Tribute To Women Of The Old West

Tribute To Women Of The Old West

by KWeigand

Women living in the Old West were tough, unique, creative, and fighters. They had to be.

I’ve been researching some old west photos, and doing so has reminded me on how very convenient our world is, vs past generations. When you think about the men and women living in the Old West days and how they endured countless gunfights, tragedies, famine, hardships, disease, drought, slow travel, and more, it makes you really appreciate the life we have today.

Some Old West women are famous because they were bad girls doing not-so-good-things, prostitutes with un-lady like behaviors, or they fought & killed some men. But lets just keep in mind that life in the old west was a very difficult time period and we cannot put ourselves in their shoes or fully understand their circumstances. Their lives and their world were so incredibly different from ours.

Here’s just a couple stories of women who faced their fears or bad situations. They worked hard, took care of others, started their own businesses, endured abuse, were taken advantage of, yet were brave enough to take a stance for what they believed in. They simply did things their way with true grit.

This makes me wonder how many other fabulous stories there are of women that did something legendary, who’s incredible story has been lost and forgotten through the years.

MRS BAD GUN, late 1800’s

Mrs Bad Gun 1879 photo by L.A.Huffman / Public Domain

Her name alone, MRS BAD GUN, is astonishing!

Hand written notes on the back of her 1879 photograph above say that she was a Cheyenne Squaw with an old Winchester Rifle. She bravely went after the 4 Indian men who had murdered her husband. She killed all four of them, and was later acquitted of their murders.
{Note: I’m still looking for more info on this woman}


A very tough and well respected women, Mary Fields had been born into slavery around 1832 in Tennessee. After the Civil War ended, she was freed and by 1870 was working as a chambermaid on the Robert E Lee steamboat in Ohio when it won a famous race against the Natchez Steamboat. Around 1884 her friend Sarah “Dolly” Dunne, who was a nun, urged her to visit Montana as she was starting a children’s boarding school for settlers as well as the Piegan Blackfeet tribe at the St Peters Mission. Soon Mary heard that Dolly had gotten ill, so she hurried to Montana to help nurse her friend back to health.

Mary stayed in Montana and took on various ‘man’ type jobs including maintenance, repairs, fetching supplies, hauling freight, repairing buildings, and she became the forewoman at St Peter’s Mission, just west of Cascade Montana.

The mission was in such disrepair she organized a team of men for much needed improvements. One male worker apparently disliked the 6 ft tall Mary Fields giving him orders, so he started an argument with her. It quickly escalated, with him back slapping her across her mouth. As he went to draw his gun, she drew her gun and shot the man, scaring him away. He didn’t mess with her again.

Life in the nunnery was calm, but her hot temperament and habitual profanity made some others uncomfortable. In 1894 after some other complaints, the bishop banned her from the convent. So she moved to Cascade and opened a tavern! But the tavern was open less than a year.

In 1895 at about 62 years old, she became the first African-American woman star route mail carrier to work for the US Postal Service. Under contract, she delivered mail by stagecoach with horses and a mule named Moses in all weather and hazardous conditions. She was well known for her guns, delivery speed, and reliability, never missing a day. She earned the nick name, Stagecoach Mary.

Montana was a tough place, and Mary faced her challenges head-on. If the snow was too deep for her stagecoach horses, and mule, she would use her snowshoes and deliver the mail carrying the sacks of mail on her shoulders. She had to defend herself and her stagecoach from armed thieves and bandits. Its also said that she fought off a pack of wild wolves with her guns.

She was so well respected in Cascade Montana, that each year the schools closed to celebrate her birthday! And when Montana passed a law forbidding women to enter saloons, the local Mayor granted Stagecoach Mary an exemption.

She retired from star route mail carrier services in 1903 at the age of 71.

In 1912 when she was about 80 years old, her home burned down and the locals rebuilt her a new home. She continued to babysit many Cascade children as well as owned and operated a laundry service from her home.

She died in 1914 at Columbus Hospital in Great Falls. Her funeral was one of the largest the area had ever seen, and she was buried in Cascade Montana.

Martha Jane Cannary (1852 – 1903) aka Calamity Jane.

Calamity Jane

Legend, celebrity, teamster, sharpshooter, story-telling, tobacco-spitting, beer & whiskey-drinking, foul mouth, self-promoter, army ‘scout’, adventurer, possible prostitute, care-taker, and famous for wearing buckskin mens style clothing… Calamity Jane lived a determined life in her short 51 years in the Old West.

