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Monday, March 2, 2015


           As children, we often impersonate heroes. For many of us of the 1950s-60s generation, that probably included cowboys and Indians, or, possibly, cowgirls. Although not raised on a ranch, I loved Annie Oakley and I recall my very special Annie Oakley outfit that I got one year—and that I ruined when I foolishly ate a big ripe olive off of our olive tree (not knowing that they are bitter and contain a black bitter juice that STAINS!). 

Unbelievably, while checking on ebay for one like it, I found it,  the 
exact outfit--going for $225! Surely my parents didn't pay more than
a few dollars for it...

            No one in my family thought it out of character when I actually married my fourth-generation cowboy rancher fourteen years later. In short order I became a rancher’s wife and cattlewoman. I still work with my husband as often as I can, I ride (even tried my hand at barrel racing for fun, but mostly help work/move cows or ride in the mountains), I wear jeans and boots and have even taken up training my own horse, along with writing and teaching school, raising children (and chickens, too, over the years), raising a large garden, and cooking for "the guys" almost daily. I have become a ranching woman in the last 44 years, and nothing could pry me away from my life here in this rugged mountain valley.  But, though I would love to call myself a cowgirl, the label has to be reserved for the most dashing of Western women, the real cowgirls

I live around many of them—some who have ranched independently their entire lives—women, like Jessie, who, at 92, still spends all day outside with her cows, or Nancy—who took over the family ranch as a young woman and has remained at the helm for more than 25 years. Nothing deters these often quiet but resolute women.

But cowgirls have been with us for generations, and a number of women have held registered brands in Texas since the late 1700s. In 1795, a list of ranchers “legitimately engaged in the business of raising cattle,” included ten women. According to records, these ten held title “to more than one if five of the early cattle spreads.”

            One Spanish Doña, Doña Rosa Hinojosa de Ballí, inherited 55,000 acres of land in  in 1790.  She raised cattle, horses, sheep and goats and grew her ranch to over one million acres. Another, Doña Maria del Carmen Calvillo, inherited her ranch in 1814, and was said “to have cut a fine figure as she flew across her lands on her white stallion!” Moreover, she was “a superb rider and markswoman...noted for her flowing black hair, her scandalous male attire and her financial success.”

            Other early cattlewomen included pioneer women like Ann Burke who emigrated from Ireland with her husband to ranch in Texas. Sadly, her husband died on the voyage, but Ann—who delivered her first child one hour after landing on the Texas coast—went forward with their dream, raising cattle and horses on their large land grant.

            Mary Ann "Molly" Goodnight, married to Charles, helped establish the famous JA Ranch and rode the trail to Dodge City twice. Molly also owned her own herds, in addition to those she co-owned with her husband. She became known as the Mother of the Panhandle.

 Interestingly, it was the western frontier that first established the rights of married women to own land or earn their own income.  In 1849 in California, lawmakers hoped that by improving property laws, they could attract more women to the rough and tumble mining regions.  Of course, along with improved property laws, there followed fairly “loose” divorce laws so that a number of women—after arriving as brides—divorced and went on to become their own bosses and entrepreneurs.  In Helena, Montana, in the 1860s -70s, it is said that for every three marriages granted, there was one divorce.

The lure of owning land, therefore, was ample reason for many women to travel west and take up homesteads or acquire land grants, even to the chagrin of many men who thought the Homestead Act far "too equitable!" Across the Midwest, single, divorced, even married women pursued their dream for owning and working their own land.  Without being "feminists," they established a reputation as competent and respected landowners.

            Throughout the West, cattlewomen and cowgirls continued to take up the rope and saddle. Most were girls raised on the family ranches who often inherited their holdings. Between 1875 and 1900, in fact, approximately 250,000 ran their own farms and ranches while millions worked alongside husbands or fathers on their multigenerational spreads. Even Buffalo Bill Cody wrote, in 1899: “What we want to do is give our women even more liberty than they have. Let them do any kind of work that they see fit, and if they do it as well as men, give them the same pay.”

            Annie Oakley, the cowgirl star of the Old West, who actually appeared as “ladylike” off the stage—and never as a floozy—nevertheless, embodied the first national image of the sharp-shooting cowgirl.

Her skills of marksmanship rivaled any man's, and she was revered during her day and seen as a western icon; that image was not mythological or contrived, even if it was staged. Her fame brought recognition to what many western women were capable of.
Cowgirls also became part of the rodeo circuit. Daredevil cowgirls, like Vera McGinnis, rode standing on her horse, at a hard gallop in a race called The Drunken Ride, at the Pendleton Roundup in Oregon. Kitty Canutt became the "Champion Lady rider of the World" on a horse called "Winermucca" in Rawling, WY, in 1919. There were even female rodeo bulldoggers.  About Fox Hastings--born Eloise Fox-- who ran away from home at age 14 to ride bucking stock, it was written (in 1929): "To the rodeo crowd she is Fox Hastings, cowgirl extraordinary. To neighbors, she is Mrs. Mike Hastings, a good cook and tidy housekeeper." 

 As writers of the western tradition, we should be sure and not reduce the cowgirl to myth. Complex and multifaceted, they were women of unique qualities and character. And for urban readers, it's important to recognize that though these historical figures are legendary,  the cowgirl is as real today as she was 150 years ago; she is a powerful and important part of our Western cultural inheritance. 

