American Indians, Researching Historical Fiction, Women in the West

The Beauty and Meaning of Ghost Dance Shirts

Many of the American Indian tribes that participated in the Ghost Dances in the late 1800s created special shirts and dresses for that purpose and infused them with meaning and power.

In “Identity by Design: Tradition, Change, and Celebration in Native Women’s Dresses,” Colleen Cutschall wrote:

“Both buckskin and cloth Ghost Dance dresses were painted with highly charged symbols of nature and the elements and emblems of feminine identity.”


Those symbols include the thunderbird and new moon — which “speak to a hoped-for reversal of desperate conditions and the beginning of a new life” — the sacred pipe, holy cedar tree, morning star and turtle, which represents protection of women and long life.

The Buffalo Bill Center of the West’s website notes that the symbols on shirts and dresses include messengers to the heavens in the form of crows, eagles and magpies.

According to Cutschall:

“Through painted signs of power, the universe was being called upon to rescue [the Indians] from cultural genocide. When this new movement was unable to fulfill the promise of restored land, animals and deceased relatives, it dissolved. Dressmakers returned to time-honored quill and bead decoration. The short-lived explosion of new painted dress designs ended, never to be revived.”

But Peter Nabokov in “The Native Americans: An Illustrated History” wrote that revitalization movements like the Ghost Dance still survive. And others say the dance was performed during the American Indian Movement’s occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973, to honor the ancestors who had died there.

southern-arapaho-ghost-dance-shirt_buffalo-bill-centerThe Denver Art Museum’s website says a pair of painted and beaded moccasins in its collection were created by a Southern Cheyenne artist for use in the Ghost Dance and later embellished by a Kiowa artist, who added beads:

“The Kiowa also danced the Ghost Dance during the same two-year span [1889-1890], but later brought it back in a different form and danced a revised version from 1894 to 1916.”

The Ghost Dance movement among the Plains Indian tribes was not the first of its kind. Twenty years earlier, tribes in north-central California were seeing their way of life destroyed by the influx of white settlers, who brought mining, ranching and deadly diseases. American Indian spiritual leaders “began preaching apocalyptic messages of redemption,” Nabokov wrote.

Around the same time, Smohalla, a Wanapum spiritual leader in Washington Territory, founded the Dreamer religion and advocated a spiritual uprising based on the rejection of farming and white man’s wares.


And in 1881, Apache medicine man Noch-ay-del-klinne held dances and promised better days for his people. His message was much the same as the Plains Indians’ Ghost Dance religion: Whites would disappear and slain chiefs would rise from the dead. When the Army tried to arrest him for being a troublemaker, fighting broke out between the soldiers and his followers, with the Army’s Apache scouts siding with their tribesmen. Noch-ay-del-klinne was killed in the crossfire.

Many of the beautiful Ghost Dance shirts and dresses were scattered in the immediate aftermath of the massacre at Wounded Knee. In “The West: An Illustrated History,” a nurse who tended to the survivors was quoted as saying:

“A young girl…who had a ghost shirt on underneath her clothes [said,] ‘They told me if I put this on the bullets would not go through and I believed them. Now see where we are.’”

The girl asked the nurse to get rid of the shirt.

According to an article by Mark Hirsch, on the battlefield:

“Looters quickly stripped the bodies of Ghost Dance shirts and other possessions, which were sold to collectors and museums. Photographers canvassed the corpse-ridden fields, and sold their photos as postcards. Advertisements said they were ‘just the thing to send to your friends back east.’”


Twenty-seven Ghost Dance leaders were initially imprisoned “then released into the custody of Buffalo Bill Cody, who featured them in his Wild West show. By agreeing to go on tour, the Ghost Dancers were spared lengthy prison terms,” Hirsch wrote.

However, in some respects, the power of Ghost Dance clothing never waned. In 1892, a museum in Glasgow, Scotland, acquired a Ghost Dance shirt from a member of Buffalo Bill’s show. More than 100 years later, in 1999, the shirt was returned to the Lakota tribe in a special ceremony. At the time, Marcella LeBeau, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe, said, “This will bring about a sense of closure to a sad and horrible event. Now healing can begin.”

Footnote: I read a book as a child about the Ghost Dance and Indian agent James McLaughlin’s efforts to stifle it. The book was geared toward young readers and spared them none of the tragedy of the situation. It made an indelible impression on me, and I still remember puzzling over how to pronounce McLaughlin’s unfamiliar name — it had “laugh” in it, yet there was no humor or lightness to the story or the man. (I think the book might have been Barbara Bonham’s “The Battle of Wounded Knee: The Ghost Dance Uprising,” published in 1970.)

