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Fearless Women Riders

Donna Campbell Smith is an author, freelance writer, and photographer. She has an AAS degree in equine tech and is a certified instructor.

Horses have been an equalizer for women since it dawned on human beings that the horse had value beyond the dinner plate. What she might lack in speed, stamina and strength the horse could provide. Our own American history is rich with the stories of women who accepted the challenge of succeeding in a man's world with the help of a horse.

Building a country is not an easy task. From the first day white men and women set foot on the soil of the New World, they had to struggle to survive. It was not a place for the faint of heart. Even the earliest explorers knew the value of the horse in taming this wild country. One of the first things Columbus did after "discovering America" was set up horse ranches in the West Indies.

Three women who stand with the legendary in their adventurous life styles are Anne Bailey, Betsy Dowdy, and Martha Jane Canary. All three of these women were familiar with hardship, and learned to take matters into their own hands when the chips were down.

Mad Anne Bailey

Born Anne Hennis in Liverpool, England in the early 1740s, "Mad" Anne Bailey was a teenager when she came to America with her family and settled in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. Her parents died in 1761, so she lived with relatives until she married Richard Trotter in 1765. Nine years later Trotter enlisted in the militia to fight Indians to secure the western border of Virginia for the British. He was killed in 1774 in the Battle of Point Pleasant. Some say Anne's mind snapped because of this event in her life. In any case she sent her seven-year-old son, William, to live with relatives and began her career as a frontier scout. She immediately won fame as a skilled horsewoman. Her nickname, "Mad Anne" resulted from her fearless escapades while working as a messenger and scout for the militia.

Once when Anne was being chased by a war party of Indians she leaped off her horse and hid in a hollow log. The Indians caught the horse but did not find Anne. After dark the woman skulked into the enemy camp, got her horse and after reaching the safety of the next hill let out a blood curdling war whoop and galloped off.

Anne married again in 1785 to John Bailey who was also the adventurous type. He was an army ranger and frontiersman. The two moved to the Kanawha Valley in what was later to become West Virginia, a rugged and wild land even today.

In the 1790's this part of the country was the outermost boundary of Virginia, a remote wilderness that settlers were just beginning to covet for it's fertile valleys and abundant game. The native people were not willing to be pushed any further west and it was a volatile time. A series of forts were built along the border to protect the settlers.

Anne and John were living in the Clendenin's Settlement at that time. One day a messenger from Point Pleasant brought news that a large army of Indians were planning an attack on nearby Fort Lee. The people took refuge in the fort but soon it was apparent that they were out of ammunition. Garbed in her buckskins with knife and rifle in hand, Anne volunteered to ride to the next fort for the badly needed gunpowder. Fort Savannah was the closest fort, but it was still 100 miles away.

Anne rode the hundred miles of rough terrain, there were no roads, and reached Fort Savannah in Lewisburg. She returned with the gunpowder in time to save the fort. No one knows how she managed to get through the enemy lines and back safely, but she did.

Betsy Dowdy

During that same time period on a small island off the coast of North Carolina another young woman was finding that her love of horses would lead her to an adventure. That girl's name was Betsy O'Dowdy.

The last Royal Governor of Virginia, John Murray, Earl of Dunmore, (Lord Dunmore, as he was commonly known) was on a campaign to march his troops south from Virginia to invade Northeastern North Carolina. In November of 1775, Dunmore captured Portsmouth, Virginia. He went on to take over Norfolk. The harbor there was vital to British control over the colonies.

He next defeated the Americans at Kemps Landing, and then traveled south where he barricaded Great Bridge on the Carolina side. In addition to burning homes, Dunmore's men slaughtered the colonists' livestock and horses. Dunmore built a stockade and dismantled part of the bridge, then installed cannons.

North Carolina's means of trade and livelihood were now cut off with no way to sell their goods. The news of these atrocities was slow in reaching North Carolina because the post road was cut off as well.

But on the night of December 10, 1775, word did reach the O'Dowdy family who lived on Currituck Banks. A neighbor had gone to the mainland on business and had brought back a full report. Betsy overheard the story, in all its gory details, as it was being related to her father. She was shocked to hear that Dunmore's inhumanity had even extended to the farm animals, especially horses.

Not unlike many generations of young girls, Betsy loved horses. Wild ponies roamed the Outer Banks, where she lived. They were descended from the horses left by Spanish explorers over two hundred years past.

Her neighbor continued with his tale, reporting that Col. Robert Howe was on his way to Great Bridge to try to win it back. But it was the opinion of Mr. O'Dowdy and his friend that it would take a great many more troops than Howe had available to defeat Dunmore.

Gen. William Skinner, fifty miles south in Perquimans County, commanded a hundred soldiers. If only someone could take Skinner the news, maybe he could get to Great Bridge in time to help Howe.

