Close your eyes to picture the Wild West, and your mind will likely conjure up images of rolling plains and somersaulting tumbleweeds. And then you’ll see them: cowboys on horseback – the iconic figures of this bygone age. Yes, men dominate our understanding of the Old West, but what about the women? Some of them were fighting against society’s rules, and a closer look at their extraordinary lives may well teach you a thing or two.
For years, the now-famous advice “Go west” was not a proposition that enticed many American immigrants. They saw the country’s inland western territories as an obstacle-laden landscape, strewn with jutting mountains and unforgiving deserts. No place for a woman; that’s for sure! So those who did travel west either journeyed by sea or on just a few well-trodden paths. And they headed for California, where they knew they’d find a lusher, more welcoming climate.
All of that changed by the mid-19th century, though. And you can probably guess one of the reasons why. The California gold rush, which kicked off in 1849, inspired people from across the country to head towards the Pacific coast and strike it rich. Plus, the United States won the Mexican War in 1848, giving the nation even more western territory for settlers to claim.
As people moved out west, they typically settled into one of three lifestyles: farming, ranching or mining. Land husbandry had drawn people out west to Oregon and California in the early 1800s, but things started to pick up across the Great Plains between 1870 and 1890. Homesteaders grew wheat, sugar beets, oats, flax and corn. Meanwhile, the Idaho contingent became famous for its potato production.
Men, women and children often lived on farms, and they excavated their homes out of the sides of hills: dugout dwellings. Or they cut squares of sod from the earth and piled them up to build houses. There weren’t many trees on the plains, so settlers had to improvise. Eventually, though, they began to haul lumber and build more structurally sound residences. But what were the women up to, we hear you ask?
Women certainly had their place on the farms of the Wild West. As you can imagine, most females fulfilled domestic roles as opposed to agricultural ones. They would often clean and comb sheep’s wool before weaving it into cloth, for instance. Meanwhile, others donned bonnets and calico dresses and tended their families’ personal vegetable gardens.
Now, life on ranches – not on farms – may be closer to that idyllic vision of the American West that most people have. Ranches were where cowboys went to work, after all. And as the name implies, this was a job largely reserved for men. A woman may have hung out on the ranch if her husband ran the operation, but as a general rule the bunkhouses of workers were filled with male employees only.
The same went for mining camps. But don’t confuse miners’ primitive dwellings with well-established homes; where speculators laid their heads were often little more than canvas tents or huts. Still, Wild West cities would spring up if a spot proved a prosperous one. Then dance halls, saloons, retail stores and even jails would be built to tend to the area’s population. And once a camp became a town, you’d be much more likely to find women and children there.
Clearly, much of what we know about the Wild West revolves around what the men were up to, but they weren’t the only ones pioneering this new territory. Women played a huge role in all of this – one that’s often overlooked. Just look at Hollywood’s fictionalized versions of what this era was like; the majority revolve around the manliest men on the plains.
Women’s roles during this time had been laid out for them by the overarching Victorian ideals of the time. So, most of them believed that they couldn’t survive in the man’s world in which they lived without, well, a man. In exchange, the ladies took control of domestic duties – raising children, maintaining the house and, as previously mentioned, some light labor on the homestead.
University of Northern Iowa professor Glenda Riley wrote about the limitations society placed upon Wild West women in her 1988 book The Female Frontier. She wrote, “Women’s lives focused upon domestic production, childbirth and childcare, family relationships and other ‘female’ tasks… Even unmarried and married women who worked outside the home usually found their employment opportunities limited by their gender.”
But not all women were happy to be housewives or school teachers or maids. A trailblazing few bucked the societal norms that defined the 19th century. It wasn’t easy to step out – many of these ladies faced ridicule for going against the grain. But on the other hand, they often felt stifled by the options that life had presented them.
The good news was, these women who did have the courage to step out were often able to build themselves impressive careers beyond the four walls of their homesteads. And their moves paved the way for women in the next decades and centuries to do the very same thing – perhaps yourself included.
Some women stepped off the beaten path because life forced them to do so. That was what happened to Martha Cannary, whose family moved from Missouri to Montana to Utah. As they traveled, the young girl learned equestrian skills and how to fire a gun, too. Then, life forced her to toughen up – she lost both of her parents and had to take on the role of main carer for her two brothers and three sisters.
So Cannary moved them all to Piedmont, Wyoming, where she got a job putting her gun-and-horseback skills to good use. She joined the scouts and even wore the group’s male uniform to battle against Native Americans. When she saved her captain from a hostile tribe, he supposedly gave her the nickname by which you might know her: Calamity Jane.
Eventually, Calamity Jane’s gun-slinging skills earned her a spot on Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. And her story sounds quite familiar to another one of the women who would join the same tour. Phoebe Ann Moses – nicknamed Annie – had to become a sharpshooter after her father passed away and her mother and siblings needed food.
Eventually, Annie left the family’s home in Darke County, Ohio, for Cincinnati, where her sister lived. But it was in the city of Greenville where the trajectory of her life would change, all thanks to her pistol. There, she won her first sharpshooting contest – against a male competitor, no less.
Now, Annie’s competitor, Frank Butler, was presumably very different to the men who expected women to conform to their Victorian-era gender roles. For one thing, he fell in love with her, even though she was better than him at shooting. But he also encouraged her to pursue it as a career.
Annie and Frank married, and then she did follow her sharpshooting dream all the way to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, where she was known as Annie Oakley. And she was good at what she did – she traveled the world with the show for nearly two decades and enjoyed second billing in the performance schedule.
Of course, not all of the West’s women-of-note were known for their ability to fire a gun or ride a horse. In fact, much of the female ingenuity on the frontier came from their pragmatism. According to History Net, a common saying among ladies living this rural lifestyle was, “When I saw something that needed doing, I did it.”
