Sarah Emma Edmonds: Civil War Soldier

Sarah Emma Edmonds

Sarah Emma Edmonds

Hello! Did you miss me? Sorry for not updating recently, I’ve been extremely busy. But, here I am now!

Part of my busy-ness is working on another project dealing with Reconstruction, so I’ve been doing quite a lot of research on that. I haven’t found many Extraordinary Ladies, unfortunately – Reconstruction was kind of a bust all around, and no one really had a chance to shine.

The Civil War, though…

An estimated 250-400 women (possibly more), both Union and Confederate, assumed a male identity, enlisted, fought, and sometimes even died on the battlefield.

Today, we’re going to talk about one of the more famous of these women, Sarah Emma Edmonds, who fought as Frank Thompson. Sarah was kind enough to write down her experiences in a memoir, Nurse and Spy in the Union Army, so finding information about her has been quite easy!

Sarah was born in 1842 (possibly late 1841), in Nova Scotia. Reportedly, she grew up in a religious, strict household. As a child, she read Fanny Campbell, the Female Pirate Captain, which inspired in young Sarah a thirst for adventure that would follow her for the rest of her life (of further inspiration, no doubt, was that Captain Campbell also cross-dressed on many of her own adventures).

The bookplate portrait of Sarah.

The bookplate portrait of Sarah.

Not much is known of Sarah’s mother (Sarah doesn’t speak much of her childhood, even in her memoir). But there is some indication that she fled Nova Scotia as a teenager in the 1850s to escape her domineering father and possibly a coerced marriage.

She spent some time in both New England and the Far West in the late 1850s, possibly engaged in missionary work or possibly also a traveling salesman. Supposedly, this is when Sarah first adopted her male identity, selling Bibles as ‘Frank Thompson.’ She came to love America, and think of it as her adopted home.

And so, when war broke out in 1861, Sarah felt compelled to be of service to her new country. President Lincoln had just put out a call for volunteers, encouraging young men of the Union to enlist. Perhaps inspired by her childhood stories, or perhaps by her desire to do more than “stay at home and weep,” Sarah decided to assume the life of a soldier. She reported to the recruitment office in Flint, Michigan, and enlisted as Frank Flint Thompson. As the army was desperately in need of soldiers, Sarah’s medical examination was quite perfunctory. Her doctor cared only that her eyes and hands worked well enough for her to shoot, and she had at least three teeth with which to tear paper cartridges. And Sarah was enlisting when hordes of sixteen- and seventeen- year old boys were lying about their age to enlist. What was Sarah but one more fresh-faced recruit with delicate features?

And so Sarah Emma Edmonds joined the 2nd Michigan Infantry under General George McClellan in 1861.

Either Sarah Edmonds or Jennie Hodgers, another female soldier in disguise.

Either Sarah Edmonds or Jennie Hodgers, another female soldier in disguise.

Her duties at first were, ironically, not that different from what she would have been doing had she volunteered as female – ‘Frank’ was quickly put to work as a nurse, tending the wounded on the front lines.

Things took a turn in Sarah’s life, though, when she befriended fellow soldier James Vesey, a courier. Sarah thought quite well of her friend… and so, when James was killed in the line of duty, she was devastated. She wanted to find some way to honor her friend’s sacrifice; and eventually realized she could do so by applying to fill his now-vacated spot as army courier. Her application was accepted, and ‘Frank Thompson’ became part of the army communications network.

Now, to deliver the mail in wartime is no mean feat!

Sarah would sometimes have to travel up to 100 miles to deliver important messages so the various armies could co-ordinate with each other and their various suppliers. Needless to say, many of these messages would have spelled calamity had they fallen into rebel hands; so Sarah had to work hard to stay hidden. She also had to travel through wilderness, such as when she had to swim herself and her horse across the Chickahominy River – then a pestilential area, where Sarah likely contracted the malaria which would play a prominent role in her life later on (not to mention, a shot in the arm and a broken leg; both of which never quite healed properly).

