Tom Ross' column appears in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.
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Steamboat Springs Have you noticed that the popular imagery of pioneer women in the American West doesn’t do them justice? They are typically portrayed either as Annie Oakley in a full skirt, or as the timid creature wearing a bonnet while sitting on the buckboard of a wagon. But she seldom has the reins in her hands.
If you’re hungry for a true-to-life account of a pioneer cattlewoman who knew how to hunt grizzly bears, could tame would-be cattle rustlers throughout the course of a couple good rounds of poker and stare down a band of Indian braves, there’s no better place to start than Agnes Morley Cleaveland’s account of her own life on the plains and mountains of Central New Mexico, “No Life for a Lady.”
To tell you the truth, I found the title off-putting. But once I dove into the book, I was quickly hooked on its startling narrative.
Cleaveland was born on a New Mexico ranch in 1874, the daughter of a civil engineer. Raymond Morley played a key role in the expansion of the Santa Fe Railroad, masterminding routes over La Veta Pass in Colorado and the improbably steep Raton Pass between Colorado and New Mexico.
Raymond Morely died young in an accidental shooting, and the author and her brother, Ray, were thrust into taking on adult responsibilities at a time when the portion of the West defined by the Sierra Madre and Datil mountains west of Socorro, N.M., was still untamed.
Cleaveland describes how an exhausted outlaw rode into their ranch one day, dismounted and boosted her onto his horse and instructed her to ride it around the yard to properly cool down the animal. After a hasty meal, he asked to swap hats with a ranch hand, left his horse for Agnes and rode off on another of the family’s mounts.
One of her frequent jobs was to make the 20-mile trip on horseback to the nearest post office every Monday regardless of the weather.
“With icicles six inches long hanging from my pony’s nostrils, and with frostbitten feet, I have made the trip in sub-zero weather,” she wrote. “I have ridden it when I wanted to, and when I didn’t want to, when my excited imagination had Indians following me and when I knew that coyotes actually were.”
There came a day when young Agnes found herself encircled by Navajo men on horseback, who rode in a ring around her, studying her intently. It was a pattern that she knew could be the precursor to violence, but ultimately they left her alone.
Fifty years later, she was approached by an elderly Navajo who asked if she remembered him from that day. He told her that he and his companions were intently curious because she was the first blonde-haired woman they had ever set eyes on.
The individual chapters of Cleaveland’s book all work as stand-alones. They include Chapter 1, “While Clay Allison Shot Up the Town” (he wanted to shut up the newspaper editor), to “Satan Didn’t Like Parasols,” “Corky is Tried for Murder,” “Our Neighbor, the Outlaw,” and one of my favorites, “I Hunt Grizzlies.”
Cleaveland’s hunting companion relates the first part of the story: “We was a ridin’ along single file, Miss Agnes in the lead, when we heard a snort up on the mountain above us. We’d woke a grizzly as big as a Missouri mule out of a nice nap, and he was a-comin’ down that mountain with blood in his eye, hittin’ the ground only once’t in awhile. Miss Agnes, she looked up and she run!”
I’ll leave the rest of the grizzly encounter to your imagination. Or better yet, track down a copy of the book. It was first published in 1941, but thanks to the University of Nebraska Press and Houghton Mifflin, there are new copies to be had.
I bought a copy of “No Life for a Lady” at Off the Beaten Path Bookstore more than a decade ago and gave it to my mother. Beth Basler Ross was once known to ride horseback across the juniper-covered hillsides of Central Oregon with her best friend, Jean Wilson. Together they were hell on any rattlesnakes that dared to cross their path.
I recently re-discovered the book languishing in her bookshelf and pilfered it like any respectable New Mexico outlaw would.
Guess what, Mom? You aren’t getting it back anytime soon.
To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com