Damsels With Derringers: Women of the Old West Who Shot, Fought and Earned Their Place in History

Trick shooters, peacemakers, warriors and outlaws–these real-life fighting women of the Wild West counter the stereotypes often portrayed in popular Old West and Weird Western stories.

Their jaw-dropping feats can provide rich fodder for new stories and inspiration for Weird Western characters beyond the tired prostitute/farm girl tropes.

Unnamed prisoner posing as Rose Dunn (Wikipedia)

This list is by no means comprehensive but demonstrates that the Old West had no shortage of courageous and daring women.

Trick Shooters

Who hasn’t heard of Annie Oakley, the 19th century sharpshooter? Her unparalleled feats—such as shooting a cigarette out of her husband’s mouth—inscribed her name in history forever.

The Ohio-born Quaker was an expert shooter, hunter and trapper by age 8 to support her widowed mother and family. She joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show at age 25. She reportedly taught some 15,000 women how to handle a gun and showed off her shooting feats to Presidents, Kings and Queens in Europe and the U.S.

Other women paved notable paths as well when it came to expert shooting.

California-born Lillian Frances Smith was another trick shooter and horse rider, competing as early as age 10. She joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show at the early age of 15 and became a quick rival to Oakley. Smith was flashy and brazen as Oakley was conservative.  

Calamity Jane, born in Missouri, was a frontierswoman and raconteur. She was endlessly fascinating to the public, with her shooting and riding skills, preference in wearing men’s clothing and heavy drinking. Though there are many unsubstantiated claims of her exploits and adventures, her name has become synonymous with a larger-than-life frontierswoman.

Lawmakers

Many women served as protectors, enforcing the law at a time when women were not frequently in these roles.

Two Oklahoma women became U.S. Deputy Marshalls in the Wild West at the end of the century, to the amazement of local reporting. Dynamic duo S.M. Burche and Maime Fossett carried out field work in their roles. A local paper in 1898 wrote of their appointment

That a woman should choose the vocation of professional thief taker in the most civilized portion of the land would be strange enough. It is infinitely more so when she chooses field duty on the worst territory in the Union… They are of that adventurous class of females who invaded the newly opened territory in search of homesteads.

They are young, fairly good-looking, well-educated, fearless and independent. Their duties are by no means confined to keeping Marshal Thompson’s books. When they took the oath of office and assumed their duties it was with distinct understanding that they would serve the Government just as would any other deputy marshal.

They were to take the field, serve writs and warrants and make arrests just as any rude man might be called on to do. And they have been doing this with exceptional success.”

Similarly, F.M. Miller was appointed as a U.S. Deputy Marshal in Texas in 1891 and previously worked as a guard at a federal prison. There is very little biographical information available on Miller but the paper Muskogee Phoenix, somewhat star-struck, described her as “a young woman of prepossessing appearance, wears a cowboy hat and is always adorned with a pistol belt full of cartridges and a dangerous looking Colt pistol which she knows how to use.” 

In 1891, the Fort Smith Elevator paper wrote “she is an expert shot and a superb horsewoman, and brave to the verge of recklessness. It is said that she aspires to win a name equal to that of Belle Starr, differing from her by exerting herself to run down criminals and in the enforcement of the law.”

Marie Connolly Owens is believed to be the first woman U.S. police officer, appointed in 1891 in Chicago, before a law was passed restricting women from joining the police force. Born in Canada to Irish immigrants, Owens began working as a health inspector for children’s workplaces after becoming widowed and needing to raise 5 children on her own. Her passion and hard work led to her promotion as a police officer

Warriors

There are many accounts of warriors in the Old West taking up arms and leading their communities to victories. These are just a sampling of women who demonstrated profound heroism and bravery during battles or through other perils.

Buffalo Calf Road Woman (unconfirmed, Wikipedia)

Buffalo Calf Road Woman (or Brave Woman) was a Northern Cheyenne woman who rallied Cheyenne warriors (riding into battle to save her brother’s life in one instance) to protect their land. A mother and expert markswoman, she also likely dealt the fatal blow to Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer in the Battle of the Little Bighorn. 

Accounts describe her as “having a six-shooter, with bullets and powder, and she fired many shots at the soldiers” and as both a mother and fighter: “a gun in her hands, ready, the baby tied securely to her back.”

Lozen, a member of the Chihenne Chiricahua Apache and whose brother was prominent Chief Victorio, has too many feats of bravery to name. A warrior, prophet and Holy Woman, she reportedly had a mystical ability to sense her enemy’s movements through a tingling in her hands. She was immensely skilled at riding, shooting and fighting, as well as in leadership and military strategy.

Victorio reportedly stated, “Lozen is my right hand … strong as a man, braver than most, and cunning in strategy. Lozen is a shield to her people.” In one especially daring undertaking, she escorted a laboring mother across the Chihuahuan Desert in 1880 with limited food and water. She successfully survived and escorted the mother and infant, in part by slaughtering a longhorn for food–with only a knife.

Bíawacheeitchish or Woman Chief, (potentially also known in accounts as Pine Leaf) was a warrior and chief of the Crow tribe. Kidnapped and raised by a Crow warrior when she was 10, she became adapt at riding and shooting. She was Two-Spirited, married four wives and rose up the ranks due to her bravery and leadership on the battlefield. In one instance, she led the Crow tribe to an unlikely victory during a Blackfoot raid.

Nanyehi (Nanye-hi, who later took the name Nancy Ward) was a member of the Cherokee Nation. During the battle against the Creek Nation, her husband was killed at her side. She helped the Cherokees to victory and earned a new title, Beloved Woman. She became a revered spiritual leader and advocated on behalf of women.

Outlaws

On the other side of the law, many women have their names in history. Some, like the Bassett sistersEtta Place, and Rose Dunn (Rose of Cimarron or Rose of the Cimarron) were infamous for being romantically involved with and supporting famous outlaws. Others were ruthless in their own right. Most accounts mix legend with history, as reports are fairly sparse or contradictory.

Belle Star (Myra Maybelle) a privileged, pro-Confederacy woman known as the “Queen of the Outlaws” may have been more myth than reality, likely not the mastermind of brutal gangs that history painted her as.

However, LAT confirms “Belle did ride sidesaddle and she was a crack shot. She also dressed in a black velvet riding habit, a plumed hat and two pistols, with belts of cartridges crisscrossing her hips.” In a life rife with marriages and murders, she herself ended tragically: murdered while on her horse.

Train robber “Thorny Rose” Laura Bullion was born into being an outlaw it seemed, to a father who was a robber. After a difficult childhood, she joined the Wild Bunch Gang (which contained Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), participating in forgery, train robberies and prostitution.

Pearl Hart, Cosmo magazine 1899 (Wikipedia)

Pearl Hart, known as “the Bandit Queen,” lived a roaming life as a saloon singer, cook and worker in mining camps. After several marital spats she was imprisoned for robbing a stagecoach in Arizona in 1899 with her partner at the time, presumably for money to support her sick mother. She was imprisoned at the Tucson jail. The jail lacked any female inmates and placed her into a cell made of plaster, from which she escaped

Arrested again, she was the only female inmate at Yuma Territorial Prison and garnered media and community fascination and support. As the Silver Belt newspaper in Arizona describes it, “The woman is receiving much attention, an afternoon rarely going by without her having lots of callers and herself being photographed. The camera fiends have taken shots of her with all sorts of firearms and looking as much the desperado as they can make her.”


Part 2 of real-life inspiring women in the Old West coming soon!

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