Cowgirls In The West

Ask someone to name a symbol for the American West and before long “cowboy” will be mentioned. Since we’re chatting about women in the west, I thought we should talk about cowgirls today.

Where there really cowgirls in the 19th Century or were they sort of an Old West myth? What did they do? How did the idea of cowgirls gain popularity? Here are a few facts and thoughts:

  1. Life Was Hard & Necessity Pushed Societies Boundaries

Settling on the frontier was settling in a wilderness. Whether the pioneers intended to farm, ranch, pan for gold, set up shop in a town, were with the military, or built the railroad, living conditions could be rugged. (We’ve noted how pioneer life added more challenges to the daily tasks for women in the 19th Century.)

Life in the west could push boundaries. Necessity could force a women into a leadership role that would’ve been frowned upon in the east. How about this example: pioneer woman’s husband owns a cattle ranch. They’re just about to make a significant profit with their herd when he has a fatal accident or contracts a deadly disease. Pioneer widow had two basic choices: work harder and try to keep her property or seek refuge and charity elsewhere. Many women chose to stay where they were already settled, taking – from necessity – a new role; in this case, overseeing a ranch at least until she could hire someone else.

A girl and her horse (DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University)

2. Women & Ranches

We know that women oversaw cattle ranches and cowboys when their husbands were away or had died. Also, in the west, a ranch couldn’t always afford to hire more ranch hands, but if the wife or daughters knew how to ride and rope they might end up helping on the property.

Usually, it was from a practical situation or from necessity that women became involved in “cowgirl” duties. “Cowgirl” wasn’t really a “career” option during the 19th Century, but the pioneer women would “cowgirl-up” and tackle whatever work had to be accomplished for the good of the family.

3. Cattle Drives?

Cattle drives were when the livestock was moved from the ranch to a railroad where they would be sold and transported to be butchered. Unlike a round-up on the ranch, a cattle drive moved the livestock from Point A to Point B, not just gathered them to Point A.

There is not an abundance of proof that women took part in cattle drives. Likely there are some good stories, even true stories, but it’s just not the majority. While a woman or girl might help move cattle, mend fences, work with horses, and other tasks on the ranch, a cattle drive presented additional hardships, and it seems likely not many made that journey.

Annie Oakley was a sharpshooter in a wild west show.

4. Wild West Shows

The idea of a “cowgirl” gained popularity with the advent of Wild West Shows. These were shows that supposed presented “real-life” in the West; however, we have to remember: they were SHOWS. Thus, just because there were many cowgirls in these shows, doesn’t mean there were lots of cowgirls roaming the ranges.

The cowgirls in the western shows were talented and performed western skills with flair. Shooting, trick riding, roping, and other activities were performed well by these tough women in show business. And they introduced world-wide audiences to the image of a cowgirl – whether or not it was actually factual and common on the real ranches.

5. Cowgirl Legacy

Hey, let’s be clear…I’m not trying to diminish the skills and good character qualities of modern cowgirls or be disrespectful in anyway to the western women of the 19th century who got out of the house to get a job done. However, it’s good to be clear that most women in the west and even most women on ranches were not cowgirls.

However, the women on 19th Century ranches certainly passed on a good legacy and examples of hard work, practice, determination, and courage. When a job had to be done, these pioneer women were not afraid of what people might think – they’d just saddle-up and help get the job done. And that’s a fine example in any era!

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, living history enthusiast, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
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One Response to Cowgirls In The West

  1. Pingback: Women Voting In The West | Gazette665

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