Women Cattle Drovers Discussion (Oct 1996)

Query from Heather Munro Prescott Prescott @ccsua.ctstateu.edu 23 Oct 1996

A student asked me whether it was true that women were used as cattle drivers in the nineteenth century West. I told her I had never heard of this. Is it true?

Query X-Posted to H-West

Responses:

>From Stan Gibson gibson@agt.net 24 Oct 1996

...I think the answer depends on what is meant by "cattle driving." IMHO, 19c women on the ranges were usually too smart to get entangled in long drives to shipping or sale points--if they did so, they probably were also too smart to boast about it, especially when they were aware of the hardscrabble wages offered. As for the 19c cowmen, there wasn't much reason to note the roles played by their unpaid womenfolks.

Moving cattle from summer to winter pasture, and other short drives, however, were undoubtedly common--and probably acceptable--chores for ranchers' wives, daughters, and perhaps even the odd girlfriend. It must have been nice change from heating water on woodstoves, separating and churning, giving birth without nitrous oxide or spinal blocks, and just generally being "useful" back at the ranch. A day or two in the saddle, even today, is fun--and, from my observations recently, still fairly common on western ranches. I have also noted that the well-praised western male courtliness can have its limits, depending on the circumstances. I have participated in branding bees where the good-natured tolerance of women drovers (after miles of riding to gather the stock) was tested during the less delicate procedures involved in turning calves into future commodities. Maybe it's because I was a transplanted Easterner way back then, but I am full of admiration for those working cow-women and cow-girls!

These observations are obviously "anecdotal", but it strikes me that professional annalists

should look around rather than depend exclusively on print or electronic sources. That's--forgive me--a bit like planning one's day according to the morning weather forecast without looking out the window.

David Dary's History of the American Cowboy may be helpful, if this isn't...

>From Kate Davis mkdavis@earthlink.net 25 Oct 1996

Dr. Prescott,

Although I am usually a "luker" on this list, women in ranching in the 19th and 20th century west is my area of research. Women were employed as cattle drivers and still are. This is a fascinating area of research that has received little attention until recently. Women in the 19th century west did much more than << "heating water on woodstoves, separating and churning, giving birth without nitrous oxide or spinal blocks, and just generally being "useful" back at the ranch." Not only were women employed on ranches in the same capacities as men, but women owned ranches in the 19th century and were quite successful. Ranching is, of necessity, usually a partnership venture between husbands and wives. More wives spent time out on horseback as a ranch hand than in the kitchen cooking.

Although it is primarily about 20th century women, your student might want to take a look at Cowgirls: Women of the American West by Teresa Jordan.

Women in rodeo is another area that is beginning to attract attention of historians and is fascinating. There was a time when women were not limited to barrel racing and roping in rodeos. When they were no longer allowed to participate in all events (and for awhile not allowed to participate at all) in the mainstream rodeo they began a women-only rodeo--which is still going today.

>From Lesley Wischmann jansen@uwyo.edu 25 Oct 1996

Yes, there were women who drove cattle in the 19th century west. Several years ago, I did some research for a Texas descendant of Nate Champion, the legendary victim in Wyoming's Johnson County War. Nate Champion's mother, Naomi Jane Standifer (or Standefer) had a sister named Harriet who married a man named George W. Cluck. Harriet Standifer Cluck used to drive cattle on the Chisholm Trail. I have copies of two newspaper articles which were sent to me but, unfortunately, neither of them contains a date or source. The only clue about when they were written is that one says "Mrs. Cluck, now 91 years old..." Since she was born in 1846, the article must have been written in 1936 or 1937. I also remember that I found some information on her in one of Mari Sandoz's books (title? The Cattlemen, or something like that).

Here's the opening paragraph of this one unsourced article by a J.B. Cranfill: " 'If you haven't the nerve to fight, mind my babies and I'll help take care of this gang of thieves,' a defiant woman told a crowd of hesitant cowboys one day in 1871 as they paused in the Indian Territory along that famed cattle drive, the Chisholm Trail.' "

Sorry I haven't better information on these sources but at least it's a name to check.

>From J.C. Mutchler jack.mutchler@yale.edu 25 Oct 1996

...Although I would not swear to having read every single book on cowboys and ranching...I have not once read about a woman who worked on a cattle drive in the classic, John Wayne Red River sense of a drive, from, say, Texas to the trailheads in Abilene.