Born on a small farm in Missouri, her father was a known gambler and some say her mother drank. In debt, her father sold their farm to move on, and run from, the debt burdens. They joined a wagon train bound for the gold fields in Montana chasing the American dream and hoping for a better life. This trip would change the young girl’s life and her new found love of the adventourous west. But sadly, her mother died on the trail from pneumonia. Martha, the eldest of six children, became known on the wagon train as being very handy, especially helping her father with the horses, hunting for meat, & chores. From Montana, her father took the children to Salt Lake City Utah, possibly to get help from the Mormon Community, but he tragically died within a year.

Orphaned at the tender age of around 14, Martha had to instantly become the head of household in a strange and harsh territory with little support. She did what she had to do to support herself and her five younger siblings.

By 1868/69 she moved herself back to Wyoming leaving behind at least two siblings in adopted homes – possibly with some Mormon families.

Martha took whatever jobs she could get. She was known to be a dishwasher, cook, waitress, dance hall girl, nurse, and ox team driver. She drifted from town to town announcing that she was a driver for hire. Word had gotten out about this rowdy outdoorswoman who lived, dressed, and drank like a man, living a very ‘unproper lady’ lifestyle.

She claimed that she saved Captain Egan’s life in 1873 who had been shot by Natives and was starting to fall off his horse. She ran her horse up to his, transferred him in front of her on her own horse and got them both safely back to the fort. Its unknown if this really happened as she stated, but by 1875 she was in her early 20’s and was being called ‘Calamity Jane’ and ‘Heroine of the Plains’ throughout the area.

After gold was discovered in the Black Hills of South Dakota an expedition was being formed out of Ft Laramie WY, with General George Crook’s men. She asked if she could be allowed to go – but was declined. But behold, out on the trail, an unknown “private” was seen trailing alone behind the large excursion, and was identified as Calamity! She worked with the teamsters and made a good impression with the majority of the men. According to the Chicago Tribune June 19, 1875, the expedition’s Assistant Surgeon J.R. Lane said, “Calamity is dressed in a suit of soldier’s blue, and straddles a mule equal to any professional blacksnake swinger in the army”. He also noted, “Calamity also jumps upon a trooper’s horse and rides along in the ranks, and gives an officer a military {salute} with as much style as the First Corporal in a crack company.”

Several observers reported her with Crook as an informal part of the expeditions—and not always sober. One teamster described her as “Dressed in buckskin suit with two Colts six shooters on a belt.” She was the roughest women he had ever seen.

But people hung out with Calamity, as she entertained them with her adventurous stories. She had a real knack for good story-telling.

Arrived at Deadwood SD

After serving as ‘scout’, for Gen George Crook for a short trip, she was back in Cheyenne WY and in May was arrested for stealing clothes. In June she was found not guilty and released from jail. After her release she ‘borrowed’ or ‘rented’ a horse and buggy in Cheyenne WY for a quick celebration one hour joy ride to nearby Ft Russell and back, but she was drunk, & passed out. Eventually she ended up at Ft Laramie, 90 miles away and she was seen celebrating with the soldiers in that bar.

In July 1876 Calamity arrived in Deadwood South Dakota on Colorado Charlie Utter’s 30 wagon, wagon train. The famous Wild Bill Hickok was also on that same wagon train. Apparently, while the wagon train had stopped near Ft Laramie, they had been asked by a Military authority to take some of the rowdy prostitutes with them. Calamity may have been among them, along with Madam Mustache (Eleanor Dumont was a famous female gambler, see below), Dirty Em and their working girls. Calamity was reported as being drunk, maybe she went along to meet Wild Bill?
Her arrival was publicly announced in the local Deadwood newspaper …

On July 15, 1876, the Black Hills Pioneer newspaper, printed the headline:
“Calamity Jane has arrived.

Wild Bill only lived in Deadwood a couple more weeks before he was murdered on August 2, 1876 by Jack McCall. Colorado Charlie Utter, Hickok’s good friend and business partner, claimed Hickok’s body and held the public funeral for the legendary gunfighter.

It was well-known that Calamity claimed to be in love with Wild Bill Hickok. But they would have only been acquainted for a few short weeks. Its said that she went after his murderer Jack McCall, with a meat cleaver, because her guns were at her residence. She helped to make sure McCall was executed, which took a lengthy time through the courts, and she continued living in Deadwood for several years.

