Historical Fiction: Do Your Research

Editor’s note: when writing historical fiction, research is crucial. In this essay, author Heidi M. Thomas shares just some of the research she did to bring her novel, Cowgirl Dreams, to life.

Cowgirls: Empowered Women

The first cowgirls, like my grandmother in Montana, helped on their family ranches out of necessity. At an early age they learned to ride horses, rope cattle, and stay in the saddle atop an untamed bucking bronco. They competed with the men in those early ranch gatherings and continued to do so at the organized roundup events.

In 1885, Annie Oakley, a diminutive sharpshooter in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, paved the way for other women to be recognized in the rodeo arena. Two years later, Bertha Kaepernick was allowed to enter a horse race in Cheyenne’s Frontier Days only because the arena was so muddy the cowboys refused to participate. To entertain the crowd, she was coerced into riding a bucking horse. Despite the terrible conditions, she managed to stay in the saddle, and put the men to shame. She continued to compete and often beat such legendary cowboys as Ben Corbett and Hoot Gibson.

Prairie Rose Henderson Following in Bertha’s footsteps years later, Prairie Rose Henderson of Wyoming forced the Cheyenne organizers to allow her to ride. She went on to become one of the most flamboyant cowgirls of the era, dressing in bright colors, sequins and ostrich plumes over bloomers.

Lucille Mulhall, whose father, Colonel Zack Mulhall, ran a Wild West Show, was described in a 1900 New York World article as “only ninety pounds, can break a bronc, lasso and brand a steer, and shoot a coyote at 500 yards. She can also play Chopin, quote Browning, and make mayonnaise.” Both Teddy Roosevelt and Will Rogers have been credited with giving Lucille the title “cowgirl”. She also went on to appear in silent films.

Between 1885 and 1935, many women proudly wore that title and competed with men, riding thesame broncs, steers and bulls. They also roped and bull-dogged alongside their male counterparts. The list includes Marie Gibson, Alice and Margie Greenough, Fox Hastings (one of the few women bulldoggers), Tad Lucas, Vera McGinnis (who shocked the public by wearing pants), Bonnie McCarrol, Florence Randolph, Ruth Roach, Fanny Sperry Steele, Mabel Strickland, Lorena Trickey (infamous for stabbing her lover to death with a pocket knife), Margie Wright, and many others.

Rodeo, today a competitive sport with college scholarships, developed from the everyday world of cattle ranching. Its roots and many terms stem from the Spanish conquistadors of the 1700s. The first rodeos began in the mid-1800s with informal contests held among working cowboys to see who could ride the meanest bronc or rope a steer the fastest.

A hundred years ago bronc busting didn’t have the life-saving luxury of a buzzer going off after eight seconds. Cowboys rode until they were bucked off or the horse gave up, whichever came first. Some of those rides lasted up to twenty minutes. Events later became more organized when cowboys drove thousands of cattle and horses to town in the yearly round-up, usually around July 4th. By 1920, rodeos regularly featured three cowgirl events-ladies’ bronc riding, trick riding, and at rodeos with a race track, cowgirls’ relay racing. To score in the saddle bronc event, women had to stay on board eight seconds (the men rode ten) and they were allowed to ride with two reins, although they could opt to use one as the men did.

The time limit changed to eight seconds for men and six seconds for women during the 1950s. This is the kind of life Nettie, the heroine of my book, Cowgirl Dreams, lived and aspired to.

Heidi M. Thomas is a creative writing instructor, freelance editor and manuscript consultant. Learn more about Heidi, her books and services on her site.