Women of the Wild West



When you’re using a cowboy classroom theme or studying the Wild West, don’t forget the women. The photo here is of “Spirit of the Prairie,” a statue in Colby, Kansas, sculpted in 1985 by Charlie Norton.

Women of the Wild West didn’t go on cattle drives and they took part in rodeos only later, in the 20th century. Most women in the Old West were wives and daughters. They cooked, baked, cleaned, made clothing, worked in the garden, and cared for the men and children.

Use letters from two unusual women of the time to learn about the Wild West from a woman’s point of view while practicing the use of primary sources.

Letters from the Gold Rush

The Autry National Center has a lesson plan using the letters written by a woman called Dame Shirley. She wrote from the California gold fields in 1851 to her sister. The lesson plan pulls out descriptions of other people in several of the letters. The lesson focuses on the stereotypes, but also on the use of primary sources.

You can get the published letters and read more.

You might also like to use the same questions about the use of primary sources with the letters of Isabella Bird, discussed below.

A traveler’s letters

A remarkable Englishwoman named Isabella Bird traveled across the Rocky Mountains in 1873. She wrote letters to her sister, and they have been published as A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains.


Bird started out in California, feeling embarrassed that she couldn’t ride sidesaddle as the ladies there did, but it was probably a good thing that she knew how to ride “cavalier style,” because she ended up working on a ranch in Colorado during her travels. At one point she asked whether she should be scared of “ruffians.” The answer: “There’s a bad breed of ruffians, but the ugliest among them all won’t touch you. There’s nothing Western folk admire so much as pluck in a woman.”

Bird was very plucky, as you’ll discover when you read her letters, but she had very little trouble with ruffians. She found that “the habit of respectful courtesy toward women” was usual in the West. “Womanly dignity and manly respect for women are the salt of society in this wild West,” she wrote.

Bird witnessed cattle drives. Here are her descriptions:

…a drove of ridgy-spined, long-horned cattle, which have been several months eating their way from Texas, with their escort of four or five much-spurred horsemen in peaked hats, blue-hooded coats, and high boots, heavily armed with revolvers and repeating rifles, and riding small wiry horses.” p. 27

…a convoy of 5,000 head of Texas cattle traveling from Southern Texas to Iowa. They had been nine months on the way! They were under the charge of twenty mounted vacheros, heavily armed, and a light wagon accompanied them, full of extra rifles and ammunition.

Challenge students to draw illustrations based on these descriptions.

Bird doesn’t use the word “cowboy.” This word came into use around 1867, but isolated settlers in Colorado or an Englishwoman might not have heard it yet. “Vacheros,” “vaqueros,” “wranglers,” or — the word Bird uses most often — just “hands” were the words used to describe cowboys before the word “cowboy” came into fashion.

A rancher asked Bird to help out with his cattle. “Will you help to drive in the cattle?” the rancher asked. “You can take your pick of horses. I want another hand.”

This rancher owned 50 horses and 1,000 cattle. In 1876, Bird tells us, Colorado had a total of 390,728 head of cattle. They were worth a bit more than two pounds (English money) apiece, and the rancher she worked for sold his for about six pounds apiece. Colorado had just become a state when Bird visited, and people were optimistic about its future as a cattle-producing state. Life was hard for people, but the environment was good for cows.

Bird stayed, riding after the cattle every day and joining the men for music and conversation and cards in the evening. The ranchers’ wife and daughters did the cooking and housework, but Bird had a room of her own which she cleaned, and she washed her own clothes. The rancher told her she was “as much use as a man.”

Read as much of the book as you choose (it’s a great read aloud for older students), or just use the passages above to examine the position of women in the Old West.

Some discussion questions:

  • How did Isabella Bird manage to find work as a ranch hand (cowboy)?
  • What did it mean when the rancher said she was “as much use as a man”? Would that be a compliment now? Was it a compliment then?
  • Was Isabella Bird a cowboy? Why or why not?

Ask students to finish up with a letter of their own describing a day in their lives — in your state, in 1873.

The photo below shows the guys from the FreshPlans family at the top of the peak that Isabella Bird climbed in 1873. It probably looks just about the same.

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