In 1854, a card sharp from the east of the United States, going by the name Dumont – possibly from New Orleans – arrived in the gold-mining town of Nevada, California. Having found success as a professional gambler in San Francisco, this entrepreneur of the American West opened a gambling parlour in this new location that, by all accounts, was highly profitable. But the settlement dwindled and Dumont moved on, spending time in Utah, Idaho and Arizona, testing the waters of brothel management in various spots during the 1860s. In 1872, in Nevada, Dumont was double-crossed by a partner, losing everything. So this inveterate gambler came to the table again, latterly in the gold-mining town of Bodie, California. In 1879, after a disastrous loss, the game was up. On 8 September, Dumont’s body was found outside town, having apparently taken a morphine overdose.

What makes this tale of frontier life unusual is that the protagonist was a woman: Eleanor Dumont, later known as ‘Madame Moustache’ and probably born Simone Jules around 1829.

Women stretched the limits of convention, changing their costume, habits and daily activities to fit the needs of the trail

The adage “Go west, young man”, reputedly popularised by New York Tribune founder Horace Greeley, conjures a vivid impression of the 19th-century American frontier as a place of masculine action and opportunity. As portrayed in cowboy movies – think John Wayne, Clint Eastwood – this world of tough-talking, gun-toting macho swagger has often been seen as the exclusive domain of men. But, as recent research (and Dumont’s Women stretched the limits of convention, changing their costume, habits and daily activities to fit the needs of the trail story) has shown, this was also a place of women’s agency, social latitudes and the stretching of established gender boundaries. As such, the history of ‘how the West was won’ (or lost) was much more variegated than the vision presented in traditional historical readings and countless Hollywood westerns.

As a place of new starts, economic possibility and social freedom, in the 19th-century the American West represented a realm very different from the east. Travellers on the overland trails in the middle of that century were faced with unfamiliar and challenging terrain. Vast expanses of prairie, the soaring peaks of the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada, and the forbidding deserts of the far west separated Independence, Missouri (from where many wagon trains departed) from the shores of the sparkling Pacific. Matching this exceptional topography was an equally monumental imagined landscape of manifest destiny, national dreams and personal aspirations in the making.

Expanding empire

Over the first half of the 19th century, the US claimed vast swathes of territory through the Louisiana Purchase (1803), the annexation of Texas (1845), the Oregon Treaty (1846), and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848). When Jefferson assumed the presidency in 1801, the US counted 864,000 square miles of territory. By 1862, when the Pacific Railway Act was signed, paving the way for a true transcontinental railway line, and President Abraham Lincoln was grappling with thorny issues around slavery and secession, that figure had mushroomed to close to three million square miles.

The Chrisman sisters pictured by a sod house in Lieban Creek, Nebraska, in 1886
The Chrisman sisters pictured by a sod house in Lieban Creek, Nebraska, in 1886. Many women travelled west to claim territory on the Great Plains; Lizzie Chrisman (second left) bought her land from the government around the time this picture was taken, paying $2.50 per acre (Granger Historical Picture Archive / Alamy Stock Photo)

Involved in this dynamic story of territorial conquest and associated political, economic, social and environmental transformation were thousands of women – migrants from across the world, who made the West their home. In the traditional telling of the frontier story, female characters were either invisible or consigned to the role of supporting player and gender stereotype: sun-bonneted helpmates, school ma’ams or sassy saloon girls. A glance at the ‘women’s West’, however, presents a much more complex story – one of resilience and adaptation, loosened social conventions, inventive directions in female empowerment and a ‘hidden history’ of gender unorthodoxy.

Although the decision to travel west was typically made by men, many women, too, greeted the possibilities of overland migration with excitement and interest. Some were fearful of the unknown, their fears fed by a contemporary literary digest rich in tales of damsels in distress taken captive by Native Americans, and of a savage landscape roamed by hungry wolves and angry bears. Others, though, relished the adventure and embraced the ethos of westering possibility.

On the road, women routinely stretched the limits of convention, either by necessity or inclination, changing their costume, habits and daily activities to fit the needs of the trail. For some, the casting off of etiquettes and the assumption of new roles and duties provoked fears about losing feminine identity in the uncivilised wilds. However, for others, abandoning long petticoats and gloves in favour of riding astride horses, driving wagon trains and shooting game was to be relished. One such woman was Sarah Raymond Herndon, who was 24 or 25 when she emigrated with her family to Virginia City, Montana, in 1865. In her 1902 memoir Days on the Road: Crossing the Plains in 1865, she wrote effusively of trailside foraging, fishing, riding out on her horse and dispensing with her long skirts.

For many migrants, the objective was land, and many women travelling within family units aimed to claim territory under the auspices of the Homestead Act (1862). Significantly, one in 10 homestead claims were filed by single women (including widowed and divorced women) who, under the rules of the federal distribution, could receive title to 160 acres of land as heads of household as long as they were over 21, paid the registration fee, lived on the site and proved that they had ‘improved’ that land.

More like this
Frontier women endured challenging environments, social isolation and a seemingly never-ending litany of domestic chores

Diaries and journals written by homesteading women reveal their lot to be a hard one: they endured challenging environments, social isolation and a seemingly never-ending litany of domestic chores. One woman on the plains wrote in her diary of a pressing personal dilemma: whether to eat her last chicken for sustenance or preserve it as a companion. Their stories, though, were also full of female camaraderie, resilience and ingenuity – sharing home remedies for illnesses, building gardens to enliven sod houses, and taking command of households when faced with absent, dead or useless husbands.

