Adeline Hornbek wasn't birthed a woman of the west, but she became a prime example of its can-do spirit in the midst of difficult circumstances. Born in 1833 and raised in Massachusetts, Hornbek married Simon Harker at age 25 and moved to the untamed west. For a number of reasons, the couple eventually made their way from Oklahoma to the Colorado Territory in 1861 with a pair of children in tow, settling along the South Platte River to farm outside the bustling frontier city of Denver. Although things looked promising for the family, the challenge of life in the west was about to become more complicated.
Four years after filing a claim on 160 acres, Harker died in 1864, leaving his wife a sure-fire recipe for defeat as a widow with three children in the unforgiving west. Showing east coast spunk, Hornbek refused to surrender, using a clause in the 1862 Homestead Act to buy 80 acres of their land for $100. A farmer could be successful near a mining supply town like Denver, where agricultural product could be sold at a nice profit to feed hungry miners pouring in for a chance to strike it rich. Two months after purchase, she married Elliot Hornbek and the couple stayed on the land, adding a fourth child to the mix in 1870. But trying circumstances were not finished with Mrs. Hornbek just yet.
In 1875, Elliot disappeared; the reasons why and his ultimate fate remain unknown to this day. Once more, Hornbek was left alone with young children to feed and many obstacles for a woman of her time trying to make an honest living. Again, she persevered, accumulating enough money to purchase property in Colorado's Florissant Valley (west of Colorado Springs) in 1878, another region fast becoming important as a supply center for more miners rushing to the nearby mountains. It was clear Hornbek knew a thing or two about location.
The area Hornbek chose to settle lies along a tributary of the South Platte River, its immediate location offering abundant water supplies, fertile soil, large meadows for grazing, and forests of Ponderosa pine. A master craftsman hired by Hornbek used dozens of these pines to build a fine home for her family. Aside from the main house, the homestead incorporated multiple outbuildings including a milk house, chicken house, and stables. Her improvements created an impressive ranch, boasting a two-story, four-bedroom log house with nearly a dozen glass-paned windows. When completed in 1878, the house was the first in the valley to have more than one story.
The tale doesn't stop there. Despite her standing as a widow with four children, Hornbek became a prominent member of the growing community of Florissant, serving on the school board and hosting social gatherings in her home. Records indicate she increased the value of her property nearly five-fold before filing the final Homestead papers in 1885. At age 66, she married again, the couple staying on the notable ranch until her death in 1905. During her life, she demonstrated how a single mother in the west could succeed through wise real estate choices and hard work improving and managing the land.
While the 1862 Homestead Act wasn't perfect by any stretch of the imagination, it allowed women like Adeline Hornbek a chance to make an honest living and leave their mark on the history pages of the west. Hornbek's preserved homestead can be visited near Florissant, Colorado, as part of the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument. The impressive log structures are a testament to her success in the 1800's American West, as well as the never-say-die spirit she brought to everything she tried.
For brief Internet information on the Hornbek Homestead located within the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, go to www.nps.gov/flfo/historyculture/index.htm.