13 Female Gunslingers Who Made the West Truly Wild

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female gunslingers of the west

Behind the dusty pages of history textbooks and photographs are tales of some of the most daring female gunslingers to make a mark on the Wild West. 

Armed with a gun, quick wits, and even quicker draws, these ladies were forces to be reckoned with. 

Today, we celebrate the bold trailblazers who embraced their independence and carved out remarkable lives for themselves despite the constraints of a male-dominated society.

These female gunslingers shot the hat off the Old West through sheer grit, determination and a steadfast refusal to conform to society’s expectations.

Ready to meet ’em?

1. Annie Oakley

Annie Oakley posing with rifle

No compilation of female gunslingers would be complete without Annie Oakley, a legendary trick shooter who contributed to the popularity of iconic American guns. She was born Phoebe Ann Mosey in 1860 in Darke County, Ohio, and grew up in poverty.

As a child, Oakley began hunting and shooting to help provide food for her family. She soon discovered she had a natural talent for marksmanship and began competing in shooting contests. 

In 1875, at 15, she won a shooting match against renowned marksman Frank Butler, whom she would later marry.

Oakley’s career took off when she joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show in 1885. She became one of the show’s biggest stars, performing feats of marksmanship that amazed audiences worldwide. 

Oakley could shoot targets while standing, sitting, or even riding a horse, and she could shoot the thin edge of a playing card from 90 feet away. And she had some awesome hats.

Oakley’s skills earned her the nickname “Little Sure Shot,” and she became one of the most famous women in the world at the time. 

After retiring from the Wild West show in 1901, Oakley continued to perform and teach marksmanship until she died in 1926. 

In short, Annie Oakley was a well-hatted badass who could easily outshoot any man in the West.


2. Sally Skull

Sally Skull was a female gunslinger who was ahead of her time. Born in 1817 to Rachel and Joseph Newman, she grew up to become a rancher and horse trader in Civil War Texas.

Her combative personality, the dual French pistols hidden under her skirts, and world-class profanity earned her a reputation as one of the most terrifying women in all of Texas.

Sally’s life was full of adventure and danger. She freighted wagons of cotton to Mexico during the Civil War era, where she would swap them for supplies that were scarce in Texas at the time. She also traded horses and cattle, which made her quite wealthy.

Once, while Sally was transporting cargo to Mexico, she spotted a preacher in distress. He had unintentionally gotten his two-horse buggy stuck in the mud, and all of his shouting at the horses only seemed to make them more stubborn.

With no other options left, Sally charged forward and shouted as loud as she could: “Get the hell out of there, you sons of bitches!!! Get the hell out!!!”

Miraculously, her voice got through to them; they pulled together with renewed strength and freed themselves from their sticky situation.

Sally Skull was married several times throughout her life, but none of her marriages lasted long. Her husbands often met mysterious ends, making many speculate that Sally had black-widowed them.

No one knows for sure what happened to Sally Skull. The last confirmed sighting of her was in Goliad, where she was acquitted of perjury in 1866. After that, she disappeared under mysterious circumstances and was never heard from again.


3. Belle Starr

Myra Maybelle Shirley Reed Starr, more commonly known as Belle Starr, was an American outlaw and one of the deadliest female gunslingers of the Old West. She was born in 1848 in Carthage, Missouri, and grew up in a family connected to the Confederacy.

As a young woman, Belle Starr became involved in a life of crime, including horse theft and bootlegging. She also had several relationships with notorious outlaws, including Cole Younger and Jesse James. 

In the 1870s, she married a man named Sam Starr, who was also a well-known outlaw. Belle Starr and her husband lived a life of luxury, spending their time between hideouts in Missouri and Indian Territory (now Oklahoma).

Belle Starr was also known for her flashy style, which included wearing a black velvet riding habit and carrying two pistols.

It turns out that there’s a fine line between outlaw and humanitarian. Starr once held up a stagecoach carrying a large shipment of cash but left enough money for each stranded passenger to buy food and hotel accommodations. 

In 1883, Sam Starr was killed in a gunfight, and Belle Starr was left with little means of support. She continued to operate as an outlaw, but her criminal activities were less than successful. In 1889, she was killed by an unknown assailant who shot her as she was riding her horse.

Belle Starr became a legendary female gunslinger in her own time, and her life has been the subject of many books and films. She is often portrayed as a glamorous outlaw queen, but in reality, her life is marked by poverty, violence, and tragedy.


4. Calamity Jane

Calamity Jane posing with her rifle, 1880s

Martha Jane Cannary, more popularly known as Calamity Jane, was an American frontierswoman and professional scout. Born in Princeton, Missouri, in 1852, she moved with her family to Virginia City, Montana when she was 12 years old.

Calamity Jane began her adventurous life as a female gunslinger working as a scout for the U. S. Army during the Indian Wars. She gained fame through her association with Wild Bill Hickok, whom she claimed to have saved from a group of Indians during an attack in Wyoming.

