Heritage: Who Really Ruled the Old West?

October 10, 2017 pixelmark

woman in vintage gown posing

These “Wicked” New Mexico Women Held Their Own In A Man’s World

Written by Donna Blake Birchell

Hard-drinking maven of mayhem, Sadie Orchard may have cussed like a sailor, but she was always there when her community, especially children, needed her. Courtesy of Wicked Women of New Mexico

Old West lore has long conjured up romantic images of the dashing, fearless male desperado. Tales of Jesse James, Billy the Kid, Clay Allison, and Butch Cassidy have dominated books, magazines, movies, and even songs. They became our folk heroes, largerthan- life criminal legends whose escapades overshadowed the works of those who sought to protect the public from these renegades. Certainly these concepts made for good reading, but men did not controlthis spot as much as they would have liked.

Before you chalk the outlaw West up to being a male-only society, consider the lesser-known deeds of a few mavens of mayhem, who, in their quest to survive, have at times surpassed the evil exploits of their male counterparts. The bad boys club reluctantly gained members who conquered their part of the West wearing petticoats and lace-up boots.

woman sitting with a vintage gown and hat onGenerally life was not kind to women in the West, especially if a woman was to find herself in a delicate situation—translated as being without the protection of a man. Her options were few. Becoming a shady lady was a less than desirable profession, but if you were a widow, or a victim of abuse, shunned by family, you could work for a pittance as either a laundress or store clerk, or endure a few unpleasant conditions to live in the relative luxury of the parlor houses.

Not all were innocent victims, some actually sought out the opportunities this trade provided. Lizzie McGrath of Albuquerque was a prime example of this, as she flourished in her profession to become one of the richest women in the Territory who just happened to be a Madame. These funds may be thought of by some as tainted resources, but Lizzie did a great deal of good for her community—albeit typically anonymously.

This trait ran true with most of the ladies who, like Sadie Orchard of Hillsboro, took up collections to build churches, provided care during smallpox and influenza outbreaks, as well as granted monetary support for the families left behind after such tragedies.

The New Mexico Territory offered a haven for all outlaws due the shear isolation the land furnished. One such exile was cattle rustler Bronco Sue who haunted the southern parts of New Mexico as she amassed her herd and a growing list of abandoned or deceased husbands. Bronco Sue could out ride, drink, and rope any man who challenged her. Clearly she did not need a man in her life, but she seemed to collect them (and cattle) like some people collect shoes.

Those with less evil intent, used their brains to dominate the gambling tables. Carlotta Thompkins, commonly known as Lottie Deno, began her career as a gambler out of necessity to support her family after her father’s death. Her celebrity earned her nicknames such as: Queen of the Pasteboards, Angel of San Antonio, and Mystic Maud. In her later years, Lottie settled down with her outlaw husband in Deming to become a church-going, pinnacle of the community. Often times Lottie would host ladies quilting bees featuring a game or two of cards, of which the former gambler was always the victor. Her guests were none the wiser to her former career.

The desire to survive afforded these women the amenity of independent lives. Their methods may have been unorthodox, and in some cases, illegal, but these women showed abundant tenacity and pure guts to compete in a male-dominated world and succeed. The odds were against women in the West, but without them forging ahead through adversity, the country would not be as strong.

Are you curious

about the complete stories of the women mentioned and many more who called new mexico home?

Wicked Women of New Mexico by Donna Blake Birchell, can be purchased at arcadiapublishing.com

Top Left, A lady of refined upbringing, Lottie Deno, was forced to live a colorful life to support the lifestyles of her mother and sister who had no idea she was an ace at cards. Courtesy of Wicked Women of New Mexico

Top Right, Lizzie McGrath was quite generous as Albuquerque’s richest woman, as she was known to sponsor children and give her last name to orphans. Courtesy of Wicked Women of New Mexico

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