The famed on-screen cowgirl Dale Evans once said, “Cowgirl is an attitude, really. A pioneer spirit, a special American brand of courage. The cowgirl faces life head-on, lives by her own lights, and makes no excuses. Cowgirls take stands, they speak up, they defend the things they hold dear.”
Whether it was teaching life lessons to generations of young women, defending the weak, or just living life their own way and leaving a positive mark on the world, these women embodied the spirit of a cowgirl. Living in less than ideal circumstances, they lived life on their own terms not conforming to society’s standards. When they rode, they rode hard—leaving a legacy behind them.
- Calamity Jane (1852-1903) What is known about Martha Jane Cannary, also known as Calamity Jane, comes from her often exaggerated autobiography
Orphaned as a child, the young girl that would one day become the legendary Calamity Jane had first to find her way in a man’s world. Most of what is known about this famous and often fabled woman of the West comes from her own autobiography written around 1878. Much was exaggerated, but it still gives us a glimpse into a woman known for her exploits as well as her kindness.
Martha Jane Cannary was born May 1, 1852, in Princeton, Missouri. By the age of twelve she found herself an orphan and provider for her five younger siblings. Two years before, her father had moved the family west, as were many other families, eventually settling in Salt Lake City, Utah. Her parents were not known as the most upstanding citizens, and upon their deaths they left the children without a penny.
Cannary was tall for her age and, as many would say, built like an ox. She moved her small family into the Wyoming territory, taking on any work she could along her way. Illiterate and desperate for wages, she often took on jobs seen as men’s work, even dressing the role at times. In 1870 she defied gender boundaries and worked as an army scout. Traditionally a man’s role, she dressed the part in the traditional uniform, sometimes causing a bit of a stir wherever she went. It was during her time in the army that she received the moniker that would last far beyond her years: Calamity Jane.
In 1876 Cannary moved to Deadwood, South Dakota, a town that made her much of the legend she became. Here she developed a friendship with the famed Wild Bill Hickok (whom many claimed she had an affair with) and claimed to have avenged his death. During this time she also rode in the Pony Express mail route, on a dangerous stretch between Deadwood and Custer City. Known for being a quick and accurate shot, she once defended a stagecoach from an Indian raid, successfully saving all but the driver.
Despite her rough upbringing, heavy drinking, and masculine exterior, Cannary had a soft heart for those in need. During a smallpox epidemic in Deadwood, she spent much of her time nursing the sick back to health, distressed over burying three of the eight men she cared for by herself. While she was known for her exploits as a woman in a man’s world, her fame grew even more after joining Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show as a trick rider and sharp shooter.
But the change of pace didn’t bring with it a change in old habits. The drinking increased (whiskey was a known favorite of Calamity Jane), and it impaired her work with the show. After living her life riding hard and drinking heavy, the rough life caught up with her. In a hotel outside of Deadwood in 1903, the legend and fable ended at the age of fifty-one. Her mourners surrounded her grave next to Hickok, saying their goodbyes to the cowgirl famous for the tales of her own exploits and a good dose of heart.
- Connie Douglas Reeves (1901-2003)Seemingly a cowgirl from birth, Connie Reeves was riding horses from the beginning of her 101 years of life
Since she was just the tiniest of riders, Connie Douglas Reeves loved horses. Receiving her first horse as a gift from her grandfather when she was five, she had more than her fair share of bucks, kicks, and falls. But in true cowgirl fashion, she always saddled back up, living life by her motto, “Always saddle your own horse.”
The daughter of a state district judge in Texas, Reeves had her mind set on following her father’s footsteps into the courtroom. After graduating from the Texas Women’s University as a speech major, she was one of the first women admitted into the University of Texas School of Law. But as the country unwittingly drove into the Great Depression, Reeves’s plan took a turn. Having to leave law school to help support her family, she took a teaching position in San Antonio.
While teaching, Reeves placed yet another stamp on Texas history by forming the first pep squad. Formed in 1932, the Lassos of Thomas Jefferson High School quickly became a hallmark of Texas. The girls, wearing Western-style uniforms with Stetson hats, twirled their lassos in unison at several events throughout Texas, continuing today with the newest generation of Lassos.
Reeves supplemented her teaching income as a riding instructor, and in 1936 accepted a head riding instructor position at Camp Waldemar, a girl’s camp located on the Guadalupe River in Texas Hill Country. There she met Jack Reeves, a cowboy that stole her heart. The two were married for forty-three years before his death in 1985. Throughout their marriage and beyond, Reeves stayed at Camp Waldemar. Over her more-than-sixty-year career with the camp, she taught more than 30,000 young girls.
In her later years, she never stopped riding. She also wrote a book about her time with Jack, and she was the first woman awarded the Chester A. Reynolds Memorial Award by the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma. At 100 years of age, she was inducted to the newly established National Cowgirl Hall of Fame, riding in the parade. But in 2003 Reeves saddled her own horse for the last time. She was thrown off her favorite horse, Dr. Pepper, sustaining injuries she would not recover from. She died twelve days later, gone but not forgotten by the generations of girls she had taught about horses, life, and saddling up.
- Molly Dyer Goodnight (1839-1926) Mary Ann Dyer Goodnight spent her time in Texas carrying for ranch hands, buffalo, and anyone in need of a maternal touch, earning her the nickname “Mother of the Panhandle”
Although she was born as Mary Ann Dyer in Madison County, Tennessee, most knew her affectionately as Molly. And while her husband still called her Mary and they had no children, she became known in Texas as the Mother of the Panhandle.When Dyer was still much of a girl herself, her parents passed away leaving her to look after five younger brothers. She began teaching to support the family, and when the Civil War started her two oldest brothers joined the Confederacy. It was during this time that she met Charles Goodnight. The two married in 1870.
Goodnight, a rancher, moved his bride to Colorado for a seven-year period that was hard on his wife. Dyer detested Colorado and regarded it as an uncivilized land. She longed to be back in Texas, where she had taught for a stint before marrying. A severe drought in the area became a saving grace for Dyer. With the financial backing of John George Adair, the couple moved to Texas to manage the sprawling JA Ranch, which at its peak spanned 1,325,000 acres.
But life on the ranch wasn’t always easy. The ranch bordered the Palo Duro Canyon and neighbors were dozens of miles away. But Dyer made her home where it was. She worked alongside her husband and tended to the cowhands they employed. She cared for them when they were ill and taught many to read and write. With no children herself, she became the mother to all who came to JA Ranch.
But it wasn’t just the people of the land that tugged at her maternal heartstrings. Commercial buffalo hunters often swept through the area, leaving baby buffalo behind long before they could fend for themselves. An orphan herself, she brought them to the ranch, bottle fed them, and nursed them back to health. Her efforts to defend the defenseless became an impressive herd of buffalo known as the Goodnight Herd. Historians give Dyer credit for her part in preventing the extinction of the area’s herds.
Even as the Panhandle became more heavily populated, and she and her husband moved northeast to Armstrong County, Dyer continued serving where she saw a need. The couple helped establish Goodnight College and the small town of Goodnight sprung up around it, named in honor of the couple’s generosity. Charles Goodnight stands in history as one of the most famous ranchers Texas has seen, but his wife is remembered for her selfless acts. She passed away in 1926, and her tombstone very simply recognizes the life she lived.
“Mary Ann Dyer Goodnight
One who spent her whole life in the service of others.”
SEE ALL COWGIRL IN A COWBOY’S WORLD PART THREE PHOTOS HERE: