The Bold Van Buren Sisters, Who Blazed a Trail Across America

American Motorcycle Association Hall of Fame via Wikipedia (Augusta and Abigail) // Public Domain
American Motorcycle Association Hall of Fame via Wikipedia (Augusta and Abigail) // Public Domain

Descendants of American president Martin Van Buren, Adeline and Augusta Van Buren were born into a life of privilege that assured them the safe and respectable existences of society women. But with America on the brink of war, the sisters ditched their gilded cages for a cross-country adventure they hoped would change their beloved nation for the better.

By July 1916, America was readying to enter World War I, and 32-year-old Augusta and 26-year-old Adeline were eager to do their part as motorcycling military dispatch riders, transporting crucial communications to the front line. Women were flat-out barred from combat duty in the U.S., but as bikers with thousands of hours logged on the roaring vehicles, the Van Burens felt they were uniquely qualified for such arduous and dangerous missions. And they were determined to prove it. By the end of their journey, they would become the first women to travel across the country on two solo motorcycles.

Fittingly, Addie and Gussie—as they preferred to be called—set forth on Independence Day. From Brooklyn's Sheepshead Bay racetrack, they headed to the Lincoln Highway, which ran from Times Square in Manhattan to Lincoln Park in San Francisco. They had top-of-the-line bikes: $275 Indian Power Plus motorcycles that boasted Firestone "non-skid" tires and gas headlights that would allow them to barrel through the darkest nights. They had an indomitable spirit. They had each other. And they'd need all the courage and resources they could muster for this daunting endeavor.

“There were no road maps west of the Mississippi," their great-nephew and historian Robert Van Buren explained to the Worcester, Massachusetts Telegram of the sisters' epic journey. "The roads were just cow passes, dirt trails, wagon trails, things like that.” The Lincoln Highway was far from the paved superhighways of today. Heavy rain proved a major problem, wiping out roads and throwing the Van Burens off-course and off their bikes. “They had no helmets. They just had goggles with a leather cap and leathers on. They were really exposed to the elements,” Van Buren said. “They had a tough time.” Yet weather and murky maps weren't their only obstacles.

Just west of Chicago, the motorcycling mavens were pulled over by police—not for the way they were driving but for the way they were dressed. Though women's fashion was shifting from corsets to more comfy attire, dresses were still the norm. In some states it was actually illegal for women to wear pants. So the Van Burens' military-style leggings and leather riding breeches got them arrested again and again by confounded cops. Between arrests and weather delays, the sisters' one-month journey stretched into two.

By August, Addie and Gussie reached Colorado's Rocky Mountains and earned their first record, becoming the first women to reach the 14,109-foot summit of Pike's Peak by motorized vehicle. Running behind schedule, the sisters abandoned their plan to ride north through Wyoming, favoring a more direct path through the Rockies. Unfortunately, relentless rain transformed the mountains’ dirt paths to sucking mud that mercilessly trapped their tires. Exhausted, freezing, and filthy from their fruitless efforts to free their wheels, the dejected duo was forced to abandon their bikes and seek out help on foot. Hours and miles later, the sisters slid out of the darkness upon the small mining town of Gilman, Colorado. They were quite the sight to the awed miners: two angel-faced ladies draped in leather and caked in mud.

The miners offered them rest and food, then helped the sisters free their bikes. But another brush with disaster came 100 miles west of Salt Lake City, where the winds had whisked away the desert's path, and the pair was woefully low on water. Thankfully, their luck held up again: A prospector came along who not only had a horse-drawn cart packed with supplies, but also a keen sense of direction to get them back on their way.

Wikipedia // Public Domain

 
Exhausted and elated, Addie and Gussie Van Buren reached San Francisco at long last on September 2, having traveled 5500 miles, and completed their journey on September 8 after arriving in Los Angeles. And still, they pressed on, traveling down to the Mexican border and Tijuana.

