The Magnificent Women of The West

Sam, my heroine in my new book, The Lawman, is a pistol toting, whip welding, card playing woman of the west.

She was not unique for the time.

There are  many “real life” heroines of the west from which I modeled Sam. Some came from a book, “The Cowgirls,” by Joyce Gibson Roach. I’ve blogged about women from the book before because it includes some very remarkable ones.

These strong, independent women are why I love writing westerns so much. They had opportunities unavailable anywhere else. Widowed or deserted by husbands, they became ranchers, wranglers, doctors, proprietors, miners and entrepreneurs.   They opened rooming houses, taught school, drove mules and even robbed banks.

Eugene Manlove Rhodes in “Beyond the Desert” put into words an unwritten code for cattlemen. “It is not the custom to war without fresh offense, openly given. You must not smile and shoot. You must not shoot an unarmed man, and you must not shoot an unarmed man. . . ”

According to Ms. Roach, there was a different code observed by pistol-toting cattlewomen. These rules advised:

1. Strange men will do well to shoot.

2. Shoot first, ask questions later..

3. If you shoot a man in the back, he rarely returns fire.

4. Scare a man to death even if you do not intend to kill him.

5. If a man needs killing, do it.

My Samantha had at least two and possibly four of those reasons to shoot Marshal Jared Evans, a man she thought a ruthless pursuer of the man who raised her.

She would fit perfectly among Ms. Roach’s real life heroines.

There was, for instance, Mrs. Stevens who lived in Lonesome Valley, Arizona.. When her husband went to town thirty miles away, she stayed home to guard the homestead and their children. She glanced out the window and  saw a rag on a bush outside. Since she didn’t remember hanging anything on that bush, she decided it was an Indian. She grabbed her gun, drew a bead on the rag, and “plugged an Apache right between the eyes.” After the Indian fell, she discovered the ranch was surrounded by Indians. Emboldened by her success, she held off the Indians until some cowboys chanced by and ran off the Apaches. When finished, they asked Mrs. Stevens if she wanted to send a message to her husband. On a piece of paper, she wrote,

“Dear Lewis,

The Apaches came. I’m mighty nigh out of buck-shot. Please send more.

Your loving wife.”

No please come home. Just send buck-shot.

Then there was Willie. The story was familiar because I once wrote a book, “The Scotsman Wore Spurs” with a heroine just like Willie.

Women occasionally accompanied their husbands on cattle drives, but the usual mode of travel was a buggy.    Willie made it on horseback.

Willie was hired by a trail boss  looking for drovers in Clayton, New Mexico. The boy looked about nineteen, according to the trail boss, and made a good hand with the horses and cattle. According to Ms. Roach’s book, the boss declared that Willie got up on the darkest stormiest nights and stayed with the cattle. “Equally as impressive was the fact that Willie did not drink, chew or cuss.”

After four months, when the bunch reached the Colorado-Wyoming line, Willie said he was homesick, asked to draw his pay, and rode off. Later in the day, a well dressed young lady rode in and addressed the trail boss and asked if he recognized her. The startled trail boss finally recognized her as Willie and asked why she had done such a thing.

She replied her father had been a drover and she wanted to know what it was like. Upon hearing a trail boss was looking for hands, she’d taken her brother’s clothes and asked for a job.

But others earned respect without subterfuge. There was Maude Reed, a Swedish girl who gathered a herd of cattle in Colorado. According to a brief news item in the local paper, she started with a few head of cattle, and by strict attention, economy and bearing all the hardships of a frontier life, she became one of the shrewdest and ablest cattle owners in Mesa County.

In Texas, there were fifty cowgirls operating a ranch in the hill country between San Marcos and San Antonio in the mid-1880’s. Some supposedly came from the finest families in the state and some from the worst. They did, of course, all the riding and roping and branding. Their leader was a whip-cracking brunette from the Oklahoma territory whose boyfriend was an outlaw by the name of Payne.

Another Texas woman, Sally Skull, was very skilled in deciding who needed killing. A man once made an unkind remark about her and when she found out about it, she called him out and shot bullets at his boots until he danced.

Having learned about horses from her late husband, Sally was a horse trader. Totally fearless, she traveled south of the border to buy horses and sold them in Texas. She spoke fluent Spanish, hired Mexicans to work for her, and thought well of the Mexican people in general. She used a salty vocabulary which inspired respect from males, but her real talent was in handling firearms. She carried a rifle and was deadly with it. Two pistols hung from a cartridge belt around her waist and she could use them with either hand with equal skill. She also carried a whip with which she popped flowers off their stems for entertainment, She also liked to gamble, and she played poker at Haynes’ saloon which was also frequented by outlaw John Wesley Hardin.

I’ve always believed a writer can’t possible make up anything as fascinating as real life, and this is particularly true of the bigger than life characters of the west.

Patricia
Updated: August 30, 2010 — 10:46 am

19 Comments

  1. Hi Patricia! Loved your post and the unique code of the west for women. The best books honor history, and history has a lot of character!

  2. Love it. And yes, women needed to have a different code!

    Peace, Julie

  3. Brilliant post, Pat. Yes, indeed, the best fiction is based on history. Reading about strong brave women like these makes me ponder once again on what a weenie I truly am. I wonder if I would have had a different personality if I’d been born way back then? oxoxo

  4. Pat, I love these true stories about women of the West. I could read these all day long. You’re so right in saying that we could never make up anything that beats real life. It’s amazing at the women’s resilience and fortitude. I think they were tougher than the men in a lot of ways.

    Love the cover of your new western. Bet it’s your best one yet. Sam sounds like a larger than life heroine and more than a match for your lawman!

  5. Avatar

    What a great post. Odd how these stories seem to get pushed to the back of the figurative shelf. I don’t know why men always feel the have to be the biggest and baddest, out there to protect the poor, little woman. Their egos are a bit fragile. Heaven forbid a female should be better at something than they are in the manly chores. they may appreciate the work and the help at the time, but tend not to give full credit afterwards.
    These are some fascinating women. Why couldn’t a ranch be run entirely by women? There are very few things I don’t think we can do equally as well. Some of them we are just smart enough not to want to.

    Sort of a humorous side comment, we were watching a nature program last night about marlin (swordfish). When the record fish was caught, it was listed as a male even though it was a female. The men honestly couldn’t take the ego hit that a female fish could/would be the record and bigger than any male caught. (By the way, in nature the females are generally bigger than the males.) They also noted that there was a contender for that record. It weighed in heavier, but when they hung it by the tail, the stomach contents slipped out. They subtracted that from the previously recorded weight and it no longer was the fish the record. It just happened to be caught by a woman. I can’t imagine them doing that to a man and getting away with it.

    Thanks for a great post as usual.

  6. Pat. . Love the fishing story. I imagine there were some pretty red faces at the record.

    Linda. So glad you like the cover. So did I. It’s one of the few that I said a moment’s quiet prayer of thanks when they sent it to me. I’ve been plagued with some pretty terrible ones.

  7. Victoria and Julie. . .I fell in love with the code, too, especially the one about shooting in the back. Rather bad form but true. Now one of my heroines would never, ever do that, not even Sam.

  8. Pat, the thing I love about stories like these is, when we’re researching we so often read things like, “Women always wore…” or “Manners at the time dicated that women always…”

    But you read this and realize Always just doesn’t need to apply. In the west, a lot of people broke the mold, went their own way and were allowed to live as they chose. It gives me a lot of freedom in creating characters.

  9. Pat, Loved those stories, especially Mrs Stevens! Much as I love imagining crossing the country and homesteading or ranching somewhere, I just don’t think I would have measured up to those women.

    It’s funny how we fall for the idea that all women from the 1800s were sweet little ladies. Do you think it is because of how they are portrayed in the history books? Or because its hard to imagine Grandma with a gun in her hands, let alone actually shooting someone?

  10. The book I sourced has hundreds of them. I really loved Willie who went on the trail drive because, well, just because. But I really liked Mrs. Stephens, too.

  11. You said it, Pat. Nobody can make up anything as strange as real life. Loved the stories, especially the woman who asked for more buckshot. Gorgeous cover BTW. Can’t wait to find and read your book.

  12. Pat,

    I love these true stories of women of the West! Although I love to write about the Old West, I don’t think I would have fared very well during that time. LOL That’s a killer cover, too! Can’t wait to read it.

    Cheryl P.

  13. I think my favorite is the ranch owned and run by women. Just think of how many rebellious women there were in the west. A lot of these stories sort of sound like one unusual character here and there, but it sounds like there were a LOT of them.

    I love it.

  14. wow! what a very interesting post!
    most of those women had more guts than me i’m sad to admit…but i think i would have gladly joined the 50 cowgirl ranch
    i often think living with a bunch of women would be a good way to get things done 🙂

  15. Fascinating info!

  16. Only in America! I love this country!

  17. Loved your post Pat! I find it fascinating how much women of the past were actually quite like the many of the women of today. 🙂

  18. Pat,
    I just loved your post. Seen through a woman’s eyes, shooting a man in the back doesn’t sound half bad, especially if he needs killing. Thank you for making my day!

  19. Pat,

    Wonderful cover!!!!!!!!!I must get my hands on that book Seeing things through a woman’s eye is just one aspect that I totally understand
    Thanks Pat for a wonderful post

    Walk in harmony
    Melinda

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