Saturday, June 25, 2011

Wild West Women


My cowgirl heroines Libby Brown, Charlie Banks, and Jodi Brand are three very different women, but they all have one thing in common: they're part of a long tradition of women moving west to build new lives. The West is the best possible setting for a girl-power fish-out-of-water story, because throughout history this rough open country has inspired women to escape society's constraints and accomplish things that would have been impossible elsewhere.

I've collected three of my favorite wild Western women here - women who met the challenges of the frontier and did much more than merely survive.

Wild West entrepreneur Nellie Cashman traveled west seeking her fortune as a prospector and worked as a cook at various mining camps in Nevada until she saved enough gold dust to open the Miner's Boarding House in Panaca Flats in 1872. Described as "pretty as a cameo and tougher than a two-penny nail," Nellie ofen fed and housed down=-on-their-luck miners for free.

Later in life, she became a restaurateur, opening the first woman-owned business in Tucson before moving on to Tombstone. A devout Catholic, she sweet-talked the owners of a local saloon into holding Sunday services until enough money was raised to build the town's Sacred Heart Church.

Nellie often dressed as a man and never married, but she raised her sister's children while bulding her reputation as the Saint of the Sourdoughs. She finally followed the gold rush north to the Yukon, where she died of pneumonia. Naturally, she had helped raise the funds that built the hospital where she drew her last breath.

Susan Anderson, M.D. graduated from medical school in 1897, but a "touch of tuberculosis" prevented her from practicing her profession. In 1907, she took her own medical advice and moved to the clear, cold mountain air of Fraser, Colorado. After she successfully treated a local horse, word got out the the quiet, straight-backed little woman living by the railroad tracks was a doctor, and the local loggers, miners and railwaymen soon swore by "Doc Susie's" expertise.

This slight, fragile woman made countless housecalls, trudging through the snow in hip-boots with long-johns under her heavy skirts. During the building of the 6-mile Moffat Tunnel, she was appointed county coroner and confronted the powerful Tunnel Commission when dangerous working conditions led to fatal accidents.

Doc Susie practiced in Fraser until 1956, and was the model for the television character Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.

Caroline Lockhart was a girl reporter for big-city newpapers in Boston and Philadelphia whose legendary spunk led her try deep-sea diving in Boston Harbor and leap from a window to test a new-fangled invention called a fire safety net.

In 1904 she traveled to Cody, Wyoming to write a story on the Blackfeet Indians. She fell in love with the west and resigned her post, running the local paper while penning novels that gained national acclaim but were less favorably received by her neighbors, who recognized themselves in the thinly veiled characters. Many of the portraits were decidedly not complimentary!

But what Caroline really wanted to be was a cattle queen, so in 1926 she homesteaded the L/Heart Ranch in the rugged country near Montana's Bighorn Canyon. She never married, preferring to turn her energies to growing her ranch. When she died in 1962, it consisted of over 6,000 acres. Cattle Queen indeed!

As a romance writer, I have to wonder at the fact that none of these energetic, history-making women ever married. That leads to a chicken-and-egg question you can answer in the comments: Did they accomplish great things because they didn't have the distraction of a husband, or did their feisty ways scare off the traditional and no-doubt disapproving gents of their day?

And if you were a Wild West Woman, what kind would you be? A rootin' tootin' madam? A pistol-packing outlaw? An ridin', rustlin' ranchwoman? Or something entirely different?

22 comments:

  1. Do you think a controlling husband might have said no to their spunk and dreams?? Great post, Joanne!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Joanne, loved reading about your cowgirls, especially Doc Susie, since she inspired one of my all-time favorite TV shows.

    I don't know that I would have the gumption to go it alone, as these women did, but I'm most comfortable in my jeans. My step-dad used to call me Annie Oakley for my ability to blast soda cans with a single rifle shot (my brothers missed), so I'd have to go with rifle-wrangling ranchwoman.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Very interesting post! I like hearing about women like these. As far as the marriage question...I think back then it was an either or proposition. I don't think men or women expected woman to have both a family and career. If you ask me, there's a lot of super-women in the world today.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I don't think it was the absence of marriage that allowed them to blaze an independent trail, but the absence of children. The two decisions are separated today in a way they haven't been previously. I also like to think a woman could safely blaze her own trail because the men of the west respected the women for more than their biological particulars.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Joanne, awesome post. Your cowgirls were following their dreams but they cut a wide swath for the next generations. Hats off to all three and all the rest like them!