Photos are of Ghost Dance shirts and dresses at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West.

American Civil War, American Indians, Researching Historical Fiction, Women in the West

Standing Rock Sioux and the Whitestone Massacre of 1863

The effort by the Standing Rock Sioux to halt construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline is the largest gathering of Indian tribes in decades. As Mark Sundeen so eloquently put it on Outside Online: “Two of our country’s biggest issues, racism and climate change, have collided on a North Dakota reservation.”

It’s also about history. Police attacked Indian water protectors with dogs in early September, on the anniversary of the Whitestone massacre, in which the U.S. Army slaughtered more than 300 members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe in 1863. I was surprised I hadn’t read about the historical event in “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” which made me wonder how many other massacres Dee Brown had to leave out of that litany of heartbreak and devastation. I couldn’t even find a reference to Whitestone in the comprehensive Time-Life Books series on the Old West.

LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, Standing Rock Sioux tribal historian

But the story is far from forgotten. Tribal historian LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, who helped found the Sacred Stone Camp on her land to resist the Dakota Access Pipeline, gives a heart-wrenching account of the massacre through her great-great-grandmother’s experience.

In 1863, the Army was fighting the Dakota Wars against the Sioux and found 4,000 peaceful Indians, mostly Yanktonais and Hunkpatina, gathered at Whitestone for harvest time and to prepare buffalo meat for the winter. When the soldiers arrived led by Brig. Gen. Alfred Sully, the Indians sent their chiefs to meet with them, including Brave Bull Allard’s great-great-great grandfather, the medicine man Brave Buffalo.

The Indians had never fought with the whites, but the soldiers took the leaders prisoner, and the women reacted as they had been taught to do in the presence of an enemy:

“People were starting to tear down their lodges. People were trying to move in the chaos. So the first thing the women did is they tied the babies to the dogs, they tied the children to the horses, and they shooed the dogs and the horses out of the camp. And then they gathered what they could, and they started running.”

They ran into a ravine, and the Army soldiers shot at the women and children from the ridge. Brave Bull Allards’s great-great-grandmother Grey Hand Woman, who was nine years old, was shot in the leg and spent the night crying for her mother. “Everywhere, she could hear the crying and screams, the songs of people dying,” Brave Bull Allard said. In the morning, soldiers threw her in the back of a buckboard wagon, sparing her life for some unknown reason (they did not spare many, and the survivors were taken to a prisoner-of-war camp, which was hardly a gesture of mercy).

“She laid in the buckboard as she watched the soldiers come and start killing the dogs and the babies, killing the horses, killing the wounded. They gathered up all of our property—the tents, the meat, the hides, everything we own. And we had one section of soldiers sitting down there poking holes in the bottom of our pots. And they gathered all that, and they started this great big fire, burning all our food, our homes, everything. They said that there was so much buffalo meat that they burned, that tallow ran down like rivers out into the creeks. And the people ran. For three to four days they ran, as the soldiers continued to chase and kill them.”

More than 300 members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe were killed in the attack; it was the deadliest conflict in North Dakota. Samuel Brown, an interpreter during the 1863 expedition, wrote:

“I hope you will not believe all that is said of ‘Sully’s Successful Expedition’ against the Sioux. I don’t think he ought to brag of it at all because it was what no decent man would have done. He pitched into their camp and just slaughtered them…and the worse of it, they had no hostile intention whatever. The Nebraska 2nd pitched into them without orders, while the Iowa 6th were shaking hands with them on one side. They even shot their own men.”

The surviving prisoners were released in 1870 and returned to the east side of the Missouri River, then the Army moved them to the west side in 1873. But the Sioux kept starting over, and “my grandma told me that in the 1940s we were self-sufficient. We planted our own gardens. We owned our own cattle. Everybody and every community, we owned our own homes.”

This memorial to the Sioux Indian victims at Whitestone Hill in 1863 was dedicated on July 4, 1942. Basil Two Bears, grandson of the Yanktonai chief at the conflict in 1863, accepted the plaque in the name of five Sioux tribes present. His granddaughter, Alberta Two Bears, unveiled the memorial and is shown standing near it.

Until 1948 when the Army Corps of Engineers “decided to build a dam above us and build a dam below us. So Oahe Dam is below us, Sakakawea Dam is above us. And they designated us as a reservoir. And so they came, and they moved our people out of their homes. They took our homes.”

The Army Corps of Engineers flooded the forests and gardens and businesses and displaced entire communities, moving them to higher ground with clay-based soil that’s not good for growing trees or food. And they lost their infrastructure.

