10 of the Most Notorious Women of the Wild West
These ladies were criminals, heroes, and sharpshooters.
Most of the time, when we think about the Wild Wild West, we think of cowboys and bandits and corrupt sheriffs. Hollywood depicts the west as a crime-filled zone made up of bearded men fighting for their land, searching for gold, or protecting women. But some of the most badass people in the wild west were, in fact, women who rose up and made a name for themselves as some of the best shooters or meanest criminals. Others spent their days saving lives and helping others. Below we take a look at some of the women of the wild west you wouldn’t want to mess with.
When Annie was 15-years-old, she won a shooting match against traveling-show marksman Frank E. Butler. The two were later married and they joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show a few years later. Oakley became renowned for her sharpshooting skills and performed before royalty and heads of state. She encouraged the service of women in combat operation for the U.S. armed forces and penned a letter to President William McKinley offering “the government the services of a company of 50 ‘lady sharpshooters’ who would provide their own arms and ammunition should the U.S. go to war with Spain.”
Would-be mail thieves didn’t stand a chance against Stagecoach Mary, who sported men’s clothing, a bad attitude and two guns. Mary Fields was the first African American woman, and the second woman in the U.S., to carry mail, and she was known for hard-drinking and quick-shooting. She was born into slavery and freed after the Civil War, which is when she started working as a groundskeeper at the Ursuline Convent of the Sacred Heart in Toledo, Ohio. But she got in an argument and was kicked out. In 1895, she got a contract from the postal service to become a star route carrier. Her job was to protect mail on her route from thieves and bandits and to deliver mail.
Sonora Webster Carver
Born in Waycross, Georgia, she was one of the first female horse divers. Her job was to mount a running horse as it reached the top of a forty-foot (sometimes sixty-foot) tower, and ride it as the horse plunged into an 11-foot pool of water below. She became the lead diving girl for William “Doc” Carver’s team. She traveled the country performing. She was blinded by a retinal detachment due to hitting the water off-balance with her eyes open while diving her horse in 1931. She continued to dive horses until 1942. The popular movie Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken is based on her life, though she was quoted being disappointed with how she was depicted.
Known as the “Bandit Queen,” Belle Starr was born in 1848 as Myra Maybelle Shirley, but she soon grew into a rebellious spirit. She mingled with outlaws and became a horse thief. As her fame grew, she stayed a genteel lady: She drank whiskey and would gallop her horse at breakneck speeds, but always while riding sidesaddle. She threatened men who harassed her with a gun. She once told the Dallas Morning News that she was “a friend to any brave and gallant outlaw.” Starr was mysteriously murdered in 1889.
She was the first African-American woman to enlist in the army, and did so by disguising herself as a man. Though she was hospitalized five times, no one ever discovered her secret. She called herself William Cathay and was deemed fit for duty. After the war, she moved to Colorado and got married, but then her husband stole her money and a team of horses. Williams had him arrested. There are rumors that she owned a boarding house during her time in the west as well.
Pearl Heart was inspired by Annie Oakley, but instead of using her sharpshooting skills for show and entertainment, Heart used them for a life of crime. The Canadian-born outlaw is said to have been a cook in a boardinghouse, while others say she ran a tent brothel near a local mine. When she was low on money, Heart met up with a man named Joe Boot and the two of them robbed a stagecoach. Heart dressed as a man, and ultimately, they got lost when they ran away. This is one of the last recorded stagecoach robberies in the U.S. They were caught and during her sentencing, she said, “I shall not consent to be tried under a law in which my sex had no voice in making.” She served some of her sentence, but became pregnant in prison and was quickly pardoned by the governor. After that, her life becomes a mystery.
Also known as Madame Moustache, Dumont was a notorious gambler on the American Western Frontier, mainly during the California Gold Rush. No one knows quite where she is originally from, some say France, others say New Orleans. She turned up in San Francisco in 1849 and worked as a card dealer. After a few years, she opened up her own elegant gambling parlor. She refused to let in dirty, unclean men and served champagne over whiskey. She was so successful that she bought a ranch and started raising cattle. But then she met a man named Jack McKnight, who she thought she loved and could trust. She signed her property over to him so he could manage it. McKnight was a con man, and he took all her money and left her in serious debt. According to Ranker, she did not take this well. She hunted him down and killed him with two blasts from a shotgun. There are many stories of her foiling robbers and threatening steamboats at gunpoint. Unfortunately, she killed herself when her debts became too large.
Bullion may have always been destined for a life of crime, as her father was a Native American bank robber. While she was working as a prostitute in Texas, she joined the Wild Bunch gang, where she ran with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. She became known as “Rose of the Wild Bunch” and helped the gang out with their robberies. She would help sell the stolen items, forge checks, and it is rumored she disguised herself as a man to help with heists.
She started life as a slave, but after winning her freedom in court in 1856, she moved to Los Angeles and became a nurse and midwife. Ten years later, she bought her own land for $250, making her one of the first black women to own land in Los Angeles. She was a savvy businesswoman and sold part of the land for $1500. She built a rental space on the remaining section. She eventually had over $300,000 to her name, but she donated to charities and made it her mission to help out the poor and needy. She established the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1872, which continued to help people even after she died.
She was known as “Big Nose Kate” because she worked as a prostitute and didn’t want to be confused with another prostitute named “Kate.” She was known for her stubbornness and toughness. She spent the 1880s moving around the Midwest, and claimed that she worked as a prostitute because she liked not belonging to any one man or one house. She met Doc Holliday in Kansas and the two started a relationship. One time when he was arrested and locked up for killing a man in self-defense, Kate set fire to an old building. The fire threatened to burn down the entire town, and while the town was busy dealing with that, she held the guard who was watching Holliday at gunpoint while she freed her lover. They escaped and remained together until Holliday died.
Anderson was known as “Doc Susie” for her dedication to her medical practice. She was born in 1870 in Indiana and went to medical school before starting her own practice. She became famous when she successfully saved a miner’s arm after he was told by another doctor it would have to be cut off. Anderson practiced medicine for 47 years and didn’t retire until she was 84.