Its a known fact that during 1878, Deadwood had a smallpox epidemic and she personally nursed and helped care for several men and miners for many long hours, both day and night, when other people were too afraid of getting sick themselves. The locals praised her for those good deeds. She was certainly brave and caring!

Calamity claimed that she saved some passengers on an overland stagecoach after the driver, John Slaughter, was shot and killed by Indians, and she overtook the horses’s reins and drove them to its Deadwood destination. Historians say that 25 yr old John Slaughter was indeed killed, but it was by a member of the Sam Bass gang after they attacked the stagecoach about 2.5 miles outside Deadwood. The horses bolted down the road and the outlaws gave up and left. Did Calamity actually stop the run-a-way stagecoach and save the passengers?

It seems that Calamity Jane may have had a couple children but historians are uncertain on the facts, and History tends to change over time. Some say her and Hickok were briefly married (but he had a wife) and possibly they had a daughter together, aka, the McCormick Claim. According to Jean Hickok Burkhardt McCormick, she claimed that Calamity & Wild Bill had ‘married’ in the Montana Territory according to McCormick’s Bible notes and letters, and that she was their child who was given up for adoption. That claim has been challenged.

Around 1881 she was married to Clinton Burke, and she ran an Inn on the ranch.

In the late 1880’s Calamity Jane returned to Deadwood SD with a child whom she said was her daughter. She requested a fundraiser to be held to help support her child’s education and a large sum of money was raised. Calamity got drunk and spent some of that money that night and left the next day with her daughter. Later on, it was understood that Calamity’s daughter did get an education, grew up, and married well.

By 1899 she was in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Shows being introduced as the ‘Famous Woman Scout of the Wild West’ and ‘The Heroine of a Thousand Thrilling Adventures’. But her drinking problem began to interfere with her performances, and in 1901, in New York, Cody released her from the show & loaned her money to get back to Deadwood.

In 1903 she was earning her keep by doing the laundry for Madam Dora DuFran’s girls at the Belle Fourche.

She took an ore train to Terry South Dakota but had been drinking heavily and fell ill. The conductor, SG Tillett carried her off the train and a bartender secured a room for her at the Calloway Hotel. Unfortunately, she died at the hotel on Saturday August 1, 1903 from pneumonia and bowel inflammations. It was the day before Wild Bill’s death Anniversary.

She’s buried near Wild Bill at Mount Moriah Cemetary. Although many have said that Wild Bill had “no use for Jane” while he was alive, they buried her there, as per her wishes. She said he was the only man she ever loved and they thought it would be a posthumous joke on Wild Bill. Her funeral was one of the largest in that area with people paying their last respects to this legendary woman.

NOTE: In the vast majority of the known photos of Calamity Jane, she is wearing dresses, like an average woman. There’s only a few photos in her celebrity buckskin outfit.

ELEANOR DUMONT aka Madame Moustache

Madame Moustache was a well known gambler in the Wild West especially during the California Gold Rush.

Her birth and early origins are unknown, possibly New Orleans or France, but as an adult she showed up in San Francisco in 1849 working the tables as a card dealer.

Within a couple years she opened her own fine gambling establishment in Nevada City and absolutely refused to let any dirty, unclean, men inside her parlor. She was a business woman, and only wanted respectable patrons. She preferred champagne over whiskey.

She was tough. There are other stories of her foiling robbers and threatening others at gunpoint.

Being a successful business owner in the gaming industry, she was able to save money. She purchased a new ranch, and she purchased cattle as other forms of property investments.

But she fell in love with a smooth talking man named Jack McKnight whom she thought she could trust. Unfortunately, she also signed her property over to him so he could manage it on her behalf. It turns out that he was a swindling con artist and he ran off with her money, leaving her in severe debt.

Shocked and saddened, Madame Moustache was not taking this theft of her hard earned money lightly. She eventually hunted McKnight down, killing him with two shotgun blasts!

During the summer of 1876 it is said that she was on Colorado Charlie Utter’s 30 wagon, wagon train from Ft Laramie Wy. Calamity Jane would also meet Wild Bill Hickok on that wagon train to Deadwood SD.

Sadly, Eleanor never fully recovered from McKnights ordeal, but at least she had gotten some revenge.

Thanks for reading!


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