Matches Tended To Be More Economic Than Romantic
Once they reached the West, the early female pioneers enjoyed all the advantages that come with being scarce. Although the gender balance evened out fairly quickly, single women who were willing to get married remained in great demand. The wife of an army officer seeking a nurse for her children deliberately picked out a very homely candidate. But, she reported in despair, the girl "had not been in the fort for three days before the man who laid our carpets proposed to her." The matches made under such circumstances tended to be more economic than romantic bargains. Martha Gay Masterson recalled that as soon as her family set up camp in Oregon, a well-dressed man galloped up and begged her father to present him to the oldest daughter. "He was in great haste to marry to save a half section of land, as the law stated that all married men were entitled to a certain amount of land if married before a certain date." she said. Although Martha's father angrily announced that he had "no daughter to barter for land" the man found a willing girl before the deadline.
The anecdotal evidence suggests that prostitutes were extremely well represented among the white women who first settled in early western cities. The prostitutes often chose their profession with their eyes open. "I went into the sporting life for business reasons and for no other." said Mattie Silks, a Denver madam. "It was a way in those days for a woman to make money and I made it." In addition to providing lonely men with company, western prostitutes allegedly made hygienic history by being the first American women to shave under their armpits. It was a way of demonstrating to their customers that they were free of lice.
The labor shortage in the early West wiped out the normal rules about what jobs were appropriate for women. They worked as barbers and advertised their services as doctors, lawyers, and real estate agents. Women also occasionally took up rough jobs like stagecoach driving, delivering the mail by pony express, and even, in a few cases, riding with outlaw gangs. Charley Parkhurst ran a stagecoach through dangerous territory for years and no one knew Charley was actually a woman until she died in 1879. "He was in his day one of the most dexterous and celebrated of the California drivers . . .and it was an honor to be striven for to occupy the spare end of the driver's seat when the fearless Charley Parkhurst held the reins" wrote the San Francisco Morning Call before Charley's sex was discovered.
Being a success as an entertainer was easy. An actress didn't need talent, she just needed to show up. The tolerance for any kind of performance by a female was so great that a girl of ten was said to have played Hamlet. Lotta Crabtree, who began her career as a child performer, made a fortune dancing and singing for the miners. Legend has it that the first entertainer to appear in Virginia City, Nevada, was Antoinette Adams, a very tall, not very attractive blonde who sang in a cracked voice to resouindg cheers and a shower of silver dollars. The cheering covered up Antoinette's singing, and she left the town with two sacks of money.
A city girl leaves Denver, degree in hand, to accept a job as a teacher on a Wyoming ranch. Her classroom consists of seven students. During her school year, she meets her future husband, a handsome, ambitious sheepherder. It takes this stubborn Scotsman five years and dozens of sappy letters to convince Ethel to accept his proposal. What was she waiting on?
Born into a relatively wealthy family, Ethel was a fearless young thing with a big heart. She spent a summer volunteering in the slums of New York, if that tells you anything. In 1905 she finished at Wellesly and took a job teaching the children on the Red Bluff Ranch in Wyoming. Her letters indicate she fell madly in love with the place and its people, but not so much with John Love. Oh, she liked him well enough and appreciated the fact that he made the eleven-hour ride to see her several times during the school year. Ethel, though, apparently wasn't ready to settle down. She had, you know, places to go, people to see, things to learn. Or was she simply afraid marriage might mean her life would pass into obscurity?
At the end of that first teaching job, she enrolled in the University of Colorado to obtain a master's in literature. That's when the letters started arriving. Lots of them. And John made no secret of why he was writing. Ethel needed to be his wife and he would wait for her. No matter how long it took. Unless and until, she married another.
When Ethel received her degree in 1907, she took a job in Wisconsin, again as a teacher. Still the letters followed. And she answered, often with an apology that she shouldn't. She didn't want to give him false hope, after all. Once she even scolded him for closing his letter with "ever yours," instead of the customary "sincerely yours." Yet, Ethel did not entwine her life with any other men. She didn't often attend dances or parties. Strange girl. It's almost as if she was the female version of George Bailey. Perhaps restless, she moved back to Colorado in 1908 and continued her work, but where was her heart?
Ethel spoke four languages, enjoyed writing, especially poetry, even staged theatrical productions. But that sheepherder, who buy now was doing pretty well for himself, wouldn't give her any peace. Finally, this fiercely independent American girl caved. The two were married in 1910. Maybe John just had to prove he could respect the lace.
Imagine you're a woman living in a western town where a war over money and power is raging. People are being outright murdered. There is no law except that which is meted out by the villains. Then your husband is murdered and you are alone with these cut-throats. What do you do? If you're Susan McSween, an American girl, you fight on till you become "The Cattle Queen of New Mexico."
