Arizona bank robber Pearl Hart

By Scott Dyke

In the recounting of the Old West there is this tendency, focusing on the male interactions. You know, whiskey, shootouts and the posse thing. That would be half a story.

There were women. Some of the fairer sex had blurry lines.

Pearl Hart dressed as a man as she worked her trade — robbery. The Canadian-born Hart and companion Joe Boot held up a stage near Globe. They were caught and sent to prison. She became a celebrity in her time for the deed.

Calamity Jane not only dressed like a man, she acted like one. She drank, cussed, and bull whacked her way across the West. Her claims of a serious relationship with Wild Bill Hickok, although dubious, brought her national attention after Bill was gunned down in Deadwood.

Belle Starr (Myra Shirley) consorted with and abetted outlaws. Among the most noted gangs she hung with were the Youngers, Cole being her favorite. She also took up with Indian bad guys such as Blue Duck and Sam Starr. These men provided cover for her on reservations. Belle was ambushed just before 41st birthday by parties unknown.

Etta Place took up with the Sundance Kid (Harry Longabaugh) of the Hole in The Wall gang. She supposedly traveled to Argentina with her lover and Butch Cassidy (Robert Leroy Parker). She and the Kid moved to various countries, and often returned to the states. They had a ranch in Argentina. She eventually came back to the U.S. without the Kid, who was shot to pieces, along with Butch, by federal troops in Bolivia.

Big Nose Kate (Mary Harony) achieved infamy as Doc Holliday’s girlfriend. (More about the Hungarian lass later).

Countless courtesans and saloon girls made their mark in the Old West. Big Minnie (she was billed as “230 pounds of loveliness in pink tights”) served as a bouncer in her husband’s place, the Bird Cage Theatre in Tombstone. She is buried in the old Pearce cemetery.

True impacts

These women gained historical prominence via books and movies. But their real contributions were minor in the saga of the West.

Quietly and resolutely, other women reshaped the landscape. Nellie Cashman was hailed in her time as the “Angel of the Camp.” She ran businesses and dispensed succor to several communities, including Tombstone and Alaska gold camps.

Clara Brown, wife of an mining engineer, wrote extensive articles of the travails and happenings in Tombstone. Her work was published in San Diego papers, giving historians insight into a young, raw mining town.

Kate Warne served as a detective with the powerful Pinkerton Agency. She worked undercover. Her mastery with disguises and accents allowed her to head up a group that was the forerunner of the Secret Service.

Annie Oakley (Phoebe Mosey) had this incredible talent with fire arms. She became the star of the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show. Annie toured the U.S. and Europe, performing for presidents and kings. She once hit 4,772 thrown glass balls out of 5,000 during a nine-hour period. Oakley’s friends included Sitting Bull and Will Rogers. She died of pernicious anemia in 1926. Her distraught husband, crack shot Frank Butler, died 18 days later.

Laura Ingalls Wilder (1867-1957) wrote the descriptive and compelling “Little House on the Prairie” children’s book series that captured her childhood memories in the West (Kansas). The television rendition starring Michael Landon was a mega hit.

Rough times

Graveyards are a permanent reminder of what the women of the West had to endure. Research has shown that once you get past the colorful appeal of shooting victims, there is this tragic reminder of what hardships the era produced.

Large numbers of child-bearing deaths occurred. The Civil War advanced medicine profoundly, but the lessons from the medically experimental battle grounds took hold very slowly. Deaths from cholera and childbirth were rampant.

The cemetery in the nearby ghost town of Helvetia bears witness to the victims of ignorance. Those helping with the birthing process, whether doctors, midwives, shamans or spouses, were unaware of the need for sanitary protection. Often, unwashed hands delivered the newborn, enhancing the onset of infection to both the infant and the vulnerable mother.

Pain management was relatively non-existent in the outskirts of small western towns, leaving the process of birth to be handled by the mother without relief.

My grandmother was delivered under such conditions. In time, she moved east, married, and bore my father and my aunt and uncle. Her distrust of modern conveniences was legendary. She would not use an electric stove. Her knowledge of medicine remained limited for a lifetime; a span of 96 years. Eula was a product of the West.

Tough as nails.


Scott Dyke is a Wyatt Earp historian, Western writer, lecturer and researcher. He may be contacted at Article appeared in the Green Valley News and is published here with the approval of the author.