Brave Hearted Women of the American West

Based, in part, on a Smithsonian Associates lecture by British historian, travel writer, novelist, Katie Hickman.

Like her audience, our host grew up watching American westerns without giving much thought to historical correctness. When she first had the idea for the book from which her lecture derived, “I thought it would be Hollywood’s version from a woman’s point of view.” Revisiting the films, Hickman found locations unspecific and women relegated to saloon hostesses. 

1845 Map Creative Commons

A map of North America in 1836 was very different than today. There were 26 states. One third of the land mass belonged to Mexico. Central plains were sold to us by Napoleon Bonaparte, a big surprise to its quarter million Native Americans. The Pacific Northwest was – disputed.

The first two White women to cross the continental divide, 2400 miles from Missouri to Vancouver, were Narcissa Whitman and Eliza Spaulding. Traveling with missionary husbands they barely knew, the ladies set out to establish a ministry to Indians in the Oregon Territory with neither training nor warning. The four joined forces with a fur company for safety. They met traders, trappers and American Indians. Women were welcomed by the latter, curious about everything from the color of their skin to apparel. Spirit of cooperation didn’t last long, however.  We indiscriminately stole land and routed them. Indians defended themselves becoming, in popular terms, “heathen savages.”

Whitman and Spaulding set up at a fort belonging to The Hudson Bay Fur Company – 25 acres, 500 employees and their families. It was the only settlement of its kind thousands of miles in any direction and necessarily almost self sufficient. There they met Marguerite, a bi-racial Cree married to the Scotsman who was chief factor of Hudson’s Bay. “Can you imagine how much they had to reconsider expectations?!” Marguerite spoke three languages, was a musician and expert seamstress. She took the missionaries under her wing.

1850 Emigrant party on the road to California. (Public Domain)

Other missionary families followed. In 1841, 100 people traveled the route. There were no maps or guides. Most wagon trains were badly prepared with too little food or too much that spoiled. They endured unexpected weather conditions. The Donner Party spent the winter of 1846–1847 snowbound in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Some of the migrants resorted to cannibalism to survive. Travelers were vulnerable to typhoid, cholera, measles, and dysentery. Imagine having a baby along the way!


1859 Encamped on the banks of the Humboldt River in western Nevada. (Public Domain)

By 1850, when gold was discovered in California, the number swelled to 50,000. “The countess of Colorado”, Countess Katrina Murat originally of Germany, traveled overland to California in 1852 with her husband. Henry Murat was in search of a fast buck. He was a barber, dentist, innkeeper and inveterate gambler—making and losing several fortunes. Katrina epitomized the stabilizing influence of women. She made a steady income by providing various domestic services to the predominantly male population.

Payment in gold dust was often stitched into waistbands and petticoats for safekeeping. “It was said that she once had so much of the heavy metal upon her stout person that it took four teamsters to hoist her up onto her wagon seat.” She also made the future state’s first United States flag. It was “reputably fashioned from her own red, white and blue French lingerie. This memorable sight, flapping in the breeze, provided a short-lived spectacle. The patriotic creation was stolen after just four days, little wonder in a town where males comprised more than 95 percent of the population.” Palmer Lake Historical Society.

1850 California Gold Rush (Public Domain)

To offer perspective, stage coach service (1858) along the route took 30 days. The Pony Express arrived in 1860 but was active only 1 ½ years before telegraph took over. Our Continental Railroad followed. By 1890, few Native Americans lived freely on their land.

Hickman found 2637 personal narratives of the trip, 1/3 by women- some from educated middle class, others barely literate who wrote with stream of consciousness and very little punctuation. Accounts included that of Black Americans and First Nation peoples. Housewife Keturah Belkna wrote about emigration preparations in 1848: “I’ll make a muslin cover for the wagon as we will have to double cover so we can keep warm and dry…They both have to be sewed real good and strong and I have to spin the thread and sew all these long seams with my fingers. Then I have to make a new feather tick for my bed…” She additionally made clothing for her reasonably well off family.