So when the Dakota Access Pipeline was rerouted from Bismarck to pass within 500 feet of the reservation on a map that doesn’t even acknowledge that the reservation exists (let that sink in), the Standing Rock Sioux had had enough. A rupture in the pipeline would hit schoolchildren and a major water intake. It threatens the lives and health of the people and the river. After all, the Army Corps rerouted the pipeline because it could contaminate the drinking water in Bismarck, whose population is 92 percent white.

Brave Bull Allard said that every year, “we go four days without drinking water, so that it reminds us how important this water is. And I ask everybody: Do you go four days without water? What happens to your body on that third day? Your body starts shutting down. So, we remind ourselves every day how important [water is]. We say mni wiconi, water of life.”

The transcript of her account can be found here and a YouTube video is here.

For more insight, read Paul VanDevelder’s excellent “Reckoning at Standing Rock,” which delves into the history of American Indian sovereignty, all the way back to the Founding Fathers.

Researching Historical Fiction, Women in the West

Blizzards in the Old West

My driveway in the early stages of clearing after a winter storm. We've been using a combination of snow blowing, shoveling and salting.
My driveway in the early stages of clearing after a winter storm. We’ve been using a combination of snow blowing, shoveling and salting.

It has been a battle keeping our long, curving, sloping driveway free of snow and ice this winter, and the experience made me wonder how people used to clear snow. After doing a bit of research, I discovered that snow removal technology hasn’t changed all that much in the past 150 years.

Matt Soniak, in “Scenes From the History of Snow Removal,” says that before the mid-1800s, towns employed snow wardens to “pack and flatten the snow with a crude vehicle called a snow roller — essentially a giant, wide wheel weighed down with rocks and pulled by oxen or horses.”

In winter, horse-drawn vehicles switched out their wheels for runners, which made them glide on snow-packed roads. Meanwhile, inventors were working on horse-drawn snow plows to clear the streets and alleys that pedestrians used more heavily than carriages. Milwaukee was the first major town to try one — in 1862. Other cities soon followed suit.

According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center:

Salt was used in a few cities [in the 1800s], but residents strongly protested salting because it ruined the streets for sleighing and damaged pedestrian’s shoes and clothing.

The site (which is a treasure trove of information for winter lovers and weather nerds) also says German settlers in Iowa coined the word “blizzard” from blitzartig, which means “lightning-like.” European pioneers were familiar with snow but not the driving winds and freezing winters of the U.S. Snowbelt region.

In the West, where people relied heavily on railroads, NSIDC said:

steam trains battled drifts with giant rotary plows, which plowed snow and blew it off the tracks at the same time [the precursor to our modern snow blowers]. Ranchers erected snow fences, which protected roads and prevented snow from drifting too high on their property.

Nevertheless, blizzards often had a dramatic impact in the 1800s. A storm in January 1886 killed 50 to 100 people and large numbers of cattle in southwest Kansas. A series of blizzards the following winter killed up to 90 percent of some ranchers’ stock, signaling the end of the cattle drives and cowboy lifestyle.

Montana was especially hard-hit in what was called the Great Die-Up. Many cattlemen turned to sheep herding or radically changed their approach to the cattle business. When spring came and all that snow melted, thousands of rotting cattle carcasses appeared across the plains and floated down the flooded rivers.

On Jan. 12, 1888, 235 people died in a snowstorm on the Great Plains that started with a sudden, dramatic drop in temperature. Most of the victims were children on their way home from isolated prairie schools in South Dakota and Minnesota. (David Laskin’s book “The Children’s Blizzard” is a riveting account of that storm.)

Buildings at Nebraska's Fort Niobrara behind piles of snow that fell in the Schoolhouse Blizzard of 1888. Photo credit: John A. Anderson/Nebraska State Historical Society.
Buildings at Nebraska’s Fort Niobrara behind piles of snow that fell in the Schoolhouse Blizzard of 1888. Photo credit: John A. Anderson/Nebraska State Historical Society.

The Encyclopedia Britannica of 1893 described the storm this way:

In fine clear weather, with little or no warning, the sky darkened and the air was filled with snow, or ice-dust, as fine as flour, driven before a wind so furious and roaring that men’s voices were inaudible at a distance of six feet. Men in the fields and children on their way [home] from school died ere they could reach shelter, some of them having been not frozen but suffocated from the impossibility of breathing the blizzard.

In the Northeast, a storm in March 1888 killed 400 people, and the snow drifted high enough in New York City to shut down the elevated trains that had been the only reliable source of transportation in heavy snowstorms. After that storm, Boston then New York built subway systems.

