When the American West was settled, women were few and far between. Explorers, trappers, miners, and outlaws tended to leave their families behind, if they had any. Pioneer settlers came later, and mostly stayed out of the limelight. But there were women who became famous for taking full advantage of what the West had to offer. Here are just a few of them.
1. The Gambler
Lottie Deno went by the names Carlotta J. Thompkins, Charlotte Tompkins, Charlotte Thurmond, Mystic Maud, "the Angel of San Antonio," and "Queen of the Pasteboards" at different times in her life. She came by her gambling skills honestly, learning them from her plantation-owner father. After he was killed in the Civil War, young Lottie went to Detroit, where she fell in with Johnny Golden. Golden convinced her to become an itinerant gambler, which led her to San Antonio, Texas, in 1865. That's where Lottie fell for Frank Thurmond, whose family owned the gambling parlor in which she worked.
When Frank went on the lam over another man's death, Lottie followed, leaving Johnny behind. But Johnny followed Lottie as well, and was killed only a day after finding her in Fort Griffin, Texas. Lottie made a reputation for herself as a gambler all over Texas, even playing against professional gambler Doc Holliday. One night, when she was accused of cheating, someone said she should call herself "Lotta Dinero," after which she was known as Lottie Deno. Lottie and Thurmond traveled the Texas circuit, but eventually opened their own gambling room in Kingston, New Mexico, and later a restaurant in Silver City, New Mexico. She and Thurmond were finally married in 1880 and settled in Deming, New Mexico, where Thurmond later became vice president of the town's bank. Lottie gave up gambling and became an upstanding citizen and a founding member of the local Episcopal Church for the next 50 years. Lottie Deno is said to have been the inspiration for the character of Miss Kitty on the TV show Gunsmoke.
2. The Homewrecker
Baby Doe Tabor was born 1854 and named Elizabeth Bonduel McCourt. She married Harvey Doe and followed him to Central City, Colorado, to work in the mines. Harvey lost his job and ignored his wife, who became bored and took up with a man named Jake Sands. Eventually, Baby Doe divorced Harvey Doe and followed Jake to Leadville, Colorado. But then she met Horace Tabor, a silver magnate and Colorado's lieutenant governor, and the two fell in love. It took years for Tabor to separate from his wife, and even then she would not agree to a divorce. So Tabor engineered an illegal divorce and a secret marriage to Baby Doe. Years later, Augusta Tabor finally consented to a divorce in which Tabor had to pay dearly. Tabor, by then a temporary US senator, publicly married Baby Doe.
Tabor was 24 years older than his wife, and Colorado and Washington socialites were well aware of the affair before Tabor's divorce. The Tabors lived in splendor in Denver and had two daughters (they named their youngest Rosemary Silver Dollar Echo Honeymoon Tabor), but Baby Doe was never accepted among Colorado society. Tabor lost his fortune in the Panic of 1893, and the family had to give up the mansion and move into a rented house. Tabor worked in the mines until he was appointed postmaster, but died soon after. Baby Doe could have remarried, but she chose to try making Tabor's Matchless Mine profitable again. In her efforts, she lived in a mine shack in Leadville for the last 30 years of her life and died in poverty.
3. The Madam
Fannie Porter was born in England and immigrated to the US as a child. She was a prostitute in San Antonio, Texas, by the age of 15, and a madam by age 20 (which was in 1893). Porter was known as the owner of a "boarding house" with five women living there -although the residents turned over often, and everyone knew what really went on inside. Porter was scrupulous about keeping the place, and the women, clean and fancy-looking. She was also known for her discretion, so the well-paying members of Butch Cassidy's Wild Bunch felt safe frequenting her place. It is possible that this is where Henry Longabaugh, the Sundance Kid, met his future wife Etta Place.
Porter would never reveal details of her customers, whether they were lawmen, outlaws, or even federal agents. William Pinkerton, founder of the Pinkerton Detective Agency, interviewed Porter about the Wild Bunch in 1901, Porter liked Pinkerton, who may have even been a valued customer, but that has never been conformed. Shortly after Butch and Sundance fled to South America, Porter retired, supposedly a wealthy woman. She kept a low profile afterward, and nothing is known about her later life.
4. The Driver
Charley Parkhurst was known as one of the greatest stagecoach drivers of the Old West. Parkhurst was short but strong, and even after retiring from driving, could outwork men half her age as a lumberjack. But after Parkhurst died, those who had known "him" for years were shocked to discover Parkhurst was a woman! Charlotte Darkey Parkhurst was born in New Hampshire in 1812. Dressed as a boy, Parkhurst worked in stables and learned the craft of a driver. She built a reputation as a skilled driver, then fled to Georgia, possibly over the threat of exposure. She moved west to California in 1851, where she again built a reputation as a skilled and talented driver. At least once her secret was discovered, but those who knew kept it confidential to preserve her dignity. After her death in 1879, doctors not only discovered Parkhurst's sex, but announced that she had at sometime in her life given birth! Nothing is known of the child. Parkhurst had also voted, which would have been illegal if her true sex was known.
5. The Blackjack Dealer
Eleanor Dumont was called Madame Moustache because of her appearance later in life. But when she was young, she was regarded as exceedingly beautiful. She kept her past private, so no one is sure where she came from, but she used French terms and named her blackjack parlor in Nevada City, California, "Vingt-et-un," leading many to believe she was French, or maybe from New Orleans. Dumont first made her reputation as a gambler in San Francisco in 1849, determined to cash in on the California Gold Rush. Her casino in Nevada City was a novelty in that no women were allowed inside except herself, and customers had to behave as if ladies were present. The casino was a success, and led to Dumont opening a second casino with additional games of chance.
After the Gold Rush subsided, Dumont bought a ranch, but lost her fortune when she fell in love with a con man named Jack McKnight. When he sold the ranch and absconded with the proceeds, Dumont tracked him down and shot him dead. She was never charged in the killing. Dumont had to return to work, as a gambler, prostitute, and madam. This occupation took her to Montana, Idaho, Utah, South Dakota, Arizona, and anywhere there was money in a boomtown. Dumont's luck ran out in 1878 in Bodie, California, where she miscalculated and lost $300 in a night of gambling. The money had been borrowed. She left the table and was found the next morning dead, a suicide by an overdose of morphine.
6. The Prostitute
Big Nose Kate was born Mary Katharine Haroney in Hungary in 1850. Her family moved to Davenport, Iowa, where her parents both died. Kate ran away from a foster home when she was 16 to seek her fortune. She was recorded as being a prostitute in Kansas. In 1876, she moved to Fort Griffin, Texas, where she met Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. Kate and Holliday began a relationship that was to last until Holliday's death in 1887. They broke up occasionally, but those separations were temporary. Even when the two were together, Kate still made money as a prostitute. Kate went by many names, at times being known as Kate Fisher, Kate Elder, Nosey Kate, Mrs. John H. "Doc" Holliday, Kate Melvin, and Kate Cummings, depending on the place and time, but was best known as Big Nose Kate to distinguish her from another prostitute named Kate.
Big Nose Kate lived in Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and South Dakota, with and without Holliday. Kate once even broke Holliday out of jail in 1877 by starting a fire and pulling a gun on the guard while everyone else tended to the blaze. After Holliday died, Kate married a blacksmith for a short while. In her later life at the Arizona Pioneers Home, Kate was asked about her days with Doc Holliday, but she refused to cooperate unless she was paid. She died at age 89. Despite the name, the John Wayne film The Sons of Katie Elder was not based on the life of Big Nose Kate, but on a different true story.