The Arms of a Woman

famous-old-west-women-with-guns“The only kind of heroine worth knowing about is the Western woman who hit the far trail holding a Springfield rifle and traveling with her kids and settled down on a homestead and worked hard to make her little outfit independent.”

The author of the 1896 Washington Post article, G.E. Chapman, wanted readers to know there was nothing unfeminine about women “toting artillery” into an unsettled territory. Chapman’s report continued, “She can milk cows, mend a wire fence, wash dishes, throw a diamond hitch, sew a dress, and braid a good rope any top hand would want to throw, and she has to know how to shoot while doing all those things. Otherwise she runs the risk of being killed.”

Annie Oakley and Calamity Jane were some of the most popular armed women of the West, but they were not the only shooters of note. Homesteader’s wives such as Elinore Stewart carried a Winchester, ranchers such as Frances Mullin carried a Colt Single Action, hunters and trappers such as Gertrude Raines used a carbine and lady gamblers such as Eleanora Dumont used Remington double derringers. Armed women on the frontier were not uncommon. It was important to be able to defend oneself and one’s family and, if necessary, to signal for help or dispatch incapacitated livestock.

Courageous defines the character of the thousands of women who left the town and cities of the East for the unknown dangers of the Western territories. Setting up housekeeping in wild, unsettled lands, risking their lives on the journey and bearing children under primitive conditions tested their mettle daily.  Many faced these rugged circumstances carrying a firearm. For many armed ladies on the American frontier, owning a gun and knowing how to use it was not only a point of pride, but also a great equalizer. Shared here are a few of their stories.

Chris Enss is a New York Times best-selling author who has written more than 20 books on the subject of women in the Old West. Her most recent title is Love Lessons from the Old West:  Wisdom from Wild Women.

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