Has anyone else? This would be an interesting research topic to pursue.

But there were, and are, innumerable women who have done "cowboy" work on ranches. Teresa Jordan's Cowgirls is an excellent introduction to this subject. I have personally seen plenty of ranch women who were as able a hand as one could ever hope to find. Riding, roping, branding, docking, marking, calfing, and vaccinating. And I've read about, and seen, women round-up and drive cattle from pasture to pasture and heard of others driving cattle considerable distances from summer to winter pastures and vice-versa. Sometimes for pleasure, because they like the work. Far more often because of economic necessity and a shortage of available labor.

But I am not aware of any historical account of women on the classic cattle drive working as

"cowboys."

>From Gail Jenner gfiorini@snowcrest.net 27 Oct 1996

This is a great topic, lots of fun. I'm married to a fourth generation cattle rancher--which makes our children fifth generation. Believe me, every generation of women on this place have been drovers and workers, from the top to the bottom. My daughter, who looks like a model (which adds to everyone's surprise), is a cowgirl as well as a great ranch hand, also a buck hunter who's deadly. The only time I couldn't 'help', was when I was pregnant--

Therefore, I would have to say, that as this family is typical of our area(still very rural and agricultural), and the people here are more like the previous generations than many people realize(living history), that women have been ranchhands and drovers and cowgirls since cattle came across the plains. When there's work to be done, it gets done. As the saying goes, "gotta make hay while the sun shines." Believe me, it's still the truth!

We still drive cattle up into the mountains every year. It takes several days to complete the drive and we spend a lot of time in the mountains all summer. In fall, when the cattle begin the trek home, sometimes we end up in the snow, etc., rounding up the cattle. We all work equally hard and no one gets to back out of a tight situation, whether you're female or male. Kids and everyone work--sometimes spending 10 hours in the saddle in 80 degree weather or better (or worse!).

So, it may not be documented, but it's definitely consistent with the way things are today, that women were ranchhands and fieldhands and cowgirls and drovers.

>From Lesley Wischmann jansen@uwyo.edu 27 Oct 1996

I have a minor correction to make to my posting on women cattle drivers. It does not affect the substance of my reply, but I "misspoke" in saying I was doping research for a "descendant" of Nate Champion's. Nate, of course, had no children and no descendants. I was doing research for a descendant of his sister.

Also, in looking further through those articles I mentioned, it seems clear they were from some Texas newspaper as many Texas locations are named but the name of the state is never mentioned.

>From Mary Melcher msmelcher@aol.com 29 Oct 1996

Women participated in cattle drives in the Southwest in the 19th and 20th centuries. Eva Wilbur-Cruce, in her memoir A Beautiful, Cruel Country describes Dona Tomaza who worked the cattle drives with her brothers. Many ranch wives rode on round-ups and may have ridden on shorter drives.

>From Lynne M. Lyons Lynne.Lyons@Colorado.edu 29 Oct 1996

According to Daughters of the West by Anne Seagraves, Lizzie Johnson was the first woman

to drive her herd, wearing her brand over the Chisholm Trail from 1886-1889. She was known as the "Queen of the Trail Drivers."

Another interesting cowgirl is Kittie Wilkins who was a horse dealer in the 1880s-90s. She is reputed to have brought 3000 wild mustangs to Missouri (from Idaho) but I don't know what year this happened and how they were transported. Hope this helps.

>From Ann McGrath a.mcgrath@unsw.edu.au 31 Oct 1996

I don't know about women being cattle drivers in the American west but Aboriginal women frequently drove cattle on Australian cattle stations in the Northern Territory, Queensland and Central Australia. So did some white Australian women. My book may be of some use, Born in the Cattle: Aborigines in Cattle Country, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1987, containing chapters on female stockworkers and drovers and extracts from their oral histories. Although it's not in print, it is held in some major US libraries and could be obtained on an inter-library loan. There's also good material by contributors in A. McGrath, Ed. Contested Ground: Aborigines Under the British Crown, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1995. Bill Rosser's Dreamtime Nightmares contains the story in the words of an Aboriginal woman 'drover', as we call them. I would be happy to supply other titles, including oral history accounts, if anyone is interested.


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