In “The Long Winter” (my favorite in the Little House series), Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote of the blizzards that swept across South Dakota for months in the winter of 1880-81 — and the howling, shrieking wind that shook buildings. The storms usually came on suddenly and lasted for days. The light was dim at best, a kind of long twilight. Pa used Ma’s clothesline to get back and forth from the house to the stable and dug a tunnel through the snow at one point.

A train stuck in the snow in Minnesota, March 1881.
A train stuck in the snow in Minnesota, March 1881.

The endless snow kept the trains from reaching town, and people were running out of just about everything, including food and fuel. Ingalls’ future husband, Almanzo, and his brother Royal survived by eating nothing but pancakes with molasses until Almanzo and a friend risked their lives to travel to a farm a dozen or so miles away and bring back enough bushels of wheat to last the townsfolk until spring.

And of course, it was a sudden, intense snowstorm that got the Donner party in all that trouble.

Blizzards were just one of many hardships early settlers had to endure in the Old West. They still wreak havoc today, but thanks to better weather forecasting and communications, they aren’t as deadly as they used to be. And now we have ergonomic shovels made of heavy-duty plastic and gas-powered snow blowers to keep our driveways clear.

Researching Historical Fiction, Women in the West

Minnie the Moocher and Opium Use in the Old West

It’s tough to research people and life in the Old West without stumbling over references to opium use. Opiates in various forms were widely prescribed and used, and legal at the time.

I’ve read numerous books and articles on the topic of opium, and one day when I’d been delving deep, I happened to listen to the soundtrack from “The Blues Brothers” movie and caught Cab Calloway’s “Minnie the Moocher,” which he first recorded in 1931. I was struck by references that I’d never understood before.

Photo of Cab Calloway taken by William P. Gottlieb in 1947, now in the Library of Congress.
Photo of Cab Calloway taken by William P. Gottlieb in 1947, now in the Library of Congress.

In the first verse, Calloway describes Minnie as “the roughest, toughest frail” — frail being one of many euphemisms for prostitutes in the Old West. Such women had a high rate of drug use, but they were far from alone. In an age when medical care was often rudimentary, especially in the West, many people used opiates to ease pain, the coughing associated with countless illnesses (opium is one of the best cough suppressants around) and depression.

Minnie’s boyfriend, “a bloke named Smokey,” was cokey, meaning a cocaine user. “He took her down to Chinatown / And he showed her how to kick the gong around.” “Kicking the gong around” was slang for opium smoking, and Chinatown was where the opium dens were. Chinese immigrants who arrived for the California Gold Rush brought opium smoking with them, and the practice spread to whites in the West.

But unlike their Old West counterparts, Minnie and Smokey would have been buying their drug on the black market — the first federal ban on opium was passed in 1925.

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American Civil War, American Indians, Researching Historical Fiction, Women in the West

Thanksgiving without the Pilgrims

Sarah Josepha Hale. Portrait by James Reid Lambdin.
Sarah Josepha Hale. Portrait by James Reid Lambdin.

Americans owe the modern-day celebration of Thanksgiving to Abraham Lincoln and Sarah Josepha Hale. However, I fear we owe our warm, fuzzy image of Pilgrims and Indians living in harmony to a lazy attitude toward history.

Hale promoted women’s issues through the American Ladies Magazine, which she helped found, and then spent 40 years as editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, a highly influential magazine in the 1800s.

She also lobbied tirelessly to have the last Thursday in November designated as a national day of thanks. In the years leading up to the Civil War, she thought such a celebration would help unify the country.

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Creativity and Productivity, Women in the West, Writing/Rewriting

Why I Haven’t Been Blogging: Part 1

It’s been a while since my last post, but I haven’t been idle. I’ve been busy in unexpected ways.

I was making some good progress on restructuring my novel when I got an offer to teach intro composition at the local community college. I had some concerns about maintaining my writing schedule, but I naively thought I could do it all.

I was in for a rude awakening. Teaching is the hardest work I’ve ever done. Nothing could have prepared me for standing in front of 26 students twice a week with a range of skill levels (and ages) and trying to inspire them to love writing. Fortunately, some of them already did and the others, for the most part, saw the value of it to their careers. And then there were a few who used to like writing. Those were the ones I really wanted to reach.

Blanche LaMont and her students pose in front of their schoolhouse in Hecla, Montana, in 1893.
Blanche LaMont and her students pose in front of their schoolhouse in Hecla, Montana, in 1893.

Beyond the time involved in preparing a syllabus for an entire semester and preparing for each individual class, there were assignments to grade and emails to respond to and various administrative tasks. But the biggest challenge was the time we spent together.