Susan was the wife of Alexander McSween and the two moved to Lincoln, New Mexico in 1875. They hit it off with English rancher John Tunstall who introduced them to the legendary John Chisum. The two cattle barons and all the other folks in the valley were eagerly looking for a way to wrestle some commerce out of the fist of James Dolan. Dolan and his partner Lawrence Murphy had monopolized the banking and mercantile trade in Lincoln, charging absolutely exorbitant prices for everything.
Not much for being extorted, Tunstall and McSween opened their own mercantile and bank. Infuriated over the challenge to their little kingdom, the Murphy-Dolan faction immediately hired gangs of mercenary gunmen to wage a war of violent intimidation. Tunstall, in turn, hired boys who would come to be known as The Lincoln County Regulators. Fiercely loyal to their employer, legendary members included Billy the Kid and Charley Bowdre.
Lincoln was a powder keg and after several murders, including that of John Tunstall, the Tunstall-McSween store was burned to the ground with a handful of the Regulators inside. Alexander McSween was shot as he was coming out of the building to surrender. Susan McSween saw the whole thing.
Amazingly, instead of cowering, she sought justice in the matter and hired attorney Huston Chapman to go after Dolan, his sheriff, and Army Colonel Nathan Dudley. Susan also had Chapman attempt to negotiate amnesty for her Regulators. All for nought. While Dudley stood trial, he was acquitted. Before Dolan's trial, Chapman was shot and killed. The case was dropped, but Susan didn't go away. She just changed her strategy.
Murphy managed to acquire all of Tunstall's land holdings, developing a sizable ranch. He even dabbled in politics, but his dream of being the biggest cattle baron in the state was repeatedly foiled by a meddling, ambitious little brunette on a mission of her own. Susan acquired several thousand acres after her husband's murder and then married George Barber. At one point, the couple reportedly had over 8,000 head of cattle. While Murphy eventually drank himself to death, Susan McSween sold her ranch in 1902 and retired a wealthy woman. She died at the ripe old age of 86 having outlasted nearly all the men involved in the murder of her husband. A true lady in defiance.
Josephine Sarah Marcus, or the woman known to Wyatt Earp fans as Josey, his common-law wife. Josey was a hellion, pure and simple. A pretty Jewish girl stifled by middle class boredom, she ran away from home at 18 to join a theatrical troupe. This troupe traveled the west and, by all accounts, this young lady was giddy with the power her freedom and beauty bought her. She drank, she danced, she flirted. In 1879 Wyatt Earp saw her perform in Dodge City. He saw her; Josey, however, failed to notice Wyatt.
Both of them would wind up in the warm and friendly boomtown of Tombstone a year later. Ironically, this was Josey's second visit. She had returned to Tombstone due to the desperate pleas of Johnny Behan, the sheriff who couldn't live without her and who had promised her parents he'd marry her. The two had a tumultuous relationship, at best, and it didn't take long for Josey to figure out Behan was a two-timing jerk. One affair too many and her patience went up in smoke.
At Behan's urging, Josey had used her money to build the couple's abode which sat upon a lot he owned. When the two ended their relationship, Josey demanded Behan buy the house. He hemmed and hawed and tried to retain possession of the dwelling without paying. Clearly, he didn't know who he was messing with. When he couldn't/wouldn't reimburse Josey, she simply had the house moved! Imagine the look on his face when he came home to an empty lot. Oh, hell hath no fury‚Ä¶
It is clear now that Josey only wound up in Tombstone for one reason. Wyatt Earp was her densityer, I mean, destiny. The electricity between the two was so noticeable it even earned a mention in the Tombstone Epitaph, much to Johnny's chagrin. A myriad of circumstances contributed to the hard feelings between Earp and Behan and it's probable that Josey figured into the mix.
Either way, when events turned treacherous in Tombstone and Wyatt had to call down the thunder on his brother's murderers, he sent Josey back to San Francisco. He promised, however, that he would fetch her as soon as possible. Nearly a year and a string of dead bodies later, Wyatt did show up on her doorstep. They were inseparable for the next 46 years.
No, it wasn't always bread and roses. Josey spent a lot of time sitting alone in hotel rooms while Wyatt gambled for their stake. But she was by his side when they worked in saloons, sold horses, panned for gold in the wilds of Alaska, and rambled around the California desert in search of lost mines. She stayed with him when they left Alaska $80,000 richer and she didn't abandon him later when they couldn't pay their rent. She fought ferociously to protect his reputation from a questionable biography and was the sole friend who heard his last words upon this earth. Who would have ever guessed such devotion and tenacity would come from an 18-year-old runaway?