Their remarkable ride earned headlines, but much of the media coverage disappointed. Leading motorcycle magazines focused on the bikes, not the bikers. Others ignored the purpose and historical import of their journey, publishing puff pieces about the ladies' curious "vacation." Worse yet, The Denver Post accused the sisters of exploiting World War I to abandon their duties at home to "display their feminine counters in nifty khaki and leather uniforms." But most vexing, the U.S. government was unmoved, and rejected the Van Burens' application for dispatch service.

Following their cross-country adventure, the boundary-busting sisters pursued new passions. In a time when female lawyers were unheard of, Addie earned her law degree at prestigious New York University. Meanwhile, Gussie became a pilot, flying in Amelia Earhart's Ninety-Nines, an international organization dedicated to creating a supportive environment and opportunities for aviatrixes. With these accomplishments, each sister added credence to Gussie's famous maxim, "Woman can, if she will."

While their journey didn't deliver the immediate impact the sisters had hoped for, today they are remembered as pioneers for women and motorcyclists alike. Addie and Gussie's courageous spirit and intense independence is celebrated by descendants and admirers who have kept their legacy alive through cross-country rides that traced their path on the trip's 90th and 100th anniversaries. Plus, both the Sturgis Motorcycle Museum's Hall of Fame in South Dakota and the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame of Ohio have posthumously inducted the Van Burens as esteemed members.

Both Addie and Gussie enjoyed full lives with careers that thrilled them, and family that loved and still rally around them, decades after their deaths at ages 59 and 75 respectively. In their time, these headstrong and hearty sisters witnessed the passing of the 19th Amendment that gave women the vote. They cheered the female patriots who rushed into the workforce as World War II demanded. They relished in a world that was changing to meet them, the industrious, rebellious, and brave Van Burens.

8 Giant Historical Objects That Have Crossed the World

The giant sphinx at the Penn Museum
The giant sphinx at the Penn Museum
Peter Miller, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Despite the incredible labor that goes into their relocation, a number of colossal artifacts have made very long trips after being purchased—or, occasionally, stolen. Here are a few journeys of such enormous objects, from a whole 19th-century bridge to the ancient god of a lost city.

1. AN EGYPTIAN SPHINX

In October 1913, a nearly 15-ton, 3000-year-old sphinx arrived with great fanfare in Philadelphia. From Memphis, Egypt, it had traveled up the Suez Canal, then boarded a German freighter, packed alongside goat skins that were destined for a local leather tannery. Once docked in the United States, a crane hoisted the red granite statue onto a train car. Finally, with the help of an iron-wheeled truck, 10 horses, and 50 workers, it was installed outside the Penn Museum. It was moved inside the galleries in 1926, and it's guarded the collections ever since (although it's currently off-view for conservation work).

2. A STATUE OF JUNO

For a nearly 13-foot-tall, 13,000-pound Roman goddess, Juno has gotten around. With a head sculpted in the 1st or 2nd century CE and a body made a century or two later, the statue's first recorded whereabouts are in the gardens of Rome's Villa Ludovisi. She was sold to Americans Charles and Mary Sprague in 1897, then transported in 1904 to their home in Brookline, Massachusetts. There the marble woman, decked out in flowing robes and with a diadem on her giant head, presided over the driveway of their Brandegee Estate. It reportedly took 12 oxen to haul her into place.

After a century in the open air, Juno was acquired by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in 2011. Getting the statue inside the museum required lifting it by crane and lowering it 80 feet through a skylight. Unfortunately, all those years of exposure in the outdoors had deteriorated her porous marble, with cracks and vandalism further marring the stone, so extensive conservation was carried out right in the gallery (including a nose and lip replacement). Now she’s standing proudly on a steel-reinforced pedestal as the largest classical marble statue in an American museum.

