I will be fifty my next birthday. Some days I feel like a kid, some days I feel a little old, but I don’t feel fifty. My daddy used to say age is all in your mind. It’s how you take life. You don’t let it take you.
Connie Reeves is a great example of a woman who defied injuries, financial setbacks, and, yes, age, to spend her life doing what kept her young.
Connie was born in Eagles Pass, Texas, September 26,1901. Her grandfather gave her her first horse. She was 5 and, in that gift her destiny unfolded, though she didn’t know it at the time. Connie wanted to follow in her father’s footsteps and become a lawyer. In fact, she was one of the first women admitted to the University of Texas at Austin law school.
The Depression derailed her plans to go to law school, though, and she wound up teaching high school P.E., but the position didn’t come with enough challenges. Eager to give her students more than bruises from dodge ball, she started a cheerleading squad. And I mean one with style. According to the Texas State Historical Society, Connie’s girls “wore western-styled uniforms, consisting of blue flannel skirts, a blue bolero jacket, red satin blouse, a pearl grey Stetson hat, and a lasso rope attached by a loop at the waist of their skirt. The name of the squad was the Lassos.” The girls could throw the lassos, too, with impressive skill. They were invited to perform all over the state.
But the Depression dragged on and bills kept coming. For a little extra income, Connie hired out to teach horseback riding with her fiancé Harry Hamilton. This led to her teaching at Camp Waldemar…for the next sixty years. Estimates are she taught over 30,000 girls to ride.
She adored her students and, as it turned, a certain cowboy at the camp. Written like a romance novel, Jack Reeves was the handsome ranch hand who took care of the horses and he wanted to take care of Connie. She said yes in 1942. The two were happily married until his death in 1985.
Her love for horses and the Great American West earned Connie endless recognition and accolades, including induction into the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame. At the tender age of 100.
Perhaps more impressive, Connie never let a bad horse or fall stand between her and riding. She said she was bucked off a horse at least once for every year she rode. With dauntless determination, she climbed back into the saddle, year after year. Pins in one leg, numerous concussions, and countless broken bones not withstanding. She survived a traumatic riding accident at the age of 92 that required nine days in the hospital. Once healed, she put her foot right back in the stirrup.
But, as perhaps is fitting, Connie’s eventual death was the result of a final, fateful ride. On August 5, 2003, she fell off her favorite horse and injured her neck. Connie Reeves rode off into the sunset twelve days later.
I doubt this lady in defiance would have had her death come about in any other way.
Copyright 2014 Heather Blanton
In light of all the racial tension boiling in Ferguson, I thought it would be uplifting to remind us that, even in the Wild West, peace among different races has not always been elusive. Mattie Bost Bell Castner is a wonderful example.
Born a slave in Newton, NC in 1848, she and her family moved to St. Louis after the Emancipation Proclamation for a fresh start. Mattie worked as a nanny, domestic servant, and hotel maid. Eager to expand her horizons, though, she moved to Fort Benton, MT and opened a laundry. Her business did quite well and the former slave could have called herself a successful, independent businesswoman. Sharp, wise, well-spoken, and pretty to boot, Mattie caught the eye of John Castner. Castner, too, was a hard-working entrepreneur who ran his own freight business. He had scouted much of the territory and had a particular fascination with Belt Creek. Dreaming of bigger pay offs than the freight company, he had filed several mining claims along the creek’s ford, which is near present day Great Falls.
Recognizing the fact that life in Montana is not for the faint of heart, Castner was taken with Mattie’s grit and determination to succeed in such a tough environment. Defying convention, the white man took as his wife the lovely, dark, former slave. The two were stronger together than they could have ever been apart. They dug in and went to work, building what would become the town of Belt. Castner pursued his interests in freighting and coal mining, and opened a mercantile. Matty opened the Castner Hotel, in the center of the booming little mining town. A place known for good food, exquisite service, and plenty of smiles.
Perhaps because of her background, this former slave was renowned territory-wide for her generosity and compassion. She was always ready to help out new families in town with advice, connections, and donations of supplies and cash. She became known as “the mother of Belt.” In the meantime, her husband served as the town’s mayor.
The mixed race couple had a good thing going and blessed others as much as they could, building a tight community, and living a life together that was envied by most.
When Mattie died in 1920, she left her fortune of $25,000 to charity.
