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The Cowgirls

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An important chapter in the history and folklore of the West is how women on the cattle frontier took their place as equal partners with men. The cowboy may be our most authentic folk hero, but the cowgirl is right on his heels. This Spur Award winning book fills a void in the history of the cowgirl. While Susan B. Anthony and her hoop-skirted friends were declaring that females too were created equal, Sally Skull was already riding and roping and marking cattle with her Circle S brand on the frontier of Texas. Wearing rawhide bloomers and riding astride, she thought nothing of crossing the border into Mexico, unchaperoned, to pursue her career as a horse trader. In Colorado, Cassie Redwine rounded up her cowboys and ambushed a group of desperadoes; Ann Bassett, also of Colorado, backed down a group of men who tried to force her off the open range. In Montana, Susan Haughian took on the United States government in a dispute over some grazing rights, and the government got the short end of the stick. Susan McSween carried on an armed dispute between ranchers in New Mexico and the U.S. Army, and other interested citizens; and in Arizona, Annette Taylor experimented with new grasses and found cures for the diseases that plagued her stock. In the years of the Civil War, women were called upon to do many things that would have been unheard of in peacetime. When the people moved west after the war, women were obliged to keep doing these things if the family was to survive. Still other groups of women--second generation cattle-country women--did men’s jobs because they were good at it. Some participated in Wild West shows and made reputations for themselves in rodeo as trick and bronc riders. Cowgirls are chronicled through trail driving, ranching, gun-toting, rustling, bronc riding, and rodeoing in this updated and revised edition of The Cowgirls.

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1. Hairpins on the trail

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Hairpins on the Trail

owhere are cowboys, both real and imaginary, more noticeable than on cattle drives. From journals and diaries to the silver screen, the drama of stampede, crossing the herd, prairie fire, storm, bandits, Indians, gunplay and death is clearly a man's province. The few women in the fictional treatments are generally at the end of the trail waiting to offer comfort. Some go so far as to say that there were no women on cattle drives, just as there were no women on board sailing ships, period. The thought of women going up the trail with wild animals and rough men offended the sensibilities of polite society, or it might have ifpolite society had known such a state of affairs was going on in a remote part of the continent where even neighbors did not see each other once a year.

Women, of course, did go up the trail. They shattered old standards and left behind evidence that they were there with the first herds. But they weren't called cowgirls.

The mountains of Colorado provided a properly rugged setting for a drive where a new hand took breakfast with the crew and then mounted up to help gather a thousand Longhorns scattered in the canyons and valleys around Long's Peak.

 

2. Amazons of the range

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Amazons on the Rafl8e:

The Lady Ranchers

There were a few ranches owned and capably operated by women .... Even these women obeyed the custom which Range femininity imposed on all its members, and fled to the kitchen the instant a visitor had received his welcome. The women of the Range all sacrificed themselves to competitive housewifery. 1 hilip Ashton Rollins, who made that statement in

The Cowboy, is considered an authority on men of the range. That is not to say, however, that he knew all there was to know about ranch women.

Rollins must have forgotten how isolated ranches were and how few occasions occurred for feminine competition of any kind. Probably most ranch wives whose husbands were running the business did serve in traditional roles, primarily as homemakers. When cattle entered into the homemaking routine, life altered considerably. Some of the time, at least, the women were not even in the kitchen or anywhere in the house.

The care of children particularly created an area of special concern on the cattle frontier. Open fireplaces, uncovered cisterns and wells, snakes and lack of medical help were only a few of the hazards which caused mothers to be especially watchful. One mother, Mrs. Charlie Hart of New Mexico who helped her husband herd cattle, solved her problem by taking it with her. She carried her first baby on the front of her saddle.

 

3. Lay that pistol down, Babe

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Lay That Pistol Down, Babe

ranch woman's ability with cows and horses and her methods of maintaining a ranch were unique, at least to outsiders. Whips and ropes helped cowgirls keep their kingdoms in order, but in the use of guns-rifles and pistols--cowgirls were formidable.

Women had to protect themselves and what belonged to them, and they found interesting ways to do it with firearms. Bluffing was a game they did not often play. Some even took up arms outside the ranch in larger battles such as cattle wars or in skirmishes and quarrels with neighbors.