3. LONDON BRIDGE

Robert McCaulloch standing in front of London Bridge as it is dismantled in 1968
Robert McCaulloch standing in front of London Bridge as it is dismantled in 1968.
Jim Gray/Keystone/Getty Images

Block by block, this 19th-century bridge was relocated to a brand new 20th-century American development. Industrialist Robert P. McCulloch bought the 1830s London Bridge from the Corporation of London on April 18, 1968 for close to $2.5 million. The arch bridge—a project of Scottish civil engineer John Rennie completed by his sons, John Rennie the Younger and George—had spanned the River Thames, but was unable to support modern traffic and needed to be replaced. McCulloch had its carefully numbered granite blocks reconstructed over a reinforced concrete structure in Lake Havasu City, a planned community he established in the Arizona desert. (He thought the historic structure would drive tourism and encourage home buyers to invest.) It opened in 1971, connecting a Colorado River island with Lake Havasu City. His plan seems to have worked: Today the town is thriving, and the bridge still draws plenty of tourists.

4. AN IMPERIAL COFFIN

In 2010, an imperial coffin dating to the Tang Dynasty was repatriated to China from the United States. It had gone missing in 2006, stolen right from the tomb of empress Wu Huifei—a staggering feat, since it weighs 27 tons and stretches 13 feet long by 6.5 feet high. After two years of investigations, the local police discovered that the tomb—carved with animals, flowers, and human figures—had been sold to a businessman for $1 million and had traveled all the way to the United States. Once confronted by police via mediators, the businessman agreed to return the item, which then went on display at the Shaanxi History Museum in Xi’an. The incident is a reminder of the ongoing looting of Chinese antiquities from archaeological sites, which experts say is growing increasingly bold.

5. GOD OF A LOST CITY

For 1000 years, Hapy, the god of fertility, was submerged off the Egyptian coast. Then, in the early 2000s, a team of divers discovered a fragment of the colossal 4th-century BCE red granite statue. Weighing 6 tons and standing over 17 feet tall, Hapy is now one of more than 200 objects touring in "Sunken Cities: Egypt's Lost Worlds." From small coins and lamps to an over-12,000-pound sculpture of a king, each is a relic of the drowned city of Thonis-Heracleion. The major Egyptian port was founded around the 7th century BCE, and likely abandoned due to rising sea levels and earthquakes. Hapy is among the most massive of the exhibition’s artifacts, which have toured London, Paris, Zurich, and Saint Louis—with a visit to Minneapolis on the horizon this fall.

6. PIECES OF THE BERLIN WALL

A piece of the Berlin wall in the Vatican gardens in 2014
A piece of the Berlin wall in the Vatican gardens in 2014
VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images

After the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, remnants of the monumental barrier scattered throughout the world. Concrete pieces of the structure stand at almost 100 sites, ranging from a men's bathroom in a Las Vegas casino to the Vatican Gardens in Vatican City. A 12-foot-tall section, gifted to Olympian Usain Bolt, is at Up-Park Camp in Kingston, Jamaica, while a dentist in Sosnovka, Poland, acquired 40 segments and arranged them as an art installation. However, the longest stretch is still in Berlin—the East Side Gallery—adorned with nearly a mile of street art, a shadow of the wall’s former 96-mile path.

7. IRAQ TRAUMA BAY FLOOR

A 3000-pound, 7-by-7-foot section of concrete floor is considered the site where the most American lives were both lost and saved during Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2008, the floor of Trauma Bay II was delicately relocated from Balad Air Base in Iraq to the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver Springs, Maryland. The scuffed floor, stained with antiseptics, was salvaged when the temporary medical facilities were torn down. Now part of an exhibition on medical personnel in Iraq, the concrete slab recalls the trauma care for the many wounded who were treated on it between 2003 and 2007.

8. CLEOPATRA’S NEEDLES

Cleopatra's Needle in New York's Central Park
Cleopatra's Needle in New York's Central Park
STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images

The oldest human-made outdoor object in New York City was carved when Manhattan was still wilderness. The 69-foot, 220-ton obelisk, nicknamed Cleopatra’s Needle (though it has no connection to Cleopatra), is located in Central Park just behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Its companion obelisk is by the River Thames in London; both were commissioned around 1450 BCE by Egyptian Pharaoh Thutmose III for the Heliopolis sun temple. In 12 BCE, they were moved over 100 miles to Alexandria by order of Augustus Caesar, and erected at the Caesareum.

