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Thursday, July 7, 2011

A Woman Goes Up the Trail

History books would have you believe that only cowboys went “up the trail” on the cattle drives of the late 1800’s. But women went too. Though few in comparison to men, there were more women who made the trip than you might think. And they went as drovers, owners, and just plain cowhands.  One reason I enjoy this period of American history is the many “unconventional-for-the-times” roles western women were allowed to play in the midst of the Victorian Gilded Age.
One of my favorite stories about a woman on the cattle trails is that of Estelle “Amanda” Nite Burks for the very reason she found herself on the dusty, hoof-hardened, dangerous path they called the Chisholm Trail—her husband couldn’t be without her. She relates her adventures in The Trail Drivers of Texas, compiled and edited by J. Marvin Hunter, first released in 1924.
Amanda’s husband, W. F. Burks, missed her from the moment he started on the trail and sent back for her when they were only a few miles out. Amanda went in style as befitting a cattle baron’s wife. She and one of her servants rode in a little buggy “drawn by two good brown ponies.”  Her servant cooked for her and put up her tent in the evenings but, otherwise, Amanda lived like the other cowboys.
Ready to handle anything, Amanda was tested a number of times but her biggest problem seemed to be playing with fire, literally. As she relates it:
“On one occasion a prairie fire ran us out of camp before breakfast. We escaped by fleeing to a part of the plain which had been burned before, called a “a burn’ by people of that section.
Two days later my ignorance was the cause of an immense prairie fire. I thought I would build a fire in a gulley while the cook had gone for water. Not later than I had struck the match than the grass all around was in a blaze which spread so quickly that the men could not stop it. They succeeded in beating out the flanks of the fires so that it did not spread out on the sides at the beginning. The fire blazed higher than a house and went straight ahead for fifty miles or more. Investigators came next day to find out who the culprit was, and when they learned that it was a woman, nothing was said, except for a remark one of the men made that he was glad that he didn’t strike that match.”
Far from being resented by the cowboys who made the trip, she was beloved. Branch Isbell fondly recalls, in the same book, going up the trail with Amanda in attendance. “Being a ‘tenderfoot,’ I was started in at the rear end of the herd and Mrs. Burks took me under her protecting wing. I verily believe that her business success since her widowhood began, has been given her as a reward for unfailing kindness to myself and others.”
She had many notable experiences from fire, to getting lost, to plunging into creeks and avoiding stampedes. But in the spirit of a true Texan, she summed up her adventures, thus:
“I arrived home in much better health than when I left it nine months before.
Please don’t think now that I’ve finished telling the few stories of my trip over the Old Kansas Trail, that the journey was one of trials and hardships. These incidents served to break the monotony of sameness of such a trip.”
She concluded: “For what woman, youthful and full of spirit and the love of living, needs sympathy because of availing herself of the opportunity of being with her husband while at his chosen work in the great out-of-door world?”
After her husband died, Amanda continued to run the cattle ranch, diversifying to sheep ranching and expanding her ranch and buying others until it was one of the largest in her county. She was known as a good rancher and an even better businesswoman. She was elected Queen of the Old Time Trail Driver’s Association in 1924 and was immortalized in Emerson Hough’s fictional book based on her life, North of 36, which became a film and was later remade as The Texans in 1938. Anyone remember that one?
 Some of the film was shot at her ranch, La Motta. She continued to mourn her husband, who she supposedly fell in love with at first sight, for the fifty-one years she outlived him, refusing to wear anything but black or white with only a bit of lavender now and again as an accessory.
Amanda was a woman of spirit and grit but she never forgot she was also a lady.

Anne Carrole writes about cowboys who have grit, integrity and little romance on their mind and the women who love them. You can check out her contemporary romance, Re-ride at the Rodeo, at www.annecarrole.com. She also is co-editor of the review website, www.lovewesternromances.com

12 comments:

Angelyn said...

This was a wonderful post. I've grown up on stories like this--not all of them true like yours, but exciting nevertheless. Amazing insight into a world where women were scarce. Probably explains the men's reaction to the prairie grass fire.

Paisley Kirkpatrick said...

These stories about women of the west warm my heart. I can't imagine the horror she felt when that fire took off. I am so glad they weren't mean to her after that. Fires are the scariest part of life to me, someone who lives in a forest.

Great post.

Alison E. Bruce said...

Great article. These true tales are what inspire me to write. I think, what would I do? That becomes, what would my character do?

Alison

Anna Kathryn Lanier said...

Great post.I had not heard of Amanda before. Great story.

Tanya Hanson said...

What a terrific post, Anne. I love learning about strong Western women. Good job!

Debby Lee said...

Wow, I didn't know women went on cattle drives. That's so cool. I enjoyed the article but then again, I enjoy westerns. Thanks so much for sharing.

Jacquie Rogers said...

Thanks so much for posting this, Anne. I hadn't heard of her, but what a story! And what a brush fire!

Jacquie

Shobhan Bantwal said...

Very interesting post, Carol. Must have been quite an adventure for her, traveling and working alongside so many men, who I'm sure had plenty of disdain for women trying to do a "man's job," & then starting a brush fire to boot. One tough & inspiring lady!

Anne Carrole said...

I am so glad you all find Amanda's story as inspiring as I did. She had several "misadventures" on that trip, almost read like the Perils of Pauline. But in reflection at least she had a sense of humor about them. And she lived a long life, dying in 1931 (I think).

Janie Mason said...

This makes me want to read more about her. Thanks for the post.

STORIDIVA said...

Anne,

Like you I love the cowboy era. I have always loved it. I grew up with some of the best old western ever brought to the small screen.
Building a nation is hard and risky business, and took men AND WOMEN with grit to do it.
this country was built on the blood of slaves, and foreigners alike. Their children are buried in the land and the land has tales to tell.
Thank you for a great article. I always love to hear something I didn’t know about the old west.

Lily V said...

Super good post. I used some information from this for a project I'm doing in my History class. Thanks for having a good and true post! :)