Recently I was watching my 14 year old grandson play a video game, it was a story that took place in the Wild West and a player could pick the character they wanted to be. I asked him if there were any female characters. He said, “No Memaw, there aren’t famous women in the Wild West.” Oh really?! I asked him if he had ever heard of Calamity Jane. Not surprisingly, he hadn’t. Challenge accepted. I was going to prove to him that there many women who helped settle and/or pillage the West.

It wasn’t hard to find women who were part of the Old West, a simple google search yielded many. Annie Oakley, Calamity Jane, Belle Starr, Pearl Hart, Eleanor Dumont and Mary Fields, gunslingers all. Mary Fields was one I had never heard of before.

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Mary Fields, was the first African American woman and the second woman in the United States to be a mail carrier. She was born into slavery around 1832, freed after the Civil War and lived to be 82. She started working as a groundskeeper at the Ursuline Convent of the Sacred Heart in Toledo, Ohio where she got in an argument and was kicked out. She had 2 nicknames, Stagecoach Mary and Black Mary. Delivering mail in the early days of the West was not quite like the job of delivering mail today. You were not hired as a direct employee of the US Post Office rather you were awarded a route and had to process posted bonds and sureties to substantiate your ability to finance the route. Fields was awarded the star route contract for the delivery of mail from Cascade, Montana, to Saint Peter's Mission in 1885, driving the route for two four-year contracts: from 1885 to 1889 and from 1889 to 1893. You can imagine this was not a job for the faint of heart and required that you be able to defend yourself as there were no local police departments along the way. Stagecoach Mary, sported men’s clothing, a bad attitude and two guns. I would have trusted her to bring me my mail.

Pearl Heart was born in Canada in 1871 and is believed to have died in Arizona around 1955. It is believed she was influenced by Annie Oakley, however, unlike Oakley, Pearl used her sharpshooting skills for a life of crime. It isn’t clear what Pearl was doing before she began her career as an outlaw, some say she was a cook in a boardinghouse, others say she ran a tent brothel near a local mine. Apparently one day she was low on money and happened upon a man named Joe Boot and the two of them robbed a stagecoach. Because who doesn’t like to tag along with their man on an expedition? Right? It is believed Heart and Boot were responsible for one of the last recorded stagecoach robberies in the U.S. The couple were caught and brought to trial. During her sentencing, it is reported Pearl said, “I shall not consent to be tried under a law in which my sex had no voice in making.” Gotta admire her spunk! She served some of her sentence, but became pregnant in prison and was quickly pardoned by the governor. Not a lot is known about Pearl after prison. She attempted a show, renacting her crime and speaking of the horrors of Yuma Territorial Prison. This was not successful so she worked under an alias for Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. In 1904, Heart was running a cigar store in Kansas City when she was arrested for receiving stolen property, but was acquitted of the charge. In 1940 she was shown as living with her husband of 50 years, George Calvin “Cal” Bywater by census takers. She is considered to be the only known female stagecoach robber in Arizona’s history earning her the nicknames of “Bandit Queen” or “Lady Bandit”.

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Eleanore Dumont, born as Simone Jules, but also known as Madame Mustache due to her physical characteristic of a heavy growth of hair on her upper lip, was one of the first known professional blackjack players in American history and, for over three decades, made her name famous across the mining camps of the American West. It is believed she was born in New Orleans, Louisiana about 1829 eventually making her way west during the California Gold Rush, arriving in San Francisco around 1849, soon becoming a gambler of renown, favoring the game of Blackjack. She was described as a petite and pretty French woman in her early twenties, known for her elegance dignity, and poker face.

After being escorted out of a gambling saloon under suspicion of card sharking she headed to Nevada City, California where she opened “Vingt-et-un” (21 in French) creating public interest by circulating a handbill which advertised the opening of the best gambling emporium in northern California to enjoy a game with Madame Dumont as well as free champagne for all. It was an extravagant facility and Madame Dumont only allowed well-behaved and well-groomed men in, cursing was discouraged in her presence. Dealing like the seasoned pro that she was, the miners more often lost than they won, very much like Las Vegas. Soon she had saved enough money to buy a ranch and started raising cattle. But then she fell in love. Sadly, the love of her life was a conman and swindled her out of everything. Jack McKnight. She decided some Wild West Justice was in order so she hunted him down and killed him, two shots from her shotgun. Suspected of the crime, she was never charged and denied doing it only confessing many years later.

Alone and destitute, she was forced to return to the mining camps and take up gambling again. In what was to be her last stop, Bodie, California Eleanore misjudged a play and lost a lot of money. She left the bar, wandered around town and was found outside of town. Dead. It is believed she died of an overdose of morphine, apparently a suicide on September 8, 1879.

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Women have always particpated in human history, good and bad, we just haven't been given the same attention. We need to change that, one story at a time.

Deborah Baron

Deborah Baron

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