Friday, September 25, 2015

They Rode like Centaurs

Lucille Mullhall, 1909 (Public Domain.Source={{LOC-image|id=cph.3c26135}} |Date=1909 |Author=J. V. Dedrick)   

They learned as young children the joys of riding across the landscape, the wind kissing their cheeks and the sense of freedom and sheer fun to be had on the back of a horse.  Skills of roping, riding, shooting, and a knowledge of the seasons necessary to survival.  A strong sense of purpose, participation, and partnership meant everyone pitched in to get the work done, feed the family, and make certain a better future.  What you did was based on what you could do or had previously mastered.  Competency and effectiveness were closely tied to how long you might live.  Those who rode the western ranges and woodlands, who herded cattle and horses, and who toiled in rain, snow, and heat to get the job done, were known as ‘Cowboys’.  They were not, however, all male.  Sometimes, the cowboy was a ‘girl’.  

Through the 1800’s women rode horses but in a dainty side-saddle that was designed to be used by a woman in full petticoat, skirt, and fashionable hat. The pace was a ladylike walk or a trot as long as it was for short periods.   Too delicate to really ride, to sit the saddle for long hours, or have her skin burned by wind or sun, a woman was not seen as a natural or suitable mount for any horse.

Heading westward, however, many women found the excessive (several layers) and fashionable petticoats (delicate, trimmed with expensive lace) a dangerous hindrance, a needless extra item to wash,  and far too many clothes for some of the harsher warm climates.   The delicate balance between the need to cut wood, plow, raise the children, feed the family, hunt for food, help out with the herd, and a dozen other tasks of the struggling or pioneer family meant that everyone learned skills. 

Sisters were raised just like their brothers and learned to shoot, hunt, track, ride a horse, herd cattle, brand, and feed the stock.  In addition, she might have to also learn social graces, how to wear a dress, how to cook, how to do the household books, and act the part of a lady ‘just in case’.  

No matter how good she became she was, for many, simply an oddity.  Annie Oakley, the great markswoman, was usually described in contemporary papers as a “trick shot”.   Her male counterparts were always, “marksman.”  The restraining atmosphere of late Victorian and early Edwardian society were coming to a head at the time a couple of generations of American western women were coming of age.  Raised in an environment where a person had to be independent to survive, where skills marked your more than social standing, and where the strength of your word weighed more than a bank balance, the limitations for women were particularly irksome for many.

The 1890’s were especially rich in tales of women who tossed off social limitations to achieve what they wanted, who expressed their own strong wills independent of males, and who dared to challenge the civic assumption that said women were less than their male counterparts.  The backdrop of the 1880’s and 1890’s is the topic of women’s rights to vote and fully participate in civic affairs.  Numerous newspapers carried editorials and opinion letters about how a woman could do many things a man could not. Tongues were often firmly in cheek as they enumerated them: wear a petticoat, sew on a button, and engage in small meaningless talk.  Some argued a woman could never be a soldier and in the readership were women who had disguised themselves as men and joined armies, women who had lifted guns to defend their families against wild animals and male marauders, and women who had fought the elements with a determination to win as great as any general. 

Social traditions told women that they must always hide that strength, wear frills and be intentionally dim-witted. Those were the same qualities used to deride them and their quest for equality. They were in the original ‘rock and a hard place’ quandary.  To be themselves – strong, opinionated, brave, intelligent, and freedom loving – these were women who felt they had to hide their true selves.  They saw their mothers, sisters and friends settle for something less and for something made less of them and said, “No!” 

So women like Ann Bassett became the ‘Cattle Queen of Colorado’ when she refused to be bought out by a land company who began rustling her cattle. Like any good cattle person she did not take kindly to that and rustled the land company cattle in return thus winning the label of ‘outlaw’ and ‘cattle rustler.’

In the 1889 Oklahoma Land Run, numerous women made the run and staked out their own claim and successfully proved the holding. 

There is no surprise that young women like Jessie Findley then learned to ride and could bravely face rushing rivers and hard country riding.  There is no surprise a young sister might emulate her brothers learning to ride, shoot and survive the hardest of environments with dignity and no loss of her femininity. Rose Dunn, was called the ‘Rose of the Cimarron’ for her graceful riding and her loyalty to those she loved. There is no real surprise that a young woman might choose to adopt a male persona to enjoy the adventure and excitement denied her as a woman.   Flora Quick Mundis became “Tom King” and an expert horse thief but still newspapers could not escape the claims she had been even worse as a woman. It was a general belief that only a shady woman would live so much outside the normal feminine sphere and prefer adventure over a home. 

Lucille Mulhall, raised in Oklahoma Territory, learned to do the work of a cowboy so well she was the first to compete against men in the male dominated rodeo. She is responsible for the spread of the term ‘cow-girl’ and for making the reality of a woman in that field an accepted institution.

This was the environment that birthed the strong, independent minded, and strong female characters of the American west in the 18th century and the early 20th. She was on cattle ranches, in communities, and in the out of the way places people tended to overlook.  She came in every shape, race, and social group.  She can still be found there today, enjoying the heritage carved out by her foremothers.

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