Betsy tossed and turned in her bed. The thought of Lord Dunmore reaching the Carolinas and killing the Banker ponies haunted her. She had listened to her neighbor express his view that Dunmore would do just that, if he were allowed to reach the coast. The ponies were potential remounts for the American militia; Dunmore would kill them all.

Betsy finally made up her mind. She would go to Gen. Skinner herself. She knew her pony was the fastest on the islands, and in top condition. If anyone could reach Perquimans by morning, it was her Black Bess.

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She crept downstairs and tiptoed out the door. Quickly and noiselessly she got her pony and took off for General Skinner's camp.

Enduring the wet and frigid conditions, Betsy rode over 50 miles, swimming the cold Currituck Sound, and riding through the Great Dismal Swamp. They rode through Camden and Elizabeth City and finally reached the outskirts of Hertford, where General William Skinner and his army were encamped.

As soon as she told Skinner what she had overheard, he called his men to arms and they marched north to Great Bridge. They were just in time. On December 11, 1775 Dunmore's army was defeated in a thirty-minute battle, halting his infiltration of North Carolina.

Had it not been for a teenage girl and her Banker pony, who knows how differently things could have turned out in the American Revolution?

Calamity Jane

Picture taken in 1895 by H.R. Locke

Picture taken in 1895 by H.R. Locke

Calamity Jane

Horses were as necessary to life as food and water in America's old west. A horse and a gun were the equalizers in the case of a little girl who grew up under many hardships in the mid-1800s. But, by the time she was twelve years old Martha Jane Canary could hold her own when it cam to riding horses and almost anything else it took to survive in the Old West.

Orphaned while still a teenager, Martha Jane disguised herself as a man and joined the cavalry. She wrote in her autobiography that she served as a scout for General George Custer. She also claimed to have been a member of the Pony Express.

Miss Canary later performed in some of the popular Wild West Shows, showing off her riding and shooting skills. This led to her becoming famous in the eastern states and she was the subject of one of Beadle and Adams Publishing Company's dime novels about the West.

Calamity Jane's travels took her throughout the western territories of the United States, where she prospected for gold, was a teamster, and even tried to settle down to life as a rancher. Not content with staying in one place she started to roam again. She ended up in El Paso, Texas where she met and married Clinton Burke in 1891 and had a baby girl.

In her later years Calamity Jane supported herself by selling copies of her autobiography, Calamity Jane, Written By Herself. In the first chapter she wrote, " . . .as a child I always had a fondness for adventure and outdoor exercises, and especial fondness for horses . . ."

There are many other stories in our history about women who were fearless riders. We can still see how horses empower young girls, whether it is in the show ring, on an endurance ride or a working ranch. Not only is the "outside of a horse good for the inside of a man", a horse can be pure power for a woman.

© 2008 Donna Campbell Smith


AskAshlie3433 from WEST VIRGINIA on February 10, 2011:

Donna, voted AWESOME AND UP! I see ya in the forum, just wanted to drop in and say hi. Very cool, interesting hub. Fearless Women riders, what a title. I remember hearing about Calamity Jane when I was little. Never knew what it meaned until today. Learn something new everyday. I enjoy you in the sports forum. You have good discussions. Glad to be a follower. Take care Donna.

Donna Campbell Smith (author) from Central North Carolina on September 04, 2010:

You can read about Betsy Dowdy in my historical fiction book, An Independent Spirit: The Tale of Betsy Dowdy and Black Bess.

Conny on September 04, 2010:

love the story's. I read all about Calamit Jane or what ever I can find about here but would like to find more info on that Dowdy girl.

Rebecca Graf from Wisconsin on December 23, 2008:

Thank you for acknowledging those that get forgotten. History is not always kind to the women or young ones that play vital and unexpected roles. This was a good read and and piqued my interest.

Donna Campbell Smith (author) from Central North Carolina on September 08, 2008:

I think my favorite is Martha Jane aka Calamity Jane. To have been orphaned so young - while they were moving west with awagon train. She was in a strange land with no one but her self to reply on, and she quickly learned what she had to do to survive. Yes, there are many of those kind of stories in our history. They are fun to write about. Thanks for the plug for my book, An Independent Spirit.

Rochelle Frank from California Gold Country on September 07, 2008:

Since Donna didn't mention it, everyone needs to know that Donna has written a historical novel for young adults featuring Betsy Dowdy.  An inspiring adventure based on history.

Maybe she has some other horsewomen in her future notes.

Donna Campbell Smith (author) from Central North Carolina on September 07, 2008:

Well, you'll have to give me an interview.

deborah on September 07, 2008:


Very interesting.

I can’t believe that you did not include me in your list of fearless horsewomen. My pony, Mary and I fought a many a battles on the copperhead trail in Mackeys!

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