Currier & Ives, Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons
The Pentagon opens combat roles to women, marking a milestone in the long history of armed women in the United States that starts in the Revolutionary War.
One American warrior woman was on the front lines before there was even a United States. Mary Ludwig-Hays accompanied her artilleryman husband, William Hays, to Valley Forge and then to the Battle of Monmouth in 1778. The story goes that her husband was wounded in battle and Mary, who had been carrying pitchers of water to help cool the cannons, took his place and helped keep the guns firing. Her bravery attracted the notice of George Washington who raised Mary to the rank of non-commissioned officer, according to the biography They Called Her Molly Pitcher. Her work carrying water pitchers earned her the nickname “Molly Pitcher.”
The moniker Molly Pitcher may not have been given to Mary alone. The real Mary Ludwig-Hays has blended into a legend that may actually tell of the heroic actions of numerous women. The day of the Battle of Monmouth was reported to be over 100 F (38 C). The soldiers were overheating just as much as the cannons. A number of women likely braved British bullets to bring pitchers of water to quench the soldiers' thirst as well as cool and clean the cannons. The cry “Molly! Pitcher!” would let the women know someone needed their help.
H.R. Locke, Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons
After the revolution was won, warrior women moved west with the advancing Manifest Destiny of the American frontier. One of them was Martha Jane Canary. She was born in Missouri, but moved west with her family until a series of calamities left her scraping to support her siblings in Piedmont, Wyoming.
However, it wasn't her hard youth that earned her the nickname Calamity Jane. One story goes that it was on account of the fact that any man who fancied her was “courting calamity.” Jane herself was enamored with the liquor bottle and suffered from alcoholism for much of her life.
Jane served as a scout in the conquest of the Native American nations of the plains. In her service, she reportedly once swam across a river then rode 90 miles at top speed while soaking wet to deliver urgent communications.
Eventually she ended up in Deadwood, South Dakota where she became infatuated with Wild Bill Hickok, who did not return her affection. While in Deadwood, Jane reportedly defended a stagecoach from an attack by Native Americans and drove the coach into town after the driver was shot. She also nursed the inhabitants of the town after an outbreak of smallpox in 1876.
After Hickok was shot in poker game, Calamity Jane drifted until she found work with the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show. She didn't show off her shooting and riding skills. Instead, she told stories about herself that got bigger with each telling. The decades of liquor and hard living caught up with her on August 1, 1903, leaving a mixture of self-promoted myths and true tales of heroism.
'The Custer Fight' Charles Russell, Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons
Moving Robe Woman
While Martha Jane Canary brought calamity down upon the Native Americans, one woman warrior was fighting back.
In 1876, Moving Robe Woman of the Hunkpapa Lakota sought revenge for the death of her brother, One Hawk, during the Battle of Little Big Horn, famous as Custer's last stand. Moving Robe Woman rode out for vengeance with another group of warriors to bolster the Lakota assault on Custer's 7th Cavalry.
Some stories say that Moving Robe delivered the fatal blow to Custer with a knife. However, post-mortem examinations of Custer found that he had died of gunshot wounds.
World Telegram staff photographer, Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons
One of the first Americans to call for women to be allowed to serve in combat was another star of Buffalo Bill's show, Phoebe Ann Moses, better known as Annie Oakley.
Like Calamity Jane, Annie's hard youth led to later fame as a warrior woman. After her father died, she started trapping animals and learned to shoot to put food on the table. At age 15, she was such a crack shot that she paid off her mother's mortgage by selling her excess quarry to restaurants and hotels.
It was in one of those hotels that Annie won a shooting contest, while still just 15, against the man she would eventually marry. The two joined Buffalo Bill's show and Annie took the stage name Annie Oakley. Another famous member of Buffalo Bill's troupe, Sitting Bull, called 5-foot tall Annie, Watanya Cicilla, which translated to Little Sure Shot.
Annie Oakley was an advocate for women's rights and believed all female should be taught to use firearms. Before the Spanish-American war, Annie volunteered her services as a sharp shooter and urged President McKinley to allow a company of 50 “lady sharpshooters” to join the Armed Forces.
Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons
Walking Robe Woman and Mary Ludwig-Hays were fighting for their people's survival, while Calamity Jane and Annie Oakley, despite their rough streaks, were generally known for their heroic adventures. Other American warrior women were decidedly wicked.
Laura Bullion was an outlaw, who rode with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid's Wild Bunch. Her father too was a criminal and likely introduced her, at age 13, to two nefarious Wild Bunch gangsters who would also become her lovers. William “News” Carver was involved with Bullion for a time when she was 15, while she was working as a prostitute. Later, the bank and train robber Ben “Tall Texan” Kilpatrick and Bullion formed an amorous relationship.
Law enforcement officials believed that Bullion dressed as a boy when she assisted the gang in their robberies. She also helped them fence their stolen good and acquire supplies.
Bullions' wild life was halted in 1901 when she was arrested in St. Louis, Missouri and convicted for her role in a train robbery. She served three years and six months in prison. Unlike the bloody end most of the Wild Bunch found, Bullion seemed to calm down after her time behind bars. She moved to Memphis, Tennessee and lived a quiet life until 1961, when she died as the last survivor of the Wild Bunch gang.
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Or maybe Bullion wasn't the last Wild Bunch woman. Etta Place, the lover of the Sundance Kid, disappeared after the probable death of the Kid in a shootout with Bolivian soldiers.
Even Place's name is mysterious. Little is know about her until she appears in the investigation notes of the Pinkerton Detective Agency as the consort of Harry Longabaugh, the real-name of the Sundance Kid. She was good looking, 5'4" to 5'5" tall, weighed 110-115 pounds, with a medium build and brown hair, according to the detective agency.
She is known to have accompanied Butch and Sundance to Argentina in 1905, where she assisted the outlaws in a bank robbery. They then evaded capture by South American authorities by crossing the Andes into Chile. In 1906, the criminal team returned to the U.S., but Place didn't go back to South America with her ill- fated lover, who likely died riddled with Bolivian bullets in 1908.
The last time she appeared was in 1909 when she requested a copy of the Sundance Kid's death certificate from Bolivian authorities. What happened to her after that is lost to time.
Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons
Unlike Place, the end of the short, violent life of Bonnie Parker was well-documented. Advances in the mass media during the early 20th century made Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow infamous and famous on the national stage right up to their gruesome finale.
Photographs taken by Parker were discovered after a raid on the Joplin, Missouri hideout of Bonnie and Clyde's gang. The newly developed newswire spread the photos nationwide, along with exaggerated, glamorous accounts of the gang's life. The clowning photos of Parker chomping on a cigar with a pistol on her hip, cemented her image as the classic bad girl, although she later claimed she didn't smoke cigars and police accounts are unclear whether she ever fired a shot at any of the nine police and numerous civilians killed by her gang.
Bonnie and Clyde enjoyed public Robin Hood-style popularity until their wanton killing turned popular support against them. The police had never rooted for the couple and were closing in on them with renewed ferocity after the gang's raid on a Texas prison in 1934.
Bonnie and Clyde's murderous adventure of fame and infamy ended on a remote road in Louisiana on May 23, 1934. Six lawmen ended the duo's lives, pumping an estimated 17 bullets into Clyde and 26 into Bonnie.