The West: "I'll Wrangle In The Mornin', Boys": The Wrangler, The Warbler, And The Women Of The Rodeo

Culture Watch

Mr. Miller has been a lecturer with the Organization of American Historians for many years.

The year I was born (1942), Maynard Dixon (1875-1946) painted an oil-on-canvas, a beautiful, panoramic view, the Open Range, to be seen in the Museum of Western Art, Denver, Colorado. In the foreground of this artwork is a mounted cowboy herding part of what is meant to represent a larger contingent of steers. In the distance a mesa is depicted, surmounted by a billowing, white cloud. The whole conjures up a West, existent from about 1865 until 1890, the ascendent period for cattle drives, primarily from Texas to the southern and northern plains; the cowboys, who (it could be said) lived from the"hurricane decks" of western saddles; and the wide-open cow-towns, particularly in pioneer Kansas.

The herding of steers, more often than not the"long-horns," from as far south as the Rio Grande, the river separating Texas from Mexico, to a number of northern markets, which came to include those in Kansas, Wyoming, Colorado, Montana, and the Dakotas, became known to history as the Long Drive.

It is not my intention, however, to provide even a" capsule" account of the cattle drives and the cowboys on the trails, chief amomg them being the Goodnight-Loving to Colorado or the Chisholm to Kansas. That story has been told and re-told often, if not too often, already. Rather, I want to focus on"less-traveled paths," namely the myth of the cowboy, the rise and development of the rodeo, and women in the West, especially the last-named topic, especially from the 1880s, with a continuance to the present, during which times women have capitalized (and still are) on what has become the myth of the wrangler.

With the bringing of barbed wire to the West, along with the greater and greater influx of farmers, who fenced in the open range for cash crops (much more than for the raising of livestock), to which must be added the devastating impact of the severe winter of 1886-1887, the life of the American cowboy had to change, and it did! With that in mind, it is no wonder that the decade of the 1880s saw the origins of the rodeo. The priority, so far as the first such event is concerned, would have to go to Prescott, Arizona, in 1882, where with its Frontier Days Rodeo (sanctioned even in recent years among the top 25 by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association or PRCA for short), it featured the three essentials of the modern event, to wit: a prize purse; an organizing committee; and gate admission.

From the begiinning, women took active roles in rodeo life. Building as they could (and did) on their upbringing (for the most part), as members of ranching families, where they had acquired skills such as shoeing horses and breaking broncos, those same women were able to adapt readily to the new sport. In fact, the women excelled in rodeo events, including saddle-bronc riding and steer (or calf) roping. They were so good as competitors against the men, the latter were often irritated, even angered, by their success.

Let me give but two examples regarding the superlative talents of the women in the early rodeo era (through about 1920). But before doing that, it should be pointed out, women, while they never constituted a majority of the rodeo performers, still they numbered more than 450 of the total"stars" from 1890 to 1942. Now though for an account of two extraordinary feats by women, demonstrative of their consummate abilities. Bertha Kapernick came within a dozen points of winning the Pendleton Round-Up Rodeo's prestigious all-around title (open to men and women both) in 1914. That fact is all the more noteworthy, when one considers that the Pendleton Round-Up (in Oregon), along with the Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo (first held 23 September 1897),"the daddy of 'em all" (in Wyoming) and the Calgary Stampede of Alberta Province, Canada, were in Kapernick's day the premier events.

The other exceptional exploit by a women concerned one Mabel Strickland, without much doubt, the best bronc rider among the women of the 1920s, who roped steers as well, a contest that included the women, pioneered for them by Lucille Mulhall. Anyway, at the Pendleton Round-Up, Strickland roped and then tied a steer in 18 seconds, seldom equalled by the men themselves in those times!

From about 1929, when a popular woman bronc rider (Bonnie McCarroll by name) died in the arena of the Pendleton Round-Up, thrown from her mount and trampled, until 1948, when the women established the Girls Rodeo Association (GRA), the cowboys almost eclipsed completely the once ascendant star of women. For, in 1936 the men formed the Cowboys' Turtle Association, which excluded all women. At much the same time, Gene Autry (with Roy Rogers, being the so-called"singing cowboys"), having become (but not so encouraged by Rogers) a major promoter of rodeos, he had a very negative attitude toward performances by women.

