If you thought the men in the Wild West were tough, just wait until you hear about the women of the era. From owning their own businesses to out-smarting thieves, women of the Wild West were not to be trifled with. They used their bravery and intelligence to prove themselves just as capable as men, and in some cases even pretended to be men so they could vote or fight in battle. Read on to discover how these brave women thrived in the world of gambling, horse diving, medical practice, stagecoach driving, shooting, and more.
Mary Fields (Stagecoach Mary)
Born into slavery in 1832, Mary Fields was a tough woman who attained freedom after the Civil War. She worked in convents for the better part of the 19th century before earning her nickname “Stagecoach Mary” for quickly delivering mail in her stagecoach.
She was the first African-American female ‘star route’ mail deliverer and was known for her reliability. In the Wild West, thieves were common so Mary had to defend her packages. She is said to have faced down a pack of wolves once while on her route.
One of the thieves that Stagecoach Mary would have had to look out for was Pearl Hart. The Canadian outlaw performed numerous robberies along the west coast in America. While in Arizona, she teamed up with a man by the name of Joe Boot.
The pair stole a stagecoach together but were caught and sent to jail. The stagecoach robbery was one of the last of its kind and earned Pearl her notorious reputation. After her release, she worked at Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show before disappearing for good.
Sonora Webster Carver
See that crazy person falling through the air on horseback? That’s Sonora Webster Carver, one of the first female horse divers. She rode horses off of towers as tall as 60-feet, landing in an 11-feet-deep pool down below.
She traveled the country performing with William Carver’s team of divers. In 1931, she was blinded after landing in the water in such a way that her retinas became detached. Despite the accident, she continued to horse dive for another decade.
Born just before the Civil War broke out, Annie Oakley had a flair for shooting. She gained recognition for her shooting skills as a teen when she won a contest against Frank Butler. Frank ended up becoming Annie’s husband.
Annie became a headliner in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, where she gained further popularity. She even offered her talents to Teddy Roosevelt during the Spanish-American War, but was denied. Annie spent much of her fortune on charities and is the only Wild West woman whose story inspired a Broadway musical.
Lillian Smith was a talented shooter who had already been performing in Buffalo Bill’s show when Annie Oakley arrived on the scene. Both women had practiced their craft from a young age, but it was Lillian who lost to Annie in front of Queen Victoria.
After her disappointing performance, Lillian moved to Oklahoma and joined the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch Wild West Show. Though she continued to fight for the attention given to Annie Oakley, Lillian remained a successful shooter to the end of her life.
Cathay Williams was a tough African-American woman who pretended to be a man so she could enlist in the US army. While in battle, she received multiple wounds that landed her in the hospital, but somehow her secret was kept safe.
After the war, Cathay served as a cook in New Mexico before heading to Colorado. There, she met and married her husband. When he attempted to steal her money and horses, she had him arrested, moved to a different town in Colorado, and became a seamstress.
Belle Starr was raised on a farm where fugitives used to hide, so it makes sense that she had an affinity for outlaws, earning her the nickname “Bandit Queen.” She married criminal Jim Reed after the Civil War, and the two went on the run together.
The couple joined forces with a Cherokee Indian family in Oklahoma who was known for horse thievery. Belle was famous for riding sidesaddle and for her bravery in the face of threatening men.
Nicknamed “Doc Susie,” Susan Anderson spent half a century practicing medicine. She was born in 1870 and lived well into the 20th century, working as a doctor until she was 84 years old.
Part of her career was spent tending to patients during the 1918 flu pandemic. The Indiana native moved to Fraser, Colorado where she was the only physician in town for 49 years. Thirty-seven years after she passed, Susan was inducted into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame.
Carlotta J. Thompkins (Lottie Deno)
Carlotta J. Thompkins was fondly referred to as Lottie Deno by those who appreciated her gambling talents. Famous in Texas for her skill at poker, she ended up marrying another gambler, a man named Frank Thurmond.
After Frank was accused of taking another man’s life, the couple went on the run, traveling through numerous Texas cities where Lottie further grew her fame and notoriety. The couple ultimately settled down in New Mexico, where they ran a gambling room. Later on, Lottie became the owner of a restaurant in Silver City, and the pair left gambling behind.
Eleanor Dumont, famously known as Madame Moustache, was a prominent gambler during the California Gold Rush era. Her career began in San Francisco where she landed a job as a card dealer in the middle of the 18th century.
