In 1848, a group of Cherokee on their way to California over the Cherokee Trail discovered gold in a stream bed in the South Platte basin. They reported the information to their tribe in Oklahoma. Eventually a man named William Green Russell (married to a Cherokee woman) heard the news and rushed to the area with a party of 104 men. That was just the start of the gold rush days in Colorado. After that first expedition, thousands of men raced to the area to try their luck. Small mining towns sprang up all over the state, including the town of Buckskin Joe.
In 1861, Buckskin Joe boasted 2,000 residents and many dance halls and saloons. In one such establishment, a young woman the miners called Silver Heels worked, danced and entertained the men. Her name came from the silver shoes she wore as she danced. She was very popular for her beauty and skill as a dancer.
Like most small mining camps with poor hygiene, disease was sure to follow. According to the legend, a pair of sheepherders brought smallpox to Buckskin Joe and the dreaded disease spread like wildfire. Many deserted the town, while others sent telegrams to Denver begging for nurses. Few women responded, afraid of dying, or worse, catching the disfiguring disease and living with a pockmarked face for the rest of their lives. Silver Heels, however, was not afraid. During the long winter, she went from cabin to cabin, nursing the miners. She cooked, cleaned and washed, she comforted the dying and cheered those recovering from the disease. Late in the winter, Silver Hells caught the dreaded disease herself.
In the Spring, as the disease finally wore itself out, the miners decided to recognize Silver Heels for her dedicated nursing. They took up a collection (legends say anywhere between $5,000 and $15,000 – a huge sum in those days) and went to her cabin, but it was empty. Silver Heels had vanished, leaving only a pair of silver shoes on the table. No trace of her was ever found.
Even though Silver Heels vanished from the town, her story may not have ended there. It is said that sometimes a veiled female figure can be seen moving among the headstones, weeping over the graves. The woman disappears if approached. So perhaps Silver Heels did not leave Buckskin Joe after all, but yet mourns the men whose lives she couldn’t save.
The grateful miners and town folk did eventually find a way to thank her for her dedicated nursing. They named a mountain after her. Mt. Silver Heels towers over Fairplay, Colorado, even today, a monument to the strength and endurance of one lovely young woman.