“The emancipation of women may have begun not with the vote, nor in the cities where women marched and carried signs and protested, but rather when they mounted a good cowhorse and realized how different and fine the view. From the back of a horse, the world looked wider and possibilities greater.”
~ Joyce Gibson Roach, Texas author, teacher and folklorist
I love that quote, don’t you? It paints a picture of western women, not just as housewives who cooked, laundered and raised children, but as adventurers who loved riding the range just as much as their menfolk. Women who dared to free themselves, to break the shackles placed upon them by society.
When pioneer women crossed the Mississippi River, they left behind the laws and customs of the East. They may not have given that fact much thought, but the hardships of frontier life forced them to assume new roles they never would have dreamed of back home. Many were wives and mothers, struggling to maintain a crude home, raise their children and drive off marauding Indians with a gun if need be, while their husbands worked the land or herded cattle. Often they were left alone for weeks, even months with only themselves to depend on.
Others, single women, widows or wives wanting to supplement their family income, took up work that ranged from running a boardinghouse or hotel, to baking and selling pies to hungry miners, to designing hats and dressmaking. Still others worked on horseback.
We generally think of ranch hands and drovers in the old west as men, but the fact is women also worked cattle, broke horses, roped and branded steers. Most were wives or daughters of ranchers and occasionally ranch owners themselves.
“We ranchwomen today really don’t know the hardships the ladies did then. My grandmother had it really tough. Since my grandfather was a sheriff and a U.S. marshal, she took care of the ranch. She worked in the hay fields and broke all the horses.” ~ Carol Horn of the Horn Ranch in Granby, Colorado
There were also a daring few western women who hired on as cowhands. One who became famous was Middy Morgan. An Irish colleen by birth, Middy came to the U.S. in search of a new life. Not finding New York to her liking, she headed west and took a job as a hired girl with a rancher.
“So completely did she identify herself with the change in her position, that in a short time she had acquired so much skill in the breeding and rearing of stock that the farmer (rancher,) perceiving her value, admitted her to a partnership in the farm (ranch.) Soon did her fame spread abroad, and at every fair and cattle market in the West was her name familiar. Gradually this fame has travelled East, and indeed no reputation is so widespread over all the Union as that of Middy Morgan.” ~ The North British Agriculturalist, June 30, 1880
When the Earl of Dunmore decided to try his hand at ranching in Montana in 1880, he needed to know which of his 30,000 head of Scottish cattle would fare best in the Montana environment. He chose Middy Morgan as his advisor.
The North British Agriculturalist went on to describe her this way:
“At every great fair or market may she be seen, with broad-brimmed hat tied down beneath her chin by a bandanna handkerchief, a thick frieze coat with many capes, short skirt, ingeniously gathered into high leather boots, something like knickerbocker costume. With a long cowhide whip in hand, wending her way with skill between the droves, now stooping low to examine the hoofs, now standing on tiptoe to examine the head of the beast brought to her for valuation; and so great is the reliance placed by the farmers (ranchers) on her judgement in these matters, that none would ever seek to cheapen the animal after Middy Morgan has pronounced her verdict . . .”
Seems like Miss Morgan and all her unheralded sisters were indeed emancipated in many ways by heading west.
The heroine of Dashing Irish, Texas Devlins Book II, is a daughter of the West who does a man’s job but longs for love.
“Consarned critter! Why’d you have to go and get stuck in there?” Lil Crawford muttered. She tugged harder on her rope in an effort to pull the bawling calf from the mud wallow it had wandered into. No luck. The animal was mired nearly up to his shoulders in thick clay gumbo. No matter how hard she pulled, she wasn’t going to get him out.
Nearby, standing beside the creek that had carved out the treacherous wallow along the bank, the calf’s mamma lowed plaintively as if blaming Lil for her baby’s predicament. Sending her a baleful glare, Lil said, “It’s not my fault. You should’ve dropped him in the spring like you’re supposed to ’stead of in the middle of summer. Then maybe he’d be big enough to climb out of this dang mud.”
Arms crossed, she studied the situation. She considered letting Major, her buckskin gelding, drag the calf out but feared injuring the little mite, possibly even breaking his neck. She sighed in disgust. There was no help for it; she’d have to get down in the mud and wrestle the calf out. It was either that or leave him there to die a slow, miserable death.
Dropping to the ground, she tugged off her boots and socks. She set them near the edge of the wallow, then rose, unbuckled her gun belt and laid it atop her footgear, where she could reach her six-shooter if need be. Her hat joined the pile for good measure.
