Women of the Wild West

Colorful tales of cowboys and outlaws from the Old West are common. Less well known are their female counterparts. Most have renamed nameless, but here are a few who gained fame.

Charley Parkhurst— (1812-1879)
Known as “One-eyed Charley”, because of a close encounter with a horse’s foot, Charley Parkhurst was a stagecoach driver who had earned the reputation as being one of the best in California. Wearing jeans, a buffalo-skin coat and gloves, typical attire for a stagecoach driver, Parkhurst chewed tobacco, drank in saloons, and swore with the best of them. Not until Parkhurst died in 1879, of cancer, did the public learn that Charley was a woman. Reportedly the news particularly shocked her fellow stagecoach drivers who had previously held him (or her?) in high esteem. Of more historical significance, Charley may have been to first woman to vote, having registered for the 1868 presidential election, a half-century before women were given voting rights.

Calamity Jane–(1852-1903)
When it comes to hell raisers, male or female, there is no character in western lore more flamboyant than Calamity Jane. Wherever she went she embellished her reputation, and did her best to live up to it. When the truth wasn’t quite big enough she stretched it, as in her claim that she and Wild Bill Hickock were lovers, and that she bore his child. She was a drinker and a fighter, and was often thrown out of bars for shooting up mirrors and chandeliers with her pistol. She considered herself the equal of any man, and boasted of her ability to handle both high-spirited horses and unruly miners in the camps where she worked hauling freight, and other unlady-like jobs.

Born Martha Jane Cannary, in Missouri about 1852, she came west as a young girl and spent years drifting among the rough mining towns. According to her account she was given the name “Calamity Jane” by an army captain she had rescued single handedly in an Indian fight. Others speculated the name referred to what happened to men who crossed her, or the trouble that seemed to follow wherever she went.

In later years Calamity Jane toured with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, showing off her skills with a horse and a gun. But that didn’t last long— she was fired because of chronic drunkenness and fighting. She made a little extra money selling a 25 cent autobiography which exaggerated her already remarkable life, but her years of hard living took its toll, and she died penniless in a hotel room near Deadwood, South Dakota, in 1903. As she requested she was buried beside her legendary lover Wild Bill Hickock.

Belle Starr–(1848-1889)
The legendary “Bandit Queen” Belle Starr gained fame as a cohort and leader of outlaws and renegades. Myra Maybelle Shirley was born in 1848 to a wealthy Missouri family. Until the Civil War Belle led the life of a upper-class southern girl. But the war ruined her family’s fortunes and, perhaps more importantly, brought her in contact with men who were to become famous outlaws. Belle’s brother joined a group of Confederate guerrillas, led by William Clarke Quantrill, which included Cole Younger and the James brothers, Frank and Jesse. After the war Belle’s family moved to Texas, where she married her first husband, Jim Reed, who had fought with Quantrill and followed the James brothers into a life of crime. After a series of misdeeds, from counterfeiting to murder, he was shot trying to escape from a bounty hunter who had been deputized to bring him to justice.

Belle’s second and third husbands were the son and stepson of the murderous Cherokee outlaw Tom Starr. She was accused several times of participating in robberies, but was convicted only once, with her second husband, of stealing a couple of horses. She was certainly acquainted with other outlaws, some perhaps more than casually. But her title of “Bandit Queen” was an invention of writers who exaggerated her charm and her exploits. One contemporary described her ungraciously as “bony and flat chested with a mean mouth.”

Belle Starr died violently— of a shotgun blast from behind as she rode home alone. The primary suspect was a neighbor with whom she had a dispute. The evidence against him was circumstantial, and the court wasn’t inclined to pursue the matter any further. No one was ever convicted of her murder.

Cattle Kate–(1860-1889)
Ella Watson, known as “Cattle Kate” is famous mostly because of the manner of her death. She was lynched in 1889, along with her husband, Jim Averill, for rustling cattle. They were not hung by legal authorities but by neighboring cattle ranchers, members of the powerful Wyoming Stock Growers Association, who accused them of appropriating unbranded cattle and putting their own brand on them. Watson and her husband homesteaded 320 acres of range land in Wyoming and many believe the ranchers hung the couple just to get rid of them. Witnesses to the lynching strangely disappeared or died and those responsible for the lynching were never brought to trial. Partly in reaction to the hanging of Cattle Kate and her husband, a group of smaller ranch owners formed their own cattle association, in defiance of the large ranchers. A bloody confrontation followed, known as the Johnson County War, which ended the Wyoming Stock Growers Association’s stranglehold on the area.

Pearl Hart–(1870-?)
The only woman convicted of stagecoach robbery was Canadian-born Pearl Hart. She and a partner named Joe Boot held up a stagecoach in Arizona in 1899, reportedly because Pearl needed money to go to her dying mother. After their arrest sensational newspaper stories of the “lady bandit” entertained the public. Hart seemed to have a flair for publicity and her defiant statement that “I shall not consent to be tried under a law in which my sex had no voice in making” resonated with the women’s emancipation movement. It didn’t work— Pearl was sentenced to five years in the Territorial Prison at Yuma. She was interviewed frequently by reporters who asked her about her “life of crime.” She was released two years early, allegedly because she had become pregnant, and was never heard from again.

Annie Oakley–(1860-1926)
One of the most famous women of the West wasn’t even a westerner. Annie Oakley didn’t even meet any real westerners until her twenties when she joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show as a sharp shooter.

Born Phoebe Ann Mosey in Ohio, as a child she seemed to have a natural skill in hunting small game in the woods around her home. She could shoot squirrels, rabbits and quail through the head, so as not to damage the meat, and helped pay off the mortgage on her widowed mother’s home by selling game. Her career as a sharp shooter began when she was 17, after she won a contest with a traveling exhibition marksman named Frank Butler. The attractive Annie must have won more than just the contest; the couple were married a year later, and performed together for the rest of their lives. Privately she was always known as Mrs. Frank Butler, but as a performer Annie Oakley impressed audiences throughout the U.S. and Europe with her shooting skills. She could shoot the ashes off a cigarette her husband held in his mouth, hit a dime thrown in the air, and riddle a playing card from 90 feet away.. She traveled with Buffalo Bill for seventeen years, and afterwards continued to perform with her husband until her death in 1926.

copyright©Jim McCluskey 2002-2012



Women of the Wild West — 13 Comments

  1. thanks for putting helpful information in this website it really helped me with my school projects.

    • Hi Ethan (and classmates!), I don’t think anyone is sure when Pearl Hart died. She was released from the Yuma Territorial Prison in 1902. In 1904 she was arrested in Kansas City for receiving stolen property, but was acquitted. After that there is no reliable information about her life, or when she died. There were rumors that she lived until 1955 or 1960, but no conclusive evidence.