Historically Speaking: Women Who Made the American West

From authors to outlaws, female pioneers helped to shape frontier society.

The Wall Street Journal

September 9, 2020

On Sept. 14, 1920, Connecticut became the 37th state to ratify the 19th Amendment, which guaranteed women the right to vote. The exercise was largely symbolic, since ratification had already been achieved thanks to Tennessee on August 18. Still, the fact that Connecticut and the rest of the laggard states were located in the eastern part of the U.S. wasn’t a coincidence. Though women are often portrayed in Westerns as either vixens or victims, they played a vital role in the life of the American frontier.

The outlaw Belle Starr, born Myra Belle Shirley, in 1886.
PHOTO: ROEDER BROTHERS/BUYENLARGE/GETTY IMAGES

Louisa Ann Swain of Laramie, Wyo., was the first woman in the U.S. to vote legally in a general election, in September 1870. The state was also ahead of the pack in granting women the right to sit on a jury, act as a justice of the peace and serve as a bailiff. Admittedly, it wasn’t so much enlightened thinking that opened up these traditionally male roles as it was the desperate shortage of women. No white woman crossed the continent until 17-year-old Nancy Kelsey traveled with her husband from Missouri to California in 1841. Once there, as countless pioneer women subsequently discovered, the family’s survival depended on her ability to manage without his help.

Women can and must fend for themselves was the essential message in the ‘”Little House on the Prairie” series of books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, who was brought up on a series of homesteads in Wisconsin and Minnesota in the 1870s. Independence was so natural to her that she refused to say “I obey” in her marriage vows, explaining, “even if I tried, I do not think I could obey anybody against my better judgment.”

Although the American frontier represented incredible hardship and danger, for many women it also offered a unique kind of freedom. They could forge themselves anew, seizing opportunities that would have been impossible for women in the more settled and urbanized parts of the country.

This was especially true for women of color. Colorado’s first Black settler was a former slave named Clara Brown, who won her freedom in 1856 and subsequently worked her way west to the gold-mining town of Central City. Recognizing a need in the market, she founded a successful laundry business catering to miners and their families. Some of her profits went to buy land and shares in mines; the rest she spent on philanthropy, earning her the nickname “Angel of the Rockies.” After the Civil War, Brown made it her mission to locate her lost family, ultimately finding a grown-up daughter, Eliza.

However, the flip of side of being able to “act like men” was that women had to be prepared to die like men, too. Myra Belle Shirley, aka Belle Starr, was a prolific Texas outlaw whose known associates included the notorious James brothers. Despite a long criminal career that mainly involved bootlegging and fencing stolen horses, Starr was convicted only once, resulting in a nine-month prison sentence in the Detroit House of Correction. Her luck finally ran out in 1889, two days before her 41st birthday. By now a widow for the third time, Belle was riding alone in Oklahoma when she was shot and killed in an ambush. The list of suspects included her own children, although the murder was never solved.

WSJ Historically Speaking: When We Rally ‘Round the Flag: A History

Flag Day passes every year almost unnoticed. That’s a shame—it celebrates a symbol with ties to religious and totemic objects that have moved people for millennia

The Supreme Court declared in 1989 that desecrating the American flag is a protected form of free speech. That ended the legal debate but not the national one over how we should treat the flag. If anything, two years of controversies over athletes kneeling during “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which led last month to a National Football League ban on the practice, show that feelings are running higher than ever.

Yet, Flag Day—which honors the adoption of the Stars and Stripes by Congress on June 14, 1777—is passing by almost unnoticed this year, as it does almost every year. One reason is that Memorial Day and Independence Day—holidays of federally sanctioned free time, parades and spectacle—flank and overshadow it. That’s a shame, because we could use a day devoted to reflecting on our flag, a precious national symbol whose potency can be traced to the religious and totemic objects that have moved people for millennia.

The first flags were not pieces of cloth but metal or wooden standards affixed to poles. The Shahdad Standard, thought to be the oldest flag, hails from Persia and dates from around 2400 B.C. Because ancient societies considered standards to be conduits for the power and protection of the gods, an army always went into battle accompanied by priests bearing the kingdom’s religious emblems. Isaiah Chapter 49 includes the lines: “Thus saith the Lord God, Behold, I will lift up mine hand to the Gentiles, and set up my standard to the people.”