As intimated above though, with the creation of the Woman's Professional Rodeo Association (WPRA) in 1982, there began a renaissance for women in the sport. That resurgence benefited from the GRA's successful lobbying (but after much"haggling" with the cowboys) for the inclusion of barrel racing, finally brought about at the PRCA's National Finals Rodeo in 1967. Spurred on by that greatest of all victories for women in recent decades, as well as by Charmayne Rodman's ten consecutive world titles (the first at age 14 as a rookie) at barrel racing between 1984 to 1993, inclusive, the membership of the WPRA reached 1,850 as of 1995 with a headquarters at Colorado Springs (having been transferred from Oklahoma City). Yet, it would appear, as expressed in Wayne S. Wooden & Gavin Ehringer's Rodeo in America: Wranglers, Roughstock, & Paydirt (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1996) that:"all-women rodeos [while] beginning to gain popularity [are] unlikely [to] ever receive the recognition enjoyed by the pioneering cowgirls of rodeo's earliest days" (p. 15).

By the same token, while it is true that women played (and still often do) a role(s) subordinate to men, especially in the"world" of the cowboy (that of ranch and rodeo life, as good examples), too much can be made of the fact. Women, while they were exploited too for sex, as prostitutes, in cattle towns of the Old West, they often though had a dignity and freedom of expression equal to the men. And here, the developing image of the cowboy (myth, if you will) played into their hands for the late nineteenth century (and beyond) into the twenteith century and the new millennium of today.

How did that come about? It happened in two ways--(1) with the 1880s, and the rise of the rodeo, that entity, intended to"showcase" the cowboy and his skills as bronc rider, calf and/or steer roper, and horseman in general, also provided women, some of whom became major rodeo"stars," with chances to"shine" as well, as cowgirls (the counterparts of the men); (2) in a related development, the image of the cowgirl was taken over by some fine performers of the feminine gender in old-time country music.

With women rodeo"stars" in mind let me make an important point, derived from Glenda Riley's Introduction to By Grit and Grace: Eleven Women Who Shaped the American West (Golden, Colorado: Fulcrum Publishing, 1997), a work she edited with Richard W. Etulain. Ms. Riley observed (p. ix):"strong, clever women did live in the real West." One of them was none other than the remarkable"wing-shot" and sharpshooter, Annie Oakley, of humble birth (Darke county, Ohio) in 1860, but destined to gain a national, even an international reputation, with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, one of the precursor's, what might argue, of the rodeo. Not only was Oakley a" crack-shot," given a never to be forgotten nickname"Little Sure Shot," by the Sioux chief Sitting Bull, who was also for a time in Buffalo Bill's extravaganza, but Annie also epitomized"strong, clever women." Oakley was more than that really--she lived a life of character and dignity, and was revered by all. Her homespun philosophy, as encapsulated in just a few lines, could well be emulated by us all. Riley gave Oakley's homily in chapter 5 (pp. 93-114) of By Grit & Grace, headed"Annie Oakley: The Peerless Lady Wing-Shot":

Aim at a high mark and you will hit it.
No, not the first time, nor the second and maybe not the third.
But keep on aiming and keep on shooting for only practice will make you perfect.
Finally, you will hit the bull's-eye of success" (p. 94).

Before concluding this article, however, it is my wish to make a plea as well for the worth of women, known to the cowboys, and other misguided men of the times, as"'sporting women,' 'calico queens,' 'girls of the night,' 'painted cats,' 'sports,' ' nymphes du prairie,' and 'soiled doves'"--the prostitutes. In sympathy for such women, I am reminded of the scene from Luke 7:36-50 of the New Testament, where it is related how Jesus had compassion, even more, love for a"fallen" woman, a sinner, who wept at his feet, poured a perfumed ointment from an alabaster jar on them, and dried them with her hair.

It is my belief that such women, like unto the tax collectors (also despised in Bible times, though being males), will be in"our immortal home" long before those self-righteous hypocrites (who all know the"letter of the law," but not the"spirit") will ever get in!

With that thought in mind, let me share with you, the reader, what I saw in David Dary's Seeking Pleasure in the Old West (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995). It was a picture (p. 132) of a young, very attractive prostitute, known as Squirrel Tooth Alice. She lived in Dodge City, Kansas (as the caption to the picture states)"during cattle-town days." Now, what I want to highlight about this woman may not appear to matter much in the"balance sheet" of life, but it will, I fervently believe, matter to God. The woman had a pet squirrel, which she must have loved dearly. For, in the photograph, she is seated with the rodent in her lap, cuddled there by her left hand!

"If you have one doubt, well, I guess, my friends, you're on the wrong route," to quote from"God's Country," written by Loretta Lynn, to which I would quickly add, from an another gospel song, composed by W. B. Stevens, and sung so magnificently by Ralph Stanley, the"dean" of bluegrass music, and Lucinda Williams, on a compact disc (CD) Clinch Mountain Sweethearts (Charlottesville: Rebel Records, 2001):"Farther along we'll know all about it; Farther along we'll understand why."

