The Gentle Tamers: Women of the Old Wild West

The Gentle Tamers: Women of the Old Wild West

by Dee Brown

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A fascinating history of women on America’s western frontier by the #1 New York Times–bestselling author of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.

Popular culture has taught us to picture the Old West as a land of men, whether it’s the lone hero on horseback or crowds of card players in a rough-and-tumble saloon. But the taming of the frontier involved plenty of women, too—and this book tells their stories.
At first, female pioneers were indeed rare—when the town of Denver was founded in 1859, there were only five women among a population of almost a thousand. But the adventurers arrived, slowly but surely. There was Frances Grummond, a sheltered Southern girl who married a Yankee and traveled with him out west, only to lose him in a massacre. Esther Morris, a dignified middle-aged lady, held a tea party in South Pass City, Wyoming, that would play a role in the long, slow battle for women’s suffrage. Josephine Meeker, an Oberlin College graduate, was determined to educate the Colorado Indians—but was captured by the Ute. And young Virginia Reed, only thirteen, set out for California as part of a group that would become known as the Donner Party.
With tales of notables such as Elizabeth Custer, Carry Nation, and Lola Montez, this social history touches upon many familiar topics—from the early Mormons to the gold rush to the dawn of the railroads—with a new perspective. This enlightening and entertaining book goes beyond characters like Calamity Jane to reveal the true diversity of the great western migration of the nineteenth century.
 This ebook features an illustrated biography of Dee Brown including rare photos from the author’s personal collection.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781453274194
Publisher: Open Road Media
Publication date: 10/23/2012
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 308
Sales rank: 139,073
File size: 5 MB

About the Author

Dorris Alexander “Dee” Brown (1908–2002) was a celebrated author of both fiction and nonfiction, whose classic study Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is widely credited with exposing the systematic destruction of American Indian tribes to a world audience. Brown was born in Louisiana and grew up in Arkansas. He worked as a reporter and a printer before enrolling at Arkansas State Teachers College, where he met his future wife, Sally Stroud. He later earned two degrees in library science, and worked as a librarian while beginning his career as a writer. He went on to research and write more than thirty books, often centered on frontier history or overlooked moments of the Civil War. Brown continued writing until his death in 2002. 
Dorris Alexander “Dee” Brown (1908–2002) was a celebrated author of both fiction and nonfiction, whose classic study Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is widely credited with exposing the systematic destruction of American Indian tribes to a world audience. Brown was born in Louisiana and grew up in Arkansas. He worked as a reporter and a printer before enrolling at Arkansas State Teachers College, where he met his future wife, Sally Stroud. He later earned two degrees in library science, and worked as a librarian while beginning his career as a writer. He went on to research and write more than thirty books, often centered on frontier history or overlooked moments of the Civil War. Brown continued writing until his death in 2002.      

Read an Excerpt

The Gentle Tamers

Women of the Old Wild West

By Dee Brown


Copyright © 1958 Dee Brown
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4532-7419-4


The Sunbonnet Myth

Who was the western woman? What was she like, this gentle yet persistent tamer of the wild land that was the American West?

Emerson Hough saw her as a woman in a sunbonnet and saluted her with eloquence: "The chief figure of the American West, the figure of the ages, is not the long-haired, fringed-legging man riding a rawboned pony, but the gaunt and sad-faced woman sitting on the front seat of the wagon, following her lord where he might lead, her face hidden in the same ragged sunbonnet which had crossed the Appalachians and the Missouri long before. That was America, my brethren! There was the seed of America's wealth. There was the great romance of all America—the woman in the sunbonnet; and not, after all, the hero with the rifle across his saddle horn. Who has written her story? Who has painted her picture?"

Other evidence supports this stereotype of the woman in the sunbonnet. In a letter written from Kansas in 1857, Julia Lovejoy described such a traveler riding on the high seat of an ox-drawn wagon with household goods packed all around and above her head, "a basket of potatoes to rest her feet upon, in her arms a child not quite two years old, in one hand an umbrella to screen her throbbing head from the oppressive heat of the sun, and in the other a bundle of sundries that could find no place secure from falling overboard, from the rocking to and fro of the ponderous vehicle." And a Californian, describing the appearance of women at the end of a plains journey, said: "The poor women arrive looking as haggard as so many Endorian witches, burnt to the color of hazelnut, with their hair cut short, and its gloss entirely destroyed by the alkali, whole plains of which they are compelled to cross on the way."

