BY LINDA HULL
Rotary Club of Los Alamos
“‘Scandalous’ as defined by the standards of the 1800s. These are women who lived outside the role of traditional wife and mother,” explained author Donna Pedace who spoke via zoom to the Rotary Club of Los Alamos on Tuesday, December 8 about her newly-released book, Scandalous Women of the Old West: Women Who Dared to be Different.
In preparation for writing her book about a subject that had fascinated her for years, Pedace delved deeply into historical documents, such as diaries and newspaper reports, to dispel “the myths and suppositions” that surrounded the lives of the 130 women she originally researched. “The most difficult part of the process was choosing 10 women for the book.” She eventually chose the final ten based upon the diversity of their backgrounds and exceptional life experiences, beginning with those whose birthdates fell in the early 1880s on through 1885, thus spanning most of the 19th century. Pedace said she intentionally added very few editorial comments. The women and the lives they led stand on their own.
The book begins with the life story of Doña Tules, “who is probably the best known of the women” in Pedace’s book. Born near the turn of the 19th century, she is remembered as “an incredibly shrewd business woman,” and “probably the only woman in U.S. history who loaned the federal government money to launch a military campaign.” It is not known if General Stephen Kearney repaid his $1000 debt to outfit the troops headed to Chihuahua, Mexico.
The book ends with mule pack operator Olga Schaaff Little whose life began in 1885 and extended well into the 20th century. She is best known for her long years of transporting precious metals from mines in Colorado and for leading 15 miners to safety during a blinding blizzard when they had run out of food.
In between the pages that pay tribute to Tules and Little are the true stories of Mary Field, nicknamed Stagecoach Mary, who was born into slavery yet worked in missions of the Roman Catholic Church in Ohio and Montana. Her drinking and legendary brawling, winning most fights against her male opponents, motivated the Bishop to urge her to seek work elsewhere. For many of the ensuing years, she was a mail carrier, beloved by those on her Montana routes.
There are the two wives of Horace Tabor, Augusta and Elizabeth “Baby Doe,” whose poignant lives were colored by the fluctuating market for silver; the Apache war shaman, Lozen, who rode on raids into New Mexico and was a friend to Geronimo; and Nellie Cashman, “Angel of the Miners,” who, when a military rescue failed, organized and led a team of six men to save 150 stranded miners during a brutal winter in northern British Columbia. She eventually settled north of the Arctic Circle and traveled thousands of miles each year to spend time in Arizona.
We cannot overlook Mattie Silks Thomson Ready, Denver’s most successful madam; Susan McSween Barber, a survivor of the Lincoln County War, who became known as the “Cattle Queen of New Mexico”; Polly Bemis, a Chinese woman, who, as a child, was sold into slavery by her family to work in Idaho; or anthropologist and society maven Elsie Clews Parsons, Ph.D.
Pedace concluded her presentation by reminding us that “what these women experienced is well outside the realm of our experience.”
Pedace, who grew up on a farm in Missouri, confesses to an eclectic career path. After graduating from college in California, she worked for General Dynamics in Connecticut on the nuclear prototype and first operational Trident submarine. Ten years later, she returned to California to open a boutique travel agency, followed by positions as executive director in several national education and arts organizations including the Spanish Colonial Art Society and Museum in Santa Fe. As a member of the Rotary Club of Albuquerque del Norte, Pedace has directed two of District 5520’s major international travel programs. After years of research, Pedace remarked that she had “run out of excuses,” so pursued the opportunity provided by the pandemic to write a book about “those scandalous women of the Old West.” Pedace’s book, Scandalous Women of the Old West—Women Who Dared to Be Different, is available through Amazon.com.