As someone recently described it to me, you have to be present when you’re teaching. You can’t show up unprepared and daydream your way through class (especially if you don’t want your students to do the same). We aren’t used to maintaining that sort of mindfulness in our daily lives. We’re always multitasking, easily distracted, thinking about the next task we have to tackle before we’ve even finished the current one.

Being present and open at that level also requires giving up some control and acknowledging that things just might not go the way you had planned. Some lessons move more quickly than you anticipated, and something you threw together at the last minute ends up catching their attention and inspiring a half-hour discussion. Getting the students to open up and start talking was a surprisingly difficult process, and once I got them going, I had the equally hard work of keeping them on topic.

It’s not unlike the writing process. You sit down to write a scene or a chapter with the thing all pictured in your head, and then a minor character pipes up demanding attention and something else needs exploring — or, conversely, something you thought would be complicated to express turns out to be easy. And always there’s the need to keep everyone heading in the same general direction.

So unfortunately, my novel fell by the wayside and my blog along with it. But I learned a lot about writing by teaching others how to do it. I also learned that the more we try to impose our will and plow ahead without stopping to listen, the harder we make our jobs — as writers and as teachers.

Historical footnote: I’ve always been fond of the photo of Blanche and her students, but in tracking down a version I could use online, I was saddened to learn that she was murdered in San Francisco two years after the photo was taken. Her sometime boyfriend Theo Durrant was convicted of killing her and another woman in a sensational trial.

Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, alias Lyons Wakeman
American Civil War, Researching Historical Fiction, Women in the West

In her own words: Civil War soldier Sarah Rosetta Wakeman

Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, alias Lyons Wakeman
Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, alias Pvt. Lyons Wakeman

I went looking for some of the source material for “They Fought Like Demons” and found “An Uncommon Soldier: The Civil War Letters of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, alias Pvt. Lyons Wakeman,” edited by Lauren Cook.

It is rare to come across an account written in an everyday woman’s voice—not a published book or a diary written by an upper-class woman with an eye on posterity, but honest, unassuming letters written for family back home. They offer valuable insight into real life.

Rosetta Wakeman left home at 19 and pretended to be a man to get a job on a coal barge on the Chenango Canal. Soon after, she joined the 153rd Regiment of the New York State Volunteers for a bounty of $152—more than a year’s wages. She stayed in touch with her family throughout the war. Only her letters to them, and not their replies, survived.

She spent most of her time on guard duty in and around Washington, D.C. When stationed on Capitol Hill, she writes that she can get all kinds of fruit, including watermelon, musk melon, peaches, pears, apples, figs and raisins. She asks her family to send her butter and pies (she doesn’t care for cider or wine). I can’t imagine how they would manage that in the days before refrigerated trucks. She says to send the food by express, which doesn’t clear it up for me.

She served two years of her three-year enlistment before dying of chronic diarrhea in New Orleans in 1864. Despite her increasingly debilitating illness, there is no record that the nurses or doctors discovered her secret. When she died, she was given a soldier’s burial.

For more than a century, her family kept her letters, photo and a silver ring she sent to her mother (it cost 75 cents) in a pine trunk in the attic. Though her family did not talk of her often, they did not disown her, and in the early 1990s, one of her descendants contacted Lauren Cook because they wanted to share Rosetta’s story.

Although she often wrote of her longing for home, toward the end Rosetta also talked about re-enlisting because she found that soldiering suited her.

I don’t care anything about coming home for I [am] ashamed to come, and I sometimes think that I never will go home in the world. I have enjoyed myself the best since I have been gone away from home than I ever did before in my life.

My favorite line is from an earlier letter, where she talks about not fearing whatever fate awaits her because:

I am as independent as a hog on the ice.

I don’t believe she wanted to be a man so much as she wanted to be herself. And sometimes, home is the last place you can do that.

Union Pvt. Albert D.J. Cashier
American Civil War, Researching Historical Fiction, Women in the West

How we lost sight of women soldiers

Women soldiers were not a secret during the Civil War. Men wrote letters home about the women discovered in their ranks, most often with surprise and admiration, and newspapers also carried the stories.

The knowledge naturally worked its way up to the highest level of both armies, with evidence that Sherman, Sheridan, Burnside, Forrest and Lee were aware of what was going on and in some cases condoned it.

A good part of that acceptance was due to the widely popular motif of the Female Warrior Bold: a “cultural icon of a patriotic or love-struck heroine” who goes to war, according to DeAnne Blanton and Lauren M. Cook in “They Fought Like Demons.” Wartime novelettes, serialized stories and ballads publicly promoted the concept of women going to war as men.