Calamity Jane garnered notoriety for her hard-drinking, gun-toting, and unconventional lifestyle. She was often spotted in bars with soldiers and other frontiersmen, where she liked drinking and gambling.

Her career as a gunslinger ended in the 1880s when she started performing in Wild West shows across America.

Calamity Jane’s last words included a request to be buried next to her best friend/possible lover, Wild Bill Hickok. Her wish came true in 1903 when she was laid to rest beside him at the Mount Moriah Cemetery in Deadwood, South Dakota.


5. Pearl Hart

Pearl Hart, born in Canada in 1871 and raised within a pious family, made history as one of the most renowned female gunslingers after she robbed a stagecoach in Arizona during the early 1900s.

Pearl wed Fred Hart, an irresponsible man, at the tender age of sixteen. Unfortunately, their marriage was nothing to write home about, and they had two children before she eventually decided to leave him to follow her own pursuits.

In 1899, Pearl ventured to Arizona and began cooking in a mining camp. While there, she came across Joe Boot – the man who would later become her accomplice. With bold determination, they collaborated on an ambitious scheme: robbing a stagecoach and amassing wealth beyond their wildest dreams!

On May 30, 1899, Pearl and Joe robbed a stagecoach that contained a cargo of gold and silver. After their daring heist, they got away with approximately $431 in cash and miscellaneous valuables.

Unfortunately, the duo’s lucky streak ran out shortly after, as only days later, they were tracked down by an armed posse and brought in for trial.

Despite the mounting evidence against them, Pearl and Joe became pseudo-celebrities as captivated newspapers printed accounts of their exploits nationwide.

Pearl was particularly popular with the press, being one of the few women at that time to perpetrate crimes that serious.

During her trial, Hart wore a man’s suit and smoked cigarettes in court, scandalizing jurors and spectators alike.

She was ultimately found guilty and sentenced to five years in prison.

However, her sentence was commuted after only two years, and she was released in 1902.

After her release, Pearl disappeared from the public eye, and little is known about her later life. Some accounts suggest that she may have worked as a nurse during World War I and may have eventually settled in Chicago.

However, these details have not been confirmed.


6. Etta Place

Etta Place was a mysterious female figure associated with the notorious American outlaws and train robbers Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in the late 1800s.

Not much is known about her background or early life, and many aspects of her life remain a mystery.

Place reportedly met Harry Alonzo Longabaugh (the Sundance Kid) in 1899 while working as a prostitute in San Antonio, Texas. She soon became his girlfriend and joined him in his life of crime.

Etta Place accompanied Cassidy and the Sundance Kid on many infamous robberies and heists, including the Great Northern train robbery in Montana in 1901. She was reportedly well-liked by the gang members and was known for her beauty, charm, and wit.

In 1902, after a train robbery in Colorado, Cassidy, the Sundance Kid, and Etta Place fled to South America to escape the law. They spent several years in Argentina, where their criminal activities continued.

However, Place decided she was tired of life on the run and returned to the United States. 

In 1908, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were ambushed and killed by Bolivian soldiers. Etta Place’s ultimate fate remains a mystery.


7. Laura Bullion

Laura Bullion (1876-1961) was an American outlaw and member of the Wild Bunch gang, which included famous outlaws such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. She was born in Knickerbocker, Texas, and grew up in the company of outlaws– including her own father, bank robber Henry Bullion.

Bullion became involved with the Wild Bunch in the early 1900s, and she participated in several train robberies with the gang. In 1901, she was arrested and convicted for her role in the Great Northern train robbery in Montana and served three years in prison.

After her release, Bullion returned to Texas and lived a quiet life. She worked as a seamstress and never spoke publicly about her time as a female gunslinger and outlaw. She died in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1961 at the age of 84.


8. Rose Dunn

Rose Dunn, also known as “Rose of the Wild Bunch” or “Rose of the Cimarron,” was legendary in the American West during the late 1800s and early 1900s. She was born in Oklahoma in 1879 and grew up in a family of outlaws, with several of her brothers involved in criminal activity.

At 14, Rose became romantically involved with George “Bitter Creek” Newcomb, an infamous Wild Bunch gang member. Newcomb and Rose’s brothers were all wanted for various crimes, including train and bank robberies.

Rose became known for her loyalty to Newcomb and her fierce protectiveness of him. In 1899, when a group of marshalls led by legendary lawman Bill Tilghman caught up with the Wild Bunch, Rose warned Newcomb of the impending raid.

Although the marshalls wounded Newcomb, Rose ran through the hail of bullets and opened up on the marshalls with her own rifle until he could get to safety.

That right there puts her front and center on our list of female gunslingers.

She was later arrested and brought to trial for harboring a fugitive but was ultimately acquitted.

After Newcomb died in 1899, Rose disappeared from public view for several years. However, she resurfaced in 1903 when she was arrested for her role in a train robbery in Oklahoma. She was sentenced to five years in prison but released after three.

After her release, Rose lived a quiet life, working as a seamstress and eventually marrying and settling in Kansas. She died in 1955 at the age of 76.


