She Wore a Yellow Ribbon: Women Soldiers and Patriots of the Western Frontier
By JoAnn Chartier and Chris Enss
This is a fascinating yet easy-to-read book that I knew would be just my cup of tea when I saw it. I come from the American West; I am interested in strong, iconoclastic women, especially in a historical context; as a girl always fascinated with figures like Jeanne Darc (Joan of Arc) and Mulan, I was intrigued by the subtitle. What would a category of “patriotic” women of the Western frontier necessarily contain? In American history, women patriots have traditionally come under categories like that of Betsey Ross, famous seamstress of the first American flag, or, more recently and with perhaps more claim, Harriet Tubman, who managed the Underground Railroad. There has also (since at least the War of 1812) been a sub-group of American women who have disguised themselves as men to fight. How does the book deal with these issues? “In the latter half of the nineteenth century, the U.S. Army battled western Native American tribes over territorial rights, resources and culture. Each side had its motives, its victories, its defeats, its victims, and its heroes.” The book is at pains to explain that, though the accomplishments of women (wives, mothers, women from settler roles or similar) who had to “set up housekeeping” in the West faced difficulties their counterparts in more “civilized” parts of the globe could only imagine, they are not the women highlighted in this book.
Even so, the role of “patriot” is surprisingly elastic. Francita Alvarez (the “Angel of Goliad”) and Juana Navarro Alsbury were both Tejana women involved in missions of mercy to U.S. soldiers and military personnel during the 1830s, the latter an Alamo survivor. Juana was also married to Dr. Alsbury and her cousin Ursula was married to James Bowie. Their struggles certainly required courage and resourcefulness. In 1846, Susan Shelby Magoffin became the first American woman to travel down the Santa Fe Trail to New Mexico, unaware that her brother-in-law was spying for the U.S. in Mexican territory. Susan’s tale sounds extremely exciting, not only because she kept a journal by which we can hear her voice, but because as an eighteen-year-old from Kentucky, she was obviously as enlivened as she was scared by the prospect of going West. She was in New Mexico during the Taos Uprising.
Frances Bronson Boyd was also of a tender age when she married Lt. Orsemus Boyd and had a similar attitude toward going West (and specifically, being an Army wife) when they set out for Nevada Territory in 1847. Like Susan Magoffin, Frances had to be prepared to defend herself with weaponry on many occasions. Actually, Frances’ story seems to have much in common with her near-contemporaries such as Mrs Duberly, a war wife of the Crimean War who also kept an instructive journal. Another Army wife, Elizabeth Custer, inspires in me little more than apathy given that I have grown up believing her husband was an evil man.
We can learn much from women who kept journals, but it can be frustrating reading about women about whom we know so little; there is nothing in the voices of Francita Alvarez and Juana Navarro Alsbury, above, that we know of, and the same is true for the remarkable Cathy Williams, who began as a laundress and cook in the 13th Army Corps during the Civil War. (She had been forced to this job by necessity given that, as a slave freed in 1861, she had no idea how to begin providing for herself post-slavery.) She found, after the War was over, that civilian life for an uneducated, single Black woman had few prospects. However, inspired during the War by the Army of the Southwest, in 1866 she joined the Army as a man, Private William Cathay, this time in the 38th Infantry division. Among Cathy’s many circumlocutions to keep her gender from being discovered was the decidedly dangerous one of drinking very little so she didn’t have to pee in front of the other men. After two years, she had had enough and, after letting herself be discovered, was discharged. Predictably, some of her comrades treated her badly after they learned out the truth.
The delightful Charley Hatfield, who, like Williams, was sometimes in male disguise, stretches the definition of woman patriot. In 1854 in a saloon in St Louis, she pursued and shot at a man named Jamieson who had in the 1840s had killed her husband; she continued to pursue him throughout her life. Charley’s story is incredibly dramatic; she was illegitimate and sent to live with an uncle in New Orleans, then abruptly married a riverboat pilot at the age of 12! When her husband was killed, she lodged her children with the Sisters of Charity and, having had experience on steamboats, disguised herself as a man in order to make a living as a cabin boy. She tried her hands at many trades and was in the Second Colorado Cavalry. Like a character in a Shakespeare play, she convinced her commanding officer to let her “disguise” herself as a Missouri country girl in order to spy on the enemy. However, when she was wounded in action, the doctor, unusually, decided not to reveal her secret. She remarried and eventually became famous for her unusual lifestyle and bold action during war.
Another startlingly dramatic story is that of Winema, a Modoc woman mediator who prevented massacres during the Modoc Wars in California in Oregon in the 1870s. From her childhood considered an extraordinary individual, Winema was fascinated by Western (white) culture and always sought to bridge gaps in understanding. She married Frank Riddle, a miner, and tirelessly aided the U.S. Cavalry in negotiations. Her efforts were recognized by Albert Meacham, a subsequent campaigner for Native rights. In counterpoint to Winema is Lozen, a Chiricahua Apache who was the only woman Geronimo allowed to be in his band of freedom fighters. She died ignominiously of tuberculosis in 1890. The third Native American woman included in the book, Sarah Winnemucca, a Paiute, is justly famous for her courageous and shrewd scouting and interpreting skills which she offered to the U.S. Army during the Bannock Wars of the 1870s. As ever, despite having helped them, the Army treated her badly in the 1880s, forcing her people off their land and continually betraying her trust. Having learned English, Sarah was able to tell her own story in a publication from 1883.
Martha Jane Canary aka Calamity Jane is highlighted in the book for her nursing skills as much as for her other exploits, with the caveat being that the woman herself is so shrouded by mythmaking that it is almost impossible to write a coherent narrative about her life. To round off the book is the enchanting Juliet Fish Nicholls, lighthouse keeper who struck a bell warning off ships in the San Francisco area for almost four continuous hours. Living alone on an island and with the great responsibility of the job, Juliet witnessed the famous fire from 1906 from a distance. She was the daughter of an Army doctor and had been born in China.