Why we are indeed instructed by Jesus, as told in the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37) to have mercy on one another, and also, as he constrained, then warned, in Luke 11:36 and followed up in verse 42 with:

If the whole body therefore be full of light, having no part dark, the whole shall be full of light, as when the bright shining of a candle doth give thee light.

. . . But woe unto you, Pharisees! for ye tithe mint and rue and all manner of herbs, and pass over judgment and love of God: these ought ye to have done, and not leave the other undone.

With those evocative passages from the New Testament, meant to instruct and guide us alike, should we not then endeavor, so to live and have our being, that we can"see" the worth of all people, including the prostitutes of the Old West, not forgetting the one with the pet squirrel?"No charge," the debt paid in full, she has"gone home" a long time since.

A good many years ago, I added to my fine collection of record albums (I purchase compact discs these days) on old-time country and bluegrass one, Banjo Pickin' Girl (Somerville, Massachusetts: Rounder Records, n. d.), label number 1029. This album is the first of two devoted to women in early country music, many of whom adopted a cowgirl persona. That helped them to gain acceptance in the performing world of the first half of the twentieth century or thereabouts, when many people looked askance at women in counrty music, if they were not part of either a family act, or the wife of a male artist, thus playing and/or singing together.

Perhaps the three women of early country music, who made the most of the cowgirl image were the Good sisters (Millie and Dolly) from Mt. Carmel, Illinois, and Rubye Blevins (known to the music business as Patsy Montana). As Charles Wolfe and Patricia A. Hall made clear in a highlt informative booklet, enclosed with the record album (cited above), as well as on the back cover, old-time country music, and even the more recent" crop" of country-western female performers right up to the present, all owe a debt to the likes of Eva Davis, Samantha Bumgarner, Roba Stanley, Lily May Ledford, Billie Maxwell, and"Moonshine Kate" (being Rosa Lee, a daughter to Fiddlin' John Carson), which can never be repaid. For, as Wolfe and Hall remarked on the back cover:"to anyone who looks closely at the entire spectrum of recorded old time music, it is obvious that women played significant pioneering roles." And, to amplify that observation:"women brought new vocal harmonies and styles into the music; women were among the first to utilize western material [especially pertinent to this article]; and songs by women dealt in new realistic ways with male-female relationships [an excellent example here being Billie Maxwell's controversial, at least for the times,"Cowboy's Wife"]."

Another song, sung so well by many women (at least probably much more often by them than by men) in old-time country circles was"Single Girl, Married Girl." As the title suggests, the lyrics juxtapose the conditions of a single with a married life, the advantages of remaining single made quite evident. For instance,"Single girl, single girl, she's going where she please . . . ; married girl, a married girl, a baby on her knees."

Considering Patsy Montana briefly, she made music history, if but for one reason--her song"I Want to Be a Cowboy's Sweetheart," became the first record by a woman to sell a million copies. And, wonder of wonders, that was during the Great Depression, a time obviously not conducive to sales.

Within recent years, and before the show was finally cancelled, but, for all that, one of the longest-running programs in television history, I saw and heard on Hee Haw on a few occasions the Girls of the Rodeo, an all-female group. What better example could be offered for the resilency of the image (myth) of the cowboy, and in this case as well, the rodeo, in furthering the careers of women in country/western music?

And, let me tell you, women have long since arrived in such music. Without them, the CD Clinch Mountain Sweethearts, referred to above, could not exist. What a loss that would be to us all, for the 15 women, singing with Ralph Stanley (still in good"voice" at 80 or so), who with Iris DeMent on Ridin' That Midnight Train," make it talk, make it sing! To borrow a phrase from that hard-driving rendition, along with the colorful idiom of the mountain men, beginning with an exclamation, they would"holler" upon seeing or hearing something exceptional, let it be said:"Wagh! If this child don't have rifle with hindsights, and she shoots center, don't speak to me again of old-time or bluegrass music. I'm leaving now, good-bye."

Note: The title for this article comes from"Little Joe the Wrangler's Sister Nell," in Teresa Jordan's Cowgirls: Women of the American West (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992), pp, 53-54. Other works consulted have been cited in the text. But, to"round out" the whole, let me recommend Mary A. Bufwack and Robert K. Oermann, Finding Here Voice: The Saga of Women in Country Music (New York: Crown Publishers, 1993).

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