From there, she opened up a classy gambling parlor that served champagne and had no tolerance for nasty men. After purchasing her own ranch, she was conned by a smooth-talking gentleman named Jack McKnight and fell into a large amount of debt.
The beginning of Laura Bullion’s life is a mystery, but we do know that it was her affiliation with Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch that made her famous. Known as “Rose of the Wild Bunch,” Laura was romantically involved with multiple members of the gang.
It was her involvement in the Great Nothern train robbery that landed her in jail at the turn of the 20th century. Reportedly, her father was a bank robber, which may explain what led Laura to the outlaw life.
The life of Etta Place was full of mystery and questionable scenarios. For instance, she’s pictured here with Sundance Kid, who was her cousin that some think she may have been romantically involved with.
On the other hand, some believe that Etta was at one time the romantic interest of Butch Cassidy. Such a belief would certainly explain why she left her life as a schoolteacher to rob banks with the Wild Bunch. She ultimately separated from the outlaw group and became a cattle rustler.
Bridget Mason fought for her freedom in court a decade before the Civil War. Bridget went on to become a nurse and midwife in California. She ended up becoming the first black woman to own land in Los Angeles.
The clever woman sold a portion of her land and rented the rest of it, building her wealth beyond a quarter of a million dollars. She gave large donations to charities and established the first African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1872.
Katherine Haroney became known as Big Nose Kate to help eliminate confusion between her and another Kate, both of whom were in the brothel industry. Though she claimed to love not belonging to one man, she started a relationship with Doc Holliday after the two met in Kansas.
It’s believed that Kate set fire to a building in response to Doc being arrested. The fire served as a distraction so that Kate could coerce the guard into letting Doc go. The couple remained together until his passing.
Martha Jane Canary (Calamity Jane)
Marth Jane Canary was a skillful shooter who earned her nickname by defending herself and others against Native American attacks. She is reported to have saved six stagecoach passengers and an army captain.
She became further known when she joined Buffalo Bill’s show at the turn of the 20th century, less than a decade before she died. Though she was married at the age of 33, rumor has it that she truly loved Wild Bill Hickok, who she requested to be buried next to.
Sister of the famous Dunn Brothers bounty hunters, Rose Dunn grew up learning the tricks of her brothers’ trade. She went on to join the Wild Bunch gang when she met and fell for one of its members, George Newcomb.
Rose proved herself to be a vital part of the gang, who she bravely stood by in a battle against US Marshals. Afterward, she even nursed the members back to health. Ultimately, she gave up the outlaw life and married a politician.
Ellen Liddy Watson (Cattle Kate)
Ellen Liddy Watson secured her nickname as Cattle Kate after being wrongfully hanged for being a cattle rustler. It was vigilantes who accused Ellen and her husband of performing the crime.
In actuality, she was a cook at a hotel called Rawlins House, which is where she had met her husband. Ellen attained homestead rights at a location that a wealthy rancher needed to access for its water resources. These days, Cattle Kate is often seen as a victim of an abuse of power.
Pearl de Vere
Pearl de Vere was born around 1860 but spent much of her adult life in Colorado, where she made a name for herself as a brothel owner. The infamous Pearl claimed to be a dress designer but was known underground for having one of the most impressive brothels of the time.
Her business was named The Old Homestead and was located in Cripple Creek, Colorado. Full of chandeliers and fine carpets, a single stay at the luxurious property would cost upwards of $200 a night!
Josephine Sarah Marcus
Born in 1861, Josephine Sarah Marcus was an actress who toured the country with a theatre group. She ended up staying in Arizona, where she met her future husband while on tour. Her first marriage came to an end when she fell for famous wild westerner Wyatt Earp.
Supposedly, Josephine was the cause of a well-known, 30-second firing match that involved Earp, as well as the infamous Doc Holliday and the Clayton Brothers. At the end of her life in 1944, Josephine still claimed that Wyatt Earp was her true love.
Charley Parkhurst was a one-eyed woman who spent much of her life using a secret identity as a man. Born in 1812, she went on to become a stagecoach driver for Wells Fargo and the California Stage Coach Company.
The stagecoach industry was a dangerous one, but Charley faced it with the courage of a rough-around-the-edges man. She was so convincing as a man that she even registered to vote, and may have been the first woman to cast a ballot.