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Frontier Women of the American West

Updated on August 28, 2019
Annie Oakley
Annie Oakley
Pearl Hart
Pearl Hart
Nellie Cashman
Nellie Cashman

Females in the Old West

The vast majority of old west history is written from the perspective of the male. There are some exceptions, but when we speak of the old west we generally discuss 1800's emigration, gold and silver mining towns and the Indian Wars. The fact is that each of these areas of western history has a female component to it. There is a lot to know of the contributions of frontier women.

When the settlers traveled west on the Oregon Trail it was the responsibility of the male to lead the way and protect the family. During the Indian Wars it was male who was the cavalryman engaging the native American hostiles.The story of the mining prospector was exclusively a male story. This we accept but what often goes unsaid is that women were present in each of these cases, and often times prominently present. Women of the old west is a story which probably hasn't been publicized as much as it should have been.

What's especially interesting is that women of the frontier came in all types, just like men. Some showed extreme bravery in the face of danger. Some helped provide for their frontier family as much as their male counterpart. Likewise, there were some women who matched the males in mischief and/or criminal activity. To be sure, these exploits were publicized by the frontier press but not nearly to the degree warranted. Both the good and the bad were under chronicled. An exception of course would be the life and times of Annie Oakley. Much of Oakley's legend has to do with her famous shooting demonstrations with Buffalo Bill's Wild West. As a result, when searching for information on the role women played in western expansion, you often times have to dig a little deeper. In many cases, diaries kept by western frontier women offer a lot of insight. These diaries from women on the frontier chronicle the hardships and anguish of frontier life in much greater detail than anything you might read from a man. In other words, the diaries are probably a more accurate description of the times.

The Westward Journey Offered Opportunity

It's sometimes said that adversity creates opportunity. One thing for certain is that in the environment of the frontier west, women took on a more prominent role than they would normally have taken back east. During the 1800's a woman's role in society was limited. Their domain involved the home and children. Likewise, the male was considered to be THE bread winner. Life in the old west wasn't always easy. For women who traveled to the western frontier, the whole dynamic changed. If, for example, a family was to undertake a trek over the Oregon Trail to either California or Oregon, the journey could last six months. Six months of travel over unfamiliar terrain with occasional encounters with hostile Indians. In many ways the western journey placed a woman in what was considered a man's world. A stark difference than maintaining a household say in Massachusetts.

The question that's often asked is, why did families travel to the far west when most people understood that the journey could be quite dangerous? There were several reasons for the emigration. One was economic such as during the panic of 1837 and the ensuing depression.The climate was another reason. The midwest humid summers and the freezing winters. That climate also fostered yellow fever and cholera. The relatively dry climate in the west was considered healthier. Add to that the country's desire of "manifest destiny". Americans wanted to occupy the continent coast to coast.

The frontier woman who emigrated from midwestern areas such as Ohio already had experience with doing hard work by hand and as a consequence were ideal for the rigors of travel over the Oregon Trail. Much of the woman's work over the trail west was similar to what they might have done at home. Preparing meals, gathering firewood and of course taking care of the children. Women and often the children would search for wild food such as berries while the men would hunt for meat. Washing of clothes was also a female chore on the long 2,400 mile journey but again this was a normal chore back on the Ohio farm. Certainly women in many cases had to take on work that the man might do but on this type of journey the goal was to get the job done, not necessarily adhering to standard roles. If the man was tending to other tasks the woman might have to drive the team of oxen. If the wagon was traversing a steep incline the woman might have to gather rocks to place behind the wheels to prevent backsliding. What is interesting is that even though it was necessary for women to accept the gender role change on the dusty trail, the diaries written at the time by women still show a desire to maintain the standard gender roles whenever possible.

The diaries that women in the old west maintained on the overland journeys seem much more focused on the human side of hardship. These diaries remain one of the best sources of what it was really like on an emotional level.The following excerpt from Kansas University is from the diary of Mrs. Cecilia McMillen Adams of her families trip from Illinois to Oregon in 1852.

"Child's grave . . . smallpox . . . child's grave.. . . [We] passed
7 new-made graves. One had 4 bodies in it . . . cholera. A
man died this morning with the cholera in the company
ahead of us. . . . Another man died. . . . Passed 6 new
graves. . . . We have passed 21 new-made graves . . . made
18 miles. . . . Passed 13 graves today".

Another excerpt below from Kansas University is from the diary of Lodisa Frizzell during her families 1852 journey to California.

"Saw . . . one old cow, a paper pinned on her head. It stated
that she had been left to die . . . but requested that no one
abuse her as she had been one of the best cows. . . . It called
up so many associations to mind that it affected me to
tears. . . "

Truly the above observations tell the overland journey story from a unique perspective. Perhaps not the words you might see in a "wild west" book.

Women of the Western Frontier

Certainly many women made great sacrifices while traversing the western frontier and most of their names of course didn't make the history books. Their sacrifices and exploits are no less significant than those who did. A sample list of women who made a name for themselves on the American western frontier are...

Charley Parkhurst- The California stagecoach driver who was always thought to be a man.

Pearl Hart- The Canadian born Arizona stagecoach robber who always seemed to meet the wrong men.

Calamity Jane- The frontier scout, Indian fighter and friend of Wild Bill Hickok. A 1990 novel by author Larry McMurtry, Buffalo Girls, is a story about Calamity Jane which includes letters to her daughter.

Annie Oakley- The famous sharpshooter who gained fame in Buffalo Bill's Wild West.

Belle Starr- The notorious outlaw and friend of the James and Younger brothers.

Libbie Custer-The wife of Gen. George Armstrong Custer who lived in many frontier military forts and spent her last years defending her husband's name.

Ellen Liddy Watson (Cattle Kate)- Opposed the cattlemen and was the first woman hanged by vigilantes.

Margaret Heffenan Borland- Owner of 10,000 head of cattle and was the first woman to lead a trail drive.

Lizzie E. Johnson Williams- Cattle dealer and school teacher.

Nellie Cashman- An 1800's gold and silver prospector in southern Arizona. Also very active in raising money for the Red Cross and salvation Army.

The above is just a partial list of notable women of the old western frontier. There were many others. Below are links to interesting short stories about a few of these women.


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    • profile image


      5 years ago

      Enjoyed studying this, very good stuff, regards . A man may learn wisdom even from a foe. by Aristophanes. beekabeffcfa

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      Some really quality blog posts on this internet site , saved to fav. aebafabbkgdc

    • janeenjesse@yahoo profile image

      Joanne Kathleen Farrell 

      8 years ago from Rensselaer NY

      This was so interesting. We cannot even imagine what a life in the wilds of America must have been like. My husband and I took our kids to Yellowstone Park one year and I thought I would have a nervous breakdown in the car. This was on vacation. Think of a covered wagon crossing creeks and rivers!

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 

      8 years ago from England

      Hi, this was great, I never realised how interesting it would be to know about the women in the wild west, I now want to get a book on the subject, thanks! nell

    • WesternHistory profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from California

      Thanks for your comments. Very much appreciated.

    • Drjacki profile image


      8 years ago from North Carolina

      I LOVED reading about the women of the West! Thanks for publishing this hub!

    • Becky Katz profile image

      Becky Katz 

      8 years ago from Hereford, AZ

      Very interesting stories. I am working on getting my great-great-grandmother's diaries. She went from Ohio to CA. Her husband formed a large ranch outside what is now known as Stockton, CA. The ranch is still there and owned by relatives.

    • ThoughtSandwiches profile image


      8 years ago from Reno, Nevada

      Hi Western History...Excellent Hub on (you are correct) a vastly under-represented area of history. I recall a few works...Faragher's 'Women and Men on the Overland Trail' and Jeffrey's 'Frontier Woman' but they are few and far between. Thanks for adding to the historiography! Voted Up, useful, and interesting.


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