It All Started With A Wagon Train . . .

Readers and interviewers often ask about what got me interested in writing western romances. Well, there’s a reason my logo features a wagon wheel. It all started with a wagon train.

The early seeds were planted with Laura Ingalls and Little House on the Prairie, both the books and the television series. But it wasn’t until the late 80’s when I was a senior in high school that the love affair truly began. I can still recall standing in a bookstore  during one of those high school band trip time killers – you know, the ones where the bus pulls up to the local mall and lets the kids loose on the food court and shops with the only perameter being, “Meet back here by 5:30.” Well, where else would I spend time but in a bookstore? Besides, I needed something to read on the bus ride home.

I sat staring at the shelves, picking up book after book but not realy finding anything I liked. Then a friend (a boy, no less!) suggested I try Dana Fuller Ross’s Wagon’s West Series. Apparently his sister liked them. I picked up Independence!, the first in the series, and was instantly hooked. I can’t remember how many I ended up reading, but I think I read at least the first 8, up through Nevada! There were 24 total in the series.

Now that my appetite for romance and adventure on the western trail had been whetted, I sought more. Imagine my delight when I stumbled across Saturday reruns of the old westerns from the 50’s and 60’s. Bonanza. The Big Valley. The Rifleman. I loved them all.

Yet when I saw a promo for Wagon Train, teenage heart palpitations nearly sent me into a swoon. I’d thought Pernell Roberts was to-die-for as Adam Cartwright, but when I caught a glimpse of Robert Fuller as the trail scout, Cooper Smith, I was in love. And the fact that the channel only showed Wagon Train for a short time before discontinuing it, only made my heart grow fonder. We were star-crossed lovers, Cooper and I, held apart by a tragic whim of fate.

About this same time, my best friend got me hooked on old movies. We’d go to the video store and try out everything from Audrey Hepburn to Fred Astaire. I started watching the classic movie channel on TV as well. And that’s where I found it. My favorite western movie of all time. Westward the Women.

Never heard of it? Don’t feel bad. Most haven’t. It doesn’t star John Wayne or Gary Cooper. In fact, nearly the entire cast is female. Odd for a western, right? But that’s part of the reason I loved it. That and the fact that it all takes place on a . . . you guessed it . . . wagon train.

In the story, a land developer arranges for the transport of moral, able-bodied women to travel from Chicago to his settlement in California to become wives to the frontiersmen there. The women have a variety of motivations for joining the train. Some are in financial straits. Some have lost husbands and have no where else to go. Some are simply looking to make a new start. The wagon master has serious doubts about their ability to cope with the arduous demands of the journey and tries to convince the land developer to give up on the scheme. The women prove tougher than he expects, though, and with a little training on firearms and team driving, they set out. As the wagon master’s respect for the women in his care grows so do the women’s respect for themselves. The film destroys sterotypes of women as the weaker sex. And the central love story between the wagon master and the French saloon dancer who is looking to leave her past behind demonstrates that love really does conquor all.

Westward the Women came out in 1951 and was based on a concept idealized by Hollywood legend, Frank Capra, after he read an article in a 1940’s magazine about a group of South American women who crossed the Isthmus to become brides for a group of male settlers. It was filmed the Utah mountains and California desert and all the actresses were given extensive training in handling frontier weapons, bullwhip cracking, blacksmithing, horseback riding, mule driving, and assembling and disassembling covered wagons. My writer’s research heart is drooling in envy.

Alas, Netflix doesn’t carry it, so I might have to find a copy I can purchase. Because even though I haven’t seen it in probably 20 years or more, I still remember it in vivid detail. I still want to be like those women–tough, determined, and ready to take on any challenge this journey of life throws at me.

So what about you? What got you started on western romances? Books, movies, television, growing up on a ranch? I’d love to hear your story!

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For those who love to smile as they read, bestselling author Karen Witemeyer offers warmhearted historical romance with a flair for humor, feisty heroines, and swoon-worthy Texas heroes. Karen is a firm believer in the power of happy endings. . . and ice cream. She is an avid cross-stitcher, and makes her home in Abilene, TX with her husband and three children. Learn more about Karen and her books at: www.karenwitemeyer.com.

30 thoughts on “It All Started With A Wagon Train . . .”

