The Wild West of the late 1800s and the turn of the next century was a land with loose laws, big egos, and, of course, adventure. It attracted fiery individuals, with spirits as wild as the terrain, who left colorful pages in history. It was a place where rebellious women roamed free and pushed all the envelopes ever made for the fairer sex. These 10 women reveled in the freedom of the frontier and led lives in a way that still has us talking about them today.
10 Calamity Jane
Born: Martha Jane Cannary
Lived: May 1, 1852–August 1, 1903
Areas: Wyoming, Utah, Arizona
Calamity Jane is perhaps the most famous of the wild women of the West and for good reason. She pretty much did it all when it comes to the things that brought these women notoriety. She skillfully shot a gun, told tall tales, dabbled in prostitution, committed hefty crimes, and drank—a lot.
Besides her reputation as a drunken outlaw, Calamity Jane was known for her generous heart. She and her siblings were orphaned when Jane was 14, and she took it upon herself to care for them.
This responsibility helped to shape her into a true enigma. While one of her earliest-known careers was as a dance hall girl, she also became famous for wearing men’s clothing and riding alongside the roughest cowboys on whatever work or action she could find.
Jane ended up with a plethora of careers, including a short stint as a storyteller in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. However, none of these careers lasted long due to Jane’s unfortunate chronic alcoholism.
Like many of the notable characters from the Wild West, Jane was unashamed about telling a fib. She is known for being a sidekick of Wild Bill Hickok and bragged about their friendship until the day she died. However, many who knew them both said that Jane was, in fact, obsessed with Bill rather than having a true partnership or friendship with him.
Although she was buried next to him, his friends said at the time that the location of the burial was a joke on Hickok. He was rumored to have said that he had “absolutely no use” for Jane.
9 Big Nose Kate
Born: Maria Katalin Horony
Lived: November 7, 1850–November 2, 1940
Areas: Arizona, Texas
Known primarily for being the longtime companion of Doc Holliday, Big Nose Kate was an indomitable woman to be reckoned with.
Kate’s family emigrated from Hungary to Iowa when she was 10 years old. Tragically, the roughness of the frontier left Kate and her siblings orphaned only three years later. In true outlaw fashion, she ran away from her foster home at age 15 and became a stowaway on a riverboat headed for St. Louis.
She proceeded to dabble in various careers and move around until meeting Doc Holliday in Texas in 1877. History, in fact, would not be the same without Kate, as she was the one who introduced Doc Holliday to Wyatt Earp. Kate and Doc moved to Tombstone, Arizona, with Wyatt and his brothers in 1880, and the rest is history.
Her legacy continues to this day. A Tombstone saloon named in her honor is still one of the best cowboy bars in the entire area.
8 Poker Alice
Born: Alice Ivers
Lived: February 17, 1851–February 27, 1930
Areas: Colorado, South Dakota
Perhaps even more than today, the Wild West was a place where women were given permission to experiment with careers not normally seen as fit for women. Alice Ivers embraced a career as a poker player, a profession still largely dominated by men.
Alice was born in England to conservative parents in 1851. Her father had the wanderlust bug of the age and relocated the family to Colorado. Alice seems to have caught the ailment herself as she fled her family at a young age to marry her first husband, Frank Duffield. This bold act would change the course of Alice’s life forever as Frank was a poker enthusiast, to say the least.
Preferring to accompany her husband out at night, she sat at the tables behind him while he played. When he died in a mining accident a few years into the marriage, Alice took up gambling herself. This led to another interesting Wild West crossover: She made big bucks playing at a bar in Colorado owned by Bob Ford, the man who killed Jesse James.
Alice was known to use her skills to finance a lavish lifestyle and made a show of heading to New York City with large earnings to stock up on the couture fashions of the day. She was also exceptionally shrewd as a professional gambler. It is widely believed that she married her last husband rather than pay off a large gaming debt she owed him.
Humorously, it is reported that Alice refused to play on Sundays despite her nontraditional ways. However, she was still arrested several times for running girls, bootlegging, and public drunkenness.
7 Belle Starr
Born: Myra Maybelle Shirley
Lived: February 5, 1848 – February 3, 1889
Areas: Missouri, Texas
Belle Starr was destined to live a life rubbing shoulders with notable outlaws. She was childhood friends with both the James brothers and the Younger brothers (of the Younger Gang), all native to Missouri. All the families eventually ended up in Texas, where their bonds were strengthened.
