The Frontier Ladies

Most people think of western migration as something that men did.  While true, we mustn’t forget that women endured the same hardships as the men. We should not ignore the vital roles these migrating women played in the development of early America.  Most women who made the arduous journey to the western territories did so out of necessity.  Most women, although certainly not all, traveled with their husbands or families.

Frontier Wagon 001

Frontier Transportation

Some of the married ladies traveled by themselves at a later time, joining husbands who were already established, and a few of these arrived at their new location only to find that they had been widowed.  Single women made the journey as well, just not in very large numbers, and some of these as “mail order” brides.

Who were these frontier women?  They were wives, mothers, widows of civil war veterans, school teachers, and in a few cases, educated women who were looking to practice their professions as doctors or lawyers —these were vocations that had been denied to them in the reputedly civilized east.  While some women traveled west by ship or train, most walked every step of the way, sharing every hardship with their men —frequently with several children in tow.  These would be the women who survived, which is to say, the women we know about. There are hundreds of others who did not survive, of whom we have little knowledge.  We still find their sun-bleached remains in the high deserts of western America.  Whether they survived this arduous journey, all of these women endured the heat, the freezing cold, torrential storms, choked on dust, suffered shortages of food and water, and lived their every day in fear of hostile Indians.  Tragic accidents, and deadly diseases claimed more than a few.

Westward migration was a grueling journey.  Women-folk often drove the wagons and helped clear the roads of fallen debris.  When their wagons became mired in mud and filth, the ladies pitched in to push these heavy wagons out of the ruts and helped their men repair or replace broken wagon wheels.  When the day’s journey came to an end, it was the women who prepared the meals, washed and mended clothing, and bathed and tucked the youngsters in for the night.  They often led religious services, played musical instruments, or sang religious songs.

The plains wagons were pulled by either oxen or horses; the heavier the load, the more animals were needed–animals that required adequate forage to complete their task.  No matter what or how many animals were used, it was a long, slow, exasperating trip.  The wagons were heavy, the rutted roadways always a challenge, and the animals could only do so much.  For this reason, women and children quite often walked alongside their wagons [1].  Mature ladies, young ladies, children … everyone who was able walked the pathway to the promised land.

Frontier Cabin 001

A frontier homestead

Frontier woman may have initially arrived at her destination thanking God for her safe delivery, but her relief was short lived; her hardships were only just beginning. The frontier held nothing that was familiar to the lives these ladies left behind.  The first lesson, and one that was probably learned very early on, was how to “make do.”  Their first home was very likely the prairie wagon.  Later constructions were often crude, including makeshift tents, log shacks, sodded shanties —all of these with dirt floors.  They lived with the insects, mites, and critters that scamper along the ground: spiders, scorpions, snakes, field rats.  Clothing didn’t last forever, so it fell to the ladies to make new or repair the old.  Back home, there may have been a neighbor close by to offer help or advice.  There were no helpers in the frontier.  The women were on their own.

Between dawn and dusk, women were often found plowing fields, milking cows, raising chickens, or helping a cow give birth.  The frontier woman may have assisted her mate panning for gold or other precious stones.  When the work was done, it was once again time to prepare the meal, clean the home as best as it was possible, launder, and care for the smallest children. Then, and only then, could the frontier women get any rest.

On occasion, and perhaps more often than we imagine, the man of the house would saddle up his horse and ride off to the county seat to take care of business.  He may be gone for a few hours, or a few days.  It always depended on how far he had to travel.  The frontier woman couldn’t take care of this business, of course, because someone had to milk the cows, feed the chickens, or take care of the children —and besides, these women weren’t allowed to conduct business with the government: They weren’t recognized as full citizens.

Now, of course, this situation changed over time … perhaps, too long of a time. There were occasions when the man never came home.  Some of these men were murdered along a desolate road.  Others incurred hostile Indians.  Some fell off their horse and broke their necks.  Others simply rode away and never looked back, leaving his woman to fend for herself.  It was at these times that the frontier woman entered a new phase in her life.  It was not a very kind life.  The further removed from civilized society a woman was, the more difficult her life, and the longer it took for civilization to catch up with her.

Homestead guardIf the children were educated, it was the ladies who educated them.  Homeschooling existed long before public schools.  Eventually, civilization did catch up.  A nearby town, access to formal churches, women’s groups … an opportunity to talk with their own kind.  Women, talking to other women, who in most cases understood the difficulties of the frontier life.