9. Kitty Leroy

In 1850, Kitty Leroy was born in Michigan and, by the late 1860s, had already become a renowned American dancer and actress. Known for her bold performances, she developed a reputation as an unrelenting entertainer that captivated audiences everywhere.

In the early 1870s, Kitty moved to San Francisco and began performing in variety shows and theaters. She became involved with several prominent men, including notorious gambler and gunfighter Doc Holliday, who was said to have taught her how to use a gun.

Kitty was also married several times, and her last husband was William “Billy” Burke, a well-known gambler and saloon owner.

Kitty’s life was cut short when Burke murdered her in 1877. The couple had a volatile relationship, and Burke shot Kitty in a fit of jealousy during an argument. He was tried and convicted of her murder and sentenced to life in prison.


10. “Stagecoach Mary” Fields

Stagecoach Mary Fields posing with her rifle, 1890s

Mary Fields, nicknamed “Stagecoach Mary,” was a trailblazing African-American woman who gained fame as a stagecoach driver in the late 19th century. She was born in 1832 in Hickman County, Tennessee, and was a slave until the end of the Civil War.

Following the war, Mary relocated to Montana and worked at St. Peter’s Mission with the Ursuline Sisters.

In no time, she became recognized for her tenacity and dependability – traits that quickly earned her respect from all who knew her.

In 1895, at 63, she became the second woman and first African-American woman to work as a U.S. Postal Service star route carrier, delivering mail by stagecoach.

Mary was known for her sharpshooting skills and fearless personality, earning her the nickname “Stagecoach Mary.” She always carried a .38 pistol under her apron and a rifle and was not afraid to use them to defend herself and her passengers.

Mary worked as a stagecoach driver for eight years before retiring in 1903. She lived the rest of her life in Cascade, Montana, where she worked as a tavern owner, laundress, and babysitter. 

She remained a beloved figure in the community until she died in 1914.


11. Mary Catherine “Big Nose Kate” Horony

Mary Katherine Horony, also known as “Big Nose Kate”, was born on November 7, 1850, in Érsekújvár, Hungary, and later emigrated to the United States with her family.

So how did that flattering nickname come to be? Interestingly enough, it wasn’t because her nose made her two minutes early wherever she went, if you catch my drift…it came from the fact that Horony had a rather obnoxious habit of sticking her nose into other peoples’ affairs. 

Horony is best known for her association with the legendary gunfighter Doc Holliday. The two met in Fort Griffin, Texas, in 1877 and had an on-again, off-again romantic relationship for several years. 

Despite these difficulties, Horony was Holliday’s common-law wife.

Horony was involved in several escapades with Holliday, including a famous incident in which she helped him escape from jail in Colorado. She also accompanied him to the infamous gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona, in 1881, although she was not present at the actual shootout.

Despite her reputation as a wild and unpredictable character, Horony was also known for her intelligence and resourcefulness. She was well-educated and spoke several languages, and later in life, she worked to provide comfort to other residents of the Arizona Pioneers’ Home where she herself resided.

Horony passed away on November 2, 1940, in Prescott, Arizona, just five days short of her 90th birthday. 


12. Lillian Smith

Lillian Smith was born in Coleville, California, on January 14, 1871-1872. She was a prominent trick shooter known as the “California Huntress.” 

Lillian Smith joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show at a young age and quickly gained popularity for her sharpshooting skills. She was a rival of Annie Oakley, one of the show’s most famous performers.

Lillian Smith was a skilled sharpshooter and a talented trick rider. She performed various stunts on horseback, including hitting challenging targets while in motion.

Lillian Smith traveled with the Wild West Show for several years, performing in front of large crowds in the United States and Europe.

Smith had had several husbands but no children by her death in 1930. 


13. Ellen “Cattle Kate” Watson

cattle kate lynching

Cattle Kate, whose real name was Ellen Liddy Watson, was born in Canada in 1860 and later moved with her family to the United States.

In 1884, Watson settled in Wyoming after fleeing from her abusive husband. She became a homesteader and began raising cattle.

Watson soon became the target of harassment and intimidation by local cattlemen who wanted her land. Some of these cattlemen accused Watson of cattle rustling and other crimes, although there was little evidence to support these allegations.

In July 1889, Watson and her new husband, Jim Averell, were arrested by a group of men led by the shady cattleman Albert John Bothwell and charged with cattle theft. They were taken to a makeshift jail and held without trial.

A few days later, a mob of cattlemen stormed the jail, dragged Watson and Averell outside, and lynched them.

The lynching of Cattle Kate Watson and Jim Averell was widely condemned at the time, and it remains a controversial incident in the history of the American West.

Some historians believe that Watson and Averell were innocent of the charges against them and were targeted because of Watson’s gender and her defiance of traditional gender roles.

Others argue that Watson was involved in cattle rustling and other criminal activities and that the execution was a form of vigilante justice.

So which side is actually right? We may never know.

Sources

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/tragedy-cattle-kate-180968131/

https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/belle-starr-murdered-in-oklahoma

https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/annie-oakley

https://www.biography.com/history-culture/calamity-jane