Brave Hearted: The Dramatic Story of Women of the American West, by Katie Hickman

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Reviewed by Harriet

Back in 2020 I reviewed Katie Hickman’s previous book, She-Merchants, Buccaneers and Gentlewomen, a fascinating account of the earliest British women to visit India. Their stories were varied, but on the whole showed an admirable picture of female independence in a strange and often unwelcoming land. This description could just about fit the stories she recounts in Brave Hearted, but here we are in the American West, and the overall picture is a much darker one. This a heart-rending, shocking, and ultimately tragic account of of how the ‘Wild West’ was slowly transformed into the civilised West Coast so much loved by tourists and inhabitants alike, told through the stories of the women who lived (and often died) through it. While there are some success stories, many of them lived lives of incredible hardship and suffering. 

As Hickman points out in her introduction, ‘in popular imagination, [the] “Wild West” is still a man’s world’. But, she continues, ‘women’s experiences are the very core of any true understanding of the American West….a story of one of the largest and most tumultuous migrations in history’. In 1836, where this book begins, travelling west from one of the twenty-six states that comprised the United States of America involved a journey of more than 2000 miles of ‘Indian’ or ‘Unorganised’ territory, mainly prairies, deserts and mountains. In that year, the first two white women who made the journey, Narcissa Whitman and Elizabeth Spalding, were both missionaries. Both were devout, well educated, and both had agreed to marry men they hardly knew in order to fulfil their desire to go west and convert the ‘natives’. There was mutual amazement when after three months of travelling they arrived at the annual Tribal Rendezvous at Horse Creek: once their astonishment at seeing white women for the first time had passed, the Native American women in particular gave them a friendly welcome. When they finally left, they still had 600 miles to go; the journey became more and more demanding, and it was not until 1 September, six months after their departure, that they finally arrived at their destination, Fort Vancouver in Oregon. Ten years later, after a rumour had been spread in the local Cayuse Tribe that the Whitmans were trying to poison them with their medicines, Narcissa, her husband, and nine other people died in what came to be known as the Whitman Massacre.

Although in 1838 four more missionary women made the journey, it was not until 1840 that non-missionary women started to make the attempt. A handful of families traveled in that year, but three years later a thousand hopeful settlers were on the road, inspired by mainly fictitious accounts of the land of milk and honey that awaited them. There were no maps, no guides, no compasses, and little information. Unsurprisingly,

Their resulting trials were biblical in scale and horror. Many got lost in the wilderness, and were never to reach their destination. A journey that could realistically last six months or more was popularly believed to take only three or four. Most either took too few provisions with them, and ran the risk of starving to death, or, as was often the case, too many….[they] had no choice but to jettison most, sometimes all of their possession. And when their oxen finally gave out, entire wagons, and everything in them, were simply left by the wayside.

There are many horrendous stories here, and untold thousands died of starvation, a few, like the Reed family, turning to cannibalism to survive, others losing their reason. But the desire to go west nevertheless increased exponentially. By 1848, when gold was discovered in California, an estimated 300,000 people made the journey. It was men who were going to dig for gold, but it was the women who, for better or worse, accompanied them on the way and made homes of a sort for them when they arrived. It is through their written accounts that the conditions of travel, and those of attempting to settle, that a vivid picture emerges of the dreadful trials they underwent. 

As for the Native Americans, they had mostly welcomed the first settlers with friendly hospitality, but the travellers brought with them cholera, a terrible disease which spread among them like wildfire, and the overlanders became accustomed to seeing piles of dead bodies abandoned by the side of the road. The devastation was vividly described by Susan Bordeaux Bettelyoun, a mixed race woman who in later life became a historian of her people. Over the coming years, peaceful coexistence became a thing of the past. The settlers became fearful of the local Tribes, and stories circulated that white women and girls could be captured and enslaved. While capture was not uncommon, it was usually the case that the captives were well treated and assimilated into the Tribe, marrying and having children. Many of these women, when finally rediscovered, refused to return to the world they had left behind. A woman named Eunice Williams, who was forced to return ‘home’, refused to enter the house, setting up a camp in the front garden. Her epitaph read ‘Eunice Williams: married a savage and became one’.

By the 1870s, the transcontinental railroad came, making emigration possible for all women, whether white upper class socialites or Chinese prostitutes or African-American ex-slaves. But to compete the building of the railroad, Native American settlements had to be moved or destroyed. A large part of the attempt to rid the country of inconvenient tribes was through the destruction of the buffalo herds. This was largely done by hunters, who were provided with free ammunition and encouraged to shoot as many as they could. Within a year the buffalo had disappeared from the southern plains and, deprived of their livelihood, those Native Americans who had survived were forced to move to reservations. 

Much of the final part of this tragic story is told through the words of the mixed-race historian Josephine Waggoner, who lived through the whole desperate and deliberate destruction of a large portion of her race. She devoted decades of her life collecting the oral histories of the Lakota Tribe in order to counteract the white version of events. Here she is writing about the aftermath of the Battle of Little Bighorn, when the Tribes were forced to scatter, and their horses were either slaughtered or sold:

So the horses were all gone…the life, the hope, the pride of the Indian. No one in this machine age could ever understand the love between master and horse. The love of a man for a spirited, courageous horse was wonderful.It was like the love of a beloved child, only a man is dependent on a horse.

I can’t praise this book highly enough. It’s superbly researched and has a wealth of notes and a useful bibliography. Above all, though, it made me reflect on what America is today and how mixed is the legacy of the extraordinary events of the mid-nineteenth century. The pioneering spirit has remained and is certainly to be admired, but there is much to deprecate and many wounds that have still not healed. 

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Harriet is one of the founders and co-editor of Shiny New Books, and used to think it would have been fun to cross America on a wagon train.

Katie Hickman, Brave Hearted: The Dramatic Story of Women in the American West (Virago, 2022). 978-034900829, 400pp., hardback.

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