Whether she was addressed as Madame or Ma'am, Señorita or Squaw, a woman needed guts to live out West. The 'weaker sex' encountered savage, brutal and obnoxious obstacles (and these were just the men!), not to mention mean ol' Mother Nature and a plague or two. Or three. In spite of these barriers, or maybe because of them, the American frontier attracted legions of nonconforming women–mavericks, loners, eccentrics and adventurers. And through it all they kept their sense of humor: 'I've got 350 head of cattle and one son,' said a widowed ranchwoman. 'Don't know which was harder to raise.'
In the case of the 'boat people' (immigrants from Europe) who ventured out West, the women were typically cut off from family, friends, their native culture and the 'protective strictures' of Eastern society. Some were crushed by the experience, others survived and more than a few thrived. Of course, many of the so-called wild women were already in the Wild West and lived on the plazas and in the wigwams, hogans and teepees up and down the canyons and across the Great Plains. Among both the natives and newcomers were plenty of feisty women who weren't afraid to mix it up with anyone, man or beast. As a modern leader put it, 'No country, no culture, no people will ever rise above the standards of its women.'
More than any other virtue, women brought a hearty pragmatism to the West. 'When I saw something that needed doing, I did it,' was a common remembrance of the wild women of the Wild West.
A good practitioner of that brand of pragmatism was Barbara Jones, who, along with her husband and 10 children, settled on the Pecos River in New Mexico Territory in the 1870s. They opened a store near Seven Rivers, and while her husband freighted in supplies, Ma'am Jones, as she was called by her friends and family, managed the store and her brood. The nearest doctor was 150 miles away, so it was probably inevitable that disaster would strike. Sure enough, one of her older boys (she had 10 sons!) came running in one day and said, 'Mommy come quick, Sammy's been hurt!' Ma'am Jones ran outside and found her youngest lying face down. As she picked him up and wiped the dirt and blood from his face, she realized he had been pushed down into some broken glass. Upon closer inspection she discovered that one of his eyelids had been almost severed by the glass and was hanging by a thread. She carried her hysterical son into the house, laid him on the kitchen table and had one of her other sons fetch her sewing kit. While little Sammy howled and squirmed, Ma'am Jones sewed his eyelid back on.
Sammy Jones lived to be a happy old man. One eyelid was a bit crooked, but he still retained the use of that eye–thanks to the courage and quick thinking of his mother. Ma'am Jones owned a brand of bravery that often goes unnoticed when Hollywood looks at the Wild West.
Like their male counterparts on the frontier, the early female arrivals were rugged individualists who angled west to gain the cherished privilege of being left alone to do what they pleased. And often as not, 'doing what they pleased' was a nice way of saying they were women of easy virtue. Many women who came West were trying to escape their past. Others saw too many restrictions in Eastern society and wanted to create a future in this new land of opportunity. All were hoping against hope, and many had nothing to lose.
Mattie Silks claimed she had never been a prostitute yet bragged that she was the youngest madame in the West. At the tender age of 19, she probably was the youngest successful madame that Denver had yet known. But Mattie was not alone in her profession. A Denver man described the scene on Holladay Street, where most of the Cyprians roosted: 'Men took their liquor neat and women took what they could get their hands on.' One of Denver's most successful madames in the 1880s was Jennie Rogers. When she caught her lover, Jack Wood, in the arms of another woman, Jennie shot him. She said she shot him because she loved him, and sure enough, when Jack recovered, she married him.
When off the ranges of the Southwest, the lonely cowboys lined up whenever they had the chance. Working hours were usually noon until dawn. Each girl had one day off a week, and a popular girl in a popular house earned as much as $200 a week. It was the custom in most of the cheaper establishments that while a man dallied, he was not permitted to remove any of his clothing except his hat.
Most Western males, with or without their hats on, were not inclined to look down their noses at the girls on the line. A Dodge City 'old-timer' describing a favored 'tid bit' recalled that 'the only thing anyone could hold against her was her after-dark profession, and by Godfrey, I allow she elevated that considerably.' A miner described Rosa May of Bodie, Calif., by declaring, 'She was a gal who had a smile you'd go to hell for, and never regret it.'