In fledgling towns, meanwhile, women found themselves rare commodities: in early mining settlements, men outnumbered women nine to one. Sarah Herndon described the Virginia City mining camp as an energetic and sprawling community where men scrambled for claims like “bees around a hive” and left the ground with “great deep holes and high heaps of dirt”. Services such as boarding, laundry and prostitution were prized in these frenetic, rapidly developing settlements. Fortunes were there to be made and lost, not only by prospectors but also by female entrepreneurs – though such women were also vulnerable to abuse.

Women on the 19th-century frontier made steps towards political suffrage. The territory of Wyoming gave women the vote in 1869, the same year the National Woman Suffrage Association was founded (though this reflected not only the campaigning of early female suffragists but also a sentiment to cancel out the votes of African-American men with white women). The next eight states to grant suffrage to women were all in the West: Colorado (1893), Utah, Idaho (both 1896), Washington (1910), California (1911), Oregon, Kansas, and Arizona (all 1912). This indicates how the racial fissures of frontier geopolitics, the aptitudes of pioneer women and ideas about the ‘civilising’ female voice conspired to change suffrage laws.

The real Calamity Jane

Elsewhere, women redefined gender norms in all sorts of ways. Martha Jane Cannary – popularly known as Calamity Jane, depicted by Doris Day in a 1953 musical – became known for flouting female conventions. A child migrant to Montana in the mineral rushes of the 1860s, Canary made a name for herself working in male-dominated occupations (driving mules, travelling with the army) and, especially, for her habit of wearing men’s clothes.

Martha Jane Cannary better known as Calamity Jane, self-styled scout, performer and frontierwomen
Self-styled scout, performer and frontierwomen Martha Jane Cannary, better known as Calamity Jane, pictured in 1901. Having migrated to Montana at a young age, Jane made her name in male-dominated occupations, and for wearing men's clothes (Popperfoto/Getty Images)

An enigmatic figure who emerged as a frontier celebrity playing in ‘Wild West’ shows at the end of the 19th century, Calamity Jane played on her reputation as a ‘female scout’ with aplomb, regaling journalists and saloon-goers with tales of how she might have saved General Custer, her routing of Native American outlaws of the Deadwood Stage, and her capture of ‘Wild Bill’ Hickok’s killer with a meat cleaver. A raconteur and storyteller who played fast and loose with the truth for popular appeal, she ably advertised the West as a place of grand adventuring and tall tales.

Meanwhile, her lived experience, as an itinerant, butch woman on the margins of society, who was at home in the company and performance routines of men, speaks in important ways to modern understandings of fluid sexual and gender identity. Calamity Jane, though, attracted notoriety as much as acceptance: though she garnered attention for her personification of the ‘wild and woolly’ eccentricities of pioneer days and her lively invocation of western spirit, she was also lambasted by critics for her wayward and ‘unfeminine’ attributes.

Different ways of being

‘Passing’ as a man brought various opportunities – work, freedom of movement, safe travel – for independent women in an age of considerable gender restrictions. The West was particularly appealing as a place to experiment with different ways of being – politically, legally and socially permissive, with a mobile demographic and inhabited by plenty of people looking to start afresh.

Woman and daughter collecting buffalo chips in Kansas, c1893
A woman collects bison 'chip' (dung) in Kansas, c1893. In the tree-sparse Great Plains, during was an important fuel - and the job of collecting it often fell to women (Bettmann/Getty Images)

Take One Eyed Charley (Charlotte Parkhurst). Orphaned in Vermont, she began dressing as a boy, sought her fortune in the California Gold Rush in 1849, voted in the presidential election of 1868, and became a well-known west-coast stagecoach driver. After “thirty years in disguise” (as reported in the New York Times), her sex was discovered only after her death in 1879.

The wearing of masculine costume, then, could be a pragmatic recourse: a way to find sustenance or work and claim the fruits of the frontier. Reflecting on the common practice of women passing as men to claim mining rights, the Colorado Central City Weekly Register went as far to assert that a “mania for females to appear in male attire has struck”. The decision to ‘pass’ as a man was also deeply political in nature, and making one’s way ‘in a man’s world’ an important performance of gender liberation. As female rights campaigner Elizabeth Cady Stanton proselytised in an 1869 article in The Revolution: “If, by concealing our sex we find that we, too, can roam up and down the earth in safety, we shall keep our womanhood a profound secret” until such a day when “we shall dress as we please”.

Adopting a manly disguise facilitated the tracking down of errant lovers, escape from abusive relationships, or enacting of criminal heists

For some, adopting a manly disguise facilitated the tracking down of errant lovers, escape from abusive relationships, or the successful execution of criminal heists. The latter, on occasion, backfired – as in the case of Pearl Hart, ‘the girl bandit’, whose trademark disguise eventually abetted her capture. For others, meanwhile, the possibility of masculine masquerade allowed for the expression of a non-binary gender identity or the pursuit of romantic relationships with women. This important ‘hidden history’ of gender unorthodoxy is only now being excavated.

Long written out of the historical record, the voices of frontier women are vividly evoked by a richly textured corpus of diaries and period accounts, though the voices of non-white, non-literate and nonconformist figures are still poorly represented – for example, women with non-binary gender identities, or who enjoyed same-sex relationships. Of course, the experiences of indigenous women during this period are also absent from this narrative.

Horace Greeley had an up-close encounter with these variegated gender dynamics. Riding a stagecoach in 1859, he shared a carriage with a young prospector headed for the mineral fields, full of conversation and dreams of fortune. When the argonaut (the nickname for gold-rush hopefuls) left the train, the conductor pointed out to Greeley that the plucky young lad was, in fact, a woman. “Go west, young man” may have been a catchy invocation, but it overlooked a large chunk of the story.

Karen R Jones is reader in history at the University of Kent. Her new book Calamity: The Many Lives of Calamity Jane will be published by Yale University Press in 2020

This article was taken from issue 18 of BBC World Histories magazine