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Pioneers In Petticoats
Legend says the frontier was “hell on women,” but the ladies claim they had the time of their lives
February 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 2
No man ever paid a greater compliment to a woman. It took love plus something else to dictate such an unheard-of invitation. He must have known she could take it. For Amanda, who had handled horses since she was knee-high, it was no trick to overtake the slow herd with her buggy and team. For three months the buggy jounced over trails worn only by the hoofs of cattle, from the southern tip of Texas to the Red River, across Indian Territory, and on into Kansas, a journey of 700 miles. There were times when blistering heat made a mock of the buggy top, when rain lashed in, when thunderbolts crashed and a stampede was imminent, and the lightning seemed to creep along the ground like something alive. She swallowed dust, fled from prairie fires that swept down on the chuck-wagon camp. Worse yet, she started one herself, as thoughtlessly as any tenderfoot. If a lady could retreat to the doghouse …
And that wasn’t all. A big sum of money was tied up in the restless longhorns that almost anything could touch off in an earth-shaking stampede. During crises Amanda was on her own; the cattle came first.
One pitch-black night she was left alone in a hailstorm, hanging onto two terrified horses, husband and herd gone heaven knew where. Drenched, scared, and wishing she had never left home, she was also just possibly angry at her husband, who had driven her hurriedly to a spot under some trees and then galloped off to help quiet the cattle. Hours later the woods rang with his voice calling her name. She still had the horses.
This girl who could drive like a Roman charioteer plunged her team into swollen creeks, down steep banks, into rivers treacherous with quicksands; men shouted and signaled directions, but the cattle came first . Of course, she was never forgotten. One day a prairie fire came down on them so quickly that there was no time to catch and harness her horses—they were doubtless out grazing with the remuda . A couple of cowboys told her to jump into the buggy, then fastened their lariats to it, with the other ends tied to their saddle horns, and pulled her out of danger.
Often, alone at night in her little tent, she sat up, fully dressed for an emergency, listening to the drumming of hoofs in the dark. One night there were Indians near, so a cowboy was left to guard her. Soon there were galloping hoof beats and an apologetic messenger—the Indians were trying to stampede the cattle, and every man was needed. That was the last of her guard. She laughed at it all.
Lovely, willowy Amanda was as tough as a boot and as feminine as a magnolia blossom, and she was doing just what she wanted to do. Years later, as an old lady whose eyes were still big and blue, she told her story in The Trail Drivers of Texas .
“What woman, youthful and full of spirits and the love of living,” she asked in the genteel accents of a southern belle, “needs sympathy because of availing herself of the opportunity of being with her husband while at his chosen work in the great out-of-door world?”
My old ladies lived in Montana, Wyoming, or Texas. They were products of the cattle frontier or the mining frontier or both—two separate yet kindred societies that whooped it up together from Tombstone to Virginia City and Last Chance Gulch. Hardly a husband of one of them ever set hand to a plough unless to put in feed for his livestock.
How totally different was the farm frontier on these same semiarid plains; its men and women locked in a terrible, embittering struggle, with the earth itself—sun-baked, poverty-stricken, hopeless—as the enemy. “Ach, this country, how I hate her,” said a character in Mari Sandoz’s Old Jules . The remark could stand as a motto tor the dry-farm struggle west of the one-hundredth meridian.
But the cowmen didn’t hate her. They got along with the earth and took what it had to offer, which was grass. The cowmen suffered appalling droughts and disasters, gambled with nature and lost, went crashingly broke. Yet they were in tune with their environment instead of fighting it, and despite all their grief they had, in the ringing words of Montana’s late, beloved Joe Kinsey Howard, “a hell of a good time.”
Some of it seems to have rubbed off on their wives.
All this is confirmed by Alice Marriott, who did an immense piece of research a few years ago on the modern ranch wife, direct descendant of our pioneers, for her book called Hell on Horses and Women . The title is no more than a lighthearted kiss blown to Old Man Tradition. Miss Marriott thinks the classic saying; must have been coined by a man, perhaps out of a general masculine guilt-complex egarding the lot of Eve. For in her travels through eighteen cattle-raising states, she says, she failed to find a single woman who agreed that the life was hell, or a grandmother old enough to admit that it had ever been so in her day.