It stands to reason, then, that frontier women were far more independent than the ladies who remained back east.  These western women developed a sense of self, and what they could achieve.  It may even be true that no one —male or female— had more self-confidence than the frontier woman, and this may explain why western states granted suffrage to women far sooner than states back east.  Western women had proved their mettle, and I suppose we could argue that there could not have been a civilized west without the participation, influence, and the firm guiding hand of America’s unshakable women.

Naturally, there were a few of these ladies who eclipsed female behavioral norms in the opposite direction.  There were the prostitutes, dance hall girls, barmaids, and outlaws.  Outlaws? Of course —and two examples of possible interest were nicknamed Cattle Annie and Little Britches.  Only a few have ever heard of them.

Yet, in their own time, in the 1890s, they were two of the west’s most famous female outlaws.  They were not only accomplished cattle thieves but were also associated with the so-called Wild Bunch [2], also known as the Dalton-Doolin Gang —outlaws who operated out of the Indian Territories (Oklahoma).  They robbed banks and stores, held up trains, and shot lawmen.  Some folks called these people the Oklahoma Long Riders because of the long dusters [3] they wore, others referred to them as the Oklahombres.  Cattle Annie and Little Britches were also wanted for selling liquor to Indians and stealing horses.  Both ladies were excellent shots with pistol and rifle.

As an aside, the Wild Bunch came to a violent end: all eleven of these men would die in gun fights with lawmen.  They were men named William (Bill) Dalton, Bill Doolin, William “Tulsa Jack” Blake, Dan “Dynamite Dick” Clifton, Roy Daugherty (a.k.a. Arkansas Tom Jones), George “Bitter Creek” Newcomb (a.k.a. Slaughter Kid), Charley Pierce, William F. (“Little Bill) Raidler, George Waightman, Richard (“Little Dick”) West, and Oliver Yantis.

Cattle Annie 001

Cattle Annie & Little Britches

Cattle Annie and Little Britches weren’t members of the gang in a formal sense —they were simply associating with killers. The efforts of lawmen to capture these desperados were frequently spoiled by females, like Cattle Annie and Little Britches, who warned them in advance that dangerous lawmen were near.

Cattle Annie was born Anna McDoulet to James and Rebekah McDoulet of Lawrence County, Kansas in 1879. Anna was the youngest of three, with a brother named Calvin and a sister, Martha.  Several more children were born to the McDoulet’s after Annie moved away from home.  When Anna was four-years old, the family moved to Coyville, Wilson County, Kansas. As a young teenager, Anna worked as a hotel dishwasher.  Eventually, the family moved to the Otoe Reservation near Skiatook (north of Tulsa), Oklahoma.  The young lady was taken-in by the tales of dime novelists, who often published exaggerated stories of outlaws and gunfighters.

Little Britches was actually a young woman by the name of Jennie Stevens, born in 1879 to Daniel and Lucy Stevenson of Barton County, Missouri.  Daniel was an honest and respectable farmer.  Around 1887, the family moved to the western side of the state, near Seneca, and then again into the Creek Nation in Pawnee County.  At fifteen, Jennie was impressionable, and she too was somewhat taken by the tales of the Doolin-Dalton Gang.  Jennie began dressing in men’s clothing and one night, she ran away to join the gang.  During the night, she lost her horse, and as it turned out, members of the gang found her and returned her to a farm near that of her father’s.  It has been said that her father, not at all pleased with the young lady’s behavior, gave her a thrashing.  Then, humiliated by her friends in school, she ran away again —this time, associating with a horse dealer named Benjamin Midkiff, who she ended up marrying.  It wasn’t long before her new husband realized that she was entertaining men in his absence and he promptly returned her to her home.  At age sixteen, Jennie married again, this time to a fellow by the name of Robert Stephens.  She left him after six months and it was not long after this that she acquired the nickname “Little Britches.”

The two women met at a country dance and formed a friendship and it was at one such dance that Annie’s boyfriend at the time introduced her to George “Red Buck” Waightman.  As soon as Annie discovered that Waightman was a member of the Doolin-Dalton gang, she fell in love with him and both women took up with the gang. The gang told them exciting tales from their previous exploits and within a few months, Cattle Annie and Little Britches began operating on their own.  According to a news account of the time, “… not only did they dare to wear men’s pants in the sanctimonious but scarlet nineties, but rode horses as men rode them, astride, and with heavy forty-fives swinging at their hips.”