Lil took a deep breath, set her teeth and stepped into the wallow, cringing as she sank up to her knees in the gooey muck. It squished between her toes and clung to her legs, plastering her britches to her skin. It also stank of rotting grass and other things she’d as soon not name.
Crooning softly to the frightened calf, she wrapped her arms around his middle, coating her hands, arms and shirt with mud in the process. She braced herself, preparing to wrestle the animal free.
A man’s deep-throated laugh caught her off guard. Jolted by the sound, she cried out in surprise and struggled to turn around, fighting the mud that imprisoned her legs. Once she succeeded, she stared, slack-jawed, at the stranger grinning at her from atop the most broken down nag she’d ever laid eyes on. The dude himself was a sight to behold. Togged out in a funny checked suit, with a derby hat atop jet-black hair, he made her lips twitch. However, her humor fled when she met his eyes. Brilliant blue, they shot sparks of light, brighter than the toothy grin splitting his handsome face.
“Sure’n I must be dreaming,” he said in a lilting Irish brogue. “Or are ye truly a lovely faery maid sent to enchant me?”
His foolish question broke Lil’s frozen stare and roused her anger. She knew she was far from lovely, and right now she was covered with nasty muck besides. “Mister, I’m no fairy and I don’t take kindly to strangers who ride up on me with no warning. So you can just turn that bag of bones around and git. Right now!”
“Ah, colleen, will ye not grant this poor beggar a few moments of your company? ’Twould be my pleasure to help ye with the wee animal if ye like.”
She snorted at his offer. “No thanks. I can get him out by myself. ’Sides, you wouldn’t want to muddy up your fancy suit, would you?” she drawled with a smirk.
He looked down at himself and grimaced. “I take it ye don’t care for my fine attire.” Fine came out sounding like foin. “Well, you’re not the first. A layer of mud might not be such a bad thing, eh? With that in mind, will ye not reconsider and allow me to lend ye a hand?” He gave another roguish grin and splayed a hand over his heart. “In truth, your beauty so captivates me that I fear I cannot turn away.”
Lil bristled at his absurd comment. Certain he was making fun of her now, for her beauty would never captivate any man, she narrowed her eyes. She’d teach him, by criminy!
Without a word, she plowed through the mud over to where her belongings lay piled. She hastily wiped the worst of the mud from her hands onto the grassy embankment, then reached under her hat and drew her Colt. Coldly calm now, she turned to face the impudent stranger. It pleased her to see how fast he sobered with a gun aimed between his eyes.
“This is Double C land, mister. You’re trespassing. I could shoot you dead and nobody’d blame me. So unless you want a hole in your head bigger than your mouth, you’d best get moving.”
Sighing, he crooked his lips. “As ye wish.” He tipped his hat to her, clumsily reined his horse around and started to leave, but then he pulled up and glanced at her over his shoulder. He held up his hands when she cocked her gun. “I’m going, colleen, never fear. But first, could ye be directing me to the Taylor place, by any chance?”
Lil stared at him for a moment while questions raced through her head. Normally, she didn’t poke her nose into other folks’ business, but in this case . . . . “What do you want at the River T?” she demanded.
He frowned testily. “I mean no harm, if that’s what you’re thinking. I’m merely trying to find my sister. She’s wed to David Taylor. D’ye know him?”
Lil drew a sharp breath. “You’re Jessie’s brother?”
“Aye, that I am. So ye do know them.”
“I know them all right,” she gritted. She should’ve guessed who he was from his damned Irish accent and those blue eyes that were so much like his sister’s. The two looked a lot alike in other ways, too, except Jessie’s hair was dark red instead of black. And he was handsome, not beautiful.
Fiddlesticks! She didn’t care what he looked like. And she didn’t cotton to the way he was staring at her now, as if he was trying to see inside her head. It gave her an uneasy feeling. She wanted him gone. If giving him directions would get rid of him, so much the better.
“Follow the creek. It’ll take you to their place,” she snapped, jerking her head in the downstream direction. “Now leave before my trigger finger slips. On purpose.”
He blinked and seemed to come back to himself. “I thank ye for your kind assistance, milady,” he said mockingly. Facing forward, he kicked his sorry mount into a stiff-legged trot and headed down the creek, bouncing in his saddle.
Watching him, Lil snickered. He was a greenhorn if there ever was one, and he was going to be mighty sore tonight. She waited until he was well out of sight before laying her gun aside and returning her attention to the mired calf.
Dashing Irish (Texas Devlins, Tye’s Story)
Riding Pretty: Rodeo Royalty in the American West by Renee M. Laegreid
Quotable Texas Women by Susie Kelly Flatau and Lou Halsell Rodenberger
Cowgirls, Women of the American West by Teresa Jordan