At some point, Sarah began working as a spy. There’s no official record of her work, but as we learned from Mary Bowser, the Union sometimes destroyed records to protect spies after the war. Sarah herself, though, wrote extensively about her escapades in sneaking past enemy lines. Some of her disguises were quite simple, such as ‘Bridget O’Shea,’ there to sell soap and apples to Confederate soldiers.

Avoiding rebel forces while delivering the mail.

Avoiding rebel forces while delivering the mail.

Other roles were far riskier.

At one point, Sarah blackened her face and hands with silver nitrate, darkened her hair and assumed the role of Cuff, a free black man looking for work in Richmond. However, no sooner had ‘Cuff’ entered the city than he was seized (despite his protestations of being a free man), given a pickaxe and put to work building Confederate fortifications and delivering water. Sarah turned this situation to her advantage – keeping her eyes and ears open and speaking with her fellow workers, Sarah gained a solid idea of Confederate capabilities in Richmond; intelligence her superior officers were only too happy to receive. On another expedition behind enemy lines, Sarah used the same silver nitrate trick to assume the role of a black washerwoman, who collected intelligence in the form of letters, maps and other important documents which rebel officers left in their coat pockets.

Sarah was present at Antietam, and though writes little of her experiences, she almost certainly took up arms and fought in the bloodiest battle of the Civil War.

Sarah, comforting another female soldier as she succumbs to her wounds.

Sarah, comforting another female soldier as she succumbs to her wounds.

Sarah writes movingly of finding a soldier after the worst of the fighting had abated, slowly bleeding to death. She gave the young soldier brandy and water, and the two of them prayed together. Near the end, Sarah’s companion confessed a great secret- the young private was a woman!

She requested that Sarah be the one to bury her, for the soldier had no wish for her secret to be discovered post-mortem. Sarah, of course, agreed, and personally saw to it that the soldier was wrapped in a sheet and laid to rest near a mulberry tree, a little ways apart from the other soldiers’ graves. Sarah does not give the soldier’s enlisted name, but says the woman joined with her brother; and that both were killed in the fighting at Antietam.

Sarah was not to see the end of the war as Frank Thompson. Her excursions into the swampy lands of the South had caused her to contract malaria – not an uncommon disease for the time and place. She could easily have reported to the infirmary for treatment, but dared not for fear that her true gender would be discovered. Instead, Sarah went to a private hospital, as Sarah Edmonds, and stayed there until she recovered.

A lone grave at Antietam.

A lone grave at Antietam.

Unfortunately, when she was released from the hospital, she found that Frank Thompson was on a list of deserters! Returning to the army would almost assuredly mean execution. And so Sarah, returning to her, female, identity, served out the rest of the war as a hospital nurse. There’s no evidence she ever returned to living as Frank Thompson.

In 1867, she married a Canadian mechanic named Linus Seelye, and is sometimes known by the name Sarah Seelye or Emma Seelye. However, most accounts use her name at the time of her adventures. She and Mr. Seelye moved to Texas, where they would eventually have three children together.

In 1886, in part due to her poorly-healed war wounds, Sarah petitioned Congress for a pension. After hearing about her remarkable story, Congress eventually dropped the charge of desertion and granted ‘Frank Thompson’ an honorable discharge; as well as a pension of $12 a month (Sarah is the only known female veteran of the Civil War to have received a pension). She is also the only known woman to have been admitted into the Union veterans’ organization, the Grand Army of the Republic.

A memorial to Sarah in Michigan.

A memorial to Sarah in Michigan.

In 1884, she attended a veteran’s reunion, where many of her old comrades were shocked to discover the true identity of Frank Thompson! However, many quickly got over it; as, in the words of a fellow soldier, “she followed that regiment through hard-fought battles, never flinched from duty, and was never suspected of being else than what she seemed. The beardless boy was a universal favorite.”

She died in 1898, in La Porte, Texas; and was buried in the portion of the cemetery reserved for Union veterans.

