Girls with Guns
Updated: May 10
The Wild West was a free-for-all that allowed men to misbehave—to put it mildly. But it allowed women to misbehave too. And they often had to be tougher and smarter than men to survive. Violating society’s accepted feminine roles of mother, wife and homemaker made misbehaving women even more scandalous and provocative than their ignoble male counterparts.
America is fascinated with these gutsy women who dared to break the rules and the law. Their names have a brilliant but tarnished luster today. Many had feminine monikers but tough exteriors and even tougher hearts: Belle Starr, Pearl Hart, Rose of the Wild Bunch were just a few. It’s worth mentioning that most outlaw women of the West have also been credited—or discredited—in the history books with being gun-toting trollops, that is, prostitutes. It’s one of those cultural injustices that women who broke the law were almost always considered to be prostitutes as well. It just went with the territory. Men, of course, were not branded with the same stigma.
Another false assumption about these women is that they were all born into poverty and, by necessity and fate, fell into a life of crime. But some were born into wealthy families. Belle Starr and Pearl Hart were cases in point.
Belle Starr was born in 1848 into a prosperous Missouri family and should have become a proper young debutante, married a rich man, and behaved her boring self. But she loved the outdoors, riding horses and shooting guns with her older brother. When her family moved to Texas and she met the Jesse James gang, her path veered off into infamy. Her association with the gang was her internship in crime, for they became wanted in ten states for robberies of stagecoaches, trains, and banks. At age 18, Starr married a James gang associate, Jim Reed, who quickly murdered a man he claimed had killed his brother. They escaped to California, where Jim was shot dead. Belle then hitched her wagon to a Starr—Samuel Starr, that is, a Cherokee man—and gained her legendary name. Smart and savvy, Belle became the mastermind of her new gang and, applying her transferable skills learned from the James gang, began a life of robbing banks, stealing horses and bootlegging. Her Cherokee husband was killed in 1886, so she married Blue Duck, a famous Cherokee outlaw, to retain her considerable land in Indian Territory. In 1889, at age 40, she was shot dead in Oklahoma.
Belle Starr famously said in bemused understatement, “I regard myself as a woman who has seen much of life.” She became famous during her own lifetime and enjoyed her notoriety, dressing the part in embroidered buckskin, boots, a Stetson with an ostrich plume, and pearl-handled pistols. She expected to die a violent death. Of her final fate, she said: “Shed not for her a bitter tear. Nor give the heart to vain regret. Tis but the casket that lies here; the gem that fills it sparkles yet.” In fact, her persona still shines today.
Pearl Hart was born in Canada to religious and very affluent parents. In her teens, she was enrolled in an elite boarding school, but she fell in love with a man of dubious stature and eloped, much to the horror of her family. But the husband was abusive and Hart left him several times. During their time together, she gave birth to a boy and a girl, whom she sent to her mother to raise. In 1893, she attended the Chicago World’s Fair and became fascinated with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and the cowboy life. She worked for a time at the World’s Fair as a midway barker, then left her husband for Colorado to find a new life on the frontier. Hart wrote of this time in her life: "I was only twenty-two years old. I was good-looking, desperate, discouraged, and ready for anything that might come. I don't dwell on this period of my life. It is sufficient to say that I went from one city to another until some time later I arrived in Phoenix".
In Arizona, she met her second husband, but after both struggled to make a living, they robbed a stagecoach in Arizona in 1899. Hart was carried a .38 revolver and took the equivalent of about $13,000 from the passengers and driver, then returned $1 (about $30 in today’s currency) to each passenger. A couple of months later, both were caught by a posse and imprisoned. The novelty of a woman stagecoach robber caused a national media frenzy and newspapers clamored to write about her story.
Cosmopolitan wrote that Hart was beautiful and polished, but "when angry or determined, hard lines show about her eyes and mouth." Townspeople were fascinated with her and one admiring man gave her a bobcat cub to keep as a pet in jail. She escaped but was caught again and finally imprisoned at the Yuma Prison. A firebrand with a sharp intellect, Hart delivered a famously feminist statement at her sentencing: "I shall not consent to be tried under a law in which my sex had no voice in making."
When she became pregnant, a judge released her, fearing she had become pregnant in a manner that would embarrass the penal system. She worked for a time for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, fulfilling a youthful dream. Mystery shrouds her final days, when she ran a cigar store in Kansas City (she loved to smoke cigars) and largely disappeared from public life. Different accounts have her dying in 1955 or 1960. But, whatever her end, she left a colorful mark on Wild West history.
Annie Oakley was arguably the most famous woman of the Wild West and, miraculously, escaped the reputation of being a woman of ill-repute. She became famous as sharpshooter in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and toured with Buffalo Bill Cody and Sitting Bull, who liked her and adoringly called “Little Sure Shot.” Annie Oakley was a Quaker and carefully protected her reputation, donning a beautiful embroidered and fringed rawhide outfit of calf-length skirt, long sleeves, and boots, and often wearing the many metals on her chest she had won sharp-shooting.
She was a mean shot with most any gun but preferred a Parker Brothers double-barrel or a Stevens Tip-Up or her beautiful, engraved Remington Beals Rifle. She met her husband, the famous sharpshooter Frank Butler, in a shooting contest in which she won by killing all 25 live bird traps to his 24. He then asked her to marry him and they spent 50 years of married life exhibiting her shooting skills around the world.