Ancient Rome added a practical use for standards—waving, dipping and otherwise manipulating them to show warring troops what to do next. But the symbols retained their aura as national totems, emblazoned with the letters SPQR, an abbreviation of Senatus Populusque Romanus, or Senate and People of Rome. It was a catastrophe for a legion to lose its standard in battle. In Germania in A.D. 9, a Roman army was ambushed while marching through Teutoburg Forest and lost three standards. The celebrated general Germanicus eventually recovered two of them after a massive and bloody campaign.

In succeeding centuries, the flag as we know it today began to take shape. Europeans and Arabs learned silk production, pioneered by China, which made it possible to create banners light enough to flutter in the wind. As in ancient days, they were most often designed with heraldic or religious motifs.

In the U.S., the design of the flag harked back to the Roman custom of an explicitly national symbol, but the Star-Spangled Banner was slow to attain its unique status, despite the popularity of Francis Scott Key’s 1814 anthem. It took the Civil War, with its dueling flags, to make the American flag an emblem of national consciousness. As the U.S. Navy moved to capture New Orleans from the Confederacy in 1862, Marines went ashore and raised the Stars and Stripes at the city’s mint. William Mumford, a local resident loyal to the Confederacy, tore the flag down and wore shreds of it in his buttonhole. U.S. General Benjamin Butler had Mumford arrested and executed.

After the war, the Stars and Stripes became a symbol of reconciliation. In 1867 Southerners welcomed Wisconsin war veteran Gilbert Bates as he carried the flag 1,400 miles across the South to show that the nation was healing.

As the country developed economically, a new peril lay in store for the Stars and Stripes: commercialization. The psychological and religious forces that had once made flags sacred began to fade, and the national banner was recruited for the new industry of mass advertising. Companies of the late 19th century used it to sell everything from beer to skin cream, leading to national debates over what the flag stood for and how it should be treated.

President Woodrow Wilson instituted Flag Day in 1916 in an effort to concentrate the minds of citizens on the values embodied in our most familiar national symbol. That’s as worthy a goal today as it was a century ago.

WSJ Historically Speaking: Mercy in Victory Is as Ancient as War

Photo: MARY EVANS PICTURE LIBRARY/EVERETT COLLECTION

Photo: MARY EVANS PICTURE LIBRARY/EVERETT COLLECTION

All wars involve suffering and bloodshed, but not all defeats must lead to death or living hell. One reason why next week’s 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War invites national commemoration instead of civil unrest is that, from the outset, the chief Union protagonists consciously promoted the ideal of victorious restraint toward the vanquished South.

When Gen. Ulysses S. Grant met with Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee on April 9, 1865, the Union commander showed he understood that winning the peace would be as important as winning the war. His conditions for surrender included allowing Lee’s men to keep their sidearms for protection, as well as a horse or a mule for the spring harvest. For his part, Lee urged his men to accept their defeat with dignity and to return home for good.

In later years, for all the disappointments that followed during Reconstruction, Grant’s foresight at Appomattox remained a touchstone for peace and rapprochement, helping keep the spirit of unity alive.

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Smithsonian Magazine: The British View the War of 1812 Quite Differently Than Americans Do

Photo: Bettmann/CORBIS

Photo: Bettmann/CORBIS

As we look forward to celebrating the bicentennial of the “Star-Spangled Banner” by Francis Scott Key, I have to admit, with deep shame and embarrassment, that until I left England and went to college in the U.S., I assumed the words referred to the War of Independence. In my defense, I suspect I’m not the only one to make this mistake

For people like me, who have got their flags and wars mixed up, I think it should be pointed out that there may have been only one War of 1812, but there are four distinct versions of it—the American, the British, the Canadian and the Native American. Moreover, among Americans, the chief actors in the drama, there are multiple variations of the versions, leading to widespread disagreement about the causes, the meaning and even the outcome of the war.

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