Although prostitution was condoned and even sanctioned in the early West, it simply could not interfere with business. In 1860, Madame Mary Miller spent three months in jail for 'depressing real estate values.' And, though the miners and cowboys 'loved their gals,' when it came time to bury them, the girls of the line were often laid to rest in outcast cemeteries far from the respectable plots.
Mattie Blaylock was a farm girl from Iowa with large bones and a fine face. Not long after going West, she was working in Dodge City as a dance hall girl. She did okay, but like most girls on the line she wanted to find the right guy and leave that way of life. She met a local police officer and moved in with him. She was happy to be off the streets. He soon tired of the low pay of police work and became a bartender, gambling on the side. He bought Mattie a mine with his winnings and named it 'The Mattie Blaylock.'
They traveled together as man and wife, following the gambling circuit. It was good for quite a while, but then things went south in their relationship, and he left her for another woman. He never even said goodbye; he just left town. Mattie tried to make it on her own, but there was little she knew how to do. She went back on the line, and things went downhill from there. Mattie was older now and lacked the appeal of the younger girls. She woke up one morning in a small shack in a one-horse town with a stranger in her bed. Mattie ordered a bottle of laudanum, drank it all down and went to her final sleep.
At the inquest, the coroner in Pinal, Arizona Territory, asked a laborer named T.J. Flannery if he knew the deceased. He replied he did. She had told him her name was 'Mattie Earp.' 'Did you hear the deceased threaten her own life?' the coroner asked. 'I have,' the witness answered. '[Wyatt] Earp, she said, had wrecked her life by deserting her and she didn't want to live.'
When it comes to famous women of the Wild West, probably no two names shine brighter than Annie Oakley and Calamity Jane. Born Phoebe Ann Moses (often spelled Mozee) in Darke County, Ohio, in 1860, Annie Oakley was not really a Westerner. But she became a universal star when she joined the Buffalo Bill Wild West show in 1885. 'Little Miss Sure Shot' toured Europe and became the darling of royalty everywhere. She was badly injured in a 1901 train wreck, but recovered and continued her career. She really could shoot well but was no hard-riding frontier character. When not on the road, Mrs. Butler (Annie married a fellow performer, Frank Butler, who later became her manager) led a quiet, religious life in her native Ohio. Annie Oakley died in 1926.
Old-timers always claimed Calamity Jane Cannary (sometimes spelled Canary) had a big heart when she was not drinking, but unfortunately that was not very often. Most Westerners also agreed she was generally liked but little respected, and she was hard to be around for long periods of time. She was a bullwhacker, a harlot, a scout, an occasional actress and an accomplished liar. Jane traveled (mostly bumming her way) throughout the West. There are numerous versions as to how she got her name. One story says that any cowboy who bought her services was in for a calamity, meaning they were going to be spending quality time with a doctor in the near future.
Calamity Jane's movements and blundering escapades were frequently reported in the local papers. The February 28, 1887, edition of the Laramie, Wyoming Territory, Boomerang noted that Calamity was visiting: 'To say that the old girl has reformed is something of a chestnut. She was gloriously drunk this morning and if she didn't make Rome howl she did Laramie. Her resting place is now the soft side of an iron cell. Judge Pease will deliver the lecture and collect the fine in the morning.'
By the late 1890s, Jane had abused herself so thoroughly that a contemporary described her as resembling 'a busted bale of hay.' The rough old gal's time ran out in Deadwood on August 1, 1903. She evidently expired from an old job-related injury–'inflammation of the bowels.' Before she died, she requested to be buried beside her 'true love,' Wild Bill Hickok (the request was granted, but there is little evidence that Jane knew Hickok more than casually). At the undertaker's, souvenir seekers clipped off locks of Calamity's hair, forcing an old friend to put a wire screen over her head. Many who viewed her noted Calamity Jane looked better in death than she had in life. Of course, the same could be said of her legend.
The history of the wild women of the Wild West does not end in the 1890s. The dance hall girls, gritty pioneers and savvy señoritas gave way to a new breed of Western women, even wilder and, in many cases, stronger than their mothers. Many of the daughters and granddaughters of those feisty women continue to live in the West and to look back at the often unsung frontier heroines with pride.
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