But the western woman was more by far than a face hidden in a ragged sunbonnet. Often her bonnet was gay with color and ornamented with flowers; sometimes she wore French millinery, the latest styles from Paris, small round hats contrasting with the enormity of her voluminous built-out skirts. Her petticoats were rainbow-colored. Her feet might be shod in rough work clods, but more than likely they were in high boots of finest kid, or high button shoes.

Whatever her dress, she had endurance, she had courage, sometimes she was wilder than the land she tamed.

Why did she venture there, into that vast and violent world of plains, mountains and sky, where danger and death waited—mocking her womanhood, crouching always outside the rings of her campfires, even at her hearthside?

Who was she, what was her name?

It might be Josephine Meeker, twenty-year-old Oberlin College graduate, who wanted to educate the Colorado Indians but was captured by a Ute who taught her the facts of life and then fell in love with her.

Or Frances Grummond, the sheltered Tennessee girl who married a Yankee soldier and learned to cook for him in the wilds of Wyoming; her heart was broken when he died in the Fetterman Massacre.

Or Margaret Irvin Carrington, who tried to soothe the grief of Frances Grummond, never dreaming that within a short time this young southern girl would be married to her own husband.

And thirteen-year-old Virginia Reed, her young mother Margaret Reed, and Grandmother Keyes—all of Springfield, Illinois—who started to California one fine spring morning with twenty-nine others, including two brothers named Donner.

Esther Morris, a dignified lady of fifty-five, whose famous tea party in South Pass City, Wyoming, set in motion the machinery that brought women the right to vote for the first time anywhere on earth.

Julia Bulette of Virginia City, the prototype of all the fancy women in western literature, who wore sable muffs and silk scarves and would have blushed if any man ever caught her wearing a ragged sunbonnet.

Elizabeth Farnham, who sometimes wore bloomers; she tried to organize a party of New York women to journey to the California gold fields for the good of the female-starved miners.

And Flora Pearson Engle, who did join an expedition of prospective brides for Washington Territory's lonely bachelors and proudly told her story.

Eliza Hart Spalding and Narcissa Whitman, two gentle missionaries who rode sidesaddle most of the way from Independence, Missouri, to Oregon; they would have appreciated riding in the front seat of a covered wagon but they would not have worn ragged sunbonnets.

Dame Shirley, a gay young bride in the California gold rush, who read Shakespeare and Shelley and was amused by the hell-roaring life surrounding her.

Jane Barnes, a blond barmaid of Portsmouth, England, who traveled all the way to Astoria in Oregon with a "gentleman friend" and was the first white woman to set foot on the Northwest coast. Her fine bonnets so impressed a Chinook chieftain that he proposed marriage.

Elizabeth Custer, one half of a mutual admiration society consisting of herself and husband George—who died at the Little Big Horn.

Martha Summerhayes, who followed her Army husband into the wilds of Apacheridden Arizona; both of them managed to survive.

And another Army follower, Annie Blanche Sokalski. She wore wolfskin riding habits, traveled with thirteen hunting dogs, and counseled her husband during his court-martial at Fort Kearney.

Ann Eliza Young, one of Brigham's wives, a female subversive among the Saints.

Janette Riker, who lived through a Montana winter alone in a covered wagon.

Lotta Crabtree, actress, adored by every western male; she smoked cigarets and showed her legs but still convinced her admirers that it was all in a spirit of childish innocence.

Susan Shelby Magoffin, the first white woman to travel the Santa Fe Trail. She did it in style, with silk sheets, counterpanes, a dressing bureau, and a maid. She was the antithesis of the gaunt-faced woman in the sunbonnet.

Loreta Janeta Velasquez, who fought through the Civil War disguised as a male, then went west dressed in frilly furbelows to catch herself a husband. She did, a rich one.

But most of their names are now forgotten, with only brief fragments of their lives preserved in a simple diary, a letter home, a notice in a contemporary newspaper. Schoolmarms, loving wives, eligible daughters, hopeful old maids, camp followers, adventuresses, missionaries, suffragettes, travel-book authoresses, actresses, reformers, calico cats.

They traveled westward not only in covered wagons but on river boats, in army ambulances, in jolting railway cars, aboard sailing ships to Panama and by muleback across the Isthmus, or around Cape Horn to San Francisco, and some of them even walked, pushing handcarts before them.