Throughout the war and especially toward the end, when the Confederacy was in desperate need of soldiers, some women served openly. And a few did in the Union army as well, mostly in the West:

Frontier and Midwestern regiments seemed more open to women serving undisguised in the ranks, perhaps because Victorian notions of women’s proper place were not as firmly entrenched in the rough West as they were in the refined East.

At least one man pretended to be a woman to get out of the army—twice. Charlie Anderson took advantage of his feminine appearance and the fact that everyone knew there were women in the army to “reveal” himself to be a woman in disguise so he would be dismissed. He used the ruse to take leave whenever he wanted.

Union Pvt. Albert D.J. Cashier
Union Pvt. Albert D.J. Cashier, aka Jennie Hodgers, continued living as a man after the war. Her story was widely publicized when her secret was discovered a few years before her death in 1915.

So why is the subject of women soldiers in the Civil War so novel now? Because of a strange blend of chauvinism and feminism—and some radical changes in society.

According to Blanton and Cook, separate spheres of influence for men and women were so entrenched in 19th century America that wartime exceptions to the rule did not threaten cultural norms. Furthermore, until World War I, women soldiers fit a romantic and heroic archetype.

However, women could vote beginning in 1920, and they were gradually playing a greater role in the civilian workforce—and the military during World War II. A backlash was inevitable, Blanton and Cook wrote.

Beginning in the 1930s, European sexologists, especially Sigmund Freud, popularized theories that independent women were generally insane and likely to be lesbians—or whores or all of the above. It was a way to control female behavior that threatened societal norms. In that climate, stories about armed and capable women soldiers were destabilizing in the extreme.

By the 1960s, women soldiers had virtually disappeared from Civil War studies. Even women authors disparaged or dismissed them, largely because some feminists did not believe women had that kind of power back then. They viewed the accounts as wishful thinking.

Furthermore, the improved legal and economic landscape for women in the mid-20th century obscured the dismal state of opportunities for women in the 19th century. It was hard for people to understand earlier women’s willingness to go to such lengths to expand their employment options and enjoy greater personal freedom.

It wasn’t until the early 1990s that mainstream Civil War historians began taking a long-overdue look at the role and contributions of women soldiers. I am grateful for that. Blanton and Cook have opened my eyes to a fascinating phenomenon and broadened my understanding of women’s lives in the 19th century. My fiction will never be the same.

Loreta Velazquez
American Civil War, Researching Historical Fiction, Women in the West

How women soldiers avoided detection

Women soldiers in the Civil War had an easier time hiding their identities than you might think, according to DeAnne Blanton and Lauren M. Cook’s fascinating book, “They Fought Like Demons.”

Soldiers spent the majority of the war outdoors — in tents or on the march. They rarely had an opportunity to bathe or even change their clothes (in fact, they often slept fully dressed in boots and overcoats), the camp latrines were so atrocious that many men preferred to relieve themselves in the woods, and it would not have been overly difficult for a woman to hide herself in the bulky, shapeless uniforms of either army.

Loreta Velazquez
Confederate soldier Loreta Velazquez donned a false mustache as part of her disguise.

“In the 1860s, clothing was the most potent public indication of gender,” Blanton and Cook wrote, suggesting that simply by dressing like men and cutting their hair, women were taken at face value to be men. And soldiering was so closely identified with masculinity that it rarely occurred to men that there might be a woman in the ranks.

Here are some other ways that women managed to conceal their identities:

  • To hide the lack of an Adam’s apple, many women soldiers kept their collars buttoned to their chins regardless of the weather.
  • There were many adolescents in the army so higher-pitched voices and a lack of facial hair were not uncommon. Even so, women soldiers were routinely described as boyish regardless of how old they were, and some were perceived as modest and shy because they kept to themselves to avoid detection.
  • Other women cultivated traditionally male vices with glee: drinking, smoking or chewing tobacco, cursing, gambling and fighting. Some even took advantage of the opportunity to vote as men — a right that American women wouldn’t win for nearly 60 years.
  • Many women had male relatives in the Army who helped them maintain their disguise.
  • Most women soldiers were working-class or grew up on farms:

Adapting to the hard life of a soldier was not so difficult for them because notions of idealized womanhood were hardly applicable to their lives. These women were accustomed to hard work and well acquainted with manual labor before their army careers began. Farming and frontier women were generally adept at using firearms and working with horses. The working-class women, especially those from urban areas, were also quite used to poor living conditions.

  • Soldiers were primarily volunteers (and draftees later in the war), which meant they had to be trained and men didn’t have an advantage over women in that regard. Both armies were democratic and disorganized in the early years of the war, with the rank and file electing officers. Those officers never had an easy time controlling the independent-minded citizen soldiers. The general atmosphere of disorganization and insubordination made it easier for women to infiltrate the ranks.
  • The predominant infantry weapon at the time was a rifled musket that weighed 10 to 15 pounds. The average load of weapons, ammunition and supplies came to about 30 pounds — or the weight of a small child.
cover of They Fought Like Demons
American Civil War, Researching Historical Fiction, Women in the West

Best-kept secret of the Civil War

I don’t profess to know everything about the Civil War by any stretch of the imagination, but I think I have a pretty good grasp of the basics.

cover of They Fought Like DemonsHowever, “They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the American Civil War” by DeAnne Blanton and Lauren M. Cook blew me away. Until I read the book, I had no idea that hundreds of women disguised as men fought on both sides of the war.

Like their male counterparts, they were motivated by patriotism and a thirst for adventure. They were also drawn by the prospect of being paid more than they could earn in the kinds of jobs women were limited to — sewing, prostitution and domestic servitude. In fact, some of the women had been impersonating men before the war for economic reasons.

Women joined the Army to be near a husband, sweetheart, brother or father, or even multiple family members. And many continued to serve after their male relatives were killed.

Their true identities were often not discovered until they were seriously wounded, died, were captured by the enemy or gave birth. Some revealed their gender after the war, and some were never discovered.

If they were discovered and kicked out of one command, they simply joined another. People didn’t carry personal identification back then, and as the war dragged on, both armies needed new recruits. So if someone showed up wanting to fight, officers asked few questions. In addition, physical exams were often cursory at best, and some women talked doctors into covering for them.

Many women worked their way up through the ranks or became trusted aides to high-ranking officers. All of them were volunteers who were desperate to serve and went to great lengths to do so.

By all accounts, the women fought hard and well and endured the same privations as their male counterparts without complaint. Some even suffered through the appalling conditions of being prisoners of war without revealing their gender, which would typically have earned them immediate release.

Blanton and Cook wrote:

Not one woman soldier is known to have been court-martialed for failing to perform her duty, for committing a military crime, or for disgracing her uniform. Only three women soldiers are known to have deserted their regiments, and two of these later re-enlisted.

Here are just some of the fascinating details the authors unearthed:

  • When Union Col. Henry C. Gilbert led a raid on Beersheba Springs, Tennessee, on April 13, 1864, five of his 35 troopers were women.
  • Five women are known to have fought at Gettysburg; two Confederate women were casualties of the infamous Pickett’s Charge.
  • Wounded women soldiers were discovered after the battles of Shiloh, Richmond, Murfreesboro, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Lookout Mountain and the Wilderness — among others.
  • Women soldiers were killed in action at the first and second battles of Manassas, at Shiloh and Antietam, on the Petersburg front and at Appomattox Station. After the war, some women told of burying fellow women soldiers whose dying request was that their identities not be revealed.
  • Maria Lewis went even further: She was a black woman who impersonated a white man. She served for 18 months with the 8th New York Cavalry, where she earned a coveted spot on an honor guard that presented 17 captured Confederate flags to the War Department.

I was so engrossed in the stories of these women that I was disappointed when the war began to wind down. Blanton and Cook have presented a compelling look into a phenomenon that was well-known at the time but mostly forgotten now. More on that next time!

Famous People of the Old West, Women in the West

Mattie Blaylock Earp: Hidden from history

The recent Wild West auction in Harrisburg, Pa., included a trunk owned by Celia Ann “Mattie” Blaylock, Wyatt Earp’s second wife.

I couldn’t verify its origins, but I wonder if it was the one that surfaced in the 1950s when her nephew read an article about the opening of a new museum in Dodge City, Kansas, and remembered his Aunt Celie’s trunk.

A trunk that once belonged to Mattie Blaylock, Wyatt's common-law wife.
A trunk that once belonged to Mattie Blaylock, Wyatt’s common-law wife.

It contained the bible inscribed to Wyatt from the grateful citizens of Dodge City and photos of a young Wyatt. That’s when the story of Mattie and Wyatt’s relationship emerged. His third wife, Sarah Josephine Marcus (Josie to most of the world and Sadie to the Earps), had suppressed information about Mattie for years. And Wyatt never mentioned her to biographers.

His reluctance stemmed from a twin desire for privacy and a measure of control over his public image. Most historians believe Mattie worked as a prostitute before, during and after her relationship with Wyatt, and she committed suicide several years after they separated in Tombstone.

