The best books about women in the wild west

Why am I passionate about this?

I’ve loved learning about the Old West for as long as I can remember. Is this because I was born a few miles from the spot where Jesse James robbed his first train? Or is it because my family watched so many classic western movies and TV shows when I was a kid? Either way, writing books set in the Old West is a natural fit for me. I love researching the real history of that era just as much as I love making up stories set there. In fact, I write a column about the real history of the Wild West for a Colorado-based newspaper, The Prairie Times.


I wrote...

One Bad Apple

By Rachel Kovaciny,

Book cover of One Bad Apple

What is my book about?

When a wagon train of Black pioneers rescues the seven orphaned Dalton cousins from the side of the trail to Kansas, fourteen-year-old Levi Dalton is dazzled by the beautiful Mrs. Mallone. Her knowledge of medicines and herbs inspires Levi to want to become a doctor. Maybe then he can stop people from dying of fevers like his folks did.

Mrs. Mallone's stepdaughter, Hopeful, warns Levi not to become too attached to the healer. Levi dismisses her warnings and his own misgivings until the day he sees something dreadful. Levi knows he needs to tell someone what he’s seen before it’s too late. But will anyone believe the story of a fourteen-year-old orphan? Will anyone stand up to evil, no matter how beautifully it’s packaged?

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Letters of a Woman Homesteader

Rachel Kovaciny Why did I love this book?

This book delights me. It makes me laugh, it inspires me, and it makes me wish I could have met Elinore Pruitt Stewart. Even though her life certainly wasn't easy, she never lost her hope, her joy, her faith, or her sense of humor.

Stewart wrote these letters to a friend, detailing her successes and failures as a woman homesteader, and hoping to encourage other women to try forging their own lives on the frontier. Wanting to build a better life for herself and her daughter, this widow headed off into the plains of Wyoming, where she took a job keeping house for a rancher while also claiming her own homestead. Her accounts of her new life are funny, moving, and encouraging by turn.

By Elinore Pruitt Stewart, N. C. Wyeth (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Letters of a Woman Homesteader as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

As a young widow with a small child, Elinore Pruitt left Denver in 1909 and set out for Wyoming, where she hoped to buy a ranch. Determined to prove that a lone woman could survive the hardships of homesteading, she initially worked as a housekeeper and hired hand for a neighbor—a kind but taciturn Scottish bachelor whom she eventually married.
Spring and summers were hard, she concedes, and were taken up with branding, farming, doctoring cattle, and other chores. But with the arrival of fall, Pruitt found time to take her young daughter on camping trips and serve her neighbors…


Book cover of African American Women of the Old West

Rachel Kovaciny Why did I love this book?

Thanks to Hollywood, we tend to think of the Old West as being populated primarily by white people and Native Americans. This book helps dispel that mistaken concept by highlighting the role of African-Americans in the American West during the 1800s. Showcasing the true diversity of that era is something I am passionate about learning more about and including in my own books.

This book brings to life the biographies of ten African American women who bravely tackled life on the frontier. Among them are teachers, businesswomen, civil rights crusaders, and a stagecoach driver! Each story is very different, but they all serve to show how important African American women were to the settling of the West.

By Tricia Martineau Wagner,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked African American Women of the Old West as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The brave pioneers who made a life on the frontier were not only male-and they were not only white. The story of African-American women in the Old West is one that has largely gone untold until now. The stories of ten African-American women are reconstructed from historic documents found in century-old archives. Some of these women slaves, some were free, and some were born into slavery and found freedom in the old west. They were laundresses, freedom advocates, journalists, educators, midwives, business proprietors, religious converts, philanthropists, mail and freight haulers, and civil and social activists. These hidden historical figures include…


Book cover of Nothing Daunted: The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the West

Rachel Kovaciny Why did I love this book?

I love learning about people who dedicate themselves to helping others, and the eagerness of these two young ladies to share knowledge is so inspiring! I really like the personal connections in this book too – the author is writing about her own grandmother.

Dorothy Woodruff and Rosamond Underwood grew up in wealthy families, graduated from college, and wanted to be helpful and useful to people outside their own circles. So, they answered an advertisement for teachers at a new school in a rural Colorado community. Though neither of them had any teaching experience or training, off they went, armed only with their intelligence, determination, and willingness to do hard work. 

