Women of the Wild West: the heroines of their time

The American Wild West, a land of vast plains, towering mountains and endless skies, has been immortalised in history as a place of adventure, challenge and opportunity. Yet behind the tales of cowboys, pioneers and gold prospectors lies a fundamental but often overlooked part of this epic: the role of women in the conquest and settlement of the West, with no shortage of heroines and villains, all of them fascinating, who left their mark on history.

From Corbeto’s we would like to dedicate this article to them, as well as to all the women who will celebrate their day par excellence on March 8th. 

Calamity Jane: Queen of the Plains

The life of Calamity Jane, whose real name was Martha Jane Cannary, is a riveting tale of bravery, adventure and determination in the Wild West. Born on 1 May 1852 in Princeton, Missouri, Jane grew up on the frontier, where she learned to ride horses, shoot and survive in a world dominated by men.

From an early age, Jane defied the gender norms of her time, opting for a lifestyle that was far removed from traditional domestic life. She is remembered for her boldness, colourful vocabulary and skill with a revolver, which made her a legendary figure of the Wild West.

Throughout her life, Calamity Jane travelled the American West in search of adventure. She joined military expeditions, worked as a scout, hunter and courier, and engaged in several skirmishes with Native Americans. She is also known for her alleged encounters with famous figures of the Old West, such as Wild Bill Hickok, with whom she supposedly had a close relationship.

Despite her reputation as a free-spirited and courageous woman, Calamity Jane’s life was marked by tragedy and adversity. She faced the loss of loved ones, including her parents and children, and struggled with alcoholism for much of her life.

Yet despite her personal struggles, Calamity Jane remained a charismatic and enigmatic figure until the end of her days. After her death on 1 August 1903 in Deadwood, South Dakota, her legend only grew in popular culture, making her an enduring symbol of the indomitable spirit of the Wild West.

Annie Oakley: The Queen of Shooting

The life of Annie Oakley, known as “Little Sure Shot”, was a story of determination, skill and self-improvement that made her a legend of the Wild West. Born Phoebe Ann Mosey on August 13, 1860, on a humble farm in Darke County, Ohio, Annie experienced a difficult childhood marked by poverty and adversity.

From an early age, Annie demonstrated an exceptional talent for shooting. Her skill soon attracted attention, and at the age of 15, Annie won a shooting competition at a local fair, beating an expert professional marksman.

The real turning point in Annie Oakley’s life came in 1885, when she joined the famous Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. With her impressive skill with a rifle, Annie quickly became one of the show’s main attractions, captivating audiences with her impeccable marksmanship and graceful handling of firearms.

Throughout her career with the Wild West Show, Annie Oakley gained international fame and became one of the most recognised women in the world.  In addition to her skill with guns, Annie was also known for her work ethic, modesty and generosity. Throughout her life, she gave generously of her time and money to help war veterans, orphaned children and others in need, earning the respect and admiration of those who knew her. She passed away on November 3, 1926, leaving a lasting legacy as one of the most iconic and respected figures of the Wild West.

Sarah Winnemucca: the voice of Native Americans

Sarah Winnemucca’s life was marked by her tireless dedication to advocating for Native American rights and justice at a time of tumultuous change in American history. Born Thocmetony (“Golden Hair”) in 1844 to the Paiute tribe of Nevada, Sarah witnessed first-hand the injustices and hardships faced by her people due to the westward expansion of white settlers.

From an early age, Sarah was noted for her intelligence, courage and determination. She learned to speak English and became a valuable interpreter and mediator between her people and the white settlers. Her ability to communicate in both languages enabled her to travel and advocate for Native American rights in the courts and before the federal government.

In 1865, Sarah became the first Native American woman to work as an interpreter for the US Army during the Indian Wars in Nevada. However, she soon became disillusioned by the unfair and abusive treatment of Native Americans by federal authorities and white settlers.

Determined to make the voice of her people heard, Sarah Winnemucca became a passionate advocate for Native American rights. In 1879, she published her book, Life Among the Paiutes: Memoirs of a Paiute Girl, in which she denounced the policies of land dispossession and violence against Native Americans perpetrated by the government and white settlers.

In addition to her work as an author and activist, Sarah also founded the first school for Native American children in Nevada, where she taught both academics and the culture and history of her people. Her dedication to education and the preservation of Native American cultural heritage left a lasting legacy to this day.

Myra Maybelle Shirley: The Outlaw Queen

The life of Myra Maybelle Shirley, better known as Belle Starr, was shrouded in an aura of mystery, romance and danger. Born on 5 February 1848 in Carthage, Missouri, Belle grew up in a tumultuous time marked by the American Civil War and westward expansion.

As Belle grew up, she found herself drawn to the world of crime and adventure. She married twice, first to a Civil War veteran named Jim Reed, who later became an outlaw wanted for robbery and murder, and then to Sam Starr, another outlaw and member of the Starr gang, with whom Belle would share her life of risk and adventure.

Belle Starr earned a reputation as a legendary figure of the Wild West, known for her horsemanship, skill with weapons and rebellious lifestyle. She is said to have led a band of outlaws operating in the Oklahoma and Arkansas frontier territories, engaging in robbery, plunder and other criminal acts.

However, her life was also marked by tragedy. Both her first husband, Jim Reed, and her second husband, Sam Starr, were killed in violent circumstances, leaving her widowed and alone to raise her children.

Despite her reputation as an outlaw, Belle Starr was also known for her charm and elegance. She is said to have been a woman of great beauty, often riding on horseback in luxurious clothes and flashy jewellery. Her commanding presence and magnetic personality attracted the attention of writers, journalists and artists of the time, who immortalised her in numerous stories and legends of the Wild West.

Belle Starr’s life came to an abrupt end on February 3, 1889, when she was shot and killed in an ambush near her ranch in Oklahoma. Without a doubt, Belle Starr reflects the spirit of adventure, defiance and romance that defines this tumultuous time in American history.

The yesterday and today of courageous women

These legendary women of the Wild West embody the spirit of courage, daring and tenacity that characterised an era of expansion and exploration on the American frontier. Although their stories have often been distorted by the passage of time, their legacy endures as a timeless reminder of the crucial role women played in shaping the American West and in the struggle for equality and justice in a land of opportunity and challenge.

If you also know a great woman you would like to honour on the 8th of March, or if you are that woman and would like to celebrate your day as it deserves, count on Corbeto’s catalogue to find the perfect gift to give as a present or to enjoy. Happy Women’s Day!

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