Review: Katie Hickman’s women’s pioneer history ‘Brave Hearted’

On the shelf

Brave Hearted: The Women of the American West

By Katie Hickman
Mirror & Gray: 400 pages, $32

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A future in which the myth of the American West is not dominated by white men is hard to imagine. It’s even harder to imagine a moment when mining matters more than it does today, as some sort of manifest destiny is driving everything from pipeline permits to SpaceX lunar flights. Even revisionist westerns that puncture the romance of settler-colonialism (“Meek’s Cutoff,” “The Power of the Dog”) include Mexicans (the first cowboys), African-Americans (who also traveled west in wagon trains), and, most confusingly, Indians from .

Katie Hickman’s compelling new story, Brave Hearted: The Women of the American West, works to correct this imbalance by bringing to the fore the historical experiences of Western women – black, white, Mexican, Indigenous, multiracial and Chinese. It covers the period from 1836, when Presbyterian missionaries Narcissa Whitman and Eliza Spaulding, the first “western” women, left for Oregon with their husbands, to 1890, when the US Census Bureau declared the border closed.

"Brave Hearted: The Women of the American West" by Katie Hickman

By then, half a billion dollars’ worth of gold had been hammered out of the ground, buffalo had been hunted to virtual extinction, Native children were depatriated to boarding schools, and entire Sioux families were massacred at Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota, marking the shattering last breath the “expansion”.

Hickman organizes her tessellated narrative by location (mines and forts, sites and territories, a fledgling utopian colony) and itineraries (the Oregon-California and Mormon trails; the cutoffs that sent some shed souls, like the famous Thunder Reed Party, to disastrous shortcuts).

The women she puts in the spotlight met different fates, few of which were happy. Whitman, who left the day after marrying a missionary she barely knew, was later killed by the people they were evangelizing to. Others succumbed to typhoid, cholera, asphyxiation, starvation, or sheer madness along the way. A tired pioneer hopped down and refused to continue; When her husband finally left her, she overtook his group, circled back, and set fire to his car.

Perhaps no woman on these pages inspires more awe than Biddy Mason, one of the first African American women to go west. Born into slavery, it was “gifted” as a wedding present to a Georgia planter and his wife, who in 1848 answered Brigham Young’s call to build his Desert of Zion. She joined a wagon train carrying 56 travelers, 34 of whom were enslaved. During the seven-month journey, Mason breastfed her baby, cared for her two other children, served as a midwife, and tended her slave owners’ cattle across plains and prairies, mountains and deserts. When the family moved to California in 1851, they secured their freedom after a harrowing legal battle.

“It is almost impossible,” Hickman writes, “to imagine the courage it took” to do so, especially as an illiterate woman born without a surname. Mason became a successful midwife, philanthropist and co-founder of the First Methodist Episcopal Church in LA.

Katie Hickman, author of "Brave heart," has written other works of history and several novels.

Katie Hickman, author of Brave Hearted, has written other historical works and several novels.

(Neil Bennett)

Like the enslaved Chinese girls and women who were trafficked to San Francisco, they had no say in their journey. They were crammed onto ships from the 1860s, and some jumped to their deaths at sea upon learning of their fate. (Just like Texas educators who recently suggested calling slavery “involuntary resettlement,” so 19th-century authorities referred to the Chinese sex trade as “involuntary immigration.”)

Hickman cites a heartbreaking “agreement paper” for a prostitute named Yut Kim, which spells out the terms of her work, often addressing her body rather than the woman: “If…any man wishes to redeem her body, she shall make satisfactory arrangements with.” the mistress.”) Although some female Chinese immigrants found work as domestics or in industry, most (72% according to the 1870 census) were sex workers. And some, like the famous Madam Ah Toy, “took full advantage of the opportunities offered by the truck trade.”

Of course, many women were Westerners long before outsiders showed up on their lands. We meet Northern Paiute Sarah Winnemucca, whose grandfather, a tribal leader, considered white men his “brothers” until they began “killing anyone who got in their way” and setting fire to the tribe’s winter stores. Brulé Lakota member Red Cormorant Woman was one of hundreds of Native American women who married French fur traders. Her daughter Susan Bordeaux wrote about how local tribes lived in harmony with the traders and weekly dances at Fort Laramie of visited Wyoming.

Hickman’s writing style is exquisite; Her background as a novelist brings these women dramatic relief. She has a keen eye for detail (a pioneer mother sews and packs shirts for her young son to wear West “if he lives”). At the beginning of the California stampede, she writes, “it must have seemed like the whole thing [Feather] River flowed with gold.” Stagecoach drivers were “rock stars of their generation. These ruthless, hairy, and hard-drinking kings of the road were both revered and feared by their passengers.”

And yet the logic of who it involves is confusing. Some of these women’s stories are already well documented, including that of prominent prisoner Olive Oatman (whose biography I wrote in 2009 and whose experience as a Mohave adoptee was hardly typical). The Donner Reed Party debacle is so worn out it’s almost a punchline. With a clearer line, these stories could offer a stronger antidote to the calcified mythology that gave us Gunsmoke and Yellowstone, or, failing that, a better sense of how they helped shape our national identity to shape.

Nonetheless, this is an irresistible, wacky quilt of western history. A meticulous scholar, Hickman draws on journals and memoirs to immerse us in the lives of these women and offer important correctives. “Brave Hearted” is an alternate history of a frontier that was home to some and fantasy to others – a frontier space that existed in fact and in folklore long after the Census Bureau decided it was gone.

Mifflin is a professor at the City University of New York and the author of Looking for Miss America. Review: Katie Hickman’s women’s pioneer history ‘Brave Hearted’

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