For a cowgirl, taking the bull by the horns can mean a number of things. Maybe it’s following a dream against all odds, or doing something society says you can’t do because of your race or gender, or maybe it’s just standing firm when everything around you is falling down. Whatever it is, these women took the bull by the horns to make a name for themselves in history. They had guts, they had grit, and they had plenty going for them just by being who they were made to be.
- Lucyle Richards (1909-1995) Touted as the “prettiest and best dressed cowgirl in America,” Lucyle Richards had a long list of admirers that included seventeen husbands.The press often called her the “prettiest and best dressed cowgirl in America.” And she most definitely had a long list of admirers—she married seventeen of them (one of which she killed in self-defense). But beauty and romance weren’t the first loves of Lucyle Richards. Adventure was.
Only thirteen when she began her career on the rodeo circuit, Richards quit school and left her family’s ranch in Talihina, Oklahoma, to pursue bronc riding. She had to lie often about her age while standing a little taller to be allowed to perform. But once they saw her ride, few questioned whether she was old enough to ride a bronc. This cowgirl rode with the best of them, dusting off and getting back on again.
Fearless as she was beautiful, Richards captivated rodeo crowds throughout the ’20’s and ’30’s, whether on bucking broncs or trick riding (which she claimed to hate but was usually part of her contracts). She went on to win the World Champion Saddle Bronc Riding competition and competed from London to Australia. But an unfulfilled agreement with a husband pushed her career in a different direction.
In her thirties, her husband at the time agreed to teach her to pilot an airplane—if she would teach him to trick ride. It wasn’t long after seeing her trick riding up close that he backed out of the deal. He thought Richards was just too careless to ever fly in the air. She showed him. She not only earned her pilot’s license but became a skilled aviatrix, later serving her country as a pilot during World War II, ferrying bombs between the U.S. and Great Britain.
After the war Richards returned to her beloved rodeo, but the scene had changed and traveling shows were becoming a thing of the past. In 1960 she walked away from the profession she loved, becoming a police officer in Yoakum, Texas. In her later years she taught young girls the adventure that riding was, no longer riding broncs, but never straying far from her first love.
- Henrietta Chamberlain King (1832-1925)After her mother died when she was a very young child, Henrietta Chamberlain traveled often with her father, a Presbyterian missionaryBorn an only child in Boonville, Missouri, in 1832, Henrietta Chamberlain was just a young child when she lost her mother. Her father was a Presbyterian missionary, so they traveled often, leaving her without strong friendships and quite self-reliant at an early age. Around 1849 her small family moved to South Texas, to start work on the first Presbyterian mission in the region, planting Chamberlain in Brownsville.
For a brief period she found work teaching, before she met and married Richard King, a rancher and steamboat entrepreneur, in 1854. Together the couple built a house overlooking the San Gertrudis Creek, and Henrietta took over the education of the ranch hand’s children as well as that of her own (they had five children over the course of their marriage). During the Civil War, King and his business partners had contracts with the Confederate government to supply Europe with cotton in exchange for war supplies, meat, and medical necessities. The ranch became a receiving station for the cotton as King and his partners made considerable profits. But in 1863 the Union captured Brownsville and King fled. A very pregnant Henrietta stayed behind.
Their home was ransacked by Union soldiers, and Henrietta and her children fled to San Antonio until it was safe to return to their home and what was left of their belongings. She took on the duties of the ranch herself in her husband’s absence, while maintaining all the responsibilities of a mother and protector of her land and workers. King returned late in 1865 after a pardon by President Andrew Johnson.
When her husband died twenty years later, Henrietta found herself once more responsible for the more than 500,000 acres her husband had acquired through his lifetime. She also acquired his debt of more than $500,000. With the help of her son-in-law, she dived into the mess that was left behind. Honing in on her own savvy business skills, she quickly eliminated King Ranch’s debt, and by 1895 it consisted of 650,000 acres. By the time of her death in 1925, King Ranch sprawled over more than one million acres.
In her later years, she never slowed down. When she wasn’t conducting business deals to expand the railroad or helping to build the town of Kingsville, she was following her roots back to giving, as she had witnessed her father do so much of. She established Kingsville’s First Presbyterian Church and donated land for other denominations to build on. She invested in public schooling and donated land to build the South Texas State Teachers’ College, which became Texas A&I University. For a woman who defined perseverance through hardship, she spent her hard-earned fortune paving the way for another’s road to be a bit less bumpy.
- Mary Fields (1832-1914) Moving west years after emancipation, Mary Fields became the first black woman, and second woman, to carry mail for the U.S. Postal ServiceAlso known as “Stagecoach Mary,” Mary Fields was a trailblazer in a struggling black community after emancipation, breaking any boundaries of race or gender she encountered with a fierce blow. But if you were to tell her that, she would have likely tell you that she was just doing what she wanted and earning a living.
Fields was born a slave around 1832 in Hickman County, Tennessee. Having no family to speak of when slaves were freed in 1865, she continued working for the Dunn family. While little is known of her early life, Mary was one of the few slaves who were taught to read and write while under oppression, and she developed a strong friendship with her owner’s daughter, Dolly. This friendship was in fact the reason Fields said goodbye to her Southern roots to join her friend in Ohio.
Some years after joining a convent in Ohio, Dolly became Mother Amadeus. The two continued their strong bond as Fields worked alongside her at the convent, finding family among the nuns. A few years after Fields joined them, her friend moved to the new West that was opening wide to run a school for young Indian girls. Fields stayed in Ohio for a time, but upon hearing her dear friend was very sick with pneumonia, rushed to her side in Montana.
As Fields nursed Mother Amadeus back to health, she found that Montana life actually suited her quite well. At six feet and two inches and roughly 200 pounds, Fields was put to quick use at the St. Peter’s Mission School, rapidly rising to foreman (or fore-woman in this rare case). Her strong work ethic quickly earned the respect of her peers, all except for one that is. Fields was known for carrying a pistol under her apron, and when she had all but enough of the disregard her subordinate pushed her way, she drew. A shootout ensued, but no one was gravely injured. Fields, however, lost her position at the school.
With the help of her lifelong friend, she opened a small restaurant in Cascade, but it failed to find success with Fields’ policy of never turning down a patron regardless of their ability to pay for their meal. But it wasn’t long until she found a new job and her spot in history. The U.S. Postal Service was hiring, and Fields was the fastest applicant to hitch a team of six horses. She became the second woman and the first black woman to be hired as a U.S. mail carrier. She was sixty when she was hired, and whether by stagecoach or with her mule, Moses, she delivered rain or shine, snow, sleet, or hail.
Fields retired after ten years on the job, opening up a laundry business and spending her earnings on whiskey and cigars at the local saloon. Few messed with her, and the ones that did often were taken out with one hit. But despite her rough exterior, she was loved and highly respected by most that met her. Fields died in 1914, and the entire community gathered to lay to rest their beloved Stagecoach Mary.