The Michigan Woman’s Hall of Fame inducted her as a member in 1992; and her memoir was republished in 1999 under the title Memoirs of a Soldier, Nurse and Spy. You can also find copies of her book at Project Gutenberg.

Sarah doesn’t often appear in popular culture. Many non-fiction biographies have been written about her and women like her, but few of them have been fictionalized. However, the spirit of Sarah Emma Edmonds is alive and well, as with many spirits of the Civil War, in the hearts of Civil War re-enactors. Following in the footsteps of Sarah and her dying soldier at Antietam, many modern women participate in Civil War re-enactments; often in the persona of a woman who enlisted as a man. Several Civil War re-enactment groups even have provisions for women joining under these auspices (though may be quite strict in enforcement). A documentary about these women, Reenactress, is currently in production.


Civil War Women

Encyclopedia Britannica

National Park Service

Nurse and Spy in the Union Army

Smithsonian Magazine

They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the Civil War

Washington Post


Mary Bowser: Union Spy

Unverified photo of Mary Bowser

Not our Mary; but a photo often confused for her. I could not find any photos of Mary in specific.

So, I really wanted to do another LGBT woman to continue Pride Month, but the tragic attack in South Carolina, and the realization that today is Juneteenth, made me change my mind. Instead, I want to talk about a woman of color. And instead of talking about a fighter or a soldier, I want to talk about a spy.

I haven’t covered a female spy yet; I’ve mostly focused on women who took up arms or led armies. But spies participate in war just as much as any soldier or general, and though they may not be on the front lines, they risk their lives all the same. A captured soldier may sometimes rely on being taken as a prisoner of war and later returned home; but a captured spy is generally summarily executed. And the best spies are often those we don’t find out about until long after the war.

And so.

Meet Mary Bowser.

Mary was born a slave in or around 1839 in Richmond, Virginia. I tried to find out more about her parentage, but the only thing known is that she was born to a slave owned by the hardware merchant John Van Lew. John Van Lew was a ‘soft’ abolitionist, who freed Mary and eight other slaves in his will after his death in 1843. His daughter Elizabeth, who had been educated by Quakers and had strong abolitionist beliefs as a result, went even further. She used part of the Van Lew estate to buy the freedom of the freed slaves’ families (over the objections of her brother and mother).

Elizabeth Van Lew, Mary's patron and mentor.

Elizabeth Van Lew, Mary’s patron and mentor.

Mary, still a child, was retained in the Van Lew household as a servant; or, more likely, her mother was retained as a servant and Mary grew up in service (former slaves staying on as paid servants was common practice). However, Elizabeth, for reasons of her own, quickly took a special interest in young Mary. While most black Christians in Richmond received baptism at the First African Baptist Church, Mary was baptized in 1846, at St. John’s Episcopal Church, a largely white church to which Elizabeth belonged. And when Mary’s natural intelligence and quick wit shone through, Elizabeth paid for Mary to be educated at Anthony Benezet‘s school for black children in Philadelphia.

Mary studied hard, and reportedly had a near-photographic memory. She could read a page and be able to recite what was written, nearly word-perfect. After graduating in 1855, Mary was sent as a missionary to Liberia (Liberia itself was a nation founded a few decades earlier with the intention of repatriating former slaves back to Africa). However, Mary’s letters to Elizabeth reveal a deep homesickness – Africa was not for Mary, and she returned to Virginia in 1860.

There is some indication that her travel papers were not entirely in order, and Mary was arrested in Richmond under suspicion of being an escaped slave. She may even have been flogged. However, Elizabeth came to her rescue! Supposedly, Elizabeth had to claim Mary was her slave, and was made to pay a fine levied against owners who let their slaves out without a pass. Later in life, Mary would allude to having spent four months in a Richmond jail; this may be the incident she speaks of.

The church where Mary was baptized (and possibly married).

The church where Mary was baptized (and possibly married).

At some point, she met and fell in love with a man named Wilson Bowser, a free black man who also worked in the Van Lew household, and married him on April 16, 1861 – four days after the start of the Civil War. Several months later, Jefferson Davis would move the rebel capital to Richmond, and the city became overrun with Confederate soldiers, officers and politicians.

This presented a golden opportunity for both Mary and Elizabeth.

Elizabeth, using Christian charity as her shield, began to deliver food and medicine to captured Union soldiers held at Libby Prison. She also feigned several tics, such as muttering to herself and not making eye contact. As a result, many thought her insane and took less care to guard their words around ‘Crazy Bet.’

However, the greatest acts of espionage were performed by Mary.

Mary developed the persona of ‘Ellen Bond,’ a slightly dim but hard-working woman. ‘Ellen’ was brought on to help with several social events hosted by Varina Davis, wife of wealthy rebel leader Jefferson Davis. Mary performed her duties so well that she was brought on as house staff, full-time.

Yes, that’s right.

A former slave and highly educated woman was given access to the top levels of the rebel army because neither Varina nor Jefferson assumed a black female servant could read or had the intelligence to make sense of complex political or strategic conversations. This was exceptionally brave of Mary. As I mentioned above, armies are not kind to spies caught in their midst – and I seriously doubt Jefferson would have been inclined to show mercy to a black woman caught spying in his own house. Mary certainly would have known this. Her race, which had held her back all her life, presented her with one unique opportunity to be of incredible aid to the Union. And Mary took it.

Rebel capital where Mary worked.

Rebel capital where Mary worked.

Mary cleaned the Davis house, helped serve dinner and tended to various domestic tasks. And she also eavesdropped on Jefferson’s conversations with his cabinet, read his mail and generally kept her finger on the pulse of the rebel army. She would pass this information on to a baker named Thomas McNiven, who was also part of the Union spy network in Richmond. Every few days, Thomas would deliver bread to the kitchens, and Mary would take the opportunity to tell him what she had learned; intelligence which Thomas then passed on (Thomas would later write that Mary was one of his best sources of intelligence; the only other spy who came close to her in providing useful information was a prostitute named Clara; another woman underestimated by the rebels).

Unfortunately, Union records were destroyed to protect Mary and Elizabeth after the war, and Mary’s personal journal was lost in the 1950s. So we don’t know precisely what she told McNiven. However, according to surviving reports, some of her intelligence made its way to General Grant, and influenced his decision-making. So she definitely had an impact! I also personally suspect that every now and then, an important letter or map would mysteriously go missing from Jefferson’s office.

Lee's surrender to General Grant at Appomattox Courthouse; based on a woodcut by Alfred R. Waud.

Lee’s surrender to General Grant at Appomattox Courthouse; based on a woodcut by Alfred R. Waud.

Jefferson eventually realized someone in his household was leaking information, but Mary played her role as the slow servant so well that she was not considered seriously as a suspect. However, her partner, Thomas McNiven, was found out sometime in late 1864 or early 1865, and Mary knew the jig was up – everyone in the household knew she frequently spoke with Thomas, and suspicion fell naturally on her. Mary got out of there as quickly as possible, but she didn’t go quietly – she attempted unsuccessfully to burn down the Davis mansion on her way out. And when the Union army re-took Richmond, Mary’s mentor Elizabeth was the first person to raise the Union colors.

From here on out, unfortunately, not much is known about Mary. Elizabeth became a near-pariah in Richmond during Reconstruction. Even though her spy activities were largely unknown to her neighbors, they nevertheless knew she had supported the Union during the war. However, Mary’s wasn’t the last life she would influence – Maggie Walker, born to black Van Lew servants in 1864, would grow up to become the first black woman to charter a bank in the United States (among a long list of other accomplishments).

Maggie Walker, prominent black businesswoman.

Maggie Walker, prominent black businesswoman.

Mary did go on the lecture circuit, often speaking circumspectly about her espionage during the war; and there’s some evidence she also started a school and worked to educate former slaves and their children for many years.

Unfortunately, Mary was also smart enough to know which way the wind blew in post-Reconstruction Virginia. One of her only surviving letters speaks of her fear of white anger and resentment. She picked up in many residents what she called a “quiet but bitterly expressed feeling that I know portends evil,” and doubted the black community could advance in the South without federal protection.

The date of her death and the place of her burial are sadly unknown (though rumors exist that her descendants know precisely where she’s buried, but are keeping her grave a secret to protect it).

Mary shows up every now and then in pop culture. Lois M. Leveen, a Portland-based writer, has written a non-fiction column for the New York Times, “A Black Spy in the Confederate White House,” which she later expanded into the novel The Secrets of Mary Bowser. Ted Lange wrote a play, Lady Patriot, which focuses narrowly on the relationships between Mary, Elizbeth and Varina. The play was performed in Santa Monica in 2012, to fairly good reviews. And, in 1995, her hard work was recognized when she was inducted into the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame, two years after Elizabeth.


American Civil War Story

Recollections of Thomas McNiven and his Activities in Richmond During the American Civil War

The Root


Mino: The Dahomey Amazons

A Mino

A Mino


Welcome to Amazon Month, Week 3!

Today, we’re going to talk about a group of women often referred as the ‘Dahomey Amazons.’

As hard as I tried, I could not find the personal history of any of the Dahomey Amazons, and found only one or two names. So I’m going to depart a little bit from the format of this blog, and talk about a group of women rather than an individual woman.

The Fon are an ethnic group of Africans, living mostly in what is now Benin and Nigeria (the coastal region along the southwestern curve of Africa). In or around 1600, a Fon leader founded what would eventually become known as the Kingdom of Dahomey. Being situated on the western coast of Africa, Dahomey was uniquely positioned to deal with European slavers. And this they did, becoming both fabulously wealthy and deeply resented by the neighboring African kingdoms.

To meet the demand for slaves, Dahomey developed both a martial culture and an economy largely based on fighting other nations, kidnapping civilians and then selling them to Portuguese, Dutch or English slavers (The fact that Africans participated in the slave trade should in no way be taken as an excuse for slavery as a whole. There’s no justification for slavery, and readers should keep in mind that, as awesome as the Dahomey Amazons were, their lifestyle was made possible by slavery).

Dahomey, in red

Dahomey, in red

Originally, the Dahomey Amazons were called the gbeto, and were dedicated not to war, but instead to hunting elephants. According to legend, they were complimented by King Agaja after a particularly successful hunt; wherein the commander of the gbeto said she appreciated the compliment, but would much rather hunt the most dangerous game. The king was so impressed by both her talent and her boldness that he agreed.

At first, the gbeto worked as palace guards and the personal protectors of the king. Many places in the royal compound were off-limits to men after nightfall, but the gbeto could come and go as they pleased. Around 1708, as the Dahomey military underwent a general expansion, the gbeto evolved into a woman-only squad of crack fighters.

A Mino with her spear and machete.

A Mino with her spear and machete.

At this point, I have to point out, as I often do on this blog, that much of what we know about the Dahomey doesn’t come from these women themselves, but rather from fascinated European traders and missionaries who wrote about their African travels. The parallels between these women and the classical Amazons were obvious to a 17th century European, and so they are often known as the Dahomey Amazons. However, that’s not what they called themselves. A woman who fought for the King of Dahomey called herself a Mino (a Fon word meaning ‘our mothers’ or ‘my mother’), and so that is the word I’ll use from now on.

Mino fought with a variety of weapons, but the most common were the spear, the musket and the machete. These weren’t the basic machetes you can find in a home and garden store – Mino machetes were reported to be three feet long, razor-sharp and required both hands to wield.