A life begun in slavery could have made this woman dark and twisted. Instead, Mattie became a true Lady in Defiance. She lived in defiance of bitterness, hatred, and racism to leave behind a legacy of peace, love, and unity. Well done, Mattie. Well done.
copyright 2014 Heather Blanton
John had Abigail. Romeo had Juliet. Chief Ouray had Chipeta.
Unless you live in Colorado or are a student of history, you’ve probably never heard of her. She was the second wife of the Ute chief, but she came to be so much more.
Dubbed “Queen of the Utes” by a reporter contemptuous of Indians, a poet turned the slam into an homage. And well-deserved it was.
When Chipeta was only an infant, a band of renegades attacked her Kiowa village. She was the sole survivor. Friendly Utes found her crawling through the smoking remains and adopted her. Many years later, when Chief Ouray’s first wife died, Chipeta became the caretaker for his son. Ouray was impressed with the girl’s keen mind, compassion, and poise. Eventually the two married and were inseparable from then on.
Chipeta traveled everywhere with Ouray, which was highly unusual for Ute culture. But he valued her counsel. She was a true confidante and friend, and one of his biggest supporters as he tried to navigate the treacherous road of negotiations with the US government.
Ouray’s overriding goal was peace with the whites. Just like in all the movies, there were hot-headed braves and opportunistic tribal leaders who hated him for “selling out”. There were some Ute bands that wouldn’t speak with him, but they welcomed his wife. Where Ouray could not go, the soft-spoken, perceptive Chipeta would hold councils and share the information with her husband as he sought to save his people, albeit on smaller and smaller pieces of land.
In 1879, an uprising at the White River Res resulted in the deaths of 11 white men, including the Indian agent, Nathan Meeker. Meeker’s wife and daughter and several others were taken captive at the massacre, enraging the government. Tradition says Chipeta housed and cared for the girls, and then, along with Ouray, negotiated their release.
This event, coupled with another deadly skirmish between Utes and soldiers, resulted in the Ute Removal Act. The entire tribe was relocated to scrub and sand in Utah. Ouray died there in 1880.
Chipeta met tribal leaders and government officials alike. They all honored and respected her. She traveled to Washington, D.C. with Ouray to negotiate a peace treaty with the government. She dined with Kit Carson and his family, and rode in a train with President Taft. Yet, for most of her life she lived confined to a government reservation, subsisting on poverty-level subsidies. Still, she always spoke up for her people, never let her conditions break her, and stubbornly believed in peace.
Chipeta died in Utah in 1924. Upon her death, Colorado petitioned to have her and Chief Ouray exhumed and reinterred in Montrose. Perhaps now the Queen of the Utes finally has her peace.
Copyright 2014 Heather Blanton
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I love the stories of women who, on the verge of losing everything, look defeat squarely in the eye and knock the snot out of it.
When Sarah Cockrell’s husband Alexander died in 1858, he left her with three small children and a few struggling businesses. Oh, and a mountain of debt.
At the time of his death, Alexander owned a sawmill, gristmill, office building, and a ferry business in Dallas. Recognizing Sarah’s business acumen, and since he couldn’t read or write, he let her handle his books, as well as his correspondence. Upon Alexander’s passing, Sarah did not wring her hands and think about running back to Virginia. She jumped in, wrestled his debt to the ground and emerged with a sound company.
Sarah is remembered in Texas, though, for the construction of an iron suspension bridge across the Trinity River. The Texas state legislature OKed her idea for the venture in 1860, but it took her 12 years and the end of the Civil War to bring it about. In 1872, the bridge opened up Dallas to several major roads and ushered in a pretty energetic economic boom. Ironically, while her bridge company did well and the city blossomed, Sarah never sat on the board of the Dallas Bridge Company. It wasn’t customary. She owned the majority of stock and could have sat at the head of the table, but methinks a few men on the board didn’t like the competition.
And they had reason to fear this little lady. She was just getting rolling. The bridge deal was good to Sarah and by the 1880’s she was dabbling in real estate, becoming a regular Donald Trump. In 1889 she handled fifty-three separate land deals and in both 1890 and 1891 more than twenty.1 By 1892, the belle from Virginia owned a quarter of downtown Dallas.
There are plaques and charities and buildings named for Sarah. Who remembers the men on the board of the Dallas Bridge Company, hmmm?
1 Texas State Historical Association
Copyright 2014 Heather Blanton
Do you remember your first boyfriend? Was he, perhaps, a bit of a bad influence? Did you follow him into escapades that now leave you wondering in horror, what was I thinking? Cheer up. He probably never shot it out with US Marshals.
