Write ‘em, cowgirl

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Women often emerge from the history of the American West as academic icons. Scholars have pored over diaries and letters with the idea of portraying even the most ordinary Madonnas-of-the-prairie as reliable sources. After all, it was proto-feminists struggling against the frontier patriarchy who actually won the West, or so we’re led to believe.

The truth is certainly more complicated, but Caroline Lockhart in her own way came close. Though ironically, she also helped perpetuate myths still with us today. Her biographer, Montana author John Clayton, has given us the first fleshed-out portrait of this extraordinary and mostly unknown woman.

Lockhart (1871-1962) started as a journalist at a time when feature “stunts” made news and were usually the work of celebrity female reporters like Nellie Bly. Debuting at the Boston Post in 1894, Lockhart reported on everything from “taking the wheel of a full-rigged ship” to “spending Christmas Eve on the street in Boston’s most squalid neighborhood.” She produced admirable stories from these and other assignments.

In 1895 Lockhart scored an interview with Buffalo Bill Cody while the Wild West Show stopped at Boston. The next year, the legendary showman helped to found his namesake town in northwestern Wyoming, an event that in itself would be a major influence on Lockhart’s life.

After a few more years of earning her journalistic spurs, Lockhart brought an intense curiosity about the West to Cody, settling there in 1904. It wasn’t long before she started to ruffle local feathers thanks to her cocky, independent ways. She was a good horsewoman, and she was a writer.

Lockhart’s meager reputation rests on seven novels about the West (the two most prominent being “The Lady Doc” [1912] and “The Fighting Shepherdess” [1919]), some admired by such literary luminaries as H.L. Mencken. Her view of the West was influenced both by Buffalo Bill’s mythmaking and by Owen Wister’s 1902 novel “The Virginian,” which offered a realistic look at the cowboy life. Lockhart’s novels reflected this dichotomy, as she yearned for the wild, open-range West that was gone by the time she arrived.

“The Fighting Shepherdess” is based on the life of Lucy Morrison Moore, the fabled “Sheep Queen of Wyoming.” The book mythologized its heroine, turning her into a feminist icon: A woman of brute strength who manhandled her sheep to shear them, wintered in a sheepwagon and functioned well in a man’s world (shades of Lockhart herself), not to mention in an unforgiving landscape. In reality, Moore spent the winters in a comfortable home in Casper, Wyo. She was moneyed, liked to live well and ended her days speculating in Los Angeles real estate.

Even after years of living in Wyoming and knowing better, Lockhart’s fiction settled into the rut of providing the stock characters and plots her Eastern readers expected. Along with the “dime novels” of the previous century and the work of a Montana novelist named B.M. Bower (interestingly, another woman), Lockhart’s myth-laden work helped presage the Hollywood westerns of John Ford and John Wayne.

Lockhart soon wore out her welcome in Cody. She had feuds with noteworthy citizens such as Dr. Francis Lane (whom she mocked in “The Lady Doc”) and attorney Ernest Goppert. And she enjoyed lampooning other locals by turning them into easily recognizable evil or comic characters in her novels. Lockhart was the publisher of the Cody Enterprise from 1920 to 1925, and she used the newspaper’s pages to further torment her enemies.

In 1919, Lockhart was one of the founders of the now-legendary Fourth of July “Cody Stampede,” an annual paean to patriotism mixed with the myth of the Old West, its parades and rodeos remaining a big tourist draw today. Overnight, Cody boosters went from trying to attract Midwestern farmers with promises of free irrigated homesteads to a “big hat” cowboy mentality that stressed dude ranch visits, Cody’s proximity to Yellowstone National Park (50 miles) and Buffalo Bill’s legacy.

Not long after his death in 1917, the Buffalo Bill Memorial Association was founded in Cody. Lockhart was active in the organization, and one of its projects was the erection of a public monument to the Plainsman.

The “Scout” bronze equestrian statue was sculpted by Manhattan socialite Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, who was also one of the noted sculptors of her time. Lockhart was instrumental in fundraising for the project. It was dedicated on July 4, 1924, and stands on the western end of Sheridan Avenue in Cody, a modern-day symbol of the town’s Western theme park mentality.

After selling her interest in the Cody Enterprise, Lockhart had a short stint as a columnist for the Denver Post, but she soon soured on Denver and returned to Wyoming.

In 1926, Lockhart bought a remote ranch (the L Slash Heart) in the Dryhead region of southern Montana, where — true to form — she promptly got into property and water rights disputes with neighbors. Despite these problems, over 20 years the ranch expanded to be one of the largest in Montana.

Her personal life was enough of a distraction in itself. Lockhart’s relations with men had — for her time — a liberated, feminist bent. Though enjoying a rich sex life, she never married in all her 91 years. One of her ranch foremen, Dave Good, seems to have been the love of her life. They shared a home in Cody in their old age.

In the 30 years she published the Cody Enterprise and ran her ranch, Lockhart mostly stopped writing fiction. During this time she produced just one book, “Old West and New” (1933), to mostly dismal reviews. Her best novels are the early ones that reflected her enthusiasm for her subject matter.

She died of old age in the Cody hospital in 1962. Born in the Gilded Age, she passed on in the age of the astronaut.

This larger-than-life Western woman deserved a good biography, and John Clayton has written one.

Bill Croke is a writer in Cody, Wyo.

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