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15 Female Explorers You Should Know

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You've heard of Christopher Columbus, Lawrence of Arabia, and Lewis and Clark. But do you know the incredible accomplishments of Gertrude Bell, Osa Johnson, or Valentina Tereshkova? In the female sect of explorers, there are heiresses, socialites, rebels, and cross-dressers. But the one thing they share beyond their sex is an intrepid spirit that thirsts for adventure. 

1. GERTRUDE BELL

A contemporary and colleague of T.E. Lawrence (a.k.a. Lawrence of Arabia), Gertrude Bell was a writer and archaeologist who traveled all around the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. Her books gave the people of Great Britain a clear concept of the empire's outer territories and are still studied today.

An Oxford graduate who was fluent in Persian and Arabic, she met Lawrence while working in the Arab Bureau in Cairo during World War I. She's best known for her contribution to the Conference in Cairo in 1921, where the beginnings of Iraq as a nation were forged. She'd later pioneer the school of thought that relics and antiquities should be preserved in their home nations. The National Museum of Iraq was born from her efforts.

2. NELLIE BLY

American journalist Nellie Bly (a.k.a. Elizabeth Jane Cochrane) is best known for her world-changing exposé for which she went undercover to reveal the abuse going on at Women's Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell's Island. But on November 14, 1889, Bly took on a new challenge for Joseph Pulitzer's paper, the New York World.

Inspired by Jules Verne's novel Around the World in 80 Days, Bly set out to beat the fictional globetrotting record. Traveling in ships, trains, and rickshaws, on horseback and on mules, Bly made her way from England to France, Singapore to Japan, and California back to the East Coast. And she did all this in 72 days. Well, 72 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes and 14 seconds to be precise. Naturally, Bly's bold endeavor made for a series of thrilling news stories, as well as a memoir—Around the World in Seventy-Two Days.

3. ISABELLA BIRD

A prolific author and fearless traveler, Isabella Bird thwarted social convention and her own sickly nature by traveling about the world at will, and often alone. "The English Bird" wrote her first book after coming to the United States in 1854. From there, she traveled to Australia and then Hawaii, where she trekked up an active volcano. She also explored the Rocky Mountains in Colorado before traveling to Japan, China, Indonesia, Morocco, and the Middle East. This resulted in books like The Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains, Unbeaten Tracks in Japan and The Yangtze Valley and Beyond. For all her incredible contributions, Bird was inducted into the Royal Geographical Society of London in 1892. She was the first woman ever to earn the honor.

4. Fanny Bullock Workman

Traveling with her husband William Hunter Workman, M.D., this American mountaineer broke a string of women's altitude records while becoming a noted geographer, cartographer, and travel writer. The Workmans both came from wealth, enabling them to go on extravagant and arduous trips, like bicycle rides through Spain and India and treks up the Himalayas.

A shameless self-promoter, she earned a reputation for riling her rivals. But her dedication to detailing her accomplishments with precise measurements and thorough documentation meant she could back up her big mouth. A compelling orator, Fanny was the first American woman to lecture at the Sorbonne in Paris, and the second female explorer ever allowed to address—and later join—the Royal Geographical Society of London.

5. Jeanne Baré

A French sailor and botanist in the 1700s, Jeanne Baré was the first woman to circumnavigate the world. However, she did it disguised as a man, a ruse that kept her close to her love, Philibert de Commerson. The two met over a shared passion for botany. First she was the teacher to the widowed man's children, then his assistant, and later lover.

When Commerson scored a commission from the French government to sail the world and conduct research, the couple conspired to hide Baré's gender by dressing her as a man, "Jean." It worked for more than a year, but when the crew hit the South Pacific, some islanders uncovered the truth, though particulars on how vary. When Baré returned to France, the Navy paid tribute to "this extraordinary woman" and her work of gathering new species of plants by giving her a pension of 200 livres a year.

6. Aimée Crocker

An American railroad heiress born in 1864, Aimée Crocker was infamous for her lavish parties and long list of lovers and husbands. She was a frequent subject of society gossip and a proud friend of Oscar Wilde. But when the public attention became too much, Crocker took off on a tour of the Far East.

