* Women Writing the West 2023 WILLA Literary Award Creative Nonfiction Winner *
“Brave Hearted is not just history, it is an incredibly intense page-turning experience. To read what these women endured is to be transported into another universe of courage, loss, pain, and occasionally victory. This book is a triumph.”—Amanda Foreman
“Absolutely compelling“—Christina Lamb, Sunday Times (UK)
The dramatic, untold stories of the diverse array of women who helped transform the American West.
As the internationally bestselling historian Katie Hickman writes, “Myth and misunderstanding spring from the American frontier as readily as rye grass from sod, and - like the wiry grass - seem as difficult to weed out and discard.” But the true-life story of women's experiences in the Wild West is more gripping, heart-rending, and stirring than all the movies, novels, folk-legends, and ballads of popular imagination.
Hard-drinking, hard-living poker players and prostitutes of the new boom towns; wives and mothers traveling two and a half thousand miles across the prairies in covered-wagon convoys, some of them so poor they walked the entire route; African-American women in search of freedom from slavery; Chinese sex-workers sold openly on the docks of San Francisco; Native American women brutally displaced by the unstoppable tide of white settlers – all were women forced to draw on huge reserves of resilience and courage in the face of tumultuous change.
Drawing on letters, diaries, and other extraordinary contemporary accounts, sifting through the legends and the myths, the laws and the treaties, Katie Hickman presents us with cast of unforgettable women: the half Cree, Marguerite McLoughlin, the much-admired “First Lady” of Fort Vancouver; the Presbyterian missionary Narcissa Whitman, who in 1837 became the first white woman to make the overland journey west across the Rocky Mountains; Biddy Mason, the Mississippi slave who fought for her freedom through the courts of California; Olive Oatman, adopted by the Mohave, famous for her facial tattoos.
This is the story of the women who participated in the greatest mass migration in American history, transforming their country in the process. This is American history, not as it was romanticized, but as it was lived.
Historian and novelist Hickman (Daughters of Britannia) delivers a painstakingly researched and fluidly written study of the women who helped settle the American West. Drawing on more than 800 letters, diaries, and personal memoirs, Hickman covers the period from 1836, when Presbyterian missionaries Narcissa Whitman and Eliza Spalding became the first white women to attempt the overland journey from Missouri to Oregon, until 1880, after which, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the country no longer had a frontier. Along the way, Hickman offers women's firsthand perspectives on the Indian Wars, the California Gold Rush, the building of the transcontinental railroad, and other milestones. Profile subjects include Marguerite McLoughlin, who oversaw Fort Vancouver, in the far northwest, in the earliest days of the wagon trains; Chinese sex slave Ah Toy, who was trafficked to San Francisco and became one of the city's "most prominent madams"; and Biddy Mason, an enslaved woman who fought for her freedom in a California court. Throughout, Hickman pays close attention to the violent subjugation of Native Americans, documenting such horrific episodes as the Needle Rock Massacre of the Sinkyone tribe in Northern California from the perspective of women like Sally Bell, who lost most of her family in that slaughter. Full of heartrending accounts of courage and tragedy, this is a vital contribution to the history of America's frontier.