The cattlemen of the West adhered to an unwritten code in the use ofguns. Eugene Manlove Rhodes in Beyond The Desert put it into words:

It was 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 unwarned man .... 1

A few pistol-toting cattlewomen also observed a code, and while it had little in common with the ideas offair play expressed by Rhodes, cowgirls added their own touches to the code.

 

4. Into their own hands

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Into Their Own Bands

ver cactus and rock the Rurales pursued a female rider across the border into Texas. Only minutes before, the woman had galloped into Rancho

Conejo in Coahuila, Mexico, where some fifty men, under the command of a Captain Rivera, were camped. She entered a building, took a rifle, and dashed away. The astonished Rurales went after her and probably would have caught her, except that she chanced upon a fresh mount. The fresh horse belonged to Ed Lindsay, who just happened to be leading a wagon train across the path of the pursued and the pursuing. The woman asked Lindsay for his horse, and, since she was holding a gun on him, Ed didn't mind in the least. The woman left the Mexicans eating her dust. 1

The rider was Alice Stillwell Henderson, who did her riding and shooting in the rough and lonely expanses of the Big

Bend country along the Rio Grande of Texas. Those who knew

Alice were glad to give her all the room she needed. Mrs.

Henderson's incident with the Rurales was part of larger trouble among Texas cattlemen, border bandits, and law enforcement. The trouble extended into other parts of the West where other women took up arms or whatever was handy in order to protect their herds and property whether in fullfledged cattle wars, fence-cutting wars or in border skirmishes because the law would not or could not protect them. Their stories prove that the myth ofhelpless women had little place on the range and that women, when given sufficient cause, were quite capable of taking the law into their own hands.

 

5. The lady rustlers

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The Lady Qustlers

nne Richey of Lincoln County, Wyoming, was

"thirty, purty, and full of life."l She was the daughter of a well-known ranching family.

Educated, married to a school teacher, she had some claim to culture, though she knew how to ride, rope and brand. Maybe it was the "thirty, purty and full oflife" part that caused her to do what she didand what she did was rustle cattle.

While Westerners put up with a good deal of nonsense from women (even murder) they got tough now and then with rustlers. Rustling was generally a man's game. There were not many lady rustlers, but what they lacked in numbers, they made up for in ingenuity. Sometimes leading the men, sometimes taking orders from them, the women rustlers learned that the penalty for getting caught was terminal and soon.

In November of 1919, Anne Richey had the distinction of being the only woman ever convicted of cattle rustling in Wyoming. Anne probably had accomplices. Her neighbor,

Charles King, may have been one ofthem. But Anne, in the true spirit ofhonor among thieves, never named any names not even when, as she was on her way to her preliminary hearing, a masked rider shot at her and shattered her arm. The rider was never identified. 2

 

6. Out of the chutes: The early years

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Out of the Chutes: the Early Years

............... he twin spectacles of rodeo and Wild West show brought the frontier to the doorstep of civilization so that it could be inspected at close range. Other heroes needed the woods, the mountains, or the ocean, but cowboys and cowgirls were portable, needing only an enclosure, a horse and a rope. Even more important, real cowgirls and cowboys could be imitated, as thousands of youngsters know, and the actors could learn their parts, not from firsthand experience in cattle country, but from those who were already authentic participants in the rodeos and shows. And when the masses did inspect closely, they could not tell the old hands from the newly initiated.

Perhaps they need not have cared anyway since, real or fabricated' the heroines and heroes satisfied both Americans and

Europeans, as Mody C. Boatright called them, "the taste makers of the era. "1

Trying to determine which came first, the Wild West show or rodeo, is not an easy task. In some instances it is hard to tell when rodeo leaves off and the Wild West part begins, and in other cases a Wild West show looks mighty like a rodeo. The truth of the matter is that the two are inextricably woven together.

