We talk with author Katie Hickman about her new book and some of its standout women who migrated West across the treacherous frontier.
For far too long, the American West canon has centered around men, with larger-than-life personas like Buffalo Bill, Wyatt Earp, and Jesse James burned into our collective memory. But these enduring tales of cowboys and outlaws overlook the pivotal role women played during that era. To set the record straight, best-selling British author Katie Hickman dug into the real-life accounts of the women who helped shape the West, from the white settlers who made the treacherous cross-country journey to the African American slaves who accompanied them to the Native American tribes who had long inhabited those lands. As brilliantly told in Brave Hearted: The Women of the American West, the interplay of their inextricably intertwined existences paints a fuller picture.
The author of 10 history-focused books, Hickman spent months poring over diaries, letters, and personal accounts in order to tell these stories that are at once singular and symbolic. She admits that the book in its final form was much different than the one she set out to write — largely due to those characterized depictions of the West that are so familiar for many of us. Along the way, she developed a deep connection with the women whose tales she deftly weaves together in this tapestry-like tome.
“So much of how we perceive the American West is through movies, which were based partly on truth but were mostly fantasy,” she explains. “If we look back in history, men were the ones making the movies, telling these very male stories that offered an unreconstructed idea of what a man was and often omitted relevant historical background. Women were highly romanticized and Native Americans were demonized in order to justify their displacement and killing. It was the story people wanted to tell themselves at the time. When I set out to write the book, I thought it was going to be a pretty straightforward story about the women who were a part of it all. But when I began to research, I realized the narrative arc was actually a story about migration.”
To set the scene: The great migration began in earnest in 1840, when the United States comprised just 26 states. The so-called frontier was an idealized place that lay west of the Mississippi River, much of it dubbed Indian or Unorganized Territory. Although white men had previously ventured there to hunt and trap, it wasn’t until women made the journey that white families began to put down roots, building homesteads and farms. What began as a handful of wayfaring groups quickly turned into tens of thousands of nomads within a matter of years, thanks to depictions of destinations like California and Oregon as bountiful escapes from the economic hardships of the East.
Women on horseback.
The turbulence experienced on this monthslong expedition is not to downplayed, Hickman notes. Settlers’ naive optimism soon soured as they encountered challenging conditions that defied their improbable expectations. The harsh realities they faced stood in stark contrast to the pastoral pictures portrayed in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series. Countless people nearly starved, fell ill, or perished along the way. Inadequate supply reserves were strictly rationed or ran out altogether. Loads had to be lightened for exhausted, hungry oxen and horses, with personal possessions like clothing, trunks, and bookcases abandoned along the trail.
“As part of my research, I took a road trip down the California Trail from Independence, Missouri, and the idea that these families covered thousands of miles in a wagon and on foot is simply astonishing,” Hickman says. “Most of these women were just ordinary women who were trying to do their best for their families and who got swept up in this great movement. They were not the ones killing Native Americans; they were not the ones signing treaties then reneging on the conditions.”
These migrating women came from all classes, backgrounds, and ethnicities — many of them poorly represented in historical accounts. “They have only one thing in common,” Hickman writes. “Whoever they were and wherever they came from, their decision to uproot themselves from everything they held dear and make the journey west was the defining moment of their lives.”
A promotional photograph of Olive Oatman, taken shortly after her "rescue" from captivity among the Mohave.
Hickman admits to having a “love-hate relationship” with missionaries like Eliza Spalding and Narcissa Whitman, the first white women to make this “unheard-of journey for females” in 1836. “I hate the idea of missionaries thinking they can go into another culture and try to convert them to a supposedly superior worldview,” Hickman says. “On the other hand, if you were a woman with ambition in the mid-19th century, there was nowhere for that ambition to go. You were relegated to being a wife and a mother — or you could be a missionary. Narcissa Whitman believed she was doing a good thing and gave up absolutely everything to do it. But ultimately they didn’t make any converts and instead totally alienated the Cayuse people, who all died because of the diseases brought in. Her only daughter died, and she ended up being killed — a dreadful life indeed.”
Many Black women, both enslaved and free, also went west. Among the most remarkable is Biddy Mason, who was born into slavery but went on to become one of the first African American landowners in Los Angeles. She and her three children embarked on the expedition in 1848 with Robert Smith’s family and the Mississippi Mormons, who were following Brigham Young’s call to build the Kingdom of God. Despite having no formal education, Mason was adept at livestock management, a skill put to use during the seven months on the trail.
After a three-year stopover in Utah, the Smith clan decamped to California. Although the state’s new constitution prohibited slavery, many people ignored the law and faced no consequences. As attitudes on this shifted in the early 1850s, Smith felt compelled to move his troupe out of California to avoid losing ownership of his so-called possessions. But Mason and her family, now even larger with the passage of time, had the support of notable freed Blacks like Elizabeth Flake and Robert Owens, who petitioned the local court on their behalf.
