The Wild West’s Most Famous Women Cowgirls

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Last Updated on January 9, 2022

There are many iconic cowgirls of the wild west. Here are three women who have left the biggest mark in history as the most famous women cowgirls.

Famous Wild West Women Cowgirls

We often think of men as the leaders of the old west. However, women had a large role in bringing up the west as we know it today. The west provided far more opportunities for women than life in the east did at that time. Women were able to travel across the plains and settle into new territories. They could establish farms, learn to be cowgirls, fight in military campaigns, and bring up a homestead.

Life in the old west was harsh, but these women still found a way to thrive. Never before had they been given economic opportunities like the west offered. Many formed schools and churches and created a sense of community through art and music. Female teachers even received the same equal pay as their male counterparts.

A few women certainly made their mark in the history of the wild west.

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Annie Oakley

Annie Oakley may be the most famous American wild west cowgirl. Oakley was originally named Phoebe Ann Moses and was born in 1860 in Ohio. After her father’s death, Oakley was sent to live with an abusive family she referred to as “the wolves.” When she was eight years old, she started hunting and would sell the game she shot locally to help the family earn money.

When she was 15, Oakley went to Cincinnati to compete in a marksmen competition. She made all 25 shots, winning the competition. In the second place, having only missed one shot, was the creator of the competition, Frank E. Butler. Butler and Oakley began dating soon after her win and were married in 1876.

The couple started touring the country, performing as marksmen. Annie developed the stage name “Oakley” after she started gaining popularity. She also gained the name “Little Sure Shot”  after a famous Lakota Sioux leader saw her perform.

Butler and Oakley performed with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show for 16 years together, with Oakley leading as the main act. In addition to touring in the US, they also went abroad to England, Spain, and Italy.

Oakley was the star of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, but she saw the bigger picture and a chance to help others. She never wore flashy clothing, so people weren’t distracted from the skills of her shooting. She also was an example to the whole world that women were more than capable of handling guns and could even outshoot men. At the start of World War I, Oakley even offered to fund and train a regiment of women volunteers to fight.

Annie Oakley was an empowering force for women at that time. Her tale even continues down to this day, as many stories, movies, and even a musical have been made about this famous female cowgirl.

Calamity Jane

It is difficult to determine which stories of Calamity Jane are accurate and which are tall tales, as Calamity Jane herself was known for exaggerating her adventures to anyone who would listen.

Calamity Jane, originally named Martha Jane Cannary, was born in Missouri in 1852. During her family’s five-month wagon trip moving further west, 13-year-old Martha spent most of her time learning from the other men on the journey. She became a remarkably good marksman and a tough rider during this time.

Both of Cannary’s parents died shortly after their trip. She moved her siblings to Wyoming and began taking jobs doing whatever she could to raise money for the family.

A few years later, Cannary joined the army as a scout for General George Armstrong Custer. She rode in several campaigns, and it was then that she reportedly earned her nickname Calamity Jane after she saved her commander’s life during a battle.

Cannary went on to have many other adventures after the military. She nursed many people back to health after a smallpox plague struck. Once saving a runaway stagecoach full of people after their driver had been shot, Cannary even drove the stagecoach herself back to Deadwood. She also joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show after her reputation for handling horses and shooting had spread through the country.

Many of the tales of Calamity Jane told she exaggerated. History still proves that she was a brave, tough woman who earns her place as one of the most famous women of the wild west.

famous cowgirls

Velma Bronn Johnston

Velma Bronn Johnston, also known as “Wild Horse Annie,” was born in 1912 in Nevada. At the age of 11, Johnston became disfigured after being treated for Polio and spending months in the hospital. Some say this is what gave her great empathy for suffering animals. She spent the rest of her time growing up on her family’s farm, taking care of the various animals they had.

After she married her neighbor, Charles Johnston, the two opened a dude ranch for troubled city youth.

Johnston’s life changed in 1950 when she saw a truck crammed with wild horses on its way to the slaughterhouse. She spend the rest of her life working with the government to make conditions better for wild horses, and to stop some of the gruesome methods that were used to capture or kill horses back then.

Her efforts helped pass a bill that made it illegal to capture wild horses by aircraft or automobile on state lands. Her campaigns led to the establishment of wild horse refuges across America. She even convinced thousands of people to write letters to Congress and testified in front of congress herself. These efforts resulted in the Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act.

Johnston’s fearless defense of wild horses certainly lands her on the list of famous cowgirls of the west.

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Most Famous Women Cowgirls

There are countless other women that made an impact on the history of the wild west. However, these three famous women cowgirls’ legacy still continues down to this day.

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