On route, she detoured to Hawaii, where she met King Kalākaua, who—according to her memoir And I'd Do It Againwas so enchanted with her that he gave her an island and the title Princess Palaikalani (which is said to translate to "Bliss of Heaven"). Crocker's book offers a slew of other outrageous encounters, including run-ins with headhunters in Borneo, a would-be murderer in Shanghai, and a sultry boa constrictor in India. After ten years abroad, Crocker returned with wild tales, tattoos, a devotion to Buddhism, and a whole new allure for the high society of America.

7. Ida Pfeiffer

Though barred from the Royal Geographical Society of London because of her gender, this Austrian globe-trekker is now celebrated as one of the world's first female explorers. She took to traveling once her children were grown, and frequently journeyed alone. Knowing the risk, she penned up her will before heading off on her first trip to the Holy Land. From there, she trekked to Istanbul, Jerusalem, and Giza, visiting the pyramids on camelback. On her return trip, she detoured through Italy.

From these travels, Pfieffer published her first book in 1846. Its success funded her next exploration to Iceland and Scandinavia, which in turn became the subject of her next book. More trips were made to Brazil, China, India, Iraq, Borneo, and Indonesia. Her works would be translated into seven languages and earn her spots in the geographical societies of Berlin and Paris.

8. Sacagawea

All of the credit of the Lewis and Clark expeditions of 1800s America traditionally goes to its namesakes Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, but this Native American teen proved to be a crucial member of this Corps of Discovery. A member of the Lemhi Shoshone tribe, she and her trader husband Toussaint Charbonneau met Lewis and Clark while the explorers visited among the Mandan and Hidatsa tribes of North Dakota.

Joining their expedition with Charbonneau by her side and her newborn son Jean Baptiste on her back, she served as an interpreter and a guide when the party reached Southern Montana, where she grew up. With her help, the newly acquired territories of the West were explored and mapped, a crucial step in maintaining the United States' claim to them.

9. Osa Johnson

Born Osa Helen Leighty, this American explorer met her match in travel photographer Martin Johnson. The pair married May 15, 1910, and by 1917 they began traveling the globe together, making films to document their discoveries. Their documentaries boasted such provocative titles as Among the Cannibals of the South Pacific, Jungle Adventures, Headhunters of the South Seas, and Wonders of the Congo.

They worked as a team. Martin shot pictures and film, while Osa hunted for food and when necessary defended her husband with her rifle. This was the case when a rhino in the wild full-on charged the pair. Osa brought it down, while Martin captured the entire encounter with his camera. The Johnsons promoted their films with lecture tours, and in 1940 Osa released the best-selling memoir I Married Adventure. Today, the Johnsons' films and photos can still be seen in Disney's Animal Lodge and at the Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum in their home state of Kansas.

10. Isabelle Eberhardt

Born in 1877 in Geneva the daughter of a Prussian aristocrat and an ex-priest turned anarchist, Isabelle Eberhardt was fated to defy convention. She took to wearing men's clothes at an early age, and by 20 had converted to Islam. When she later began traveling alone through North Africa in the 1890s, she presented herself as a Muslim man named Si Mahmoud Saadi.

She only lived to 27; her life cut short by a flash flood in a desert in 1904. Still, in her days she participated in revolts against French colonialism, wrote travel essays for French magazines, survived an assassination attempt that nearly severed her arm, and smoke, drank, and had sex whenever and with whomever she liked. Much of this is documented in The Nomad: The Diaries of Isabelle Eberhardt, which paint her as a creature of her own creation, formed between the Sahara and fearless sexual exploration.

11. Krystyna Chojnowska-Liskiewicz

This Polish sea captain and shipbuilding engineer earned the title of "First Lady of the Oceans" when she became the first woman to sail solo around the world in 1976. On February 28th, Chojnowska-Liskiewicz left from the Canary Islands. Her ship Mazurek was built in Poland with its construction led by her husband. Her route took her through the Caribbean and the Panama Canal to the Pacific Ocean. From there, Chojnowska-Liskiewicz steered across the Indian Ocean and then down around Africa.

She returned to the Canary Islands on April 21, 1978, having traversed 31,166 nautical miles in 401 days. That meant more than a year with only herself as company and crew, preparing all her meals, maintaining the boat, and facing potential threats like storms, rough seas and even pirates alone. She said of her solo voyage, "Grown people should be aware that sometimes in life is lonely. But during the trip I was not plagued by loneliness. I was not lonely, but alone. There's a difference."