The Mino recruited from all quarters – capable-looking women taken in slave raids could become Mino rather than being sold, and a Dahomey man upset with a headstrong wife or daughter could also send her to the Mino.  Some of these headstrong women probably headed their fathers or husbands off at the pass, and went off to join the Mino of their own accord. For their part, the Mino didn’t really care – if you were a woman, if you were strong and if you were willing to fight to the absolute death, they’d take you.

Part of the joining rite for the Mino was a symbolic wedding to the Dahomey king. As a result, the Mino were forbidden to have children or marry another man (if caught with a lover, both of them were destined for a very quick execution). If we take the words of the European men who wrote about them at face value, the majority of the Mino were virgins, but I personally call shenanigans on that. The Mino weren’t a small squad of hand-picked women; at their height, they were thousands. Doubtless most Mino obeyed the order to not have children, but I can’t believe they weren’t as randy as any other group of soldiers. Get six thousand women in an army together, at least a few of them are going to come up with a few creative ways to enjoy sex without risking pregnancy.

A  Mino with the head of a slain enemy.

A Mino with the head of a slain enemy. Note the lack of shoes.

It should be noted that the actual joining rite for the Mino has since been lost to history; but the symbolic marriage aspect and the vows to which the Mino were beholden was something generally known. As such, I feel safe in assuming that, whatever else happened when a young woman became one of the Mino, a symbolic wedding was part of it. As this tradition developed, the Mino also became known as ahosi, meaning ‘king’s wives’ (though the word ‘ahosi‘ in specific can sometimes mean anyone in direct service to the king).

Mino training was not easy, and started as young as eight years old. The Mino understood they would constantly be judged against their male counterparts, and were absolutely determined to surpass them in every way. The Mino were disciplined, rigorous, and brutal. Part of their training exercises consisted of giving weapons to captured enemies, and then literally hunting them through the jungle. To the bloody death. Barefoot.

One missionary describes watching an exhibition, in which a group of fearless Mino run across thorns (still barefoot) and engage in a mock battle. The winning women were given thorn belts, which they wore proudly and with no outward sign of pain. Other writers describe watching teenage Mino recruits perform executions, an exercise intended to desensitize them to violence and killing.

Though the demands of Mino life were difficult, the benefits often made up for it. Mino women were wealthy, sharing in the spoils of war and receiving payment for their service in gold, tobacco, alcohol and even an allotment of slaves. A Mino could walk proudly down the street and expect everyone to get out of her path. Even touching a Mino was dangerous – if she didn’t kill you herself, you may very well face execution for your temerity.

A group of Mino, having their picture taken during a visit to France.

A group of Mino, having their picture taken during a visit to France.

The Mino motto was Conquer or Die, and they meant it. Only the king himself could order a Mino to retreat from battle; if she ran from the front lines for any other reason, she would be summarily executed by one of her sisters on the spot.

Though some have interpreted the existence of the Mino to indicate that Dahomey culture was markedly gender equitable, other evidence suggests this might not be entirely the case. Dahomey society still had strict gender divisions. Though the Mino enjoyed a high social status, they were forbidden marriage and family life (a rule not imposed on male soldiers). There is some evidence that the Mino did not even consider themselves fully female – often, the Mino would refer to themselves as men. This probably isn’t an indication that the Mino should be considered transmen; but rather that the Mino took a unique approach to gender performativity.


In a nutshell, gender among the Dahomey was progressive in some ways (career options did exist for women) but regressive in others (the career options were limited, women had to choose between career and family). In this way, the Dahomey were much like any other complex society of the time; women had access to some areas but were barred from others.

Mino demonstrating their skills.

Mino demonstrating their skills.

It’s also important to consider the context I mentioned above: Dahomey’s economy relied on slavery. Their practice of conquer-kidnap-sell (which was something all African nations in the region engaged in at the time) meant that not only did the nation of Dahomey constantly need to protect itself from angry neighbors, the entire region dealt with the effects of male depopulation, as millions of men were sold into slavery. These unique pressures created room for the rise of the Mino.

