she was tough and quickly learned how to travel through the wild.

A woman-led expedition was outrageous at the turn of the 20th century, but it was even more unusual for a white woman to spend months alone in the bush with four men of native heritage. The men were constantly terrified for her safety, for they felt they couldn’t return to civilization without her. Hubbard often chafed at their close watch and occasionally went speeding up and down mountains, giving them fits of anxiety. “They said to me they never were on a trip before where the women didn’t do what they were told,” wrote Hubbard, who wore knickerbockers under a swishing ankle-length skirt (for propriety’s sake) and brought along a blouse for Sundays.

group-campfire-7.01.005.jpg
Mina Hubbard and three men around campfire, 1905. (Coll-241, Archives & Special Collections, Memorial University, Canada)

Despite the racial and gender differences, over two months, Hubbard’s team not only became close but also had a good time. Together, they paddled swift rivers, clambered over seas of deadfall, scaled boulder gardens, and suffered great clouds of mosquitos and black flies. Hubbard loved it. “A new thrill came with this being up among the hilltops,” she wrote, “and I began to feel like an explorer.” As the men portaged the boats, Hubbard surveyed the seemingly endless hills, lakes, and boreal forests. She took latitude readings, snapped photographs, and named rivers and rapids. Eventually, she also made contact with the Naskapi Indians, who lived off the wilderness and occasional visits to the Ungava trading post on the north shore of Labrador.

All along, Hubbard kept a keen ear out for human voices and was thrilled that Wallace never seemed close by. While she was desperate to beat him, she was also enthralled by the region’s natural abundance. “When the day’s journey ended I had seen so much that was beautiful, and so varied in its beauty, that I felt confused and bewildered,” she wrote. Out there, “I had none of the feeling of loneliness, which I knew everyone would expect me to have. I did not feel far from home, but in reality less homeless than I had ever felt anywhere.”

In contrast to many male expedition journals from the era that glorify suffering and triumph, Hubbard’s is a paean to the wilderness. “Men tended to think of the wilderness as something to be conquered and penetrated, whereas she just delighted in the beauty of Labrador,” says Buchanan.

Meanwhile, Dillon Wallace had branched off to follow a more overland route. His expedition was plagued by poor navigation and disaster. His team capsized in the George River and nearly succumbed to hypothermia. They trudged into the post at Ungava Bay a humiliating six weeks after Mina Hubbard, who, one might imagine, was smugly sipping a cup of tea in an armchair when they arrived.

Headlines proclaimed Hubbard’s victory from Nova Scotia to New York. She became famous, giving lectures, including one at the Royal Geographic Society, and writing a book, A Woman’s Way Through Unknown Labrador. (She never once mentions Wallace in its pages.) But her success was also frowned upon by those uncomfortable with her challenge to accepted gender roles. Mina Hubbard soon vanished from the public eye. Several years after the journey, she married the scion of a coal-mining fortune and settled in an English mansion, never undertaking another great expedition.

Plenty of mysteries still remain about Hubbard’s trip and her life. How did a humble farm-raised girl manage to travel more than 550 miles of rugged wilderness in two months—in skirts? Did she have an illicit affair with George Elson, who occasionally accompanied her to explore mountains along the route, leaving the other men behind? (Pages are torn from his expedition journal, fueling speculation.) When Hubbard ultimately met her demise by walking in front of an oncoming train at the age of 86, was it on purpose?

In the mid-1970s, Canadian author Pierre Berton revived Hubbard’s memory in an essay celebrating her great story. Since then, numerous authors and historians have taken an interest in her tale, inspiring at least four books and keeping alive the memory of Hubbard and her team’s unlikely feat. Only a small handful of people have succeeded in retracing her route.

“I was really moved by her story,” says Randall Silvis, author of North of Unknown: Mina Hubbard’s Extraordinary Expedition into the Labrador Wilderness. “She still doesn’t get the credit she should for being one of the major explorers of her time. It was the last North American wilderness, and she’s the one who charted it.”