You can see how that would apply to women in a domestic context. It didn’t quite start out that way for Frances Lawton, though, as growing up she had enjoyed a rather privileged and cosseted upbringing in first Canada and then Los Angeles. She donned fashionable clothes and even got a job as a stenographer for Western Union – that is, until marriage to Bill Keys brought her onto her husband’s homestead, Keys Ranch.
Most would have expected a woman mentioned in a piece about trailblazers to do the opposite – give up her man and farm life for a job in the big city. But Keys immersed herself in the demanding life on the homestead, where she did more than just keep house. She helped her husband mine, butchered meat and taught their children, too.
Still, Keys couldn’t leave behind one aspect of her big-city fashion sense: she always wore a bonnet outdoors, which protected her skin from the sun. People started to take notice and wanted the same headgear to protect their faces, too. Here’s where the phrase “When I saw something that needed doing, I did it” comes in.
Keys started selling bonnets and eventually opened a store on her husband’s property, a task she undertook all on her own. So moving to be with her beau had spurred her toward an unexpected career – and the same thing happened to another trailblazing woman of the Wild West, Elizabeth Campbell.
This pioneer, born Elizabeth Crozer, didn’t grow up in the Wild West, nor did her life seem to point her in that direction in any way. She came from a wealthy family that had sent her to private school and even onto college. And, when World War I broke out, she served her country as a nurse.
A patient in her charge – William Campbell, a soldier who had breathed in mustard gas – would become Campbell’s husband. And that’s when things started to shift for the native Pennsylvanian. Her spouse’s medical condition spurred them to move to the desert, as they thought the arid landscape would improve his health.
Campbell and her husband ended up in Twentynine Palms, California, and the sandy landscape gave them more than just improved health – it informed their life’s work. Both she and William became fascinated with the city’s prehistoric past. They went on to dedicate their entire lives to archeology, and she was the first to suggest that man had arrived in the Southwest earlier than previously believed.
If that’s not impressive enough, Mr. and Mrs. Campbell were the first to use environmental archeology to back up their theories. The now-recognized subfield has experts reconstructing the links between archaic populations and their physical surroundings. And, just to reiterate, it was a woman of the Wild West who came up with that research method.
The West did give its women more freedom – and not just to those with entrepreneurial spirits, showstopping talents or academic gifts. The 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gave all women the right to vote in 1920, but those who lived on the frontier had long had the ability to do so.
Women in the Wyoming Territory earned their right to vote in 1869. A year later, Utah followed suit – they had long let ladies vote in their state’s church-centric affairs, so why shouldn’t they participate in politics, too? As more and more women were able to make their voices heard at the ballot box, they started serving in public office out west, too. For example, Kate Barnard is believed to have been the first woman elected to a national or state-wide position, serving as Oklahoma’s Commissioner of Charities and Corrections.
And then, there were the women of the Wild West who found their place on the opposite end of the spectrum from public service. Eleanor Dumont – known to some as Madame Mustache – made a life for herself as a pioneer of blackjack. The New Orleans native was one of the country’s first professional gamblers.
Dumont would travel from mining camp to mining camp, challenging residents to games of blackjack. The winner would, of course, take home the chips on the table. While Madame Mustache won most of the time, she tried her best to make defeat sweet for her opponents – namely, she’d buy them bubbly.
Another woman named Pearl Hart flat-out swindled men to make money out west. It was a rough-and-tumble landscape, after all – why shouldn’t the ladies participate, too? Perhaps most notably of all, though, were the words she uttered in court while on trial for her robberies. According to PBS, Hart said, “I shall not consent to be tried under a law in which my sex had no voice in making.”
Charlotte Parkhurst, too, noticed that women’s rights weren’t at the forefront of anyone’s mind. She grew up in an orphanage in New Hampshire until she escaped from the institution at 15. From there, she knew she had to find work – but soon realized it was much easier for men to become laborers.
So, Parkhurst decided to ditch her feminine identity and live as a man for the rest of her life. She changed her name to Charley and began donning loose clothing, an eye patch and gloves to hide the features that might give away her true gender. Then, she embarked on a wildly dangerous career, a path that would not have been open to someone who didn’t present as a man.
Stagecoaches were the only mode of transportation that could get travelers along particular routes across the American West – at least, until railways started to crisscross the country. Until then, though, skilled drivers had to speed through these dangerous stretches to avoid robbery, ambush and, of course, the obstacles that laid in their paths.
Parkhurst became one of the country’s most famous stagecoach drivers, a role she held for 15 years. She gave up the gig to open her own coach station, which she eventually sold. It wasn’t until after her death that an obituary revealed her true identity – the famous whip had been born a woman.
Of course, the freedom offered out West to the descendants of female colonists was something that had long been on the table in another sphere of life. It’s important to remember that, long before European settlers trekked from the East Coast, Native American communities thrived on the same lands. And they allowed women to claim homes and build entire communities for centuries before the pioneers arrived.
Still, the U.S. immigrant population – the one that traveled to the West from Atlantic shores – found themselves afforded more rights than their Eastern counterparts. Many could vote, as previously mentioned. But female teachers also got equal pay, while women who wanted divorces could rely on the West’s more liberal laws to get them out of their marriages.
Perhaps most intriguing of all is the fact that much of this history is not common knowledge. As historic structures specialist Allison Kennedy put it in an article for the National Park Service’s website, “These women were not marginalized in their own time, but have been somewhat covered up by history.” Now, though, we know their stories and their abilities – and we should remember them as so much more than wives and mothers. They were trailblazers, and they paved the way for the women’s rights we appreciate today.