In time, Belle married a Cherokee man named Sam Starr who was addicted to a life of crime and could not tolerate traditional employment. During their marriage, Belle became skilled as an organizer for local cowboy gangs, providing refuge for fugitives, bootleggers, and thieves. She was well-known for her class, always riding sidesaddle and in her best black velvet. Belle loved the outlaw life and only quit after Sam was gunned down.
She lived the rest of her life attempting to have less notoriety. Her cause of death, two days before her 41st birthday, remains a mystery with several colorful theories.
At the time, it was reported that Belle was ambushed on her way home from a neighbor’s house late at night. Some believe that she had come from a dance and was killed by a rebuffed attendee with whom she had refused to dance. Still others believe that it was her own son who committed the murder in a fit of adolescent rage.
6 Sally Scull
Born: Sarah Jane Newman
Lived: c. 1817–Unknown Date of Death
Sally Scull loved to shoot, loved to intimidate those around her, and loved to marry. She perhaps attracted so many suitors because she intrigued everyone she met. She played poker, was a good shot, and could ride a horse. Sally could also lasso as well as any man and better than many. She combined this with a strong taste for men and must have been a striking and unforgettable woman to encounter.
Sally learned to be brave, bold, and fierce as a young girl growing up in Comanche territory. One famous story recalls her mother chopping off the toes of a local Native American who was trying to break into their home. By the time the family moved to Texas a few years later, Sally had learned to be a quick draw and a skilled horsewoman.
Sally became famous for her skills as what we now call a cowgirl. But her legacy has perhaps survived because of her five husbands and her involvement in the deaths of two of them. In one instance, Sally reportedly fired in shock at her current husband after he poured ice water over her head to wake her one morning.
In another case, her husband and the horse on which he was riding met their deaths when a strong river current overcame them. Rather than expressing any grief, Sally famously said that she wished her husband’s belt buckle had been saved so she could retrieve the $40 it was worth.
Given her abilities and knowledge of the area, Sally was the perfect person to help the Confederacy during the Civil War. She seems to have stayed busy and profited from transporting cotton during those years.
Following the war, her trail runs cold. It is not even known when or how she died. Had she been born a decade later, she could have built a career as an outlaw or frontierswoman. Nonetheless, she still left quite a legacy.
5 Laura Bullion
Lived: October 1876–December 2, 1961
Areas: Texas, Tennessee, Missouri
The apple didn’t fall far from the tree with this wild woman. Laura Bullion came from a family who lived on the edge. Her father was a bank robber who was friends with Wild Bunch gang member Ben Kilpatrick (aka “The Tall Texan”), and her uncle was a train robber. Needless to say, her family life was less than stable and she left home at age 15 to make her own way.
As with many infamous female outlaws of this age, Laura started her career of crime as a prostitute. Sadly, she began very early and retired around age 17 when she transferred to robberies with Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch. She was likely welcomed into the group because of her father’s connections, and she did, in fact, become romantically involved with Kilpatrick for a time.
Laura is known to have participated in many heists with the Wild Bunch. She is believed to have been involved with many more because she often dressed in men’s clothing and may have gone unrecognized. As with many other outlaws, Laura retreated into a life of traditional employment and a low-profile existence after she was released from prison.
Perhaps most notably, prior to her death, Laura was one of only three people believed to know the true identity of Etta Place, a secret that she happily took to her grave.
4 Etta Place
Lived: 1878–Unknown Date of Death
Areas: Utah, Argentina, California
No list of female Wild West outlaws would be complete without at least a mention of Etta Place, the mysterious companion to Harry Longabaugh (aka “the Sundance Kid“). The two were so devoted to each other that she was the only person to flee the country with him and Butch Cassidy and the only woman to stay with a member of the Wild Bunch as long as she did. At the same time, few people from recent history can claim such notoriety and mystery.
Despite Etta being one of the only women to have penetrated the inner circle of the gang and stay with them long-term, little is known about her life before or after her relationship with Longabaugh. It is widely believed that she met the Sundance Kid while working as a prostitute, possibly in Utah, and that the two eventually became devoted companions. When Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid escaped to South America in 1901, Etta was at their side.
There are at least half a dozen theories about Etta after she parted ways with Longabaugh, most of them involving Etta living as a prostitute or outlaw. It is known that she lived in San Francisco in 1907, at least for a little while, but the trail runs cold after that. Estimations about her date of death range from 1922 to 1966. Now that’s one wild woman with a talent for mystique!
