Hard As Nails Women of The West

A covered wagon. Picture from author’s photo collection.

At first glance, it may seem that the West was won by the men who braved the various dangers to make new lives. But eventually, men looked around and realized the new land was lacking. Some men wrote to their families, asking them to find a wife who would come West and join him. Some men wrote to churches, beseeching the clergy to find them a hard-working woman of good morals and strength of character. Other men wrote to “matrimonial journals”, essentially magazines focused only on matchmaking. Both genders would advertise their qualities and describe the potential spouse they sought. More often than not, interested parties would write back and forth to each other briefly before the brave woman left the life she knew and headed West. Sometimes, there would be no letters at all, but a church might put up train fare, tell the young lady who she was to meet and send her on her way.

(And you thought modern dating had risks!)

These mail-order brides would become one of the more commonly known tales of the settlement of the Western United States.

Home Is Where The Heart Is

But a lesser-known historical tale were the women who settled and homesteaded alone. Passage of the Homestead Act of 1862 allowed any twenty-one-year-old head of household the right to homestead federal land. Single, widowed, and divorced women fit this description, and many crossed the country to file homestead claims of 160 acres. Some men took issue with this and tried to force the women to give up their land and go back to what the men thought were “respectable lives for women”. Any woman just trying to make a life for herself faced even more danger beyond simple daily life.

Women Marshals

F.M Miller, one of the first “Lady Marshals”, portrait. From author’s collection.

Some women threw conventional expectations to the winds and did as they pleased. Some became small business owners who ran laundry services or tailor shops. There were even a few notable women who upheld the laws, such as F.M. Miller, appointed as a U.S. Deputy Marshal in Paris, Texas in 1891. She was so remarkable that she was mentioned several times in newspapers as she assisted in the capture or transport of an outlaw. The Fort Smith Elevator (newspaper) on November 6, 1891 described her as, “a dashing brunette of charming manners…The woman carries a pistol buckled around her and has a Winchester strapped to her saddle. She is an expert shot and a superb horsewoman, and brave to the verge of recklessness…”

A young woman named Ada Curnutt made her mark on history back in 1893 when she single-handedly and fearlessly arrested two felons, named Reagan and Dolezal. The story goes that she found work as a District Court clerk and as a Deputy Marshal to U.S. Marshal William Grimes. Considering she was 20 at the time, this was a significant event. In March of 1893, she received a telegram from Grimes, instructing her to send a deputy to arrest Reagan and Dolezal for forgery. All the deputies were out in the field, so Curnutt took it upon herself to do the job. She took a train to Oklahoma City, asked around about the men and soon learned they were in a saloon. Respectable women would have never set foot inside a saloon, so she asked a man to go in and tell Reagan and Dolezal a lady wanted to see them outside.

When they came out of the saloon, Curnutt told them they were under arrest and read the warrants to them. Thinking the whole affair was a joke, the two men allowed her to put them in handcuffs, laughing the entire time. They soon realized it was no joke. She escorted them to the train station and sent a telegraph to the marshal’s office in Guthrie to inform them she was bringing in the felons. The men were tried and convicted of forgery not long after.

It’s a shame we don’t hear more about the women who tamed the West alongside men. Many members of the “fairer sex” were tough, resilient, determined and committed to making lives for themselves in an unforgiving land.

Do you have a remarkable woman in your family tree? Tell us about her in the comments section below.




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Carolyn McBride

Carolyn McBride

I’m a self-sufficiency enthusiast driven by the desire to learn. I’m a reader, a gardener, lover of good chocolate, coffee and life in the woods.

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