Rose Dunn, youngest of ten, was born in Oklahoma and received a formal education from a convent. In the meantime, two of her brothers went astray of the law and started hanging around some pretty tough characters. Sometime in 1892, they brought George “Bittercreek” Newcomb home. Newcomb was a known outlaw who rode with the likes of Bill Doolin and the Wild Bunch. Perhaps this bandit mystique was part of his charm. Either way, at the impressionable age of 14, Rose was in love.
Happily at the beck-and-call of the 29-year-old Newcomb, Rose rode with him when she could, often fetched supplies and groceries from town for the gang, and, after a particularly violent shoot-out in ‘93, lovingly nursed his wounds. As story-tellers have a practice of doing, she was dubbed Rose of the Cimarron. Legend says she managed to get a gun and two belts of ammo to Newcomb as US Marshals were shooting at him, thus enabling him and companion Charley Pierce to escape. The marshals didn’t mention Rose in their reports, however. Admittedly, it would have been more than a little annoying, arguably embarrassing, to confess a fugitive got away because his fifteen-year-old girlfriend interfered.
Regardless, this shoot-out resulted in the deaths of three lawmen, raising the bounty on Newcomb and Pierce to the serious sum of $5,000 each. A price worthy of Jesse James.
Now, while Rose was traveling her outlaw path, ironically her brothers flipped sides and turned into bounty hunters. They weren’t half-bad either. One might even say they were ruthless.
In 1895, Newcomb, accompanied by Pierce, swung by the Dunn family home in Norman, OK to see Rose. It was a fateful decision. Her brothers happened to be there as well. They shot Newcomb and Pierce as the two men dismounted. Why not? The reward said dead or alive.
Whether Rose set him up, which her brothers denied, or Newcomb’s death broke her wild ways, Rose turned over a new leaf. A few years later, she married Charles Albert Noble, a sober, respected man of the community who held political aspirations. Though she would outlive Albert and marry once more, Rose never again crossed the law.
In fact, she spent the rest of her life trying to prove she was not A Lady in Defiance, only a misguided girl who had a little growing up to do. Still, for years after Newcomb’s death, it was not an uncommon site to see Rose riding her favorite horse hell-bent-for-leather across the sandbars of the Cimarron River.
Copyright 2014 Heather Blanton
Suffrage and Temperance? No, no, no. Let’s talk Bloomers!
In American history, you have women who spied for this country, loaded cannons during heated battles, fought wild Indians, ventured alone to rowdy frontier towns.
And then there is Amelia Bloomer.
A native of New York, Amelia was the first woman to own, edit, and operate a newspaper in the United States. The Lily was started in 1849 for the reading pleasure of the Seneca Falls Ladies Temperance Society. By 1850, the circulation of 4000 had started to decline and Amelia took over the editorial helm. She had found her groove. She loved espousing her views on suffrage, temperance, morality, and fashion.
Married to an attorney who was apparently patient and supportive, Amelia freely championed the cause of suffrage all over the country. She spoke, attended rallies, organized committees, and hung with the likes of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady. If not for her, her newspaper, and her enthusiasm, who knows how long it would have been before we women would have attained the right to vote?
But is that why you know the name Bloomer?
In 1851, a few notable women started wearing loose, baggy pants that gathered at the ankles. The style was based on pants women wore in the Middle East. Amelia fell in love with the roomy, flowing pants. She adored that they allowed one to move so freely, climb steps without tripping, and keep her hands free. Never mind that the things are about as attractive as a clown suit.
But Amelia adored the goofy breeches and pushed them every chance she got. They were frequently mentioned in The Lily, to the point the I-Dream-of-Jeannie breeches finally earned the nickname Bloomers.
Ah, the lasting contribution of a Lady in Defiance.
Copyright 2014 Heather Blanton
Anna Smith Strong on AMC’s show Turn is portrayed as a woman more in love with a man than the cause of Liberty. Maybe. But I think it was the other way around.
From a wealthy Tory family, Anna married ardent Setauket patriot Selah Strong III, who became a judge in New York. The Strong family owned much property on what is now Long Island. Property owners, lawyers, and patriots, they made themselves a big target for the Crown. In 1778, her husband was arrested for suspicious correspondence with the enemy and thrown on the dreaded prison ship Jersey. A death sentence, except that Anna would not give up on Selah. She used every connection she had to get permission to take him food, while simultaneously pushing for his release. Between bribes and political pressure, Selah was eventually paroled.