    ReplyDelete
  6. I suspect that happened a lot back then, Terry - controlling husbands and controlling society that had just one image of what a woman should do. It had to take a lot of courage to chase your dreams back then!

    ReplyDelete
  7. Now that's a little-known fact about Tracey Devlyn! I didn't know you were a crack shot. You would have made a good frontierswoman! I love to plink beer cans but I do NOT have a steady hand.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Ash, I think you're right, but I also think most women were expected to pick the "either" of home and family. Those who picked anything else had a real struggle to succeed. We're lucky they fought that fight for us and we can do what we want!

    ReplyDelete
  9. That's a good point, Grace. It's tough to tame the frontier when you've got a couple of toddlers trailing behind you!

    ReplyDelete
  10. Thanks, Carolyn! There were so many others I wanted to list - Annie Oakley, as Tracey mentioned, and some of the suffragettes. Wyoming was the first state to give women the vote, so we love our suffragettes! I had a list a mile long but I had to cut it down.

    ReplyDelete
  11. great post! My great grandmother emmigrated from Scotland and homesteaded with my great grandfather on the Columbia river in Washington state. She's my personal example of a wild west woman.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Terrel, what a great family history to have! Much as I admire these non-traditional women, I also am amazed by the ones who managed to raise families and carve homes out of the wild land out here. Raising kids is hard enough with all the modern conveniences. Imagine what it was like back then!

    ReplyDelete
  13. By the way, for anyone who wants to know more about Dr. Susan Anderson, there's a fabulous biography called "Doc Susie" by Virginia Cornell. It's one of my favorite Western biographies. There's also a good one on Caroline Lockhart called "Cowboy Girl." Both great reading if you're interested in the West or women's history.

    ReplyDelete
  14. A wealth of fascinating history here, Joanne! Thank you so much for all the hard work putting it together!

    ReplyDelete
  15. Hmm... I'm torn between the madam and the rancher. Probably the rancher!

    ReplyDelete
  16. Thanks, Kathryne! These ladies are like old friends, so it wasn't much work:)

    ReplyDelete
  17. Cheryl, I think the ranchwoman had to work harder, but she got to wear comfortable clothes, so that would be my choice! And besides, I'd rather deal with ornery horses than ornery men...

    ReplyDelete
  18. There were a lot of women who "bucked the rules" -- the West was not explored by men alone. I would have been a cowgirl/rancher -- because I think the cowgirl spirit is alive in me and in so many women today also. It's the desire to be who you are, to be independent and "blaze your own trail". It's authentic and its in touch with nature -- something I fear we're losing in this highly technological world.

    ReplyDelete
  19. Great post, Joanne!

    My beloved west was founded by precocious women who were not afraid to step out side the bounds in which society imposed. It is rare for a woman to find a man who isn't afraid to care for a woman like that. I think all of those women had offers, but to take them would have required them to buckle under the social expectations of the time.

    However, Baby Doe Tabor managed two husbands and children while being a "rebel".

    I would have been a cowgirl/rancher in those days. Especially in Montana.

    ReplyDelete
  20. Joy, in so many ways, that's just what my books are about. They're romances, but they're also about connecting to the world in that authentic way. Thanks for saying it so well!

    ReplyDelete
  21. Jenn, yay! So glad to see you here! I agree - you would definitely be a cowgirl, and you'd blaze your own path. And I think you're right about those women having offers. Sometimes when you want to accomplish something, you're driven to pass by anything that might distract you from your goal.
    And Baby Doe is fascinating! Things ended kind of sadly for her, if I remember right, but she lived one heck of a life.

    ReplyDelete
  22. have you read ''One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd" [Paperback] Jim Fergus (Author)? if not, get it, it is the story of women of the east who went west to be brides for 2 years to men in an indian tribe. i wish i could find my review...all i can say is it is bit of history i didn't know about and a intriguing story!

    ReplyDelete