It’s Not Our First Rodeo: Black Women In The Wild, Wild West

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In honor of Beyoncé releasing her next country album, ESSENCE is shining a light on the lesser-known history of the Black women of the wild, wild west.  

In modern media, cowboys have stereotypically been depicted “as White men defending their ranch from Indigenous groups. [But i]n reality, Black and Native Americans comprised a notable percentage of these cowboy groups.”

During the 1890s in Montana, formerly enslaved Mary Fields, more widely known by her nickname Stagecoach Mary, was the first Black woman to carry mail. And “she stood out on the trail—and became a Wild West legend. Rumor had it that she’d fended off an angry pack of wolves with her rifle, had ‘the temperament of a grizzly bear.’”

“She met trains with mail, then drove her stagecoach over rocky, rough roads and through snow and inclement weather.” More importantly, “would-be mail thieves didn’t stand a chance against Stagecoach Mary.”

Another notable woman from that time was Henrietta Williams Foster, affectionately referred to as Aunt Rittie. Foster, a cowhand who resided in Refugio County in South Texas, “was considered a tenacious, tough-as-nails woman who would ride her horse sidesaddle in long skirts and could perform the same work as the men.”

A member of the Black Seminole community, Johanna “Chona” Phillips July Wilkes Lasley was an extremely skilled horse tamer during the late 1800s. As an interviewee of the Federal Writers’ Project, in an atypical move for women of the time, Lasley “became an expert horse breaker” and after her father’s death, she “continued his work.” Her method “She put on her clothes that needed washing and led the horse to the Rio Grande…pulled the horse into the deep water forcing it to swim. She stayed in the water until the horse tired and then she hopped on its back and rode out of the river. Her method of gentling the horse took advantage of the terrain and lessened her chore of cleaning her garments.”

Before Mulan, there was Cathay Williams, who is credited with being “the first African-American woman to enlist in the army and did so by disguising herself as a man. Though she was hospitalized five times, no one ever discovered her secret. She called herself William Cathay and was deemed fit for duty.” Following her time in combat, she moved out to Colorado and was married. But after her husband tried to steal her money and her horses, she had him arrested.

These were among just some of the women who lived and thrived in that era. According to Cowgirl Magazine, “African American women made enormous contributions to the advancement and culture of the West. They built towns, established charities, created schools, developed churches, and did dangerous jobs such as delivering the mail. They were real estate magnates, writers, celebrated chefs, investors, and trailblazers.”

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