…Wearin’ a Dress

Wearin’ a Dress

 Rogers Astaire  Fred Astaire is one of the most acclaimed dancers in American history. Ginger Rogers, too, but she never earned the fame Astaire did. I heard Ginger Rogers said, “I did everything Fred did, only I had to do it backward, in high heels, wearing a dress.

           And yet Astaire was the big star. 

           And that brings me to Sacajawea. Yes, there is going to be something about the west in this, it’s NOT about ballroom dancing.

This teenager, age estimated at 17-years-old, accompanied this group of rugged soldiers all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Saved their lives more than once, probably had to do all the cooking (oh, maybe not) and she did it with a baby strapped on her back wearin’ a dress.

            But do they call it the Sacajawea Expedition? No-o-o-o-o-o!

            I couldn’t even find for sure how to spell her name because Lewis and Clark kept journals and spelled it differently, phonetically I suppose. Sacajawea didn’t speak English. How could she tell them how to spell her own name? She wouldn’t have known where to begin spelling it.

           I read the book Sacajawea by Anna L. Waldo years ago and I just loved that story of the young woman, sold into slavery, one of two wives to this…by most accounts, abusive drunken French fur trader, Charbonneau, leading Lewis and Clark through the Rocky Mountains.

           Man, I think I’ve got it hard when my car’s air conditioning goes on the fritz.

           The Lewis and Clark expedition recruited Sacagawea’s husband, to accompany them westward, expecting to make use of Sacagawea’s ability to speak to the Shoshone. The expedition expected that they would need to trade with the Shoshone for horses. Sacagawea spoke no English, but she could translate to Hidatsa to Charbonneau, who could translate to French for Francois Labiche, a member of the expedition, who could translate into English for Lewis and Clark. It had to be like a multi-cultural game of Telephone, passing the words back and forth through those translations.

             They really wanted Sacagawea, even more than Charbonneau, yet he got hired, and you know he got the money.

             Accompanied by her infant son, Sacagawea set out with the expedition for the west.

             This reminds me of an episode of Walker Texas Ranger.

              Have you ever noticed that when someone is insanely tough, the writers have to weaken him before they bring the enemy in. Superman and Kryptonite? John Wayne with a bullet lodged in his spine. Walker and oh, say, an army with automatic weapons.

Walker’s been bitten by one hundred scorpions. He shakes that off and saves the day, then collapses near death afterward. If he’s not weakened (and Sacagawea doesn’t have a baby strapped on her back and wearin’ a dress) it’s just not a fair fight.

Her memory of Shoshone trails proved valuable, according to some sources; according to others, she did not serve as a guide to the trails so much as to find useful foods and medicines along the way. Her presence as an Indian woman with a baby helped to convince Indians that this party of whites was friendly. And her translation skills, however indirect from Shoshone to English, were also invaluable at several key points.

The only woman on the trip, she also cooked, foraged for food, and sewed, mended and cleaned the clothes of the men. Yes, the expedition members hunted for food, too. But that means mainly they shot deer. Once they were crossing the Rockies in treacherous winter weather, her knowledge of edible plants saved the day. To their credit, Lewis and Clark treated Sacagawea as a valuable member of the party, even giving her and York, Clark’s enslaved black servant, a full vote in deciding where to spend the winter of 1805-6. It would be more than a century later when women were given the right to vote. 

So she fed them, sheltered them from hostile Indians and led them through the

Rockies. And she did all this with a baby on her back, wearin’ a dress, just to make it fair.

Sacagwea Coin

In recent years more has been written about Sacagawea and the dollar coin honoring her helped everyone see her contribution.

I’ve thought it would be an interesting series of books to write about the women who were standing right beside the men making history.

           Daniel Boone was married, Davy Crocket, too, and Kit Carson. Who were these women? What were their lives like? Often they got left behind, but even so, many were left in unsettled places. They seem like fertile ground for novels and a part of the largely untold story of taming the west, wearin’ a dress.

              What historical western women, real or fictional, most interest you? Who would make a good character in a novel? How can we get their stories told?

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80 thoughts on “…Wearin’ a Dress”

  1. Great idea. How about Joseph Smith’s wife, (wives)? Also there were wives of the officers at Ft. Robinson and other outposts on the way west. I wonder what they thought of Custer?

  2. Wow, I can only hope you are going to write some of these stories! I would love to read them! The female perspective has been pretty popular in a lot of historical fiction but I haven’t seen a great deal set in American history.

  3. You know there was a really interesting Sherlock Holmes story about Brigham Young and the Mormons. It’s a little offensive though.
    P.S. I just requested Sacajawea from the library.

  4. Lots of tough Texas cowgirls in fiction. In Petticoat Ranch Sophie is so competent she just barely needs a man around the place.
    That’s fiction, though, I’d think in real life a woman would almost HAVE to have a man to survive back then. I mean there are women that did it like Calamity Jane, but I think they were rare.

  5. According to Wikipedia (so you know it’s true)
    Custer married Elizabeth Clift Bacon (1842–1933) on February 9, 1864.
    You know, it’s interesting to wonder, if Custer had won The Battle of Little Bighorn would he be so reviled? I kind of feel bad for him as history’s scapegoat. I mean, he just did as he was ordered. As abhorent as it seems to us know.

  6. Great thoughts, Mary! I read that Sacajawea book, too. I was so blown away by her story. Great idea about writing about the wives/squaws of famous men of the west. You know they were tough and courageous.

  7. Mary and everyone, I just have to say that this is one the THE neatest author blogs I’ve seen!

    I love the western theme and absolutely LOVE the “Wanted” posters up there. Too funny!!!! 🙂

    Nice job ladies!!!

    Cheryl Wyatt

  8. Hi Mary – Great post about the women behind the men who made history. Mary Cheney wrote a great book about women who inspired American history and it was a children’s book – to introduce young girls (and boys) to the greatest women in our history. I love reading about women from Annie Oakley to Susan B. Anthony.

  9. Mary, what an interesting blog today – loved it! Did I tell you yet that your book “Petticoat Ranch” is going on my top 7 list of “Most Entertaining Books of 2007” congrats 🙂


  10. Mary, congratulations on your first official blog for Petticoats & Pistols! Well done. Were you inspired by Sacajawea when you wrote Petticoat Ranch? Sophie is just like her–that girl could do anything! LOL. Competent is putting it mildly.

  11. Wendy, Elizabeth Custer was devoted to her husband to the very end–though others saw him as cold and aloof. That last battle of his was heartbreaking, wasn’t it?

  12. Hi, Melanie. Sacagawea (I keep spelling it differently, sorry) was such a great read. It just told about the whole Lewis & Clark Expedition which really was amazing. But it focused on Sacagawea’s contribution, too. After I read that, I read everything I could find about the Expedition. We live on the Missouri River and they reenacted the expedition a couple of years ago…took it step by step, tried to stay in the same places on the same day Lewis and Clark did. Very, very interesting. They spent the night about ten miles from my house and we went into town to a festival (I’m guessing L & C didn’t have a festival of ANY KIND, still…)

  13. I haven’t heard of Mary Cheney’s book but I think women’s contribution to American history is sadly unexplored. I’ll look it up. Maybe I’ll give it as gifts to my one zillion neices.

  14. Pam,
    I know. When you really think about it, Custer died for his country. He probably just saw himself as being involved in putting down an insurgency. Ironically, our country was founded on a revolt from tyranny….

  15. Janna, that’s so sweet. The sequel is coming out in August. It’s the flip side to Petticoat Ranch’s all female world and poor clueless Clay.
    In Calico Canyon we’ve got a prissy schoolmarm who finds herself, after a completely innocent compromising situation, forced into marriage with the father of five bosy, her most unruly students.
    It’s got suspense and of course, True Love, but it’s more of a flat out comedy than Petticoat Ranch

  16. Did you read what Pam wrote, Wendy? These ladies know EVERYTHING or at least where to find it. I’m learning stuff everday.
    Uh, does anyone know how much money it cost a family with several children in Montana, to live in about 1880?
    Fifty dollars a year? A thousand?

  17. Hi, Suzanne, The Anna Waldo book, Sacajawea (I’ve got at least one more spelling, I’ll toss it in later) was riveting. I know that sounds kinda melodramatic but I loved it.

  18. Mary,

    Scripture teaches us that the last shall be first and the first last. I’d like to think that the millions of unsung humble servants will finally get their due come the Day of the Lord, even if their stories never see print here on Earth.

    Keep the great posts coming!

  19. When I think of strong female (American pioneer) literature. I always think of Bess Streeter Aldrich, Mari Sandoz and Laura Ingalls Wilder.

  20. You know, Susan, honestly this country was build on quiet people who just lived their life honorably. We are all doing great things just by showing up, caring for our families, trusting in God, going to work, obeying the law. I don’t suppose fame is a very good measure of a life well lived.
    Thinking of Britney Spears here. 🙂

  21. Great post, Mary! And I love this site – gotta check it out more. Hey, is there anyway they could speed up the release date for ‘Calico Canyon’? LOL I’ll try to be patient 🙂

  22. Awesome blog, Mary, and of course you made me laugh. I, too, love Saquie’s story. How do ya like her nickname for easy spelling? There is a list on a website that tells the costs of items in those years you mentioned. Would that help?

    I have a fabulous little book called WHAT EVERY AMERICAN SHOULD KNOW ABOUT WOMEN’S HISTORY: 200 events that shaped our destiny, by Christine Lunardini, Ph.D.

    The first published American author was a woman! Washington’s Army was supported thanks to money raised by women patriots. Women have fought in every single war in which America has been involved. The factory system and American industrialization depended on the labor of women. Women fueled the abolitionist movement, helped reform the cities, and flew thousands of missions as pilots during WWII. The amazing thing is that they managed to accomplish so much with so many limitations to their own personal freedom. (And with babies on their backs and dresses on.)

    I love writing and reading about strong women.

  23. Great column, Mary. Jank Kirkpatrick’s book A Name of Her Own tells the true story of a woman whose life almost paralleled Sacajawea’s (in fact, they probably knew each other). She went on a westward expedition just a few years later with her husband, who worked for a fur company. The wife turns out much more heroic than the husband. Also, Libby Custer DOES have an interesting story–as I’m sure a lot of the “wives behind the heroes” do. We went to Fort Clatsop (the reconstruction) in Oregon several times to see the place where the L&C Expedition spent the winter, and let’s just say, I’m glad it wasn’t me! Anyone know if they have rebuilt the fort since it burned a few years ago?
    Love you, Mary!

  24. Tammy, Hi. I did all the whining I could but no go on the early release. Turns out they’ve got everything all scheduled way in advance, who know???
    But Calico Canyon will be out in August, then an antholgoy containing Golden Days comes in September. Then another book called Of Mice…and Murder, a contemporary romantic comedy cozy mystery comes out in September, too, from Heartsong Presents Mysteries.
    Then a Heartsong Presents sweet comtemporary called Buffalo Gal comes in October.
    So once they start coming, they’ll come fast.

  25. Mary, I’d love to read more about the single women who went West without a husband–maybe school teachers, dance hall ladies, no not prostitutes. I often wonder what the lives were like for gold miners wives and even farmers wives. We really weren’t taught much about women’s accomplishments during the 19th century.

  26. My brother in law works for Game and Parks in Nebraska and he was very involved in the whole Lewis & Clark re-enactment. I remember the fort burning. I’ll bet he’d know if it was rebuilt. He said one of the men on that expedition was such an expert on Lewis and Clark he’d know how many feet off the bank they camped and on which side and how the river was back then, just every possible detail. One member of the expedition got lost, scouted away from the river then came back and was downstream of the group but thought he was upstream, so he went south. The guy who played him in the re-enactment had to leave the group and wander around for a few days, then he got to ‘find’ them and rejoin them.
    And another member of the re-enactment was an actual descent of either Lewis or Clark (I can’t remember which)

  27. Cara you should wander around the blog. Lots of great stories of woman who braved the wild west, not always with a man beside them. Someone did a Calamity Jane post a while back and there was a single woman doctor in another post.
    Do you think there were dance hall girls that weren’t … disreputable? I think far too often the two went together.

  28. Mary, you’ve sure given me a lot to think about today, sister filly. My mind is whirling. The women in history have mainly been overlooked for sure while the men got all the glory. It must’ve been the dress. 🙂 I think one woman I’d love to know more about is Cynthia Ann Parker. She was captured by the Comanche at age nine and grew up and married the chief. Although she was enslaved, she came to love the Native American culture and ultimately became one of them in every way. She’d have such an fascinating story to tell.

    You’ve outdone yourself, Mary! I love your blog.

  29. Fantastic blog today, Mary. We are so lucky to have you on this site. One little known early heroine was Narcissa Whitman. She and her doctor-missionary husband Marcus came west in the very early 1800s to start a mission to the Indians. At the time she was the only white woman in a gazillion square miles, and so beautiful that trappers and soldiers traveled miles just to look at her. Alas, both she and Marcus, still fairly young, were murdered in their home by some of the Indians they’d befriended. Sad story–but she was a real pioneer heroine.

  30. Buffalo Gal is set in a buffalo ranch in South Dakota. I actually love this one (Oh, c’mon, which one of my books DON’T I love. I wouldn’t have written them if I didn’t like them)
    A lady vegetarian with a herd of buffalo and the cattle rancher next door go to war and fall in love. That’s the one coming next October.

  31. My current WIP is about a white woman raised by Indians and a rancher’s son. I’ve been doing a lot of research trying to figure out what that life would be like and how different the woman would be once she returned to the white world.

  32. It’s amazing that people had the courage to come west at all. And yet they came in droves. It seems like one of Louis L’Amour’s basic tenets was how different people were who came west BEFORE the train. They were just a different breed. They were tough or they were dead.
    Once there were trains you could be a weakling and still get to the west and things really changed after that.

  33. What a fabulous post! I think it would be totally cool to read more books about the “women behind the men” or in reality, the “women beside the men!!!!” People often focus on the males and tend to forget that the females had to face many of the same things.

    I have a book that I LOVE called Legends of the West that has a chapter devoted to women of the west…and it is probably my favorite chapter. In it there are pictures and discussions of Alice Fletcher (who had a job directing the allotment of land for Plains Indians), 60-year-old Nellie Cashman (a restaurateur, merchant, hotelier, and miner in the Klondike region of Alaska), Calamity Jane, Pearl Hart (who pulled the last stagecoach robbery in America in 1899 and was a prisoner at Yuma), Libbie Custer (George’s wife…wonderful section on her actually…there is an excerpt from a book she wrote in called “Following the Guidon”), Charley Parkhurst (who pretended to be male and was not discovered until her death when the undertaker went to embalm her), and more. There are actually several more mentioned in the chapter and discussed and I think any of them would be great inspiration for a romance book heroine.

    Sorry for rambling, but I like women of the west and would to read both fictional and non-fictional stories of their lives.

  34. Oh, and I was reading in the section on Libbie Custer that she remained devoted to her husband after his death and never remarried..she was in her 90s when she died. According to the book, they actually first met when George was 15 and she was 12. George was devoted to Libbie and she often accompanied him on campaigns. When they were apart he would write her long letters and was actually court-martialed after leaving his regiment once to go see her. After his death she wrote books and gave lectures.

    Okay…probably wayyyy more than you wanted to know…but I think it is the basis/inspiration for an interesting romance story…okay, you could leave out his death so there could be a HEA…

  35. Jennifer, I love this. The woman pretending to be a man? A woman in Yuma…trying to picture that.
    How tough would you have to be to be a woman miner in the Klondike. I research the Klondike Gold Rush a LOT to write Golden Days and it was a brutal existance, cold and just a death defying trail to get to the gold fields. And I’m amazed there was a woman allowed to manage anything like land allotments.
    How about school marms? Were there any? Did men mostly do it? Were any of them married?
    My mother in law, who is 88, said that when she was a young adult lots of single women worked but ANY woman who got married was automatically fired. It was just accepted that, now that a man could support her, she needed to step down so someone who needed the job could have it.
    I remember in teh Little House TV show that Laura worked after she was married. And Ma had that diner. But was that historically accurate?

  36. “I remember in teh Little House TV show that Laura worked after she was married. And Ma had that diner. But was that historically accurate?”
    Well, that’s not how it was in the books. Laura did quit teaching after she was married. Of course then she became a writer and really supported the family anyway…

  37. The book actually says that while many of the women came with their husbands, fathers, brothers, etc. west some actually came on their own in search of “personal fortune.”

    As for jobs, it lists laundress, teacher, shopkeeper, hotel and restaurant owner, entertainer, photographer, doctor, dentist, lawyer, journalist, and barber. It doesn’t really go into much detail on professions (except for a short section on Harvey Girls).

    Oh, and I forgot to mention Poker Alice…a professional lady gambler from the west known for smoking cigars and totin’ a gun.

    Oh, and Elizabeth, Narcissa Whitman (and Eliza Spalding) are both mentioned in the book as being inspirations for other women coming west…they were the first Anglo-American women to corss the Rocky Mountains.

    I also read about Cynthia Ann Parker (the white woman who grew up with the Comanche) in the book…she would darken her hair with buffalo dung to look more like her adopted family…her story is kind of sad though once she was “rescued” and returned to the white world.

    Okay…I rambled again…but it is a topic I love.

  38. Buffalo dung?????????????????
    Wow, she must have wanted dark hair REALLY BAD.
    Although, have you ever gone to a beautician to have high lights and low lights.
    Or get a perm?
    That can be pretty tough. And buffalo dung, at least back then??? Very affordable.


  39. Wow i never new about this lady then again i didn’t knew who lewis and clark were either could be cause im an aussie. But thanks for sharing it was interesting to read and yes would make good novels. (when are you writing them?)

  40. Emma Smith (Joseph Smith’s first and only wife) was an amazing woman. Her story would be fascinating to write. She walked across the frozen Missouri river with her children in hand carrying the partially finished translation of the BOM. She lost children do to illness, and stood by her husband through tar and feathering and many other forms of terror from the mob, and was widowed at a young age. Very dramatic stuff. 🙂

  41. Hi, Estella. I think this is one of the reasons female western heroines are so popular. We all know they were there. But the lack of historical non-fiction just awakens the imagination and makes it so fun to write about tough cowgirls.

  42. And AUSTRALIA? Really? Cool. How cool is it for me to write something this morning and someone from Australia gets it and comments back in the wink of an eye. Thanks for leaving a comment Jenny.
    Australia have, all bet, a really rich women’s side of history that remains unexplored, too.
    ME write them? Is this my job? I nominate Pam Crooks to write them, c’mon girl. Go for it.

  43. Great post, Mary. I love all these comments about women of the West.

    Personally, I think a lot of women could survive just as well on their own in the wild as men….It’s surviving in settled communities that gave them problems.

  44. Hey Mare, HOLY COW (note the western touch) you’re probably asleep now, worn out after answering all these posts!! And no wonder — great post, my friend AND great Web site!! And I agree with Camy … you seem awfully “sweet” in this post, not the snark and sass we’ve come to know and love on the Seekers blog. I guess it’s cause it’s your first time here, eh?:)


  45. Mary, Yes Australia had some wonderful women Pioneers and Convicts! there are some stories writen Mary Bryant is about one of the early women convicts and was made into a mini series.
    the Author Courtney Brice has a few Australian books out like Jessica featuring women from early last century.
    But alot more could be writen. It would be great to see more christian fiction featuring australia (thats acurate) writen. We do have an interesting past, And the pioneers really did do it tough like in America.
    it really is cool to be able to post to people all over the world. but i have to shut down the computer doesn’t like the heat.

  46. The amazing thing to me is I never even thought of it before – I just assumed these guys weren’t married because you never heard about wives. I’d love to hear about any of them and I think they would make a fascinating read!

  47. Oh, one more thing…the wanted posters are neat, but have you thought about linking each author’s picture to their website? I expected to be able to click on your picture and go to your website.

  48. Hi, I’m gonna respond to Julie and Janet first. I promise to be a mean as possible next time. IN writing I am quite insanely sarcastic, but in real life, I’m just a shy, retiring little PEACH. I was trying to keep that from the Petticoat and Pistols ladies. Now I’m outed.

  49. Jenny, I know Patricia Hickman wrote a series called “Land of the Far Horizon” set in historical australia, during the time it was a penal colony.
    Quigly Down Under is one of my favorite movies and, even in Australian, it always qualifies as a western to me.

  50. I read a Julie Garwood book called Prince Charming that started in Victorian England and ended up in the Rockies somewhere. She (the heroine in that book) talked about Davy Crocket and Daniel Boone and–I think it was Daniel Boone’s wife she talked about a lot. I loved that book. Very funny.

  51. Lisa, someone besides me needs to be talked to about the Wanted posters. I am such a techno dork I think, by the time Pam Crooks had talked me thtough posting, she’d bought tickets to flee to a land without electricity, just to avoid me. We’ll see if she’s ever heard from again.

  52. Hi Mary. Love your blog!

    Is it on this thread that you or someone mention a book, Legends of the West? Who authored it? I looked on Amazon, and there are a couple with that title. One is Volume II: Legends of the West.

  53. Joyce I don’t know. Did you read through the comments? Okay that was jennifer Y. I know she’s got a blog called jennifersrandommusings@gmail.com
    Go there and ask her about it. I know she’s love to tell you about the book.

    And hi, Christy. I know what you mean, I think I’d have been one of the gadzillion pioneers who died right away.
    Okay, I’ll admit it, I would have refused to go west to begin with. That’s another part of why I love tough women heroines…real and fictional. Because I write my heroines to be how I wish I was.

  54. The book is actually called Legends of the Wild West (I left off the west part…sorry)…James A. Crutchfield is listed as one of the writers…it is a great book that I have had for years. My dad actually gave me the book when I was in elementary school…my love of the west started early.

  55. Oh, and I was doing my own Amazon search and ran across this book that sounds interesting: Cowgirls: Women of the Wild West by Elizabeth Clair Flood and William Manns

  56. Hey Mary,
    So thanks for the nice comment about the beach painting, but I stopped over here to say that, and now I think I have to say something else too. You managed to get Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Sacajawea, and Walker Texas Ranger done in one breath. And I left out John Wayne and Superman, didn’t I? Amazing, truely amazing!:)

  57. culteral whiplash. I hope you’re insured.
    I loved the beach painting. If anyone wants to know what I’m talking about go to
    We, Karen and I, lived next door to each other before I was writing and she was painting.
    I’m sure she’s surprised about my books but Karen always lived her life like an artist, I’m not surprised she’s painting these beautiful pictures.
    I think readers and writers would especially love her ‘Reading’ Series.

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