When one was gifted to England, and the other to the United States, in the 19th century, they were lugged aboard ships for sea voyages. The London obelisk was almost lost in a storm that claimed six lives, but the New York obelisk was less disastrous, if no less arduous: It took 32 horses, several months, and a special rail track to get it into place. Following an October 2, 1880 Masonic ceremony, during which a cornerstone was placed in the obelisk, it was officially dedicated on February 22, 1881.

Sequoyah: The Man Who Saved the Cherokee Language

Henry Inman, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain
Henry Inman, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

Sequoyah was fascinated by books and letters, enchanted by the way people could divine meaning from ink-stained scribbles on a written page. Born in the 1760s in what is now Tennessee and trained as a silversmith and blacksmith, the Cherokee man never learned how to read or write in English, but he always knew that literacy and power were intertwined.

During most of Sequoyah's lifetime, the Cherokee language was entirely oral. According to the Manataka American Indian Council, a written language may have existed centuries earlier, but the script was supposedly lost as the tribe journeyed east across the continent. Sometime around 1809, Sequoyah began working on a new system to put the Cherokee language back on the page. He believed that, by inventing an alphabet, the Cherokee could share and save the stories that made their way of life unique.

At first, some Cherokee disliked Sequoyah’s idea. White people were encroaching further on their land and culture, and they were resistant to anything that resembled assimilation. Some skeptics saw Sequoyah’s attempts to create a written language as just another example of the tribe becoming more like the oncoming white settlers—in other words, another example of the tribe losing a grip on its culture and autonomy.

Sequoyah, however, saw it differently: Rather than destroy his culture, he saw the written word as a way to save it. According to Britannica, he became convinced that the secret of white people's growing power was directly tied to their use of written language, which he believed was far more effective than collective memories or word-of-mouth. In the words of Sequoyah, "The white man is no magician." If they could do it, so could he.

Sequoyah became further convinced of this in 1813, after he helped the U.S Army fight the Creek War in Georgia. For months, he watched soldiers send letters to their families and saw war officers deliver important commands in written form. He found the capability to communicate across space and time profoundly important.

Sequoyah's first attempt to develop a written language, however, was relatively crude by comparison. He tried to invent a logographic system, designing a unique character for every word, but quickly realized he was creating too much unnecessary work for himself. (According to historian April Summit's book, Sequoyah and the Invention of the Cherokee Alphabet, his wife may have attempted to burn an early version of his alphabet, calling it witchcraft.) So Sequoyah started anew, this time constructing his language from letters he found in the Latin, Greek, and Cyrillic alphabets, as well as with some Arabic numerals.

Sequoyah became more reclusive and obsessive, spending hour upon hour working on his alphabet. According to the official website of the Cherokee Nation, people outside his family began whispering that he was meddling with sorcery. By 1821, Sequoyah was too busy to pay the gossip any mind: He was teaching his six-year-old daughter, Ayokeh, how to use the system.

As one story goes, Sequoyah was eventually charged with witchcraft and brought to trial before a town chief, who tested Sequoyah’s claims by separating him and his daughter and asking them to communicate through their so-called writing system. By the trial’s end, everybody involved was convinced that Sequoyah was telling the truth—the symbols truly were a distillation of Cherokee speech. Rather than punish Sequoyah, the officials asked him a question: Can you teach us how to read?

Once accepted by the Cherokee, Sequoyah’s 86 character alphabet—which is technically called a syllabary—was widely studied. Within just a few years, thousands of people would learn how to read and write, with many Cherokee communities becoming more literate than the surrounding white populations. It wasn’t long before the Cherokee language began appearing in books and newspapers: First published in 1828, The Cherokee Phoenix was the first Native American newspaper printed in the United States.

Sam Houston, the eventual governor of Texas, admired Sequoyah's achievement and reportedly told him, “Your invention of the alphabet is worth more to your people than two bags full of gold in the hands of every Cherokee." Today, while the Cherokee language is now considered endangered by UNESCO, Sequoyah's system remains a landmark innovation—and a source of hope for the future.

You can visit Sequoyah’s one-room log cabin, which still stands in Sallisaw, Oklahoma. Not only listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it has also been designated a Literary Landmark.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER