​Isabel May as Elsa Dutton on horseback wearing yellow fringed chaps and a beaded blue, red, and yellow vest made for her by the Comanche

Isabel May as Elsa Dutton in the Paramount+ original series 1883.

Emerson Miller/Paramount+ (C) 2022 MTV Entertainment Studios. All Rights Reserved.

Six ways the Yellowstone prequel tells it like it was

By Kathy Passero

Kudos to Yellowstone prequel 1883 and Taylor Sheridan for giving us a new take on the Old West—one with fierce, fearless female characters. Elsa Dutton (Isabel May) and Margaret Dutton (Faith Hill) might be fiction, but they capture a fact macho Hollywood Westerns often overlook: Women, too, shaped the American West. And the frontier set the stage for them to reinvent themselves just like their male counterparts.

Women of many backgrounds defied conventional 19th-century gender roles to serve as everything from ranchers to saloon owners, stagecoach drivers to the bandits who robbed them, Buffalo Soldiers to Pinkerton detectives. Like Elsa, some found it exhilarating. Others saw taking on traditionally male jobs and responsibilities as a grueling necessity on the backbreaking overland trail. (Looking at you, Margaret.)

In honor of Women’s History Month, here are six important, historic facts about women in the West that the hit series 1883 successfully weaves into its storyline.

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They Were Cowgirls

Elsa on the prairie astride her palomino Lightning dressed in yellow chaps and the bodice of the dress she made into a shirt

Elsa and Lightning on the prairie

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Cattle-herding women like Elsa Dutton started showing up on the American frontier in the mid-1800s, though the term didn’t appear in print til the 1890s, when a new generation of ranchers’ daughters was growing up in the saddle alongside their brothers, herding and roping cattle because families needed all hands on deck to preserve their livelihood. But unlike Elsa, most had no fringed chaps or homemade breeches: Cowgirls wore skirts and rode sidesaddle because it was deemed more ladylike.

By the turn of the century, a number of women had made a name for themselves in rodeos. Among the most famous was Martha "Calamity Jane" Canary, said to handle a horse better than most men and shoot straighter than most cowboys. Before touring with Buffalo Bill Cody and Sitting Bull in the Wild West Show, Calamity Jane traveled West with her parents as a 13-year-old, where she soon started dressing like a man, participating in hunting parties, and joining battles.

They Were Gunslingers

Margaret in brimmed hat and brown leather gloves peers through the telescopic sight of her rifle and takes aim

Margaret takes aim

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As 1883’s wagon train passengers learned, having a firearm—and knowing how to use it—was a matter of self-preservation in the frontier wilderness, regardless of your gender. Women could use a rifle or a Colt six-shooter (“the gun that won the West”) as protection from wild animals—or to kill one for dinner. It also came in handy to keep two-legged attackers at bay.

As frontierswoman Ellen Elliott “Captain” Jackput it, “A .44 equalizes frail women and brute men, and all women ought to be able to protect themselves against such ruffians.”Like the early Dutton women, Captain Jack could handle a gun. The female prospector, who made a fortune in silver mining, was arrested repeatedly for shooting men who tried to rob, cheat, or murder her, but the charges never stuck.

Remember when Elsa pulled her gun on a guy who gawked at her as she rode into the trading post? He pulled a gun in return...then James Dutton (Tim McGraw) pulled a gun to settle the dispute. Fans might be surprised to learn that most frontier towns had laws against carrying weapons. Despite Western mythology—never mind the body count in 1883—homicides were rare.

Most towns had less than one murder per year. At its peak in 1881, Tombstone set a record with five murders, three of which happened in the famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral. By the way, that fabled shootout lasted a grand total of 30 seconds.

They Drove Wagons

Margaret sits on the buck board of the covered wagon as she drives the team of horses with mountains in the background

Margaret proves a deft hand at wagon driving on the trail

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In the mid-19th century, about 400,000 people crossed the treacherous 2,000-mile Oregon Trail, many in covered wagons. Some 20,000 died along the way. With wagons traveling no more than 20 miles a day, the “Overland Trail” usually took six months.

