Guest Commentary

Let's hear it for the fabulous but unheralded women of the Old West

It wasn't all about six guns. There were petticoats. True, women were outnumbered, but they played a significant part in the history of the Old West.

A few men—engineers, merchants and bankers—brought their wives to these camps. Some of their wives made a name for themselves. Clara Brown, whose husband was a mine engineer, wrote a series of articles for a paper in San Diego, describing the hardships and rewards of Tombstone, Arizona Territory.

She is a researcher's delight. Among her observations was an apt description of the foul odors that engulfed the town. No sewer; cattle herded through town and then being butchered in open lots; well, you get the drift.

However, most of the women in these boom towns were unattached, sorta.

Nellie Cashman—the subject of a Tucson Weekly cover story by Margaret Regan on March 15—was an enterprising soul. Born in County Cork, she sailed to Boston in 1850 as a girl of 7. Nellie landed in Tucson in 1878 and started the Delmonico restaurant. In 1880, she opened a clothing and equipment store in the new boomtown of Tombstone. She also operated a restaurant. She led the charge raising funds for the first church and the first hospital. Never married but much beloved, Cashman died in 1925 at 82.

As for the bachelors: When you have a large population of single men, there rises a need for companionship. The women were called many things: calico queens, shady ladies, fallen angels, hell's belles, lotus flowers, daughters of joy ... well, you see where we're headed. This was a hard way to go, though: Disease, malnutrition, drug dependency, physical abuse and early aging contributed to a short career for most.

Tombstone had its fair share of damaged damsels. Crazy Horse Lil, besides her usual talents, was a doggone good fighter and could out-cuss any cowboy. She and a boyfriend robbed a station in Bisbee and rode off to oblivion. Dutch Annie was well-known for her kind heart. Margarita took a liking to a gambler named Bill Milgreen. There was a slight problem, however: Another lady of the evening named Gold Dollar had already staked a claim on Billy boy. When the pint-sized Gold Dollar entered a saloon, she spied Margarita perched on Milgreen's lap. Several slashes later, Margarita was headed to Boot Hill.

Lizette the Flying Nymph came to Tombstone with a carnival. She remained to ply her trade using her trapeze as a lure. Sadly, it was a short stay: She died from opium overuse.

The Earps brought their wives to the old silver camp. Virgil had his little spitfire, Allie; Morgan had his beautiful Louisa; James' wife turned tricks to help out financially; and Wyatt brought Celia Ann. She was called "Mattie," and it's a good bet she was "on the line" in Kansas when Wyatt met her. Wyatt dumped her when a 19-year-old beauty named Josephine Sarah Marcus caught his eye. Josie was shacked up with the county sheriff at the time.

Mattie eventually died destitute in the long-gone town of Pinal, forever bitter about Wyatt's betrayal. Louisa became a widow after Morgan was ambushed in March 1882. Allie lost her beloved Virg in 1905 and lived on the longest, dying at near 100 years.

Well, how about Josie? Always possessing an adventurous spirit, she stayed with Wyatt until he died in Los Angeles in 1929. After his death, she fiercely guarded his reputation. Once, she even stormed a movie lot to disrupt a picture that featured Wyatt's exploits.

Of the hundred, if not thousands, of documents I have seen, one comment sums Josie up pretty well. Two women were writing Josie's autobiography in the 1930s. They never published it; they could not get the old gal to tell the truth about her Tombstone adventure. (Glenn Boyer published their manuscript 40 years later.)

One of these lady authors and her husband took Josie back to Tombstone. The husband, upon returning, told a family member, "Don't ever tell me that Wyatt Earp was a cold-blooded killer. After all, he lived with that woman for 47 years!"

Comments (3)

Add a comment

Add a Comment