However, Wyatt also avoided talking about his first wife, Urilla Sutherland, and asked his family not to talk about her publicly. Urilla died of disease or complications from childbirth; the child died, too.

Mattie Blaylock
Mattie Blaylock

We are left to puzzle out his feelings and attitudes from his actions. Shortly after Urilla’s death, he got into more than one scrape with the law and in many ways behaved like a man unmoored by grief. And after he left Mattie, according to Ann Kirschner in “Lady at the O.K. Corral,” he sent her money until the year she died—a sign of regret, guilt, responsibility or perhaps lingering affection?

It’s interesting to note that word of Mattie’s relationship with Wyatt did not come from the Earp camp. I wonder how much longer it would have taken for Mattie to surface if she hadn’t left those mementos in her sister’s care—and whether she did it on purpose so she wouldn’t be forgotten.

Famous People of the Old West, Researching Historical Fiction, Women in the West

Of dental chairs, frock coats and the hearts of women

Harrisburg, Pa., recently auctioned off about 8,000 historical artifacts that former Mayor Stephen Reed had collected for a Wild West museum that never happened. The auction netted the city $2.7 million, which sounds good except that Reed reportedly spent $8.3 million buying the stuff.

The dental chair Doc Holliday used in Las Vegas, N.M., recently sold at auction for $40,000.Allen Barra, writing in the October issue of True West magazine, said the items were sold on a “buyer beware” basis, meaning their value and authenticity had not been verified. But that didn’t stop people from spending some sizable amounts of money on individual pieces.

The sales that caught my attention include an oak and leather dental chair that belonged to Doc Holliday. It was expected to bring in $4,000 to $6,000. It sold for $40,000.

For authentication purposes, the chair came with a framed letter signed by Wiley Baker, president of the Baker Gulch Mining Company in Las Vegas, New Mexico, dated Oct. 20, 1908:

When I rented my office above the apothecary on the Plaza, I removed a dental chair to make room for my own furnishings. I later noticed the name John Holliday on this chair…. I now have learned that this is the same John Holliday, the famous shootist of a few years prior. I have also been informed that this was the last location that he practiced dentistry. I give this chair to the city free of charge in hope that a display of archives or a museum may use this infamous artifact.

I like that Doc is famous and his dental chair infamous. This close-up of the foot pedal holds further proof of Doc’s ownership:

A close-up of the foot pedal on Doc Holliday's dental chair

Then there was the frock coat purportedly owned by Doc. Bidding opened at a stunning $45,000 and ended at $55,000. The coat was expected to fetch only $2,000 to $3,000.

I read that, by way of authentication, the coat came with a letter from the Arizona Pioneers’ Home in Prescott stating that Doc’s former lover Mary Katherine “Big Nose Kate” Cummings claimed the coat had belonged to him. The letter is dated 1940, the year Kate died at the age of 90. It is possible that she held onto the coat for 50-odd years after Doc’s death (though they had gone their separate ways before then), but I was more than a little skeptical — until I dug deeper. I found a photo of the letter online.

It was addressed to Mr. C.J. Danner and written by Gladys Beamon, a volunteer at the Pioneers’ Home who said Kate (known as Mary to Beamon) had asked her to give the coat to Danner when she died because he had admired it:

It had belonged to her friend John H. Holliday, D.D.S., and was the very same that he wore in the Tombstone shooting incident. Mary told me that the coat was favored by Holliday and she had kept it as a souvenir.

“The Tombstone shooting incident,” of course, is the now legendary Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

Big Nose Kate
Big Nose Kate

According to Gary Roberts’ excellent “Doc Holliday: The Life and Legend,” Kate went on a crusade toward the end of her life to bolster her and Doc’s reputation in part by convincing various would-be biographers that she and Doc had been married and had a solid relationship. Books about Wyatt Earp and Tombstone had portrayed her in a negative light, and she was angry and bitter. And what better way to prove her connection to Doc than to trot out the coat he had worn on that historic day?

Assuming the coat is authentic, I find it interesting that Kate had the presence of mind to save a souvenir of that event when no one else did at the time.

I can imagine various scenarios in which she might find Doc’s coat in her possession, but I can also imagine her deciding to toss it out or give it away or even sell it at some point. Roberts said Kate was oddly unemotional when recalling Doc in the years before she died, but after all that time, she gushed about the handsomeness and valor of Tombstone outlaw Johnny Ringo.

So I wonder whether she kept the coat because she treasured her connection to history or if, despite the volatile nature of their relationship, there was something about Doc Holliday she couldn’t quite let go of.