Nannie Alderson was a fire-cracker with a rebel's heart! Nothing ever kept her down; she accepted life with grace and grit and lived a grand adventure when the west was still wild and wooly. Born to an affluent southern family, Nannie grew up in post-Civil War Virginia. Her home and community were spared much of the desolation of war, leaving her to blossom in a world that clung to the most genteel Southern graces. Her petticoats were ironed daily, she never cooked a meal or did her own laundry, but she did learn the most useless graces of high society. Her mother was a vain woman who enjoyed being the belle of the ball and was pleased to groom her daughter for the same fate.
In 1880, she had the opportunity to visit a cousin in wild-and-wooly Kansas. Nannie jumped at it. Right from the start, she fell in love with the freedom of the West. No one judged her there; no one treated her like a hot-house flower. What you wore or who you ate dinner with didn't impress anyone. Folks were measured by their sand, not their silk breeches. Hard work and honest words were all that mattered.
While there, she met the man who epitomized these traits. Walt Alderson had left home at the age of 12 to make his way as a cowboy. He spent years learning to be the best cowboy he could be with the ultimate goal of running his own spread. In all that time, he never made one visit home. Then suddenly, his future rolled out before him. He and his business partner purchased some land in Montana and started the work of building a ranch. For whatever reason, Walt decided in the midst of all this to check in on his family. The night he came home, Nannie was sitting on his living room settee.
She went from gliding across hardwood floors to sweeping dirt floors covered with canvas. She went from living in an ante-bellum mansion to a drafty, two-room cabin. She went from swirling about at parties with young men in perfectly tailored suits to dancing with dusty cowboys in patched up dungarees. She had to learn to cook and her tutors were those trail-hardened ranch hands who treated her like a princess and readily forgave her for the rocks she called biscuits. She survived bed bugs and blizzards; delivered children with no mid-wife and stared down Indians. Nannie even shot a rattle snake who attempted to take up residence in her kitchen. She readily admits she had moments when she felt sorry for herself, but, mostly, Nannie counted her blessings. She loved her life. She loved the way of life out West. Like Walt, quitting was never part of the plan, even when the stock market crashed and Indians burned their house. For ten years they worked and slaved to forge a home from the beautiful, desolate, wide-open country in Montana. Even when Walt died, leaving her a widow with two young children, Nannie cowboyed up. She made ends meet; she raised good kids.
Men, who between heroic deeds and territorial path-finding, came home long enough to get their wives pregnant. Not an ideal situation, perhaps, but ultimately, the way of the world, even today. Some men are called to politics, war, exploring. It is left to the woman, right or wrong, to keep the home fires burning. These women are the unsung heroines of the early days of America.
Polly Pierre Lane is one such example. From an early age, the fact that Polly's life would be hard was undeniable. And, yet, God always had his hand on her. At the age of 12, she escaped an Indian attack that wiped out her whole family. She literally leaped out a back window, raced to the river, and dove into a canoe. Dazed and confused, she drifted down the Ohio until the boat bumped into a small landing. This landing was owned by a Christian family who immediately took Polly into their home and raised her as their own.
The wilderness was not a place where a woman learned to read or write, but frontier life was the school of hard knocks. Polly could cook, sew, run a farm, and tend to babies. At the age of fifteen, she married the son of her foster family. Her husband was dead by the time she turned seventeen. The wilderness also doesn't leave much time for grieving. Polly soon fell in love with a neighbor, a man with a wandering streak, and a desire to enter politics.
Joseph Lane was elected to the Indiana State Legislature at the age of twenty. Political business kept him away for weeks at a time. Still, their family grew and Polly dutifully managed her home well, even when Joseph left to fight in the war with Mexico. He was gone three years. During his time as a soldier he was promoted to brigadier general, but never received any pay.
When he returned to Indiana, broke and war-weary, Polly was waiting for him. Their home was in order, their children were doing well. Joseph, however, didn't stay long enough to settle in. A few months into his new home life, he received an appointment as the Territorial Governor of Oregon. He was gone again within a matter of weeks. Polly trudged on, rearing their children, keeping the home up, and their bills paid.
Eventually, Joseph sent for his family. Polly was honored in Oregon with a gala ball that took her breath away. She was also surprised to learn that not only had her husband assigned his pay to her, she was legally part owner of three hundred acres of Oregon land! Joseph went on to serve as a congressman, a general in Indian skirmishes, even the vice ‚Ä"presidential running mate of John C. Breckinridge, the man who ran against Lincoln. He spent a lot of time away from home, but when he finally settled down, his ranch in Oregon was the envy of the valley. One could argue, that, in her own womanly way, Polly did as much to build America as the Congressman.
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