The impulses that moved them were as diverse as the women themselves. Said the wife of a Pennsylvania carpenter who had pulled up stakes and headed toward the setting sun: "Oh, we had heard of the west, where everyone is sure to get rich, and so we came." Susanna Moodie put the answer even more frankly: "By what stern necessity were we driven forth to seek a new home amid the western wilds? We were not compelled to emigrate. Bound to England by a thousand holy and endearing ties, surrounded by a circle of chosen friends, and happy in each other's love, we possessed all that the world can bestow of goods—but wealth."

The very poor, however, seldom were found in the westward moving caravans. A certain amount of wealth was required to outfit a wagon with supplies that must last the average five months required for a westward crossing. The Reed family who were with the Donner party were quite well to do, and so were most of their neighbors who were in the same company. Eliza Hart Spalding and Narcissa Whitman and their husbands were living comfortable lives in the East when they were struck with a compulsion to Christianize the northwestern Indians. On February 20, 1836, Eliza Spalding wrote in her diary: "Today we met Dr. Whitman who has been laboring for some time to obtain associates to accompany him west of the Rocky Mountains to establish a mission." Two months later, in spite of her poor health, Eliza was on her way to Oregon, fortified by a burning missionary fervor.

Certainly the desire for an easier and more plentiful living was foremost among the reasons why women were willing to accompany their men upon the hazardous western venture, but there was also the lure of the unknown, and an intense spirit which historians usually describe as "manifest destiny."

The fact that so many women kept diaries of their journeys indicates their awareness of being involved in events bigger than themselves. In simple artless words they would make the first of their daily entries: "Early in the morning of May 15, 1855, we began yoking the oxen. There were twenty head and two cows, and only one pair had ever been yoked before. It was a great undertaking and it was four o'clock in the afternoon before it was done." Or: "We started for California on the 14th day of April, with five yoke of cattle, one pony & sidesaddle."

During the early periods of western migration—the 1840's and early 1850's—women were in an extreme minority. Among the members of the largest wagon company journeying to the Pacific Coast in 1841, there was but one woman; and only two were included among a similar party in 1844 traveling from the Missouri River to California.

In the first sea journeys—of late 1848 and early 1849—around Cape Horn to the California gold rush, there were almost no women, yet several thousand joined their husbands and fathers in the numerous and more perilous land crossings of the latter year. "It seemed a pity," commented the historian Hubert Howe Bancroft, "to drag so many women and their charges from comfortable homes to face the dangers and hardship of such a journey."

One estimate of the number of women who traveled westward in 1849 is 10 per cent of a total number of 50,000 emigrants—roughly 5,000 women, 2,500 children, 42,500 men.

Even ten years later, when the town of Denver was founded, only five women were among a population of almost a thousand. (One of these women, incidentally, was the wife of Count Murat, descendant of the King of Naples. The countess washed the Colorado miners' laundry, her husband trimmed their hair and shaved their beards.)

Rigid customs and nineteenth-century modesty in dress made overland travel difficult for the fairer sex. Recognizing this, one who had made the journey advised: "Side-saddles should be discarded—women should wear hunting frocks, loose pantaloons, men's hats and shoes, and ride the same as men." Another woman, after reaching California in 1850, wrote back frankly to a friend in the east: "I would not say to any person Come for fear that they would not succeed as there will be hewers of wood and drawers of water everywhere but I do say if any of my friends or acquaintances are coming tell them not to bring females ..." But the females kept coming, and long before the first transcontinental railroads cut the journey from months to days, the numbers of the two sexes were reaching a more felicitous balance.

And whether she wore a sunbonnet or not, whatever her mode of dress, the pioneer western female was certainly a woman of tenacity and quiet force. She may have lived in dread of Indians and wild animals, she may have fled from rattlesnakes and tarantulas, but she contrived to create a home for her family and managed so that most of her brood survived without benefit of doctors or medicines.

Not all the brave women endured, of course, for they too were mere mortals. While journeying along the Platte route in 1866, Colonel James Meline noted a grave some distance off the road upon a solitary hillside, the marker evidently made from a portion of a wagon. "The inscription," he wrote, "was more remarkable than any I ever saw, and was touching and beautiful in its simplicity."

