Cowgirls of Wild West City and Famous Women of the Wild West

Women of the Wild West

“I figure if a girl wants to be a legend, she should just go ahead and be one.”

– Calamity Jane

While the Wild West’s tales often center on cowboys, lawmen, and outlaws (primarily men), the reality is far richer. Countless women of the Wild West played crucial roles in shaping the region, defying traditional gender expectations in the process.

From running ranches and businesses to driving stagecoaches and teaching in schools, these women tackled diverse challenges and contributed significantly to the development of the West. Women of the Wild West figures like Stagecoach Mary Fields and Charlie Parkhurst, who defied expectations by becoming successful stagecoach drivers, stand as testaments to their resilience and adaptability. Their stories, and those of countless others, deserve recognition alongside the more traditional narratives of the Wild West.

Phoebe Ann Moses ‘Annie Oakley’

Born Phoebe Ann Moses, (one of the most famous women of the Wild West) Annie Oakley’s journey from necessity-driven sharpshooter to celebrated Wild West star unfolded across a fascinating landscape, ultimately leading her to New Jersey in her later years.

Driven by the need to support her family at a young age, Phoebe honed her remarkable talent with a rifle. By fifteen, her skills led her to Cincinnati, Ohio where she boldly challenged and defeated famed marksman Frank Butler in a shooting competition. This victory not only established her talent but also sparked a romance with Butler. They married shortly after and embarked on a touring show, initially with Phoebe as an assistant.

However, her natural brilliance soon shone through on stage. When Butler’s regular partner became ill, Phoebe stepped up unexpectedly, captivating audiences and solidifying her place as his equal in the show. Adopting the stage name Annie Oakley, she continued to build her reputation, even earning the nickname “Little Sure Shot” from the legendary Sitting Bull when she and Butler joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.

One of their stops was Nutley, New Jersey, which captured Annie’s heart. She and Frank built a house there, and it became their home until her passing in 1926.

 

Annie Oakley posing with her rifle

Martha Jane Cannary ‘Calamity Jane’

Born Martha Jane Cannary, Calamity Jane’s life was a tapestry woven with frontier hardships, exceptional skills, and a touch of legend.

Following her family’s westward migration from Missouri, Jane honed her sharpshooting and riding abilities on wagon train journeys across the Montana plains. This experience transformed her into a fearless adventurer. Facing the harsh realities of life after losing both parents, she took on diverse roles, working as a cook, dance hall girl, and camp follower.

Her talents a rider and markswoman landed her a position with Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer during his time at Fort Russell, Wyoming. Later, the gold rush drew her to Deadwood, South Dakota, where she hauled supplies to remote mining camps.

Despite later stints with Wild West shows, her struggles with alcohol and unorthodox behavior eventually curtailed her career in the spotlight. She returned to Deadwood and lived out her remaining years there, passing away in 1903. Notably, she is buried next to famed gunslinger Wild Bill Hickok, though tales of their supposed romance remain unconfirmed.

Calamity Jane posing with her rifle

Belle Starr

The Wild West fostered a unique breed of entrepreneurs, and Belle Starr carved her own path, albeit a precarious one.

Married to Cherokee leader Sam Starr in the Native American Territory, Belle actively facilitated his “lucrative, though unlawful” operations. This involved organizing, planning, and financing activities like horse thievery, bootlegging, and harboring fugitives. She even allegedly aided the notorious James Gang. Belle wasn’t shy about employing bribery to free her associates from the law’s grasp. However, their defiance ultimately proved unsustainable. Renowned lawman Bass Reeves apprehended the Starrs for horse theft, leading to a nine-month prison sentence.

Belle Starr famous cowgirl of the Wild West

Mary Katherine Horony ‘Big Nose Kate’

Mary Katherine Horony, better known in the Wild West City’s skit as “Kate” Fisher, led a life as fascinating and complex as the era itself. Born in present-day Slovakia and immigrating with her family to Ohio, Kate’s early life was marked by hardship. Following her parents’ deaths and a stint in foster care, she fled to St. Louis, Missouri eventually finding her way to Texas.

There, she crossed paths with John Henry “Doc” Holliday, forming a volatile but enduring partnership that lasted (mostly) until his passing in 1887. While their relationship remains shrouded in some ambiguity, evidenced by their claim of marriage and Kate’s later testimony against Doc in a legal matter, their connection was undeniable.

Kate’s loyalty fluctuated, but her fierce devotion was evident in instances like the daring attempt to break Doc free from jail. She also stood by his side during his battles with tuberculosis, caring for him until his final days.

Outliving Doc by several decades, Kate spent her later years at the Pioneer Home, where she navigated the complexities of navigating her identity as an immigrant.

Big Nose Kate famous cowgirl of the Wild West

Susan Anderson ‘Doc Susy’

She wasn’t “Doctor Quinn, Medicine Woman,” but Dr. Susan Anderson, better known as “Doc Susy” by her patients, blazed a trail as one of Colorado’s first female physicians.

In an era where societal expectations often confined women to homemaker or teaching, Dr. Anderson’s father encouraged her ambitions, leading her to medical school at the University of Michigan. She started her practice in Cripple Creek, Colorado. She  initial faced distrust due to her gender despite her medical skill, such as saving a miner’s arm from unnecessary amputation.

Seeking a drier climate due to tuberculosis, she moved to Greeley Colorado where she worked as a nurse for several years. Eventually, she settled in Fraser, Colorado where she earned the nickname “Doc Susy”. She served the community for an impressive 49 years. Her dedication extended to treating numerous individuals during the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic and attending to injuries sustained during the construction of the Moffat Tunnel. Dr. Anderson also served as the county coroner, solidifying her role as a vital figure in Fraser. She lived a long and impactful life, passing away in 1960 at the age of 90.

Doc Susy famous cowgirl of the Wild West

Sources:

Legends of America

ATI history, Aleena Fraga

Britannica Arts and Culture

Nutley Notables by Anthony Buccino, published in 2014

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