  1. Movie-Across the Great Divide

    TV- The Big Valley, Marshall Dillon in Gunsmoke, Bonanza, Rawhide, Rin Tin Tin, The Lone Ranger

    Books- Little House On the Prairie series
    Lavyrle Spencer’s Forgiving

  2. Hi Karen!

    I always enjoy your posts!

    I can thank or blame, depending on how you look at it, my dad for my love of western history and western romance. Growing up we always took vacations close to home in Wyoming, or in the states boardering it. And since Dad grew up in kind of the gypsy lifestyle he knew all the history, legend and lore everywhere we traveled. We really didn’t need those historical site markers because we had him, and he kept me enthralled through hours of backseat car trips. To this day, I’ll never forget standing (this is when you could get close to it) next to Devil’s Tower as Dad told us the legend. And in true Western fashion he admits what he didn’t know he made into a great story. :o)

    When we were home he kept the western movies playing. And I loved “Westward the Women.”

    –Kirsten

  3. Kristen – I’m jealous of your Wyoming heritage! Listening to your dad and all his tall tales must have been fabulous.

    And I’m so glad that you recognize Westward the Women! I didn’t think anyone would. Love that show.

  4. Karen I remember Westward the Women so well. Loved it–those great women. But the scene where Robert Taylor slaps Denise Darcel around is one that many women today find objectionable. That maybe why it’s hard to find now. Too bad, because the rest of the film is so great.

  5. TV: The Big Valley for sure. Bonanza was a must-see as well.

    Books: The Little House series as a girl. Elizabeth Howell and Linda Lael Miller were my introduction to historical western romance. Brenda Minton introduced me to contemporary cowboy inspirational series books.

    Movies: I grew up spending my weekends watching old Western movies including Mark of Zorro, Angel and the Badman, and a lot of B westerns that weren’t romantic but just, well, western. Most didn’t have any development of female characters. I am glad you shared the exception!

    Peace, Julie

  6. I love tough western woman, Karen. This is fantastic. I checked Amazon and they only have VHS. I don’t even know if we have a VHS player anymore. I’m trying to picture my TV set up.
    My memory fails.
    I can barely turn that stupid TV on anymore.

  7. Hi Karen! “Westward The Women” is a favorite of mine, too. I wonder if it’s ever on TCM? I’d love to see it again.

    TV shows are what hooked me on westerns. Bonanza, High Chapparal, and Lancer were my favorites. I wish a network would replay “Paradise” with Lee Horsley. Loved that show!

  8. Elizabeth – You might be right about that slapping. But really, the entire movie showed how strong women were and how they exceeded the men’s expectations at every turn. Especially in the 50’s this was a film that empowered women in a lot of ways. So glad to find another fan!

  9. Karen, Robert Fuller captured my heart too. I really had a crush on that man. And then when he starred in Laramie I was totally hooked. I loved all those old westerns but Laramie was special. The first western romance I read was “Angel” by Johanna Lindsay. That did it for me. After that I read “The Bride Wore Spurs” by Sharon Ihle and “The Kissing Bandit” by our own Margaret Brownley. Then came Jodi Thomas to help cement my love for western romance. I knew when I read those that I was meant to write my own western romance. The love affair continues. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of it.

  10. Hi, Julie. Yep – I loved Bonanza and Big Valley. Those were great shows. I still catch them on reruns every now and again. And Linda Lael Miller is one of my favorites. Loved her Stoney Creek series. I’m with you on the Western movies. They’re just not as fun to watch when there’s not a strong female character or love interest. I hope you get a chance to see Westward the Women someday. I think you’d really like it.

  11. I remember Paradise, Vicki! Great show! I can remember having a serious crush on Lee Horsely. 🙂 It think it’s about time for family-friendly westerns to make a come back to the small screen. Big screen too for that matter.

  12. Hi, Linda. I don’t remember Laramie. I’m going to have to look that one up. I do remember Robert Fuller moving to a doctor roll on Emergency. I’ve loved medical dramas ever since, too. Ha! 🙂

  13. For me it was those great TV westerns – Big Valley, Laramie, Laredo, Have Gun, Will Travel, Cheyenne – and so many others. In fact my very first attempt at writing as a very young girl was a story featuring the characters from the old Roy Rogers show.

