Western Women Villains or Victims
Josie Bassett Cabin
After the civil war was over and the slaves were set free, there were few jobs or opportunities for anyone, but especially an African American woman.
Cathay Williams was one of those young African American women. She had been born the daughter of a slave and a free man in Jackson County, Missouri. In her teen years, she worked as a house slave in Jefferson, Missouri. When the union took possession of the state of Missouri, freed slaves often were used by the Union army in positions such as cooks. During the civil war, at just seventeen she worked for the army as a cook and did laundry for the army. This enabled her to travel all over the country under General Philip Sheridan.
After the war ended, Cathay made the decision to join the army. Since women were not allowed to enlist, she disguised herself as a young man. She was described as being tall, with dark skin and short dark hair so it wasn’t hard for her to be mistaken for a man. What was hard was passing the physical, but somehow the army doctor did just a very quick exam and passed her. She enlisted using the name William Cathay. Cathay served for about 2 years until repeated illness sent her to the hospital several times and eventually a doctor discovered her gender. She was given an honorable discharge on Oct 14, 1868. After her discharge from the army, Cathay joined what came to be known as “the Buffalo Soldiers”. She was the first female African America to serve in the United States Army. Years later the story of Cathay Williams, the first African American woman to serve in the military was written about in the St. Louis Times.
Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok's Grave in Deadwood
Women who lived in the western states had to grown up to be tough. Many of them like Calamity Jane had to learn to shoot, ride horses and be as rough and tough as the men in the west in order to survive.
Calamity Jane was born May 1, 1852 as Martha Jane Cannary. Her parents were Robert and Charlotte Cannary and she was the oldest of six children. Her parents were a rather rough and hard living couple who moved the family from place to place looking for work. They died when Martha Jane was still very young, only 12 years old. Martha Jane was quickly forced into doing whatever she could to survive. This often meant that because she was a tall, stocky woman she was capable of doing work that mostly men would have done. She moved to Deadwood, South Dakota and this is when the legend of Calamity Jane really began. Here she met Wild Bill Hickok, and rumors flew that they were romantically involved, although this is questionable. She worked, dressed, swore and drank just like the men did. She worked as an army scout and was a sharpshooter with a rifle. Soon Martha became known as Calamity Jane and became a western legend. She made history by touring with Buffalo Bill’ famous Wild West Show in 1895 with her sharpshooting skills. Calamity Jane, despite her fame, I believe did not have a very happy or easy life. Calamity Jane was a heavy drinker and died an early death. She is buried next to Wild Bill Hickok in Deadwood, South Dakota.
The story of Ella Watson is a two sided story. There is the story the newspaper printed immediately after Ella and her boyfriend or partner were lynched and there is the story that was told after more facts were discovered. Ella Watson has been portrayed as an evil villain but that may not be the real story.
Ella married her first husband when she was only eighteen years old. She left him when he proved to be an abusive husband. She moved to Rawlings, Wyoming where she first worked in a hotel. She also did something that was unheard of in Wyoming in those early days. Wyoming was not yet a state, but a territory and the men in the territory did not take it well when Ella (a woman) filed a homestead claim for one hundred and sixty acres of good grazing land and started raising cattle.
Ella also met Averell Verill who was many things in the small town near the Sweetwater River. He was the postmaster, ran a small general store, land surveyor and was the justice of the peace. Ella helped him in his store and he probably helped her with her homesteading claim. Averell also purchased land or filed a homestead claim so between the two of them they had a rather nice but small ranch.
This was a time when there was almost no law in Wyoming. Cattle barons owned large ranches and the cattle business was booming. The cattle were allowed to roam and sometimes wandered from the herds. Sometimes unbranded calves and cattle were hard to prove just who owned the cattle. At first this wasn’t a big problem because the cattle barons were still making high profits. However, there were several seasons when drought hit the area as well as the market for beef bottomed out. The grazing land became overused from so many herds of cattle and water became an issue.
It seems that Ella and Averell owned property with a fairly good water supply but had fenced off sections of their property. From western stories and movies we have heard about cattle ranchers and deadly fighting over water rights. I would guess that this is what started the dispute between Ella Watson and the rich cattle barons.
On July 20, 1988 a group of landowners, probably drunk, went to Ella’s cabin and forced her into a buggy and then they went after Averell. Ella and Averell were then hung from a cottonwood tree. It was then that the stories begun that Ella had been rustling cattle and that Averell had been running a house of prostitution in town. There really was no evidence of any of these claims but this is what the newspapers printed and these stories spread across the United States and made Ella a villain and female outlaw of the west. The men who did the lynching were never tried or brought to justice.
Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch
Anne and Josie Basset Sisters
Annie and Josie Bassett were the daughters of Herbert and Elizabeth Basset. Herbert was an educated man who had been a teacher, then later served in the Union Army. During the gold rush years, his brother Samuel headed west and Herbert decided to move his family west due to his health. The family ended up settling in Brown’s Hole, Colorado. His wife, Elizabeth renamed it “Brown’s Park” because of its natural beauty. The family settled down there and built a small cabin; started ranching and their family grew to four children.
Herbert tended to be more quiet and calmer than his beautiful wild wife. The Bassett family was very social and welcomed everyone into their home. Strangers, church going neighbors, travelers and many times even outlaws hiding from the law. Butch Cassidy was one of those famous outlaws and was romantically involved with both Anne and Josie Bassett at different times. Members of the Butch Cassidy gang, The Wild Bunch were welcome visitors.
Elizabeth, Anne and Josie’s mother was a beautiful woman who could ride rope, shoot, and rustle cattle as good as the men who were devoted to her. These men would do anything she asked them to do even if it was breaking the law. Her two daughters took after her and after her death when she only thirty seven, they took over running the ranch. By this time there was a feud going on between the small ranches and the big cattle barons, particularly the Two Bars Ranch.
Anne was involved with several of the outlaws that hung out at the ranch but then she did become engaged to Matt Rash. Before they were married though, the owner of the Two Bar Ranch brought in a hired gun, Tom Horn, to hunt down cattle rustlers and Matt Rash was shot and died. After this things escalated between the two families. Anne would drive many of the Two Bar Ranch cattle over a cliff in revenge. At one point she stood trial for cattle rustling but was acquitted. She was so well liked and the cattle rancher so hated that she was given a parade in honor of her acquittal.
While Anne was the more daredevil of the two girls, Josie was more domesticated but she could hold her own on the ranch, riding, roping, shooting and rustling cattle. Josie was married five times. She divorced four of those husbands and the fifth died of poisoning. Josie was charged with his murder but was acquitted. In her later years she was asked if she poisoned the fifth husband. Her answer was a smile and she just said that some husbands are harder to get rid of. Josie also stood trial for cattle rustling but was again acquitted.
Were They Outlaws or Victims
This is just a few of the stories of women of the Wild West but they are fascinating stories. Were these women villains or were they just women ahead of their times, trying to survive in a rough man’s world. Some do seem to truly be villains that earned their reputations as women outlaws. But the case of Ella Watson is a sad one of a woman caught up in a man’s world and unable to protect herself against rich drunken men.
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© 2019 L.M. Hosler