But not cleared. He had no fans in the British army. To stay out of prison, Selah re-located to Connecticut with their children. Anna did not go with him.
Leaving would have meant abandoning their plantation. However, women, considered non-combatants by the crown, could maintain control of property in a husband’s absence. Maybe she stayed behind so the family wouldn’t be destitute after the war. Maybe, as the writers on Turn suggest, she stayed behind to continue her affair with Abraham Woodhull.
Or, maybe, she was willing to risk her life so a nation could be born. I’m on board with that option.
During the time that her husband was on the Jersey, Anna got involved with the Washington’s Culper spy ring. According to folklore, she would hang her black petticoat on the laundry line when Caleb Brewster had come ashore to collect intelligence. The number of handkerchiefs on her line would indicate in which of six coves he was waiting. Woodhull would then meet Brewster and hand-over the intelligence. According to AMC’s Turn, Anna and Woodhull were carrying on a torrid affair.
What we know for sure is that Anna’s home was constantly raided by British troops. She was harassed, and her home invaded whenever the notion struck the soldiers. They didn’t burn it, however, and she hung on to it. When the war was over, she and Selah were reunited. They spent the rest of their lives together in Setauket and named one of their children George Washington Strong.
I think that if she had loved Selah more than Liberty, she would have gone to Connecticut with him. If she loved Abraham Woodhull more than Selah, she wouldn’t have fought so hard to keep her home, nor would she have gone back to Selah at the end of the war. As it was, it seems she was willing to risk it all for an idea: the crazy notion that a free nation would provide a better life for her and her children and their children. Sounds like love to me, and not the kind that involves sex on the kitchen table.
Just my observation.
Copyright 2014 Heather Blanton
Antonia Ford, a pretty, sassy spy for the Confederacy, didn’t mind batting her eyelashes at a Union soldier if it got her intelligence. She didn’t count on one man capturing her heart, though, or what their love would cost them.
Born into a wealthy family of loud-and-proud secessionists, Antonia loved her home in Fairfax Court House, VA. When Union troops occupied her town in mid-1861, she eagerly used her money, connections, and feminine wiles to gather intelligence. The officers were awed by her beauty and, clearly, oblivious to her brains. They talked and talked about the Union’s plans right in front of her. And Antonia turned right around and fed intelligence to the Confederacy.
When Union General Edward H. Stoughton was captured in his headquarters (one of the most famous raids of the Civil War), suspicion fell on Antonia, since she had spent some time with the officer. A counter-spy tricked Antonia into revealing the aid-de-camp commission given to her by J.E.B. Stuart himself. Antonia was arrested based on this document. Worse, however, smuggled papers were discovered in her possession. Pretty incriminating.
As fate would have it, she was arrested by 44-year-old Maj. Joseph Willard. Willard was struck right in the heart by the pretty, 24-year-old belle, but did his duty and delivered her to Old Capital Prison in Washington, D.C. Antonia was also drawn to the major and their romance blossomed…behind bars. Maj. Willard spent several months working at it, but was finally able to secure Antonia’s release. Their love, though, came at a high cost.
Antonia had to swear allegiance to the Union and promise that she would never spy again. Willard agreed to give up his commission and resigned from the Army. Apparently, neither of the two ever regretted these decisions. The couple married in 1864 and took over his family’s business, the Willard Hotel. Sadly, during their short marriage, they lost two babies, and Antonia continually battled health issues that stemmed from her incarceration. She passed away in 1871. Willard was heartbroken by her death and never remarried. Their hotel, now called the InterContinental, still stands on Pennsylvania Ave., mere shouting distance from the symbol of a government she once sought to topple.
Oh, the irony for a lady in defiance.
Copyright 2014 Heather Blanton
Sometimes, just existing is such a task.
A college roommate said that to me many years ago. For some reason, I thought of that when I researched the story of Charly Parkhurst. She carried an amazing, isolating secret for over thirty years…
Born in 1812, Charly lost her parents at an early age and wound up in an orphanage in New Hampshire. Either she escaped or they let her go, but when Charly was old enough to take care of herself, she skedaddled. Probably in her early teens. Somehow, she stumbled upon a job with Ebenezer Balch’s livery in Worcester. Working with horses would set her destiny. Charly became one of the Wild West’s most famous stagecoach drivers.
