The Real Women of the Wild West

A portfolio of bold American women who changed the world.

Alexis de Tocqueville came to America to study democracy. At the end of his two-volume Democracy In America, he wrote, “if one asked me to what do I think one must principally attribute the singular prosperity and growing force of this people, I would answer that it is to the superiority of its women.” With that spirit in mind, we present a photo essay of the strong, bold, sassy, bawdy, stubborn, bodacious and superior women of the Old West.

 

Four Sisters at the Soddie
These four sisters (l.-r.), Harriet, Elizabeth, Lucie and Ruth Crisman, photographed in 1886, near Custer County, Nebraska, knew how blessed they were to have each other, as so many other women suffered the loneliness of the frontier. “It was a frontier saying that homesteading was a gamble: ‘Yeah, the United States Government is betting you 160 acres of land that you can’t live on it eight months.’” —Edith Eudora Kohl in her homesteading memoir, Land of the Burnt Thigh Solomon Butcher, Courtesy Library of Congress.

 

Spirit of the West
This is one of the only known photos of a Black cowgirl; she’s called Nellie Brown. But there is no Nellie Brown recorded in Western history—she’s just as anonymous as the many Black women labeled only as “unknown.” However, they all knew something important. As one historian said, “More than anywhere else in the United States at the time, the frontier offered African Americans a chance in life.” All Images Courtesy True West Archives Unless Otherwise Noted

 

Arizona’s Sharlot Hall
“I am not unwomanly—don’t you dare to think so—but God meant women to joy in his great, clean, beautiful world, and I thank Him that he lets me see some of it not through a windowpane.” Courtesy Sharlot Hall Museum Library & Archives, Prescott, Arizona

 

Cowgirl Joella Irwin
An early cowgirl performer at the turn of the 20th century, Ms. Irwin performed in a variety of events but was most famous for her relay race riding.

 

“Whoever said everything happens for a reason has never had a cow step on her foot.” –Cowgirl Wisdom

 

Range Boss
A never-before-published photo depicts a ranch woman herding cattle somewhere in the West. Thanks to author Mark Lee Gardner, who found it in a Missouri antique store. Courtesy Mark Lee Gardner

 

Annie Oakley
This is Annie, circa 1902, starring in a stage play created just for her, The Western Girl. A year later, prim-and-proper Oakley might have been pretending the man at the end of her sights was William Randolph Hearst. She sued him 55 times because he falsely printed a story on August 11, 1903, that the beloved 43-year-old entertainer had been arrested for cocaine possession in Chicago, Illinois. The real perpetrator’s stage name was Any Oakley aka Maude Fontanella. Annie won 54 lawsuits. Courtesy Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Cody, WY, USA. MS 6 William F. Cody Collection. P.69.71

 

“I ain’t afraid to love a man. I ain’t afraid to shoot him either.” –Annie Oakley

 

Stagecoach Mary
The Natives called her White Crow because she “acts like a white person but has black skin.” She was only the second woman in the nation to win a contract to carry the U.S. Mail. She was rough and coarse, but beloved, too. “Mary lived to become one of the freest souls ever to draw a breath, or a .38.” — Montana native Gary Cooper

 

Nellie Bly
The most famous female journalist in the nation was told by one editor that it was impossible to think a woman could go around the world in 80 days, like Jules Verne’s popular novel. “Very well,” she said angrily, “start the man and I’ll start the same day for some other newspaper and beat him.” She completed the trip in 72 days and then wrote a successful book about it. She is seen below wearing one of her road outfits. Both Photos Courtesy Library of Congress

 

Squirrel Tooth Alice
Elizabeth “Libby” Thompson was a prostitute and dance hall girl who worked in Dodge City, Kansas, and other frontier cattle towns during the 1870s. She later became famous as Squirrel Tooth Alice, madam of a brothel in Sweetwater, Texas. She is seen here with her pet squirrel posing for her admirers.

 

Calamity Jane
She often dressed like a man but had a woman’s desire for Wild Bill Hickok. When people called her Calamity Jane, she probably got so puffed up she bought drinks for the house. She was her own woman. H.R. Locke, Courtesy Library of Congress.

 

“Leave me alone and let me go to hell by my own route.” –Martha Jane Cannary

 

A Bull Rider Extraordinaire
Oklahoma trick rider Opal Crouch Reger was photographed riding atop “Bobby the Steer,” a trained Brahma/longhorn cross. Born in 1906 in Beckham County, Oklahoma, Opal traveled the country with her husband, Monte, and their three children in their trick riding outfit in which everyone performed. Courtesy National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, RR Doubleday Collection

 

Scout Deluxe
This wonderful 1880s era photo allegedly depicts a female scout. Her name is unknown, and we don’t know if she is the real deal or the photographer’s daughter. Either way, we love the gear and the attitude.

 

Navajo Girl
How rare to find a photo of any Victorian-era woman smiling, much less an American Indian woman smiling. But this happy Navajo woman obviously loved her life. The same is true of the Jemez Pueblo mother with the laughing papoose (below). Both are wonderful examples of the humanity that existed beyond the cliches of the era. Photo of Navajo Woman Courtesy Library of Congress/Photo of Jemez Pueblo mother and child by Jesse Nusbaum, 1912, Courtesy Palace of the Governors Photo Archives 61712.

 

Olive Oatman
We have found new revelations in one of the Old West’s most stunning stories and, in the forthcoming book Hellraisers & Trailblazers, we take a dive deep into the real life of this tragic Western woman. The sixth sentence of her speech giving during her nationwide speaking tour said: “…my Captivity among the Indians passes all the material of a thrilling romance.” True that.

 

From the forthcoming book, by Jana Bommersbach and Bob Boze Bell

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