3 Pearl Hart
Born: Pearl Taylor
Lived: 1871–Unknown Date of Death
Areas: Missouri, Arizona
The success of train robbers in the Wild West was lucrative but short-lived. Pearl Hart, besides earning a name as a female gang member, is also famous for being involved in the last of such recorded robberies.
Pearl was a true rebel. Born into a well-to-do family, she eloped at age 16 with an abusive alcoholic with whom she had an on-again, off-again relationship until 1893. Then she discovered Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and became infatuated with the cowboy life.
In 1898, she ended up in Phoenix running a tent brothel. When the nearby mine closed, she and a male cohort decided to rob a stagecoach for funds. She cut her hair short and dressed in men’s clothing to commit the crime.
The pair was quickly arrested and ultimately acquitted. (Pearl’s passionate plea to the jury that she needed the money to care for her elderly mother actually worked.) But she was arrested and convicted a short time later for mail tampering.
Pearl had evidently learned a thing or two about using her female charms to her advantage. She used her notoriety to finagle a comfortable stay during her five years in prison. Not only was she granted a comfy mountainside suite, it came complete with an outdoor yard. She was also allowed to visit with the public and pose for photos (for which she received compensation).
Pearl was pardoned in 1902. While the reasons remain unknown, many believed that it was because she became pregnant and the authorities wanted to keep the circumstances secret. She was given a ticket to Kansas City, Missouri, and proceeded to dabble in various careers, even going full circle and working anonymously as a storyteller for Buffalo Bill’s show.
2 Fannie Porter
Lived: February 12, 1873–January 1, 1940
Areas: San Antonio
When it came to the famous outlaws of the Wild West, Fannie Porter rubbed shoulders with them all. However, it was not as a fellow outlaw or lover that she knew them. It was because she owned a brothel that most of them frequented over the years.
As with many of the frontier women who dabbled in prostitution, Fannie started her career at a young age—15 years old. By age 20, she had already become known for her business acumen as a high-end brothel owner, running one of the cleanest, safest, and classiest establishments in Texas.
Fannie didn’t just supply outlaws with short-term company. Many of her “girls,” as she referred to them, became lovers and companions to the most famous Wild West figures.
Until becoming the girlfriend and accomplice to Kid Curry, Della Moore worked at the brothel. She returned after the relationship ended. Lillie Davis was a companion to Will “News” Carver of the Wild Bunch and claimed to have even married him before he died.
Most famously, the mysterious Etta Place is believed by many to have met the Sundance Kid while she was working for Fanny (rather than in a brothel in Utah). However, this has not been confirmed.
As the outlaws disappeared into obscurity and the Golden Age of the Wild West came to an end, Fannie also faded from the public eye. Some say she retired rich, some say she married rich, and some say she returned to England to live well. Whatever the case, many famous outlaws have her to thank for introductions of the most provocative type.
1 Lottie Deno
Born: Carlotta J. Thompkins
Lived: April 21, 1844–February 9, 1934
Areas: Texas, New Mexico
Born Carlotta J. Thompkins, this wild woman was so skilled at poker that she was eventually given the name “Deno,” which was a shortened version of dinero (“money”). Unlike many women who made names for themselves living on the edge of the law during this time, Carlotta was from a wealthy family and from parents who gave her ample care and affection.
She learned to play cards by spending time with her father, a successful gambler and horse breeder. After he was killed in the Civil War, Lottie began her own career at the poker table.
She quickly added fugitive-companion to her resume when she fell in love with Frank Thurmond, also a professional gambler. He was accused of murder, and the two of them went on the lam, happily using poker to support their lifestyle.
The pair ended up in Fort Griffin, a quintessential cowboy town, and became friends with Doc Holliday. Fearful of being caught, Lottie and Frank hid their relationship until they were married years later. In Fort Griffin, Lottie’s fame grew as a poker player who was not to be challenged. She became the subject of songs, paintings, novels, and numerous short stories.
Lottie and Frank were a couple with their eyes on the big picture. They eventually married in 1880, used their savings to invest in a number of legit businesses, and settled in New Mexico. There, they became leaders in their community. Their later life found Frank as the vice president of a bank and Lottie as the cofounder of a hospital.
Janice Formichella is an American-born traveler of the world currently residing in Bali, Indonesia. She loves history, gin, girl talk, her bullet journal, and a good list. You can follow Janice and her adventures on Twitter and on Instagram.