Gail L. Jenner is the author ACROSS THE SWEET GRASS HILLS, recently re-released by Prairie Rose Publications.

She has also coauthored five nonfiction regional histories and has contributed to a number of anthologies, including ANKLE HIGH AND KNEE DEEP (GlobePequot/Two Dot), also Prairie Rose's LASSOING A BRIDE, PRESENT FOR A COWBOY, and COWBOY KISSES. She writes for NPR/JPR's historical series and for JEFFERSON BACKROADS, a monthly regional publication. She is also a co-partner in the family's "all female" online business, JENNER FAMILY BEEF.

As a ranching wife, Gail is an active CattleWoman and works hard to share a better understanding of life on a ranch. She has presented at various conferences on issues and challenges faced by agriculturalists in this modern world. Most of all, she loves the life that she shares with her cowboy husband, her children, and her grandchildren--who now represent the 6th generation on this family-owned operation. She and her husband live in the original family homestead, a house built c. 1870.......And she's still bemoaning the loss of her Annie Oakley outfit!


  1. Gail, you certainly have the "good life" on your ranch. I wonder that you have time in your day to write with all you do.
    This was such an interesting post about the women who succeeded in a man's world of ranching, homesteading, rodeos and still maintaining their homes like genteel ladies. Clearly, these magnificent women were extraordinary in their day, but they would still be considered amazing women today.
    I think you are among these women, Gale. Is there anything you can't do? I wish you continued success and happiness in all you do.

  2. Thanks, Sarah -- I appreciate your kind remarks. Truly, this life is a "good life!" Each day has its share of unique opportunities alongside the work. It has taught me a lot about being tenacious. And I agree these cowgirls, though many people have reduced them to caricatures, were really the radical women of their day! Inspiring, indeed.

    Thanks for stopping by!!

  3. My great-grandmother was the one with property, not her German born husband. (She managed the finances). Adeline Hornbeck here in Colorado grew a large business in the 1800's. There are women, as you beautifully pointed out, who have been doing the work for years. I loved this post. The history of the Western woman is one not to be forgotten, and told with care. Doris

    1. Hi Doris! Thanks for sharing! Your great grandmother was no doubt an enterprising and gutsy woman. Great piece of family history. I agree we need to keep these great ladies' stories alive...

  4. Gail I have to say I am jealous of the life you live. There is something so constant about the way you live. Calves are born in the early spring, crops are planted and then flourish in the summer to be cultivated in the fall. I know it sounds so easy but I also know it is a lot of hared work. Working side by side with your husband to build your life together is what its all about. For all of our carrying on about women's equal rights it seems cowgirls and the women who came before us that were brave enough to make it in a man's world, knew exactly what their worth was.

    1. Hi Barbara --

      Constancy IS one of the attributes of life on a ranch or farm. I imagine some would find that boring ;-) but I certainly haven't. I do enjoy being my dh's sidekick and even if it isn't every day or as often as I'd like, there is something very connected about our life. And the hard is more about being ready to just do it -- do what needs doing (rather like being a mom!)..... I do think we have underrated the roles women played in history in our culture because so many think that what they did was less "important" than what women do today. But, in truth, these women were the binding that held families and farms and life together :-) And I agree that although women had it tougher than, I bet a lot of them understood their value without having to advertise it....another reason their unsung stories are just waiting to be told!

      Thanks for stopping by!

  5. Gail,

    I always enjoy reading about your ranching life, because it takes me back to my own fond memories of my growing up years on a ranch in Colorado. I didn't have the Annie Oakley outfit, but I did have an Annie Oakley rifle. *grin* (I have no idea what happened it. I suspect a younger sister and brother may have had something to do with its disappearance.)

  6. Hi Kaye! Ooooh, an Annie Oakley rifle?! How cool was that ! No doubt it was used by many a cowgirl/cowboy wanna-be!!! Where was your family's ranch in Colorado? I love CO.....but have yet to see it all :-) Yes, ranching life is a great kids' playground...our grandkids are having as much fun as did our kids....I smile at their creativity sometimes. One of grandsons can't get enough of the junkyard -- the "cemetery" for old trucks and equipment. He loves to go "treasure hunting" there!!!

    1. I lived in northeastern Colorado--born and raised in Ft. Morgan, which is about 90 miles east of Denver. I left there 25 yrs ago and moved just about straight south to the far southeastern corner of Colorado where I live now (retired from teaching/administration).

    2. Hi Kaye! Cool --- I haven't visited that part of the state at all....tell me, what is the landscape there? I've been toying with a story and part of it I want to set in the southeastern portion of the state!!! Funny how as writers we're often drawn to places we have not visited but are intrigued by :-)

  7. Oh, Gail, I had one of those Annie Oakley outfits, complete with a red cowgirl hat. I think that was probably the ONLY piece of clothing I had had that Mom was able to find in time for my daughter to wear it--and I got her picture in it. LOL I also had a gunbelt with "ivory handled" cap guns...but no boots! LOL Still, how I loved that outfit and I'm so glad Mom held on to it and was able to lay her hands on it before my daughter got too old/outgrew it.

    Great post. As always! Love to hear about your life!


    1. Cheryl -- to another Annie Oakley wanna-be!!! Did you check out the ebay link I will see how much it's worth today!! Oh I so remember how sad I had the yellow fringe and red vest and skirt...I don't recall if I had a cowgirl hat. I have one now, of course :-)