The best books about women in the wild west

The Books I Picked & Why

Letters of a Woman Homesteader

By Elinore Pruitt Stewart, N. C. Wyeth

Book cover of Letters of a Woman Homesteader

Why 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.


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African American Women of the Old West

By Tricia Martineau Wagner

Book cover of African American Women of the Old West

Why 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.


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

By Dorothy Wickenden

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

Why 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. 


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The Poker Bride: The First Chinese in the Wild West

By Christopher Corbett

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

Why 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.


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Westward the Women

By Nancy Wilson Ross

Book cover of Westward the Women

Why 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.


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