12. Amelia Earhart

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American aviatrix Amelia Earhart is best known for becoming the first female pilot to ever fly across the Atlantic Ocean. Her interest in aviation was sparked as a young woman when she attended a stunt-flying exhibition. A natural tomboy, she wasn't deterred by social pressure that suggested a cockpit was no place for a woman. She took her first flying lesson on January 3, 1921, and bought her own plane six months later.

The following year she'd break the woman's world altitude record, reaching 14,000 feet. A slew of other accomplishments followed, including speed records and solo flights. Earhart urged other women to fly by writing pieces about aviation for Cosmopolitan magazine and helped found The Ninety-Nines: International Organization of Women Pilots. It was while attempting to set a record for flying around the world that Earhart and her plane went missing. Some recently uncovered evidence suggests she crash landed on an uninhabited island and lived out the rest of her days there.

13. Annie Londonderry

Born in Latvia Annie Cohen, she married in the U.S. and became Annie Kopchovsky. But this mother of three's ambitions as an athlete, entrepreneur, and explorer urged her to create a new name for herself: Annie Londonderry, the first woman to circle the globe on a bicycle. A bet was made that challenged her to circumnavigate the world in under 15 months while earning at least $5,000 along the way. What might seem a silly wager became a way to challenge the concept of female propriety as well as a chance for her to show just how a woman might get on in the world on her own.

Departing from her husband and children on June 25, 1894, Londonderry set off from the Massachusetts State House in Boston with a crowd of 500 looking on. Along her route she sold promotional photos of herself and made paid appearances. She leased out advertising space on her clothes and bicycle, among these a billboard for Londonderry Lithia Spring Water. Once her ride was complete, The New York World called her adventure “the most extraordinary journey ever undertaken by a woman.”

14. Lady Hester Stanhope

Charming and witty, Lady Stanhope was an admired socialite in English high society. But after a string of messy romances, she left England forever at the age of 33, and went on to become the first Biblical archaeologist. She journeyed to Greece, Turkey, France, and Germany.

En route to Egypt, Stanhope discarded her feminine and European attire for menswear of most common in Tunisia, a look that would prove her signature the rest of her days. She traversed through Israel, Lebanon, and Syria. Later, she'd tell tales of how she so impressed the Bedouin tribes that they named her Queen of the Desert, successor to Zenobia. But her greatest success came in 1815, when she convinced Ottoman authorities to allow her to excavate the ruins of Ashkelon. Stanhope went looking for gold, but instead found a seven-foot headless marble statue. Her reputation as an archaeologist takes a hit here, as she ordered the artifact smashed to bits.

15. VALENTINA TERESHKOVA

Leaving Earth exploration behind, we move to on to the first woman to travel into space, Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova. She flew the Vostok 6 mission, which launched on June 16, 1963. But her path to space was paved with tragedy. Her family was stricken personally and financially when her father died in World War II. Tereshkova was only able to attend school from age 8-16.

While working at factories, she continued her education through correspondence courses. Though she had no piloting experience, Tereshkova was accepted into the Soviet space program because she'd done 126 parachute jumps, an essential skill in a cosmonaut's descent to Earth. After much training, she was chosen to pilot Vostok 6, and logged 70 hours in space, making 48 orbits around Earth. Her work here earned her the title of Hero of the Soviet Union, as well as the Order of Lenin and the Gold Star Medal.

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10 Facts About the Battle of Bunker Hill
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The battles of Lexington and Concord—which kicked off the clash between Great Britain and the colonies—were historically and politically important, but relatively small in scale. The battle of Bunker Hill, however, was another story: Fought on June 17, 1775, it had a sky-high body count. Though the colonies were defeated, American forces performed so impressively and inflicted so many casualties on their powerful opponent that most rebels took it as a moral victory. Here’s your guide to the Bay State’s most storied battle.

1. ITS NAME IS A MISNOMER.

Massachusetts's Charlestown Peninsula, located just north of Boston, was a strip of land with great strategic value. In June 1775—less than two months after the bloodshed at Lexington and Concord—word was circulating that the British aimed to seize the peninsula, a move that would strengthen their naval presence in the area. To prevent this, the Massachusetts Committee of Safety (a patriot-run shadow government organization) ordered Colonel William Prescott to build a fort on Bunker Hill, near the peninsula’s northern shore.

On the night of June 16, Prescott marched 1000 men south of Charlestown Peninsula. Whether because he was intentionally disobeying orders or simply couldn’t find the right hill in the dark, he had his men fortify Breed's Hill rather than Bunker Hill. Toiling through the night, the militia men dug a wide trench surrounded by 6-foot dirt walls. In retaliation, the Brits attacked the next day. Following a barrage of cannonballs launched by His Majesty’s ships, hundreds of Redcoats landed on the peninsula and repeatedly charged the makeshift fortress.

The vast majority of this action took place on or around Breed’s Hill, but the name “Battle of Bunker Hill” remains in use. In the 1800s, Richard Frothingham theorized that the 110-foot Bunker Hill was a “well-known public place,” while the smaller Breed’s Hill was a less recognizable landmark, which might be the reason for the confrontation’s misleading moniker.

2. ONE PARTICIPANT WAS THE FATHER OF A FUTURE U.S. PRESIDENT.

America’s fourteenth Commander-in-Chief, Franklin Pierce, is primarily remembered for signing the controversial Kansas-Nebraska Act during his one-term White House stint. Pierce’s father, Benjamin, fought on the rebellion’s side at Bunker Hill and later became Governor of New Hampshire. Another noteworthy veteran of that battle was Daniel Shays, after whom Shays’ Rebellion is named.

3. THAT FAMOUS ORDER “DON’T FIRE UNTIL YOU SEE THE WHITES OF THEIR EYES!” MIGHT NOT HAVE BEEN SAID.

According to legend, this iconic order was either given by Prescott or Major General Israel Putnam when the British regulars first charged Breed’s Hill in the early afternoon. Because the rebels had a gunpowder shortage, their commanders instructed them to conserve their ammunition until the enemy troops were close enough to be easy targets.

But as author Nathaniel Philbrick pointed out in this interview, there’s no proof that anybody actually hollered “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes,” which has been quoted in countless history textbooks and was even riffed in one of Gary Larson’s Far Side cartoons. “We know that someone said ‘Hold your fire until you see the whites of their half-gaiters,' which [were] the splash guards on the regulars’ feet,” Philbrick said. “That doesn’t have the same ring to it.”

4. OVER 100 BLACK SOLDIERS TOOK PART.

An estimated 150 African-Americans, including both slaves and freemen, fought the British at Bunker Hill. Among them was Salem Poor, an ex-slave who bought his freedom in 1769 at the price of 27 pounds. During the battle, he fought so valiantly that many of his white peers later petitioned the Massachusetts General Court to reward Poor for his heroism [PDF]. Another black combatant, Peter Salem, is sometimes credited with shooting Major John Pitcairn, a British marine whose commanding role at Lexington had earned him notoriety in the colonies—though other sources cite Poor as the infamous redcoat’s killer. Salem himself had fought at Concord and would later see action in Saratoga and Stony Point.

5. WHEN THE PATRIOTS RAN OUT OF AMMUNITION, MANY RESORTED TO CHUCKING ROCKS.

The British's first march on Breed’s Hill quickly devolved into a bloody mess. Rather than spreading themselves out, the advancing infantry arrived in a tightly-packed cluster, making it easy for rebel gunmen to mow them down. The redcoats were also hindered by the rough terrain, which was riddled with rocks, holes, and fences. These factors forced the British into an inglorious retreat. After regrouping, the infantrymen marched on the hill once again—and, just as before, they were driven back.

The first two assaults had thoroughly depleted the colonists’ supply of ammunition, leaving them vulnerable. When the redcoats made their third ascent that day, the rebels had nearly run out of bullets. Struggling to arm themselves, some colonists improvised by loading their muskets with nails, scrap metal, and broken glass. As a last-ditch effort, several dropped their firearms and hurled rocks at the invaders. Such weapons proved insufficient and the Americans were finally made to abandon the hill.

