Heroines of the Wild West

I had planned to blog about superstitions today but I came across an image that so captured the essence of the heroine in my next book, WILD 3, it redirected my focus. This image of my mountain woman, Maggie (aka Mad Mag), reminded me of why I truly love writing westerns. One of my main draws is the freedom to create heroines who had to be as rugged and daring as their heroes. The women who settled the west were as hard-working, adventurous and courageous as their men folk–even more so by my account, as many were also rearing children amid establishing a home, working the land, tending stock and training a husband 😉

History is bursting with dynamic western heroine inspiration.  Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Cattle Kate – Ellen Liddy Watson, the first woman lynched by vigilantes in Wyoming. She was a widow who worked hard to build her own herd and purchase her own homestead. She was lynched by a rival cattle baren along the Sweetwater River, Wyoming, in 1889, during the height of the Wyoming range wars. 
  • Elizabeth Simpson Bradshaw – A widow, with five children, the youngest only 6 years of age, walked across the American prairie pushing all her family possessions in a handmade, wooden handcart. After much tribulation, more than could ever be told, Elizabeth, with all of her children still alive, arrived at her destination, the Salt Lake Valley. There in the West she made her home, reared her children, and is honored by her posterity.
  • Mary Fields – Born a slave in Tennessee in 1832, this tall, powerfully built woman was ambitious, daring and liked a good fight. With no formal education, she forged her way to Ohio and on to the Montana Territory. Declaring herself the protector of the Ursuline nuns at St. Peter’s Catholic Mission near Cascade,Montana, Mary defended those she loved from predators on two legs as well as four. She delivered the mail by stagecoach, never missing a day until she was almost 80 years old.
  • Margaret Borland Heffenan – By 1873 she owned a herd of more than 10,000 cattle. She was said to be the only woman known to have led a cattle drive.
  • Cathay Williams – Female Buffalo Soldier. When Congress passed an act authorizing the establishment of the first all Black units of the military, later to become known as “Buffalo Soldiers”, Cathay Williams, a former slave, decided it was time to join the Army. In November of 1866 she enlisted in the 38th US Infantry as William Cathay. Since there were little or no medical exams required, Cathay was able to successfully (at least initially), pull off this disguise.
  • Calamity Jane –  “Heroine of the plains” was born Martha Jane Canary. A wandering American frontierswoman, she dressed like a man and was even a pony express rider. She frequented bars, telling stories of her adventures with other “personalities” of the west during the mid to late 1800’s.
  • Pearl Hart – First Known Female Stage Robber In Arizona Territory After being captured for the stage robbery, she said that she “would never consent to be tried under a law she or her sex had no voice in making, or to which a woman had no power under the law to give her consent.” She had become a strident voice for “women’s emancipation.”
  • Nellie Cashman“The Angel of Tombstone”  Pretty as a Victorian cameo and, when necessary, tougher than two-penny nails, the extraordinary Nellie Cashman wandered frontier mining camps of the 1800s seeking gold, silver and a way to help others. A lifelong, devout Catholic, Nellie convinced the owners of the Crystal Palace Saloon (one of whom was Wyatt Earp) to allow Sunday church services there until she had helped raise enough funds for construction of the Sacred Heart Church. She was also active raising money for the Salvation Army, the Red Cross, the Miner’s Hospital and amateur theatricals staged in Tombstone. She was famous for taking up collections to help those who had been injured or fallen on hard times, especially miners.

Many of these women remind me of my grandmothers–both ventured westward at a young age with little more than a suitcase and their sheer rugged will to build a better life for their families–both are wild west women in their own right and a basis of inspiration for all my heroines.

Do you have any favorite wild west heroines, either legendary, fictional or personal inspirations? For fun, what is the name of the heroine in the book you’re reading now?

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51 thoughts on “Heroines of the Wild West”

  1. Let me say first off I’ve missed coming to P&P for the past week and a half. I went up to visit my family during the kids’ fall break from school and had little access to the computer or I would’ve been here. I’ve missed a lot of great blogs!

    Stacey- I LOVE that image. I can actually “see” Mad Mag- it’s perfect (too bad that couldn’t be part of the cover!)

    I’m not sure who my favorite wild west heroine would be, but then, I didn’t know a bunch of these. Calamity was the only one that rang a bell, but they all sound amazingly strong and determined and inspirational! Learned something new. Another that does come to mind though is Annie Oakley.

  2. Hi Taryn! Welcome back 🙂
    Ya know, I’m not sure why Annie Oakley isn’t on my list! They say she could shoot the head off a running quail by age nine, and she developed that skill because her family was on hard times and she hunted to put food on the table–the same reason her father started entering her in shooting contests, which was how she met her side-show hubby at age sixteen, if I’m not mistaken. A very interesting heroine 😉

    I’m crossing my fingers on the cover–always an anxious wait *g*

    Thanks for dropping in, Taryn! You were missed!!

  3. Hi Stacey, great blog! That image is very vivid–I can see why you love it!

    Your stories about all these women were very touching. I can imagine all the heartache they suffered, just in traveling West. I don’t have any other names to add, but the countless names and faces of all women who helped tame the West. A lot of our ancestors came from overseas, as immigrants, carrying just a suitcase with them and the promise of a new start in life. I think that’s partially the reason why Westerns resonate with us all–the struggle of one generation to make something better for the next.