1898 Settlement (Public Domain)

It was expensive to mount a trip. People went because of ongoing economic hardship, the promise of free or cheap land, because their neighbors were enthusiastic, because gold and silver beckoned, to escape religious persecution or bigotry (the last with mixed results.)  ‘The proverbial greener pastures. A Black family owned Sutter’s Mill where the first gold was found. “The journey west was one of the biggest mass migrations in history, a feat of human endurance and resilience. Without women, no settler could put down roots.”

Josephine Waggoner, born in Missouri, married an Army man at Fort Yates. Extremely active in the Native American community, she was concerned that history and culture of the Lakota were being lost as elders passed away without handing down their knowledge in the traditional way. She also wanted to correct untruths disseminated by White journalists and scholars. The indispensable account and interviews were not published until 70 years after her death.

Biddy Mason (Public Domain)

Biddy Mason, a Black woman, became a successful midwife, philanthropist, and was the first African American woman to own property in her own right. Born enslaved in Georgia, she and her three children had no choice but to go west with their “owners.” Despite being a so-called free state, California did little to rectify situations like these. When the family was posted to Texas by Mormon leaders, doubting promised freedom, Biddy and her girls resisted. They were helped by two successful Black men to obtain their freedom and settled in Los Angeles.

Justina Ford was the first licensed African American female doctor in Denver, Colorado. Born into slavery and freed at the end of the Civil War, Mary Fields became  the first African American woman to receive employment as a U.S. postal service star-route mail carrier. Wyoming was the first state to enact women’s suffrage and appointed the first woman Justice of the Peace, Esther Hobart Morris. Women also rose to prominence as owners of brothels. Some parlayed income into successful businesses contributing to local towns.

Mary Fields (Public Domain)

1850 California Gold Rush (Public Domain)In the 1850s, things became more tense with Native Americans. Thirty million buffalo were hunted to extinction. White men hired men to do nothing but kill the animals, sometimes as many as 100 a day. Behind them came skinners with wagons. Native Americans lost sustenance, and multi-purpose skins as well as land. Warfare sprang up.

14 year-old Olive Oatman was traveling west with her parents when they were stopped by Indians requesting food. Refused, the Yavapai killed her family (was it that simple?) and kidnapped Olive and her sister Mary Ann. Her brother survived, waking to find bodies and his siblings gone. The girls spent a year as servants and were then traded to a Mojave tribe where they were adopted by the family of a tribal leader. Five years later, Olive was successfully ransomed out for a horse, some blankets and beads. Her sister had died (ostensibly of illness) in captivity.

1863 Olive Oatman (Public Domain)

While much history assumes poor treatment, Olive wrote her own story. To signify the child was part of a leader’s family, she had her chin and upper arms tattooed in order to be recognized in the afterlife. (The tribe didn’t tattoo enemies or slaves.) When mistakes were made, her “family” stood up for the girl. Life Among the Indians described mostly peaceful assimilation and was a huge best-seller. Later, however, Olive fell under the influence of a reverend who knew the public’s appetite for savages would generate more sales. He doctored her second edition and wrote several follow-ups calling captors “degraded bipeds and human devils.” Olive toured, lecturing. Any opportunity for understanding was lost.

Women took on roles traditionally filled by men. They were trailblazers, entrepreneurs, and hard working housewives. Still, we’ve been excluded from mainstream narrative. Perhaps Hickman’s book will help.

Opening: 1897 Our Country West ( Flickr‘s The Commons; no know copyright restrictions)

Brave Hearted Women of the American West
Based, in part, on a lecture by British historian, travel writer, novelist, Katie Hickman. Her book of the same title is published by Spiegel & Grau.

Another enlightening Smithsonian Associates lecture was the impetus for this article

About Alix Cohen (1685 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of ten New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, TheaterLife, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.