She worked for Balch for several years, then suddenly struck out for California at the height of the gold rush. Skilled, reliable, sober stagecoach drivers were in short supply so she pretty much walked into a job. And the woman proved her metal. She was robbed twice. The first time she was unarmed, the second time the robber chose the wrong victim. Charly shot him dead. Road conditions were abhorrent in Northern California. If Charly wasn’t worrying about bandits or renegade Indians, she was crossing swollen rivers, navigating rickety bridges, driving in ice and snow, and, of course, battling ornery horses. To her credit, she never lost a coach.
Charly liked whiskey and cigars. She could fight and cuss with the toughest of men and did. Small in stature, she was tough as an oak but reclusive. Not many people got close to Charly. She was always picky about her privacy and lived alone her whole life.
Eventually, the demands of driving teams of horses up rugged mountain roads got to be too much for her. She “retired” and dabbled in ranching, and raising chickens. She even worked as a lumberjack for a spell.
Now all this is impressive, but there’s one other thing you need to know about Charly. She lived this remarkable life…as a man.
From approximately 1849 or so to 1879, Charlene Parkhurst’s gender was her deepest secret. The truth was only discovered upon her death. The town doctor, as well as the coroner, also believed that at some point in her life, Charly had given birth at least once. And baby items (either a dress or shoes—accounts differ) were found in a chest at her home.
So why did Charly live her life as a man? I find it interesting that she worked with Balch for several years, even moving with him to Rhode Island, then she suddenly struck out on her own. What if, at some point, Balch discovered that Charly was a woman? According to accounts from the time of Charly’s death, she was “well-endowed,” but hid her curves under baggy, pleated shirts. What if Balch didn’t like being lied to? What if he wasn’t a very nice man?
I realize that’s a heavy dose of speculation. But a small, petite orphan girl would have been easy prey. A young man on the other hand…
A gender-bender or a woman hiding from her past? Will we ever know? What do you think?
Copyright 2014 Heather Blanton
Perhaps you’ve heard it said, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Poverty and physical abuse are two things that will either make you or break you.
In the case of Phoebe Ann Moses, AKA, Annie Oakley, they made her a legend.
Born the sixth of seven children in 1860, Annie had a fairly happy home life in Ohio, until the death of her father when she was six. By all accounts, a compassionate child with wisdom beyond her years, little Annie thought it was her duty to help her mother all she could. Being the practical type, she picked up a rifle and learned to put food on the table.
But poverty was a steady stalker. In 1870, her mother, after being widowed a second time, made the desperate decision to send Annie and her sister to the Darke County Infirmary. Though she wasn’t there for long, Annie did get a little schooling, learned to sew, and helped take care of the younger orphan children. Unfortunately, however, her work ethic brought her to the attention of a local farm family. She was “bound out” to them for the promise of fifty cents a week and some education. She never saw either and the family worked her like a slave. Annie rose before daylight and went to bed well after dark. She did hard, heavy farm hand work as well as whatever other tasks the lady of the house felt like handing off.
Annie was physically and verbally abused, especially by the wife. In her memoirs, Annie referred to the family as “wolves”, but never named them. She was too classy for that. And perhaps she realized that, in an odd way, they’d done her a favor.
In ’72, Annie’s mother re-married and the family was re-united. Determined to stay out of the orphanage, Annie again picked up her gun and learned to shoot it with frightening, almost unnatural, accuracy. It was said she could shoot the head off a pheasant at over hundred yards and kill turkeys using her rifle instead of a shotgun. Patrons at the local restaurants appreciated the fact that they didn’t have to pick buckshot out of their white meat. The buzz on Annie’s uncanny skill with a gun spread. She soon regularly supplied several hotels and restaurants with fresh meat. The money paid off her mother’s farm by the time Annie was 15.
And, thus, it was this unflinching desire to never be hungry again (apologies, Scarlett) that set the course for our heroine to become an honest-to-God Western Legend.
Sharpshooter Frank Butler had the standing offer that he would shoot against any local from the towns where he was performing. Of course, all bets were welcome. Imagine Butler’s surprise when a Cincinnati hotel owner paraded five-foot-tall, pretty, petite little Annie out for the competition. She was barely taller than her rifle.
The two squared off and commenced to shooting. Butler missed on his 25th shot. She didn’t. He lost the match, $100 to the hotel owner, and his heart to Annie. She and Butler would spend the next fifty-one years together, shooting in Wild West Shows, performing for ranch hands and royalty, and living a darn good life.
Best of all, Annie had the last laugh on that farm family from Ohio.
Copyright 2014 Heather Blanton