The carved letters spelled out one word:



"Peril Lay at Every Hand"


Upon reaching California after a hazardous journey in 1847, one young girl wrote: "We suffered vastly more from fear of the Indians before starting than we did on the plains." This was a sound observation, for all the Indian tribes combined were far less of a peril to western emigrants than one raging epidemic of disease.

To the average woman, however, there was nothing more alarming than a threat of Indian attack. Death they learned to live with, but not the dread of captivity by male savages. In the present age of Freudianism, there is probably a ready explanation for the shivering ache of vulnerability that one finds expressed in letters and diaries of frontier women exposed to raiding Indians, and the often curiously unconcealed admiration for their half-naked bodies ... "the best looking Indians I ever saw ... tall, strongly made ... light copper color, cleanly in appearance ... the glare of the fire fell on the bare, brawny arms & naked bodies; having nothing on the upper part of the body but their loose blankets & as they move their arms about when speaking, their bodies are half naked most of the time ... Chief Bowl boasted that the pretty ladies in Houston had danced with him, kissed him, and given him rings."

From the time of the earliest settlement of America, women suffered Indian captivities, sometimes long and tortuous, and the more literate of the survivors began writing and publishing their experiences as early as the seventeenth century. By the time women began venturing into the Far West, there was a sizable literature of captivities, or "horrors and atrocities," as they were often called in the subtitles. The authors omitted nothing of such details as starvation, physical danger, and arduous marches, but in that age of reticence concerning sexual matters they rarely went any further in describing their "fates worse than death." Readers were supposed to read between the lines.

These horror books sold widely and were read as avidly by other women for vicarious thrills as their descendants now read sexy historical melodramas. The authors in many cases must have made enough money to compensate them for their miseries as captives. Mary Rowlandson's Narrative went through six or more editions, Fanny Kelly's story through four in nine years, and Abbie Gardner's book was reprinted time after time throughout her life.

Even Elizabeth Custer, who omitted most of the raw edges of frontier life from her several books, once took a side glance at the problem of female captives. "History," she said, "traces many wars to women; and women certainly bore a large though unconscious part in inciting our people to take up arms in attempts to rescue them, and to inflict such punishments upon their savage captors as would teach the Indians a needed lesson."

It is easy to understand the settlers' compulsion for violent retribution when one reads such a contemporary account as that of Matilda Lockhart, returned from Comanche captivity in 1840, "her head, arms and face full of bruises, and sores, and her nose actually burnt off to the bone—all the fleshy end gone, and a great scab formed on the end of the bone. Both nostrils were wide open and denuded of flesh. She told a piteous tale of how dreadfully the Indians had beaten her, and how they would wake her from sleep by sticking a chunk of fire to her flesh, especially to her nose, and how they would shout and laugh like fiends when she cried."

In the opinion of Colonel James Meline, a woman captive was fortunate to be made the mistress of one Indian rather than become the prostitute of the tribe. He cited the case of a Mrs. White, captured near Santa Fe in 1851; her husband was slain and she was raped by twenty-one members of the Apache band who made the attack. She then watched helplessly while an Apache knocked out her dead husband's teeth and made them into a necklace for the warrior's adornment.

Women who had not read any accounts of Indian captivities certainly must have heard of some of them, for they were a part of the national legend. So, it is doubtful if any woman living in the West, or starting across Indian country, did not have a rather clear idea of what to expect if she were seized and carried off by a dusky, paint-smeared warrior. For example, a woman made captive by the Sioux in the Minnesota uprisings of 1862 was so terrified at the moment of her seizure that she "felt just like singing, so near did I in my excitement border on insanity. I have thought since many times that had I given up to the impulse and sung, it would have been a wild song and I should have certainly crossed the border of insanity and entered its confines."