6. THE REDCOATS SET FIRE TO NEARBY CHARLESTOWN.

Charlestown, now one of Boston’s most historic neighborhoods, was originally a separate village seated at the base of Breed’s Hill. Once a thriving community with 2000 to 3000 residents, the locals—afraid for their safety—started abandoning the area after that infamous “shot heard round the world” rang out at Lexington. By June 17, Charlestown had become a virtual ghost town. During the Battle of Bunker Hill, American snipers took to stationing themselves inside the empty village. So, to protect his own men, British General William Howe ordered that Charlestown be burned. The troops used superheated cannonballs and baskets filled with gunpowder to lay the town low.

The inferno didn’t spread to Breed’s Hill, but its effects were most definitely felt there. “A dense column of smoke rose to great height,” wrote an eyewitness, “and there being a gentle breeze from the south-west, it hung like a thunder cloud over the contending armies.”

Some 380 buildings went up in flame. Such destruction was without precedent: Although the British had torched some isolated homes at Lexington, this was the first occasion in which an entire village or town was deliberately set ablaze during the Revolutionary War. Unfortunately, the colonies hadn’t seen the last of these large-scale burnings.

7. BRITAIN SUFFERED A DISPROPORTIONATE NUMBER OF CASUALTIES.

Though the redcoats prevailed, their victory was a Pyrrhic one. Nearly half of the estimated 2400 British troops who fought at Bunker Hill were killed or wounded. How many men did the Americans lose? Four hundred and fifty—out of an overall force of 1200. The rebels may have been bested, but they’d also put on an impressive showing against some of the most feared and well-trained troops on Earth. Bunker Hill thus became a morale boost for the patriots—and a cause for concern back in England.

One day after the showdown, a British officer lamented “We have indeed learned one melancholy truth, which is that the Americans, if they were equally well commanded, are full as good soldiers as ours, and as it is are very little inferior to us, even in discipline and steadiness of countenance.”

8. PAUL REVERE LATER CONDUCTED SOME FORENSIC DENTISTRY AT THE BATTLEGROUND.

Fun fact: On top of being a silversmith and perhaps the most famous messenger in American history, Paul Revere was a part-time dentist. He learned the trade under an Englishman named John Baker in the 1760s. Revere’s mentor taught him the art of forging replacement teeth out of ivory and other materials, and the future rebel eventually established himself as an in-demand Boston dentist. One of his clients was Dr. Joseph Warren, the man who would dispatch Revere—and fellow rider William Dawes—to warn some Massachusetts statesmen that British troops were headed towards Lexington and Concord on a fateful, much-mythologized night in April 1775.

During the Battle of Bunker Hill, Warren, a Major General, decided to fight right on the front line with patriot volunteers despite his rank and was killed. When the battle was over, Warren's body was dumped into a shallow grave with another slain American..

When the British pulled out of the area in 1776, Warren’s kin finally had the chance to give him a dignified burial. But there was a big problem: Several months had elapsed and the corpses were now rotted to the point of being indistinguishable from each other.

Enter Revere. The silversmith joined a party of Warren’s family and friends in searching for the General’s remains. They knew they'd found the right body when Revere identified a dental prosthetic that he had made for Warren years earlier.

9. THE MARQUIS DE LAFAYETTE LAID DOWN THE CORNERSTONE OF THE BUNKER HILL MONUMENT.

The Bunker Hill Monument Association wanted to create a grand memorial honoring those who’d given their lives in the Revolution’s first major battle—and on June 17, 1825, 50 years after Putnam and Warren’s men squared off against the British, the monument’s cornerstone was laid at Breed’s Hill. Putting the rock into place was the visiting Marquis de Lafayette, a hero of the Revolution who was, as the musical Hamilton put it, “America’s favorite fighting Frenchman.” (For the record, though, he personally didn’t fight at the battle site he was commemorating that day.) Due to funding issues, this granite structure—a 221-foot obelisk—wasn’t finished until 1842. As for Lafayette, he was later buried in Paris beneath soil that had been taken from that most historic of battle sites, Bunker Hill.

10. “BUNKER HILL DAY” IS NOW A MAJOR HOLIDAY IN BOSTON.

In 1786, Bean Town began the tradition of throwing an annual parade in honor of the patriots who saw action on the Charlestown Peninsula. It takes place the Sunday on or before June 17—which itself is celebrated throughout Boston and its home county as “Bunker Hill Day.”

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