  14. Enjoyed reading the comments.
    I grew up listening to the books of Zane Grey and Louis L’ Amour because my dad would read to me and my sister. it was either that or hunting and fishing magazines.
    Also, I have liked reading about the West because I grew up on a ranch in Colorado and learned a lot of the local history of the area.

  15. Winnie – I love that your early writing used characters from Roy Rogers show. How fun! I can remember watching Dr. Quinn in high school and day dreaming about stepping into her shoes. Ah – such sweet memories!

  16. Joye – What treasured memories you have of listening to your dad read those great western classics to you! And growing up on a ranch in Colorado sounds like heaven to me. Thanks for sharing!

  17. Hi Karen, Thanks for bringing back lots of memories! Westward the Women was my favorite too! The scene where they call out the names of the dead after the attack – breaks my heart again just thinking about it! And I was in love with Coop / Robert Fuller. Remember the episode with Annette as his love interest?
    I don’t know what got me started with Westerns, but I have been addicted to Oregon trail stories for as long as I can remember and just added two to my Kindle yesterday. My dream vacation would be to follow the trail all the way someday.

  18. Hi, Judy. So glad you stopped by today! I would love to travel the Oregon trail. I don’t know if I could handle it in authentic fashion, but it sure would be a fantastic experience.

    I can remember my very first computer game, which of course was The Oregon Trail. It was on one of those big floppy discs. This was back when the monitor had one color, no graphics, only text. But I would play that game for hours, making decisions on how to get my family to the end of the trail. Even then, the wagon train idea captivated me. 🙂

    I’ve seen the giant covered wagon they have in Portland that commemorates the end of the Oregon trail from a distance, but I’ve never had the chance to go to the museum or explore it more fully. One of these days I need to do that.

  19. Great post, Karen! My love of western romances began with reading the Little House books. I also enjoyed watching The Big Valley and Gunsmoke.

  20. I loved so many of those old TV westerns. I guess a lot of us watched them because our TV choices were so limited back then. They definitely started my love of western romance novels.

  21. Karen, great post. I have never seen WESTWARD THE WOMEN, but I’m going to have to find it now–it sounds wonderful. I grew up in the 60’s so I got to see all those “old” shows the first time around.LOL I remember even as a little kid begging to watch Rawhide. There was just some kind of “safe” feeling watching that show, like everything was always going to turn out okay because Rowdy and Mr. Favor would make SURE it did. LOL But I loved Bonanza, and so many of the other tv shows–my favorite being Lancer which was shown in the early 70’s just for a couple of seasons. The movies were fantastic during those days, too, and living in a small town, I never missed a Saturday matinee feature–I think my mom looked forward to it as much as I did, because she had nearly 3 hours of time alone, just to do what she wanted or needed to do. LOL Anyhow, this is a thought provoking post as to what got us started reading/writing westerns. Oddly enough, I didn’t read westerns until I was much older.
    Hugs,
    Cheryl P.

  22. Love the movie WESTWARD THE WOMEN! I grew up going to all the old westerns. Roy and Dale were my heros. Guess the romance novels just came naturally.

  23. I loved all the western TV shows starting back in the 1950’s with Rin Tin Tin, Roy Rogers, Annie Oakley, Zorro , The Rifleman, The Lone Range, and many, many more. Wagon Train was a favorite as well as Bonanza and Paladin. I enjoyed Little House, The Young Riders, and Dr. Quinn along with my children. It is really too bad the western has sort of died out on network TV. I would love to see some good ones on the air.
    I did read westerns growing up, too. Zane Grey was a favorite. The first real western set book I read was My Friend Flicka, I think.

    I checked Amazon and it seems Westward The Women isn’t available on DVD. You can get a new VHS copy for ONLY $198.95 or $64.50. We can hope it comes out on DVD soon. I don’t think I have seen it, but there is something familiar about it.

  24. Hi, Patricia. I recently downloaded several free audio books to my iPhone and I was excited to find a couple of Zane Grey’s titles there. I’m listening to Jane Eyre right now, but I think I might opt for one of those great old westerns next. I listen while I exercise, to help ease the monotony. I only hear 30-45 minutes at a time, so I can savor it over several weeks.

    I hope you get a chance to see Westward the Women. I’d think you’d really like it. I wouldn’t recommend paying $200 for it, though. That’s just nuts!

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