Excerpted from The Gentle Tamers by Dee Brown. Copyright © 1958 Dee Brown. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

  • Dedication
  • Contents
  • I The Sunbonnet Myth
  • II "Peril Lay at Every Hand"
  • III The Army Girls
  • IV Beau Sabreur and His Lady Fair
  • V Some Ladies of Easy Virtue
  • VI "Many a Weary Mile"
  • VII A Lodging for the Night
  • VIII Vanity Conquers All
  • IX "A Little Light Diversion"
  • X Pink Tights and Red Velvet Skirts
  • XI A Home in the West
  • XII The Great Female Shortage
  • XIII Wyoming Tea Party
  • XIV Casting Off the Shackles
  • XV Schoolmarms and Maternal Forces
  • XVI Male Viewpoint
  • Image Gallery
  • Acknowledgments
  • Notes
  • Index
    • A
    • B
    • C
    • D
    • E
    • F
    • G
    • H
    • I
    • J
    • K
    • L
    • M
    • N
    • O
    • P
    • Q
    • R
    • S
    • T
    • U
    • V
    • W
    • X
    • Y
  • A Biography of Dee Brown

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The Gentle Tamers: Women of the Old Wild West 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 16 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Women have always needed a lot of guts and stamina, and this book just goes to prove that. Some things never change!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Really enjoyed this book. Informative and made you think but was not too heavy.
sweetd2 More than 1 year ago
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Who knew what women endured in the settling of the west. I also enjoyed how much men needed woman for civilization. We are essential!
NellieMc on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Originally written in 1958 (this is a 1982 reprint), the book holds up well and is remarkably free of sexism. The author obviously admires all the women in the book, though he draws from all aspects of society, including some characters that it's hard to find much about to admire except for their ability to survive. This characteristic is the one thing all his women, whether he talks about them individually or as a group, have in common and it is fascinating that he can find both diversity and commonality in his cast. This book moves swiftly, is never boring or pedantic -- in fact in several places it is both comedic and touching, but still is realistic enough not to sugarcoat how hard it was to survive and enjoy life. Basically an overview, it leaves you wanting to know a lot more about many of the characters he presents.I don't know enough about the history to know for sure how accurate he is, but given both its publisher (University of Nebraska) and his other books, including Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, I have confidence in his writing.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Filled with such interesting stories and surprises. For instance, I had no idea the legendary actress, Sarah Bernhardt, toured the American West, or that Wyoming almost didn't make it to statehood because it gave it's female residents the right to vote. The book doesn't go into great detail about every topic, but it is a wonderful place to begin investigation into this period of America's history. All the old western shoot em ups on TV when I was a kid depicted this part of history strictly from a man's perspective. This book gives you the other half of the story. This book will become my springboard for learning more about American history. Highly recommend!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
PVF More than 1 year ago
This was a mildly interesting book. I thought it would have more heroic stories of frontier women, but I only was able to stay interested for about half the book before quitting. I expected something more remarkable from Dee Brown after reading Wounded Knee.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I got this book because I liked "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee." This isn't even close to being on the same level. Yes, the book was written in 1958. I don't care. It is narrated solely by white people, and does not provide any context to shed light on why things were written as they were. I don't understand why Dee Brown didn't provide any analysis to combat the utterly racist ideas put forth in the narratives. Instead, he just related what these white, mostly priviledged women wrote at the time. Natives are described as ignorant, sneaky, violent rapists. The white people are all described as innocents who just happen to run into natives and are attacked, kidnapped, raped, and/or killed. No context. No explanations about manifest destiny, or analysis of the racism and genocide that occurred (and was still occurring at the time the book was written). Custer and his wife are portrayed as sympathetic heroes, as are most of the military families. All I can think of is this must have been written before Dee Brown had some kind of epiphany about indigenous people, that resulted in writing "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee." If you're looking to find how attitudes had not changed much regarding indigenous people from the 1700s to almost 1960, then this is the book for you. If you're looking to find a book that is historically accurate and told in a fair and balanced way, this book is definitely NOT for you. I cannot recommend this racist drivel.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Age: 16/ height: 5'2"/ weight: 90 pounds/ appearance: has shoulderlength dirty blond hair and sea blue eyes. She either wears a plain, worn out green dress, or she wears a white tunic, with a green poncho over it, a small dark brown messenger bag a green pointed cap on her head and a dark brown holster on her side and back./ preffered weapons: carries a colt.45 single action on her side and a winchester 1870 on her back, along with whatever else is in her bag, along with a knife.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Height:5'11 Weight:133 lbs Weapons: a scythe Apperance: skeleton under dark robes walking around carring a scythe.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Im wild an i cant be tamed with my stallion midnight we cant be beat she has a southern accent dosent like to be bossed around much. She has two long brown braids she loves plaid shirts with pants. She always keeps an extra set of guns on her so watch out. Her boots make a clanky sound when she walks and she mighty friendly.....if u dont getvon her bad side.