 

7. Out of the chutes: The later years

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Out of the Chutes: the Later Years

.............. he year 1924 was special for a group of rodeo cowgirls. In that year John "Tex" Austin, who began producing rodeos prior to 1924, took a group to

Europe which included most of the top female as well as male hands of rodeo. l Using a ship called the

Menominee to accommodate performers, mounts, and stock, Tex set sail in May for a tour which still remains vivid in the minds of those who participated. They were all much admired and the cowboys were besieged by ladies wherever they went. The English gentlemen, however, stood somewhat in awe of the cowgirls. Charlie Smith, who still had a twinkle in his eye when he remembered pretty cowgirls, recalled that the

Englishmen seemed to think that women who could dog steers, ride broncs, and rope the wind were too much women for them.

The cowboys were in competition against men from other countries, and, even though the humane society protested, the show was a smashing success. Not only did the performers shine in the arena but they were welcomed into British high society.

 

8. With quirt and spur

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With OWrt and &pur

he events of rodeo developed from the cowboy's life ofwork and play on the range. Women's rodeo events reflected range activities too, but only when they were the same jobs as the men performed. It was a real novelty to watch cowgirls doing cowboying. That is, for a time, exactly the purpose women served novelty.

Novelty or not, the kinds of events women entered did much to promote their image as heroines. The cowgirl was the frontierswoman riding by her man's side, spurring as he spurred, laughing at danger, roping and tying, and playing his games on bulls and broncs. The cattle needed tending, and the cowgirls mounted up with the rest of the outfit. Wild West shows and rodeos declared that it was so.

Nothing seemed to prove the cowgirl's worth more than the bronc-riding event because it was as dangerous as anything in rodeo, and it was breathtaking to watch. l Prior to 1925, and maybe even after that year in some places, broncs were snubbed right in the arena where the audience could see what was going on. Later, when the animals were confined to chutes, it was easier to give a score on the performance of horse and rider, but it took away some ofthe excitement ofwatching as the cowboys subdued the animal so the rider could mount. Women were allowed hobbles on their broncs: that is, a piece ofleather tied under the horse's belly from one stirrup to another. This prevented the women from spurring, but it helped them stay in the saddle. As in the men's event, the horse was given a score for how well he bucked, and the rider was given a score for how

 

9. I see by your outfit

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I &e By Your Outfit

here is a modern paraphrase of "The Streets of

Laredo" which says:

I see by your outfit that you are a cowboy.

I see by your outfit that you're a cowboy, too.

I see by our outfits that we are both cowboys.

You get you an outfit, and you can be a cowboy too.

While it took much more than clothes to make a rodeo hand in the early days ofthe sport, it is nevertheless true that the clothes worn by cowboys and cowgirls did much to enhance their image as heroes and heroines, made them readily identifiable to the public and popularized some romantic notions about them. For instance: cowboys and cowgirls are always ready to leap into the saddle. Where else would they go dressed like that?

What began as merely working clothes took on the trappings of a costume when cowgirls began to appear in public.

The ladies began performing on ranches, in rodeos, and Wild

West shows in what they were wearing at that period in history-long skirts which had been stitched up the middle much like the culottes of today.

 

10. Wild, wild women

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Wild, Wild Women

........... he desperadoes are gaining fast.

"Leave me, Ted, "she cried. "They will kill you if they get you, and you can escape on Sultan, which can outrun any of their horses."

Ted looked at her and laughed.

"I guess not," he called back. "Keep it up, we'll win yet. "1

Naturally Ted does not leave her, and the couple get out oftheir predicament. This happy conclusion, however, is brought about by Stella, the "girl pard" of Ted Strong, not by the bumbling hero. Stella knows a solution when she sees one and

Ted is sitting on it-Sultan, the stallion. When Ted is shot out of the saddle and left hanging thereon by the skin of his chaps,

Stella approaches the "superb Sultan" who has never worked up a head of steam, catches him by the bridle and suggests to him that he ought to whoa. Sultan, like most dime novel stallions, understands Stella's every word, and allows the heroine to leap from her own mount after which, "as Ted reeled and was about to fall, she sprang into his saddle, caught him, and dashed away to safety." This 1906 adventure from Rough Rider Weekly entitled "King of the Wild West's Nerve; or, Stella in the

 

11. A book by its cover

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A Book By Its Cover

...._ ...... he woman on the cover of the book is pretty. Her hair is long, her lips red and inviting. That she is a woman ofthe cattle range is evident in her buckskin shirtlaced loosely in the front, her leathery looking skirt which the wind whips against her legs, the cartridge belt hanging upon shapely hips, and the spurs buckled on dainty boots. The heroine is a far cry from the sunbonneted statues which stand weatherbeaten and trail-worn, children at their large and weary feet, testifying on courthouse lawns that coming west was mighty hard on the women. Some readers looking at the voluptuous ladies on the covers ofthe pulps hope they can tell a book by its cover and buy-and buy and buy.