At their height, the Mino were fully half of the Dahomey military strength, and the commander of the Mino directly advised the king on which nation to conquer next.

Unfortunately, though the Mino were unmatched among the other nations of Africa, they could not compete with the military might of 19th century Europe during the Scramble for Africa. In 1890, they tangled with several French settlements. At first, the Mino won several easy victories; as the French soldiers defending the fort were not prepared and had a hard time attacking women. Eventually, however, the French remembered they had Gatling guns and cannonballs, and attacked the Mino from the safety of their gunboats. Despite their overwhelming bravery, the Mino had no hope when it came to such weapons – their military technology was significantly behind Europe’s.

Mino as part of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show

Mino as part of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show

However, they made the French work for it. All told, Dahomey and France would fight twenty-four battles for Dahomey territory, and only advanced French technology ensured their victory. Had the Mino and their male counterparts been able to meet their opponents with equal weapons, likely the battles would have gone far differently.

But Dahomey fell to France in 1894, and only 50 Mino, out of nearly 4,000, survived. The French even passed strict laws once they achieved control, banning women from military service or even owning weapons. The majority of those women sailed for America, where they ended up joining Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.

As far as we know, the last surviving Mino, a woman named Nawi, died in 1979.

The Mino deserve a unique place in history – for though women have always fought, they’ve often done so while integrated into largely male units. Most female-only military units have been supportive, or last only for the duration of the current conflict. But the Mino existed as a distinct female military tradition of front-line fighters; something which cannot be found anywhere else (The Elk Scraper Society I mentioned in the entry for Buffalo Calf Road Woman is the only thing I’ve found which comes close).

The Mino occassionally show up in pop culture here and there (such as a unit in DLC for the the digital game Empire: Total War), but they have yet to make a significant appearance in fiction, film and TV. However, the rising school of Afro-centrist historical revisionism mentioned last week loves the Mino as much as they love Calafia; so here’s hoping these women get their own property soon!


Amazons of Black Sparta: The Warrior Women of Dahomey

Badass of the Week

From Eve to Dawn: The  Masculine Mystique

Smithsonian Magazine


Wives of the Leopard: Gender, Politics and Culture in the Kingdom of Dahomey

Women on 20s: Four Short Stories

Currently in America, there’s a campaign to replace Andrew Jackson as the person featured on the $20 bill. After a first-round vote, the finalists have been narrowed down to four extraordinary women: Eleanor Roosevelt, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks and Wilma Mankiller. Rather than focus on a specific woman this week, I’d like to instead give you short vignettes on each of these four women, and draw attention to the Women on 20s campaign. The winner will get a much more in-depth biography!

Eleanor Roosevent

A blackand white photograph of a woman in her late 20s with  short dark hair. She looks directly at the camera, smiling slightly.

Eleanor Roosevelt

Often known for being the First Lady during her husband’s administration from 1933-1945, Eleanor had quite a distinguished career of her own, focusing on civil and human rights.

Born in 1884 in New York City, she suffered immense personal tragedy early on, losing her mother at age eight and her father just two years later. She lived with her grandmother for a time, then in London while attending finishing school. The headmistress of her school was an outspoken feminist who doubtless influenced young Eleanor’s views on women and equal rights. Upon her return to America, she met Franklin Delano Roosevelt, her fifth cousin – they quickly fell in love and were married in 1905 (then-President Theodore Roosevelt gave the bride away!).

The couple had six children between 1906 and 1916, though reportedly, Eleanor enjoyed neither sex nor motherhood very much. In 1918, she discovered her husband having an affair with his secretary. And though they chose to stay together, Eleanor made it clear she would no longer sleep with Franklin. From that moment, they became a political match, and Franklin began his career in politics soon after.

In 1921, tragedy struck again as Franklin fell ill with the polio which would leave him paralyzed from the waist down. He very nearly quit politics, but Eleanor persuaded him to not give up. She became one of her husband’s most ardent supporters, doing quite a lot of campaigning on his behalf.