    Fascinating post!

  4. Thank you, Kate! I did send that picture on to my editor–not sure if they’ve already drafted the cover. I’m always amazed by the new stories I find on actual women of the west. Glad you enjoyed their tales 🙂

  5. I remember Mad Mag and I liked her, Stacey. This post is fabulous, so well researched and full of terrific details. Thank you!

    I’m taking a break from westerns (just temporary) and reading The Time Traveler’s Wife which my daughter gave me for Christmas. Yikes ten months already. The heroine’s name is Clare.

    I don’t have any family lore about pioneers or homesteading, but my gramma was my true hero. She raised six kids during the depression and could make anything out of nothing.

    I personally think I’m a big spoiled baby when I read about amazing women.

  6. Geez, Stacey, I feel like a slacker after reading about ladies of the west. More power to them for not only surviving the harshness of the west but doing it with such gusto. We have the Smith Flat House here locally where they built the hotel/restaurant over the goldmine entrance. Lots of history and strength of the woman behind it all there.

    The heroine I am reading about right now is Flora MacDonald – in Scotland. Couldn’t resist the cover, what can I say. Kilts have a way of drawing my attention. But, none are as cool as yours and you know I will have it on my favorite shelf as soon as I can get my hands on an autographed copy. Your women of the west are awesome.

  7. LOL Tanya!! Ditto on feeling like a “big spoiled baby” when it comes to these amazing pioneer women. I’m always in awe 🙂

    Ya know, my grandma used to tell me “You can only assess your wealth by the size of your garden” — a frame of mind that came from The Great Depression 😉

  8. Ah, thank you, Paisley!! Your local history sounds fascinating. I think I need to go on a history field trip after I finish with Bride 3 😉

    Flora, what a great name!! Gotta love those kilts 😉 Thanks for sharing!

  9. Stacey, I love this. I love knowing there were women out there doing these things, even if it was rare. We create such tough heroines in our books, usually, that it’s fun to see the real life version.

    I love this lady.
    In 1910-1911 Nan Aspinwall-Gable was the first woman to ride across North America (from San Francisco to New York) alone. At the age of 31 she rode 4,496 miles in 180 days, instantly becoming the stuff of legends.

    The story is that, when she got to New York City, she rode her horse to the tallest building and rode into the elevator and went to the top of the building on horseback.

  10. Hi Stacey,

    I love hearing about the tough women of the west. They contributed to the settlement in so many ways yet pioneer women didn’t get the credit the men did. They carried a lot on their shoulders.

    Great picture of your mountain woman Maggie! She’s a great heroine. Can’t wait for that story to come out. I know I’ll be first in line for it.

    The heroine in the book I’m reading right now is Susannah McKittreck in “Courting Susannah” by Linda Lael Miller. I missed this particular book when I was got into reading LLM. Susannah came from an orphan home and traveled all the way from Boston to Seattle to care for her dead friend’s baby. She’s smart and tough as nails. It’s a great story.

  11. Hey Stacey, I’ll take the easy way out and talk about the heroine in the book I’m reading b/c it’s a perfect companion to your post:

    It’s a Love Inspired Historical The Journey Home by Linda Ford.

    The heroine is Charlotte Porter who became an orphan at the age of 10 with her older brother as her guardian. Her mother knew she was dying and had prepared Charlotte by drilling into her that she had to be ‘helping and agreeable’ to ensure her brother didn’t regret taking her in.

    So, the book starts with Charlotte sitting alone in a ramshackle house waiting for her brother to send for her. It’s 1934 in South Dakota – and with a dust storm on his heels, the hero, Kody Douglas – a half-breed – takes refuge in Charlotte’s house.

    Without giving away the story, over the next few days, Kody makes her realize she’s actually ‘compliant and submissive’ and probably would’ve died waiting for her brother who seems to have abandoned her. She thinks she wasn’t ‘nice’ enough and when she does see her brother, she’ll be more agreeable to his wife.

    But something about Kody rankles and before long, she’s non-compliant and not-so-submissive. Especially with his suggestion that she find shelter with his parents. He’d been adopted by white people – a preacher and his wife – and grew up in a loving home. Because of this and his demeanor, she believes she can trust him.

    So in a few chapters, you have this character arc where she goes from passively reacting to everything in her little world to realizing she has definite opinions about some things and can even stand her ground when she wants to.

    I’m thoroughly enjoying this book.

  12. The photo of “Maggie” gave me goose bumps, Stacey. What a gorgeous picture. She sounds like a wonderful character. You named some amazing women. I did a blog about Calamity Jane a few months ago–probably buried deep in the archives.
    And I’ve seen Appaloosa, too, Karin T. Allison French had her own toughness and means of survival. What a character. (And yeah, great movie, but I really was looking for a spotted horse.)

  13. Hey, let me know when you want to go on that field trip – I can take you to some of the best places. Always wanted to see Gold Bug Park – a goldmine to explore.

  14. Thank you, Linda 😀 You are right, the women who trudged right along side their man are often overlooked. Even the mountain men had women in their groups, trucking those mountains right along with them.

    Courting Suzannah is a great one! It’s on my keeper shelf along with several other westerns by LL Miller, as well as my collection of Linda Brodays’ 😉

  15. Hi Anita Mae! A Journey Home sounds fantastic!! I love that era–remind of a series by Dorothy Garlock set during those dust storms. Thanks so much for sharing 🙂

  16. Wow that is a BEAUTIFUL picture!

    I love stories of the old west. Although the times were hard they were simpler too in many ways…people were committed to each other and their families. Faith was simple, you trust God and learn to work with Him in matters of provision – crops and hunting. People were more respectful of each other.

    Sometimes I say I was born 100yrs too late 🙂

    Great post!

  17. Hi Stacey,Not currently reading a book ,keeping my grandsons while my daughter goes back to work,cut into my reading time,they are 9 months an 3 yrs.keeping me on my toes,wow,I forgot how hard it was to run after two little ones,thats why God let YOUNG people have babies,its tiring but enjoying,I moved back 1200 miles so I could spend more time with them,I guess I can catch up on more of my reading later

  18. Great stories. We never hear enough about the women!!
    My heroine’s name is Callie Mercer – although it’s not a western it sounds like it could be!

  19. I love the picture and I just love your books. I, too, had not heard of most of the women you introduced us to. I find it mind boggling what the women of that time period had to live through. When you hear and learn how they had to live – we really seem to have it made (feminine hygeine come quickly to mind). One thing reading romances(the accuracy in these books is amazing) have helped me be is thankful that I live in the time that I do (medicine, travel and all our convienences).

  20. Hi Elizabeth! I loved your Calamity Jane post 🙂 All of these fascniating women are another aspect of research that doesn’t show up in our books and why P&P is such a fun place to share it 😉

    I can’t wait to finish this next book so that I too can see Appaloosa!!

  21. Thank you, Kimberley! So glad you’ve enjoyed my books 😀 I agree about the present-day-pampering *g* It’s fun to VISIT the great outdoors, but I do love my indoor plumbing and my microwave 😉

  22. Stacey, that was an awesome list! Like Tanya said, reading about these inspiring women does me think I’m a bit spoiled! 😉 I don’t think I’d last five minutes if I were starring in my own western historical!

  23. Hi Stacey-
    Wonderful information! THANKS. I finally got one of your books – MAVERICK WILD which I read a few weeks ago. I really enjoyed it and am glad to start reading some of your books.
    One of my favorite western characters would be Cricket from FRONTIER WOMAN by Joan Johnston. I thought that her trilogy of the Stewart sisters was great! One of the books I am currently reading the heroine is Michelle, another is Anne and another is “Harry.” I always have several books going – paperback, Audible on MP3, CD in car and tape player at home!
    Thanks for being an awesome western writer!

  24. Loved the post! My favorite western fav would have to be Annie Oakley!
    I am reading Janet Dean’s Courting Miss Adelaide. Loving the book.

  25. Stacey,

    Great blog! I loved, loved, LOVED the picture of Mad Mag and it was very interesting to read about your favorite females from western history. They really do make us modern women seem rather wimpy by comparison, don’t they? As for my favorite heriones, well, I’m a fan of nearly all the women Jodi Thomas and LLM have in their stories. I love LaVyrle Spencer’s characters, too, though I don’t know if they qualify as “western” heroines. And your heroines, of course, are always a top pick! I’m eagerly awaiting your next book; can’t wait to add it to my collection!

    Westerns are my favorite books to read and I’m *always* looking for new ones. Courting Miss Adelaide has now been added to my TBR list, so thanks for the suggestion!


  26. Lovely post, Stacy,
    I love stories about strong women making their way. They are such inspirations. I have one I love gut I can’t quite come up with her name. I’m away now, at my son’s in Indiana and have been for a few weeks so I’m away from my books. It’s right on the tip of my brain. Actually, she was an outlaw, but still I love her for her flawed and tattered heart.
    Love the picture!!

  27. Hi Tatia! I’m always inspired by their strength and the kind of endurance it took to really rise above in that era. LOVE your list of fave author heroines–I’d definitely include LaVyrle Spencer’s–FORGIVING and HUMMINGBIRD had a huge impact on my love of westerns 🙂

    Thanks for mentioning my western gals–I’ll keep you posted with new release news on WILD 3 as I get it 😉

  28. Hi Caroline! Hope you’re having fun in Indiana 🙂 I too find inspiration in reading the struggles and hardships of others and their power to overcome. Outlaw heroines usually have amazinng stories behind their less-than-legal behavior 😉 Thanks for sharing!!

  29. Heard from my editor today–she loved the image and will be showing it to the art folks for idea inspiration, so we’ll see if they come up with anything close — so exciting, waiting on a cover 😀

  30. Hi Stacey,
    Just discovered this web site and I am really enjoying reading about the western ladies and the different themes in the books. I write and perform songs and poetry about western women (and men) real and fictional and this will be a great place for ideas!!
    Great site and lots of fun!

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