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Women of the American West

Boom town boulevard The muddy main street of Helena, Montana in 1870. In such towns that sprang up after the discovery of gold, women were rare commodities, and services such as boarding, laundry and prostitution were prized

In 1854, a card sharp from the east of the United States, going by the name Dumont – possibly from New Orleans – arrived in the gold-mining town of Nevada, California. Having found success as a professional gambler in San Francisco, this entrepreneur of the American West opened a gambling parlour in this new location that, by all accounts, was highly profitable. But the settlement dwindled and Dumont moved on, spending time in Utah, Idaho and Arizona, testing the waters of brothel management in various spots during the 1860s. In 1872, in Nevada, Dumont was double-crossed by a partner, losing everything. So this inveterate gambler came to the table again, latterly in the gold-mining town of Bodie, California. In 1879, after a disastrous loss, the game was up. On 8 September, Dumont’s body was found outside town, having apparently taken a morphine overdose.

What makes this tale of frontier life unusual is that the protagonist was a woman: Eleanor Dumont, later known as ‘Madame Moustache’ and probably born Simone Jules around 1829.

The adage “Go west, young man”, reputedly popularised by New York Tribune founder Horace Greeley, conjures a vivid impression of the 19th-century American frontier as a place of masculine action and opportunity. As portrayed in cowboy movies – think John Wayne, Clint Eastwood – this world of toughtalking, gun-toting macho swagger has often been seen as the exclusive domain of men. But, as recent research (and Dumont’s

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story) has shown, this was also a place of women’s agency, social latitudes and the stretching of established gender boundaries. As such, the history of ‘how the West was won’ (or lost) was much more variegated than the vision presented in traditional historical readings and countless Hollywood westerns.

As a place of new starts, economic possibility and social freedom, in the 19th-century the American West represented a realm very different from the east. Travellers on the overland trails in the middle of that century were faced with unfamiliar and challenging terrain. Vast expanses of prairie, the soaring peaks of the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada, and the forbidding deserts of the far west separated Independence, Missouri (from where many wagon trains departed) from the shores of the sparkling Pacific. Matching this exceptional topography was an equally monumental imagined landscape of manifest destiny, national dreams and personal aspirations in the making.

Expanding empire Over the first half of the 19th century, the US claimed vast swathes of territory through the Louisiana Purchase (1803), the annexation of Texas (1845), the Oregon Treaty (1846), and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848). When Jefferson assumed the presidency in 1801, the US counted 864,000 square miles of territory. By 1862, when the Pacific Railway Act was signed, paving the way for a true transcontinental railway line, and President Abraham Lincoln was grappling with thorny issues GE T T Y

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