Through the Looking Glass Children's Book Reviews

Wild Women of the Wild West

Wild Women of the Wild West

Jonah Winter
Illustrator:  Susan Guevara 
Nonfiction Picture Book
For ages 9 and up
Holiday House, 2011   ISBN: 978-0823416011

Between 1849 and the early 1890’s, the Wild West truly was wild. Men went west to mine for gold and silver, to buy up land for ranching, and to look for new opportunities. Not a few them went west to run away from the stifling conventions of the east, or to get away from the law. The lawlessness, and uncomfortable and dangerous living conditions in the Wild West, meant that most women had no interest in going there. However, there were a few intrepid souls who longed to see new places, who wanted to have adventures, and who saw that the Wild West might offer them freedoms and opportunities that they would not be able to find anywhere else.

In 1849, thousands of men from all walks of life flocked to California, hoping to strike it rich in the goldfields. Most of them left their wives and sweethearts at home, and not surprisingly, they were starved for the sight of a pretty woman. Lola Montez capitalized on this. She was a very beautiful and striking looking woman who “won the hearts of rowdy miners” by performing a dance of her own invention. Her highly colorful story made her particularly alluring, and she did very well playing the part of the eccentric “grand dame.”

Nellie Cashman also went to the gold and silver mines, but in her case, she was hoping to strike it rich by mining and not by performing. In the end, she discovered that mining was not as lucrative as she had hoped it would be, and she turned her hand to a more reliable source of income. Nellie became a success because she was a good cook and an excellent businesswoman. Miners needed food, a place to stay and a place to buy their supplies. Nellie provided all of these during her adventures, which took her from Canada to Arizona and countless places in between.

Another enterprising woman, Dona Maria Gertrudis Barcelo, knew that one of the best way to make money in the Wild West was to offer men the opportunity to gamble. Senora Barcelo was a skilled monte dealer, and she did so well that she was able to make enough money to open her own casino and hotel in Santa Fe.

This fascinating book tells the stories of fifteen women who found unique ways to put their mark on the history of the Wild West. One was a noblewoman from Europe (or so she said), another was an ex-slave, and there was even an outlaw. Though they came from very different worlds and did very different things, all fifteen of these woman had interesting lives, and all of them dared to do what they wanted to do.

With carefully researched articles about each woman, and beautiful illustrations to accompany each profile, this title is a must for anyone who has an interest in real stories from the past.