By Dorothy Wickenden,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Nothing Daunted as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 1916, two restless society girls from Auburn, New York headed out to the Rockies in North-western Colorado to teach in a new schoolhouse. Dorothy Woodruff and Rosamond Underwood went to grade school and Smith College together, spent eight months on a grand tour of Europe in 1910 and, bored with formal luncheons and chaperoned balls, not yet ready for marriage, they answered an ad for schoolteachers. They travelled by train to Denver, and then rode horses for three days up to the remote school where their students, the children of homesteaders, came to school in rags and bare feet.…


Book cover of The Poker Bride: The First Chinese in the Wild West

Rachel Kovaciny Why did I love this book?

I find this book fascinating because, along with telling one individual's story, it discusses the experiences of thousands of Chinese women who were trafficked to America during the 1800s. This is not a subject many books discuss. Note: because of the subject matter, this book is not suitable for all ages.

Polly Bemis’s destitute peasant family in China sold her into slavery when she was a young teen. She was taken to America and sold as a concubine to a wealthy store owner. A few years later, her owner lost Polly in a poker game to a gambler named Charlie Bemis, who married her. Polly Bemis spent the rest of her life a free woman, working hard in the home she and her husband built in the wilderness.

By Christopher Corbett,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Poker Bride as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This true story of a concubine and the Gold Rush years “delves deep into the soul of the real old west” (Erik Larson).
 
“Once the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill launched our ‘national madness,’ the population of California exploded. Tens of thousands of Chinese, lured by tales of a ‘golden mountain,’ took passage across the Pacific. Among this massive influx were many young concubines who were expected to serve in the brothels sprouting up near the goldfields. One of them adopted the name of Polly Bemis, after an Idaho saloonkeeper, Charlie Bemis, won her in a poker game and…


Book cover of Westward the Women

Rachel Kovaciny Why did I love this book?

I have collected a lot of nonfiction focused on the women’s experiences in the Old West – there are many such books available now. But, when Nancy Wilson Ross published this book in 1944, there weren’t any.  Can you imagine that?

Ross writes about women in all walks of life, from missionaries to outlaws to farmers and ranchers. She writes mainly about white women and Native Americans, though some of her attitudes will feel a little dated to modern readers. But that just means that this book is as much a window into the ideas of the 1940s as it is into the lives of women in the 1800s, which I find fascinating.

By Nancy Wilson Ross,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Westward the Women as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

WESTWARD THE WOMEN is a book about women of every kind and sort, from nuns to prostitutes, who participated in the greatest American adventure—pioneering across the continent. Not only does the material represent half-forgotten history—which the author garnered from attics, libraries, state historical museums, and the reminiscences of Far Western Old-timers—but it is unique in presenting the woman’s side of the story in this major American experience.

With dramatic clarity the author of FARTHEST REACH has written the intimate and human stories of certain outstanding personalities among these pioneer women; the Maine blue-stocking pursuing her studies of botany and taxidermy…


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The Last Whaler

By Cynthia Reeves,

Book cover of The Last Whaler

Cynthia Reeves Author Of The Last Whaler

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Arctic adventurer Eternal optimist Unrealistic realist Foodie Teacher

Cynthia's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

This book is an elegiac meditation on the will to survive. Tor, a beluga whaler, and his wife, Astrid, a botanist specializing in Arctic flora, are stranded during the dark season of 1937-38 at his remote whaling station in the Svalbard archipelago when they misjudge ice conditions and fail to rendezvous with the ship meant to carry them back to their home in southern Norway. 

Beyond enduring the Arctic winter’s twenty-four-hour night, the couple must cope with the dangers of polar bears, violent storms, and bitter cold, as well as Astrid’s unexpected pregnancy.

The Last Whaler concerns the impact of…

The Last Whaler

By Cynthia Reeves,

What is this book about?

The Last Whaler is an elegiac meditation on the will to survive under extreme conditions. Tor, a beluga whaler, and his wife, Astrid, a botanist specializing in Arctic flora, are stranded during the dark season of 1937-38 at his remote whaling station when they misjudge ice conditions and fail to rendezvous with the ship meant to carry them back to their home in southern Norway. Beyond enduring the Arctic winter's twenty-four-hour night, the couple must cope with the dangers of polar bears, violent storms, and bitter cold as well as Astrid's unexpected pregnancy. The Last Whaler concerns the impact of…


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Interested in the American West, American frontier, and Wyoming?

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