Colorado Legends: Martha Maxwell

The Colorado Huntress

Mrs. Maxwell was a Colorado naturalist, artist, hunter, and taxidermist.  Her 1876 display at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia of lifelike animals she shot and stuffed, won her national acclaim.

At an early age, Martha showed unusual spirit for a female in her home state of Wisconsin.  Her little sister, threatened by a rattlesnake, drove Martha to pick up her first gun and with one shot, killed the rattler.

Her move to Boulder, Colorado transpired when she married James Maxwell in 1860.  His lumber business flourished in the new territory.

New to the state, Martha couldn’t get over the beauty and abundance of Colorado’s wildlife.  She accompanied her husband on many hunting trips taking in the scenery and habitat of the wild animals.

She was an excellent shot and would often go off on her own and camp out alone in the wilderness for days, studying the wildlife.

Taxidermy fascinated her and she quickly learned the trade.  Her trips with her husband allowed her to build set pieces of stuffed animals and birds in their natural state.

Maxwell’s display at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition photo courtesy of Time-Life Books

She displayed these pieces in her home until she found a building in 1873 to house her treasures.  This building is known as the “Rocky Mountain Museum.”  A few years later, the museum was moved to Denver.

Even though Martha was a naturalist, the first woman by the way, and lauded for her taxidermy skills of putting animals and birds in realistic settings, she was criticized for shooting so many of them.

Her reply was, “There isn’t a day you don’t tacitly consent to have some creature killed so that you may eat it.  I leave it to you.  Which is crueler?  To kill to eat or to kill to immortalize?”

In 1877, Martha was recognized as the person who discovered the Rocky Mountain Screech Owl, which is named Scops Maxwelae in her honor.