It was an adventure living on the wrong side of the law. In 1895, several headlines heralded their exploits from Guthrie (central north) to Coffeyville (on the Kansas border), Oklahoma.  They often confused the law by working during the day and breaking the law a night. One posse met up with Cattle Annie on the trail and asked her if she had seen any strange-looking men in the area. Annie immediately notified the Doolin gang that lawmen were about, and the gang-members disappeared for a few months.

Jennie was arrested in August 1895 by Sheriff Frank Lake, who took her under guard to a restaurant in Pawnee for her supper meal. When she had finished eating, Jennie suddenly jumped up from the table and ran out the back of the restaurant, leaped on a horse, and vanished into the night.  Apparently, she had stolen the horse of deputy marshal Frank Canton. The following night, Cattle Annie and Little Britches were tracked down to a house near Pawnee by famed lawman Bill Tilghman.  The ladies gave flight and there was an exchange of gunfire as the two made their way to a back window to escape.  Cattle Annie was captured by deputy marshal Steve Burke, but Jennie made it to freedom for a little while longer.  Tilghman gave chase and Little Britches fired several shots.  Tilghman returned fire, shooting her horse, and the chase was ended. Jennie fought like a wildcat, but she was finally subdued, and both “ladies” were put in jail.

Authorities charged Annie and Jennie with stealing horses and selling whiskey to the Indians.  Annie received a one-year sentence in the Framingham reformatory for women in Massachusetts, but was paroled a few months later, due to poor health.  She remained in Framingham until she found work as a domestic in Sherborn, Massachusetts, a small town south of Framingham.  A few months later, she went to New York —but until several years later, this is where her trail ends.  Some stories claim that she died from tuberculosis in New York, while other accounts include her marriage to a man named Earl Frost in 1901 (divorced in 1909), and to Whitmore R. Roach in 1910 (until his death in 1947).  Annie Emmaline McDoulet Frost-Roach (Cattle Annie) died at the age of 95 in Oklahoma City and is buried at Rose Hill Park in that city.

As for Jennie, she was held for two months in the Guthrie jail as a material witness to a murder.  She had witnessed a shooting while working as a housekeeper.  Her two-year sentence began in Framingham reformatory in Massachusetts on 11 November 1895, but she was released from confinement on 7 October 1896 for good behavior and returned to her parents in Pawnee County, Oklahoma.  No one knows whatever became of Little Britches.

Sources:

  1. Holmes, Kenneth. ed. “Diaries of Women”. In Covered Wagon Women, vol. 2, Glendale: Author H. Clark Co., 1983.
  2. Hodgson, Mary A. The Life of a Pioneer Family: A True Account by Mary A. Hodgson. California State Library, Sacramento.
  3. National Park Service. The Overland Migrations: Settlers to Oregon, California, and Utah. Handbook 105. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, 1984.
  4. Texan Cultures Museum and Archive. Personal letters, Government documents, and Land title records. San Antonio Texas, September 8-10, 2009.
  5. Ward, Robert. Cattle Annie and Little Britches, Simon & Schuster e-book

Endnotes:

[1] Trails leading west began at several locations, including San Antonio and Galveston, Texas, Fort Smith, Arkansas, Independence and St. Joseph, Missouri, and Council Bluffs, Iowa.  They were divided into three categories: Southern, Central, and Northern tracks. Within these were several separate trails.  Some examples include, the Northern Trails: Applegate, Bozeman, California, Cherokee-Evans Northern Cherokee, Mormon or North Bank, and Oregon.  In the south, Cook’s Wagon Road, El Camino del Diablo, Fort Smith-Santa Fe, Gila, Lower Road, Old Spanish, and the Santa Fe Trail.

[2] There were two distinct gangs that called themselves “The Wild Bunch.”  The first of these was the Doolin-Dalton gang that operated in Oklahoma in the early to late 1890s.  It was an eleven-member gang with individuals identified in the foregoing paragraphs.  The second gang with that name was comprised of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid as the two most-famous members.

[3] A duster was a long, loose-fitting long coat intended to keep the dust from clothing worn underneath.

 

About Mustang

US Marine (Retired), historian, writer.
This entry was posted in History. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The Frontier Ladies

  1. Kid says:

    Couple fun loving ladies.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. bunkerville says:

    Our family had a resort since forever. I remember my great Aunt telling me about Annie Oakley staying at the hotel with Buffalo Bill and putting on a shooting demo…said she was a fun gal..I was very young so not sure what a “fun gal” included.. 🙂 Good story Mustang.

    Liked by 1 person

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