This prompted a dramatic legal battle replete with bribery, threats, and similarly unsavory tactics. Notably, as Hickman points out, if the trial had taken place just a year later in 1857, it would have been governed by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision that a slave’s residence in a free state or territory did not make that slave free. But in the case of Mason v. Smith, the judge ruled in Mason’s favor, granting her family a freedom they had never experienced that ultimately allowed her to shape history.
“Biddy Mason’s story is extraordinary,” Hickman says. “She went to court to find her freedom then became a very successful midwife and one of the first African Americans to own property in Los Angeles. It’s absolutely remarkable.”
Of course, the “free” land that lured settlers west wasn’t free at all. For millennia, it had been inhabited by countless Native American communities with sophisticated societal structures, rich cultural traditions, and an interconnected way of life.
The historian Josephine Waggoner (seated, center) as a child.
“There were not very many Native American accounts, but the ones I found were very instructive and so beautifully written,” Hickman explains, acknowledging that much Indigenous oral history has unfortunately been lost over time. “The language was so poetic even though these women were chronicling the end of a way of life — a holocaust, really. The material is very intense and difficult to read, but these first-person accounts are so powerful because you realize that this was an actual person and that it actually happened to them. They’re really shocking tales.”
Particularly informative are the recollections of Sarah Winnemucca of the Northern Paiute tribe, who resided across what is now northern Nevada, eastern California, and southern Oregon. “I was a very small child when the first white people came into our country,” she writes in her 1883 book Life Among the Piutes, the first known autobiography by a Native American woman. “They came like a lion, yes, like a roaring lion, and have continued so ever since, and I have never forgotten their first coming.” Winnemucca went on to become an educator, a U.S. Army interpreter, and a tireless activist and advocate for her people.
Early on during this mass migration there was coexistence, even intermarriage, with Native American tribes often assisting ill-equipped settlers as they encountered unforeseen challenges. “There was a moment when people were living harmoniously together,” Hickman says. “It makes you wonder if the number of settlers had been far fewer if white people would have had to find a better way to live alongside the original Native inhabitants. It was really a numbers game, given the sheer number of people trying to get to Oregon and California — especially after gold was discovered — who saw the Native peoples as an impediment to what they wanted.”
Unnamed woman on a paint horse.
The Paiute originally welcomed white settlers, in part because of tribal mythology that they would one day be reunited with their white brethren. “But those friendly overtures were doomed from the beginning because of the literal fairy tales that white people had been told about what might happen if they met Native Americans,” Hickman says, alluding to the extreme brutality that resulted in the decimation of so many Native American communities. In modern-day California alone, she writes, it’s estimated that the Indigenous population diminished from 150,000 in 1848 to fewer than 30,000 by 1870.
The violence that so many tribal peoples experienced is embodied in the story of Sally Bell, as she became known by the white settlers who eventually took her in. A member of the Sinkyone tribe of Northern California, she was but a child when the Needle Rock Massacre took place, in which a vigilante militia destroyed her village and killed most of her family before her very eyes.
“They killed my grandfather and my mother and my father. I saw them do it,” a passage of Bell’s personal account reads. “I was a big girl at the time. Then they killed my baby sister and cut her heart out and threw it in the brush where I ran and hid. My little sister was just a baby, just crawling around. I didn’t know what to do. I was so scared that I guess I just hid there a long time with my little sister’s heart in my hands.”
But it is Josephine Waggoner — a woman of Hunkpapa Lakota and Irish heritage who led a “life of many overlapping worlds” — who Hickman considers the heroine of her book. In fact, seemingly serendipitous timing allowed Hickman access to Waggoner’s tome Witness: A Hunkpapha Historian’s Strong-Heart Song of the Lakotas, published in 2013, 70 years after her death. The compilation of decades’ worth of interviews with elders, historians, and other knowledge keepers, this seminal work offers rare firsthand and as-told-to stories about life in the Lakota heartland, including 60 biographies of tribal leaders.
This peaceful, pastoral scene belies the very real dangers settlers faced on their 2,200-mile journey west.
For Hickman, this underscores the importance of her efforts to map herstory onto history. “My whole writing life has been dedicated to bringing out women’s stories, because for so long they got pushed to the side,” she affirms. “People thought their testimony wasn’t interesting or important. But these women’s stories have great power; so many of them are about life and death. As the temporary custodian of these stories, I felt a great responsibility to tell them as truthfully as possible.”
Though the tales of Brave Hearted are rooted in the 19th-century American West, the book’s lessons span both space and time. “The biggest takeaway is that we should listen to everyone’s story carefully — no matter who they are,” Hickman concludes. “The more different someone is from you, the more carefully you should pay attention to their story. The modern equivalent to this is the immigration issue we’re seeing in both the United States and Britain. People are scared of immigrants because they think of them as this amorphous, faceless mass — not actual human beings. But as soon as you sit down and listen to someone’s story, they become a human being with whom you naturally feel a connection.”
Excerpts and imagery used with permission from Brave Hearted: The Women of the American West, published by Spiegel & Grau. Copyright © 2022 Katie Hickman.
This article appears in our October 2023 issue, available on newsstands or through our C&I Shop.