Just like Margaret Dutton, many female travelers found themselves challenging traditional gender roles by tackling “men’s work” like driving wagons and repairing tack. (Women’s journals from the time suggest that men were a lot less likely to pitch in with “women’s work” like cooking dinner and doing laundry.)

In 19th-century America, a woman’s sense of self-worth was supposed to come from excelling in domestic tasks like keeping house, so it was necessity—not liberation—that blurred the lines between men’s and women’s chores. The average woman was apt to feel more shame than pride in, say, steering horses across a river. But there were exceptions.

Stagecoach Mary” Fields got so good at driving a coach that she ran a dangerous mail delivery route through northern Montana for eight years. Fields, who began life in slavery, was by historic accounts a formidable woman who gambled in saloons, fended off a pack of wolves, got into at least one gunfight, and ran her own restaurants. She was also generous, letting anyone who couldn’t afford to pay eat for free.

They Ran Businesses

\u200bRita Wilson as Carolyn stands behind the counter of her trading post smiling next to supplies including bottles and candles

Rita Wilson as trading post shopkeeper Carolyn

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Like Doan’s Crossing storekeeper Carolyn (Rita Wilson), women channeled their entrepreneurial spirit into running successful stores, trading posts, saloons, hotels, and other businesses in the Old West. Among the best remembered is Nellie Cashman, who fled the Irish Potato Famine as a child.

She reinvented herself in the American West, running restaurants and boarding houses in Arizona before heading to the Yukon to become a prospector. There, she opened a boarding house for miners and led a daring mission to rescue dozens of them trapped in the Cassiar Mountains.

Owl Woman, another famous female entrepreneur in the early 1800s, was a member of the Cheyenne and married trader Colonel William Bent, a white settler. Together they ran the remarkable Bent’s Fort on the Santa Fe Trail, a 500-mile-wide multi-cultural, multilingual hub with 100 employees, as well as permanent residents and visitors, including members of at least six native tribes and pioneers in wagons traveling west.

They Protected Their Families

Margaret wears a cowboy hat and stands next to a lake holding son John in her arms protectively

Margaret cradles John ( Audie Rick) protectively during a stop on the way West

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Like Margaret and Elsa Dutton, many pioneer women learned how to hunt, kill, and skin (not to mention cook and cure) game to keep their families fed. They took turns standing guard on wagon trains, made bullets, and did whatever else was necessary to keep their loved ones safe.

Some took the role of protector a step further. Take, Biddy Mason, for example. Mason had traveled to southern California as the slave of a Mormon convert, but in 1856, she sued for and won freedom for herself and her daughters. For decades after that, her home served as a center for the African American community in L.A.

After real estate investments made entrepreneurMary Ellen Pleasant the first Black self-made millionaire during the California Gold Rush, she used her money and influence to fight for abolition. Some historians believe she actually may have established California’s Underground Railroad.

They Gained Ground, Literally and Figuratively

Gratiela Brancusi as Noemi sits on horseback smiling, wearing a heavy silver necklace with an embroidered vest and shirt with ruffled sleeves

Gratiela Brancusi as Noemi in a rare happy moment on the trail

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Women like 1883’s Noemi (Gratiela Brancusi) who survived the hardships of the trail West to reach their dream homesteads tended to be more empowered than those who stayed back East. They shared responsibility for their farms with their husbands or sometimes took over management if they were widowed.

The Homestead Act, passed in 1862, let any person who was the head of a family or had reached age 21—including single, divorced, and widowed women; immigrants who pledged to become citizens; and African Americans—claim land of their own. By one estimate, in the 50 years after the act passed, women accounted for one third of all homestead claims.

The West also led the suffrage movement, with Wyoming becoming the first American territory or state to grant women the right to vote in 1869.

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