She was a gracious and very respectful woman but she was a mean shot. And, even for her genteel nature, she recognized the double-standard held against her as a woman performer. "When a man hits a target, they call him a marksman. When I hit a target, they call it a trick," Oakley once said. “I don’t much care for that.”
Calamity Jane, born Martha Jane Canary, is one of the most famous enigmas in Western legend. Much has been written about her, much of it fictional, but that's no different than male legends of the West. We do know this: she was one tough woman. Bigger-than-life, famous and infamous, a sure shot, a great horsewoman, she traveled in the circles of the West's most famous male icons and she was an icon herself. She could cuss, drink whiskey and shoot better than most men and she wore fringed buckskin pants and tunic when most women were wearing corsets, petticoats and dresses.
She was born in 1852 in Missouri, a beautiful girl, the oldest of six children. Her father had a gambling addiction and her mother worked occasionally as a prostitute to support her children. The family went out west to Montana, and Martha Jane was quickly orphaned at age 14 and had to support her siblings. From there she made a magnificent reputation for herself, had many adventures on the frontier, and a life-long love for Wild Bill Hickok. In fact, when she died she was buried her beside her true love, Wild Bill Hickok, and their legends live forever together in loam and lore. (See our popular past post, THE LEGENDARY CALAMITY JANE, with link below.)
Another amazing woman, not nearly as well-known but should be, is Stagecoach Mary. A towering, six-foot-plus black woman, she could drink, smoke, cuss, fistfight and shoot better than any man in the state. Or, as famous Montanan and actor, Gary Cooper put it: “She could whip any two men in the territory and had a fondness for hard liquor matched only by her capacity to put it away.” Mary was born a slave in Tennessee around 1832 and went West after the Civil War. Despite her hard-edged ways and foul mouth, she was employed by a convent and a Reverend Mother who took a liking to her. Mary became the first black woman in the nation to drive a postal stagecoach and carried a rifle anda pearl-handled silver Smith and Wesson .38 “Lemon Squeezer.” (See our very popular past post, THE AMAZING STORY OF STAGECOACH MARY, with link below.)
Many other women made names for themselves living by the gun on the Frontier. Kate Horony’s story (AKA Katie Elder, Mrs. Doc Holliday, and many other aliases) is far more spectacular than any Hollywood fiction. Katie Elder lived nine lives that bridged continents and nations, worlds of woe and wonder and love and loss. She lived in the presence of kings (of both the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Mexico!), the West’s most famous icons—Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp. She once broke Doc Holliday out of jail in Fort Griffin, Texas, but her adventures went far beyond that. (See our popular past post, THE TRUE STORY OF KATIE ELDER, with link below.)
Eleanor Dumont was a French woman who made a colorful reputation, first as a casino owner and gambler. When she married a man who turned out to be a conman and stole from her, she tracked him down and shot him dead. She went on to regain her fortune gambling.
Laura Bullion was born into crime. Her father was a Native American bank robber and joined up with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and earned the name “Rose of the Wild Bunch.” Beautiful, she disguised herself as a man and participated in robberies, forging checks and criminal activity. In 1901, she was arrested for robbing a train and served three years before she was released.
Lillian Smith was a competitor of Annie Oakley, but far less well-known. She joined Buffalo Bill’s Cody’s Wild West Show at age 15 and wore fancy clothes and swore with a vengeance. While touring in London, she shot so badly she was booed and her career soon sputtered out.
Rose of Cimmaron, born Rose Dunn, grew up roping and riding and shooting with her older brothers, who were notorious bounty hunters. She fell in love with George “Bittercreek” Newcomb, a member of the Wild Bunch. She rode with the gang and was even involved in a shootout with a group of U.S. Marshalls. She eventually left her outlaw life, but her storied life remain in the annals of the West.
Ripping stories from the annals of real-life women outlaws, Hollywood had a heyday portraying females with firearms and dames with Derringers. There was no middle ground in roles of women—certainly realistic portrayals were nearly nonexistent. Women in Westerns were either helpless, feminine props in the background, cowering during fistfights and shootouts, or notorious females with firearms, highly sexualized and usually depicted as a whore with a Winchester. But, still strong female figures managed to grace the screen in blazing glory: tough-as-nails Marlena Dietrich in Destry Rides Again (1939), Barbara Stanwyck in The Furies (1950), Sharon Stone in The Quick and The Dead (1995), and Natalie Portman in Jane Got a Gun (2015) are just a few.
But my personal favorite is King Vidor’s and David O. Selznick’s Duel in the Sun (1946). In it, the sultry but gritty Jennifer Jones, depicting a feisty Mestiza (half Native American) woman goes after the bad man she loves—Gregory Peck—riding her paint horse bareback into the desert clutching only her Winchester. She is a magnificent femme fatale with a firearm. And she knows how to use it.
Belle Starr and Pearl Hart would be amazed but proud that their legacy continues, alive and well, even into the 21st century, a 150 years later.
You may also enjoy these related posts:
•The Legendary Calamity Jane
•The Amazing Story of Stagecoach Mary
•The True Story of Katie Elder
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"Girls with Guns" originally posted on Facebook December 21, 2019.
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