Letter from Wild West – February 2011

The Best-Known Women of the West Were Usually Just as Wild as the Men
Most female pioneers are forgotten, but not Ms. Calamity Jane

A westbound woman of the 19th century needed to be strong and resourceful, even if she had a husband to hunt and take out the garbage. But some women traveled alone or lost their husbands before trail’s end. Mary Ringo, mother of future Tombstone figure John Ringo, wrote in her 1864 diary after her man accidentally blew his brains out with a shotgun, “Oh, my heart is breaking, if I had no children, how gladly would I lay me down with my dead.” Later on the trek she gave birth to a stillborn son. But Mary brought John and the other children to the Sacramento Valley ahead of the first snows.

Female diarists like Mary provide a different perspective on the overland experience. The men sought new lives and economic opportunity in the West. For women the usual concerns for family safety were intensified, and survival became the main thing. Published diaries have allowed the voices of wagon-train women to be heard. Not that these thoughtful observers were necessarily “squeaky wheels” in their time, but the writing process has kept their names alive. Of course, most emigrants, female or male, did not keep diaries and are forgotten, no matter how many soul-shattering or spirit-lifting events they had before or after their migrations. Mary Ringo was a loving wife and mother, but if not for her diary, she would be dust in the wind. It is John Ringo’s name that rings in our heads.

Perhaps the best known female to head west didn’t keep a diary when her family went by wagon from Missouri to the Montana Territory goldfields in the early 1860s. But in her autobiography, ghost-written 30-plus years later, she recalled the dangers of crossing swollen streams and having to “lower wagons over ledges by hand with ropes.” Of course, the terms “thoughtful observer” and “family safety” don’t exactly pop to mind when the name Calamity Jane comes up. In this issue you’ll find a “survival” story about Martha Canary (Jane’s real name), but it has nothing to do with her early hardships on the trail. Later in life, before she found her final resting place next to Wild Bill Hickok, hard-drinking Calamity, according to author Bill Secrest, “did what she had to do to survive and discovered a cruel and indifferent world of fallen women, dance halls, soldiers, saloons and teamsters.” Secrest adds, “While she reveled in that world, it would ultimately destroy her.” Think Robin Weigert in the recent TV series Deadwood, not Jane Russell in the 1948 comedy The Paleface, or Doris Day in the 1953 musical Calamity Jane.

Today when we recall Wild West women, does anyone come to mind before Calamity Jane? Annie Oakley, you say? Perhaps, but Annie is disqualified for being an Ohioan, never emigrating west and only shooting for show. Belle Starr? Well, wild exaggerations about the “Bandit Queen” rival those about Calamity Jane, and both have catchy names. But the West had other “belles” (some were even beautiful) and only one female calamity. Libbie Custer? No, ma’am. Not wild enough, and she never had a Last Stand. Charley Parkhurst? Sorry. Yes, she was the real thing—that is to say, a real woman who disguised herself as a man to drive stagecoaches. But who can even remember the names of real male drivers? Josephine Sarah Marcus? The onetime actress was wild enough in her own way, but she was too “Mrs. Earp.” Etta Place? Yes, she looked like Katharine Ross and was the third bicycle wheel, so to speak, with Butch and Sundance, but Etta disappeared before she could meet a ghostwriter. Susanna Dickinson? She did survive the Alamo, which everyone remembers (including us on its 175th anniversary), but she did not wear a coonskin cap or carry a big knife. About a decade after her stay in the old San Antonio mission, she did reside in a “house of ill fame” in Houston, but in that regard she had nothing on either Calamity Jane or Belle Starr…or even Wyatt Earp.

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