Often the readers are not disappointed and get what the cover depicts-a sexy woman involved with western heroes in a variety of action-spiced situations out on the range. The covers as well as the contents of some western books have helped to shape public opinion that women on ranches had a lot more to offer than hot biscuits.

 

12. Pauline out West: The cowgirl in the movies

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Pauline Out West: the Cowgirl in the Movies oy Rogers and Dale Evans are smiling bravely at each other as they buckle on their silverplated holsters over their embroidered britches. Dale speaks: "Roy, the rustlers are stealing all of my cattle. The well is dry. The creek is poisoned.

Mama is dead and Papa is captured. Hadn't we better ride fast?" "Why yes, Dale. We sure ought to, but do you think we could sing just one more verse of 'My Adobe Hacienda' before we go?"

The movie conversation is, of course, imaginary but the plot, songs included, is not stretching the truth too far from what the golden era of grade B westerns were really like.

Thousands of youngsters in the 1930s and 1940s spent many a Saturday afternoon taking a deep seat and a short rein to watch

Roy and Dale and Gene and Lash and a score of others act out what surely must have been the way it really was for stouthearted cowboys and cowgirls on the range.

If ever a medium exploited the western myth, it was the movies. Because westerns tended to lump all frontier women together whether they were saloon girls, cavalry colonel's daughters, school marms, Indian maidens, or prospectors' daughters, it was easy to toss cowgirls in the heap with the rest.

 

13. My love is a rider

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My Love is a Qider

he songs the cowboys sang on the trail, around the campfire, with the herd, and later into a microphone or on records told a lot about their life-what they wore, what they did, what tickled them and made them laugh, what made them sad, what constituted bravery or cowardice. The songs which spoke of women proved that there were all kinds of heifers on the range and that cowboys knew them all.

Whether the girls approved or not cowboys were often likely to describe the fair sex in terms of cows. In Larry

Chittenden's "Cowboy's Christmas Ball" the singer calls "Lock horns ter all them heifers and rustle them like men;/ Saloot yer lovely critters; now swing and let 'em gO."l In another dance song:

She ranges in the Live Oak branch;

The purtiest heifer at the ranch;

With hazel eyes an' golden hair

An try to steal 'er if you dare. 2

Some girls were pretty like Miss Mollie: "She was a lovely western girl, as lovely as could be;/ She was so tall, so handsome, so charming, and so fair."3

 

14. No laughing matter: Ranch women in the humor of the West

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No Lau8hifl8 Matter:

Qanch Women in the

Humor of the West ill was sweating over the forge trying to get some horseshoes ready when his wife walked up. She watched him cuss and hammer awhile. When he put down a hot shoe, she walked over to it, picked it up and immediately flung it to the ground.

"Honey," inquired Bill. "Did you burn yourself?"

"No," she said, in tears. "It jest don't take me long to look at a horseshoe."l

While women on the cattle ranges were held in high regard by their men, they were often the object of jokes, stories and yarns, and none of them gende. And yet, anyone who has even a passing acquaintance with ranch women knows that many of them are charming, intelligent, attractive creatures. While they may, to hear the men tell it, seem to have bad cases ofStupid and

Thick Head, ranch ladies surely have not cornered the market on those traits, and they probably have no more drips and rejects in their ranks than women in other walks of life.

If the joke and yarn tellers make it appear that ranch women like the women in Tennyson's "Locksley Hall" are held something better than a dog, a litde dearer than a horse, then there must be a reason, possibly something passed down for several generations. A look at the stereotypes of American frontier humor shows where the modern ranch woman has been pastured.

 

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