Trailblazing Women of the West: Unearthing the Forgotten Cowgirls of 1860-1930

In the vast expanse of the American West, where rugged landscapes and untamed frontiers beckoned to adventurers, there existed a breed of women whose courage and resilience remain etched in the annals of history. These unsung pioneers ventured into the wild, long before the term “cowgirl” graced the American lexicon, and they forged their paths through the heart of the untamed West. This is the story of the cowgirls of the 19th and early 20th centuries, whose rare photographs and indomitable spirits speak to a legacy of strength and determination.

Harriet, Elizabeth, Lucie, and Ruth Chrisman at their sod house in Custer County, Nebraska, 1886.

Trailblazers on the Westward Trail
The journey of these remarkable women began in the 1840s, traveling alongside their families in covered wagons that bore them from the crowded cities of the East to the rugged frontiers of the West. These intrepid souls settled in states such as Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah. Some wagon trains ventured even farther, reaching California, Oregon, Idaho, and Washington.

The Great Migration
The aftermath of the Civil War saw an increasing number of people seeking new lives in the West. Over nearly three decades, spanning from the 1840s to the late 1860s, the largest migration in American history unfolded. This massive westward movement saw families striving to claim their stake in the expansive and uncharted territories.

The Homestead Act: An Opportunity for Women
In 1860, the Homestead Act marked a watershed moment, decreeing that both men and women, as long as they were twenty-one and unmarried, could claim 160 acres of land in the West. While men initially outnumbered women, by 1870, 172,000 women over the age of twenty had ventured out West, compared to 385,000 men. These women, often wives, widows, mothers, and daughters, assumed critical roles in the toil of settling the plains.

Lucille Mullhall at 101 Ranch, Oklahoma, in 1909.

Adaptation and Self-Sufficiency
The challenges of pioneering life required women to adapt swiftly. Many found themselves shouldering tasks traditionally assigned to men. Farming and ranching demanded a relentless work ethic, with women emerging as indispensable partners in the battle against the harsh elements of the frontier.

The Rise of the Cowgirl
Some of these women homesteaders not only mastered traditional domestic tasks but also acquired skills essential for ranching. They became adept at riding horses, roping cattle, and handling firearms when necessity dictated. The pursuit of greater personal freedom spurred a gradual shift in attire, with women eschewing the customary attire and riding styles of the era.

Evelyn Cameron: A Cowgirl’s Perspective
Evelyn Cameron, a ranch woman and photojournalist of the late 19th century, recounted her transition to the buckaroo life in Montana and Wyoming in the 1880s. She defied convention and embraced a divided skirt, enabling her to ride astride in a cow saddle. Cameron’s journey reflected the changing norms of Western frontier life.

Sally Skull: A Maverick Rancher
In 1840, Sally Skull defied conventions to become one of the first women in Texas to own her own ranch, the Circle S. She stocked her land with wild horses and cattle, which she brought across the Mexican border. Nicknamed “Mustang Jan,” she donned men’s clothing and even drove freight wagons during the Civil War, displaying exceptional marksmanship.

Cowgirl Kathleen Hudson, a member of the Junior Riding and Roping Club of Tulsa Mounted Troops, rounding up Herefords on the Oklahoma range in 1948.

Jo Monaghan: A Pioneer in Disguise
Jo Monaghan’s daring journey from Buffalo, New York, to Idaho in 1867 required a bold disguise. To ensure her safety, she concealed her identity by adopting a man’s attire—a pair of pants, a vest, and a hat. After settling in Idaho, she embraced ranch life, keeping her true identity hidden until her passing in 1904.

Ellen Watson: A Tragic Tale of Independence
Ellen Watson, known as Cattle Kate, met a tragic fate in Sweetwater Valley, Wyoming. Accused of rustling livestock in 1889, she faced harsh judgment and suspicion from her neighbors. The local cattle barons, eager for her land, orchestrated her murder before she could defend herself in court. A century later, historians cleared her name, revealing her innocence.

The End of an Era
The era of the open range, marked by vast cattle drives and unrestricted grazing, eventually gave way to change. Barbed wire, an innovation of the 1880s, transformed the cattle industry by confining livestock and preventing overgrazing. Railroads expanded, meatpacking plants proliferated, and the age of long cattle drives came to a close.

Kitty Canutt, “champion lady rider of the world on Winnemucca,” on a bucking bronco, in 1919.

The Legacy of the Cowboy Tradition
While the era of the open range may have ended, the legacy of the cowboy tradition endures. The term “cowboy” has evolved to encompass anyone who works on a ranch or participates in rodeos, where traditional cowboy skills take center stage.

These women of the West, often overlooked in the annals of history, embodied the spirit of the frontier. They defied conventions, overcame adversity, and played pivotal roles in shaping the American West. Their stories, brought to life through rare photographs, serve as a testament to the indomitable human spirit that blazed trails across the rugged and unforgiving landscape of the West.

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