However, Eleanor made time to pursue her own goals while also helping Franklin. In the 1920s, her chief cause was promoting women’s rights in the workplace. She allied with the Women’s Trade Union League, which successfully campaigned for a 48-hour workweek, a minimum wage and the abolition of child labor.

In 1933, Franklin became the 32nd President of the United States of America, and Eleanor the First Lady. The role of First Lady up till then had largely been a social one – hosting dinners, parties and similar events. Eleanor, however, refused to simply be a hostess for the duration of her husband’s administration. She redefined the role as a political one, and used her time in office to campaign for the rights of the poor, as well as civil rights for African-American voters (a task she was so successful at that she single-handedly shifted the African-American voting demographic from Republican to Democrat; a trend which persists to this day).

After the White House, Eleanor served as a delegate to the United Nations, where she continued her work for human rights, assisting in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a charter universally adopted by all member nations (though several Soviet states abstained).

She died in 1962 at the age of 78.

Harriet Tubman

A black woman with short black hair faces the camera with a stern expression. She wears a dark buttoned dress with a white scarf.

Harriet Tubman

Born into slavery as Araminta ‘Minty’ Ross sometime in the early 1820s in Maryland, Harriet Tubman is most known for her work on the Underground Railroad. She witnessed early on the destruction slavery had on the family, as three of her siblings were sold away, and her mother risked her life to keep her brother.

Harriet was put to work at age 5 minding the infant of friends of her white owners, and would be whipped whenever the baby cried. Harriet would carry the scars of these beatings for the rest of her life. One beating was so bad she suffered a permanent head injury, causing her lifelong bouts of narcolepsy, epilepsy, seizures and hallucinations.

Around 1844, she married a free black man, John Tubman. Somewhere around this time, she also changed her name for Araminta to Harriet (possibly to honor her mother, also named Harriet). However, the couple lived in fear of Harriet being sold away; or of their children being enslaved. In 1849, this threatened to become a reality when Harriet’s owner tried to sell her. Only his lack of success in finding a buyer and sudden death prevented the sale. However, her owner’s widow began selling many of the household slaves, and Harriet knew it was now or never.

After one unsuccessful attempt to escape with two of her brothers, Harriet escaped on her own. Aided by conductors on the Underground Railroad, Harriet eventually made it to safety and freedom in the Northern states.

However, Harriet could not forget those she left behind, and soon made plans to return in order to liberate more loved ones from slavery. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 meant slave-hunters could capture escaped slaves even in Northern states, and so Harriet extended her route to Canada.

All told, she rescued approximately seventy slaves. She was never caught, nor were any of her charges. She also provided a great deal of support to other escaping slaves, giving them advice and guidance. She ran her last trip in December, 1860.

During the Civil War, Harriet tirelessly supported the Union Army, working as a spy, scout and even once personally leading a military attack on a group of Maryland plantations. The raid was a success – the Union forces seized several thousand dollars’ worth of supplies, and over 750 slaves were liberated. She was also a voice in Lincoln’s ear, convincing him to allow black men to enlist, counsel he eventually took. Despite all her work, Tubman was never fairly paid by the government for what she had done.

After the war, Harriet worked various odd jobs, and in 1869, she married Civil War veteran Nelson Davis. However, they were often in financial difficulty, and survived due to community donations (including sale of a biography about her). She dedicated much of her time after the war to the cause of women’s suffrage, including suffrage for black women.

She died in 1913.

Rosa Parks

A young black woman in a black and white photograph. She wears glasses, and has a black and white striped shirt underneath a dark vest.

Rosa Parks

Though America lost Harriet Tubman in 1913, we gained Rosa Parks on February 4 of that same year. She grew up on a farm in Alabama with her mother, her maternal grandparents and several siblings. She attended several schools, but was forced to cut her education short when both her mother and grandmother fell ill and required Rosa to care for them.

She grew up in a Jim Crow climate, where she regularly witnessed white children being bused to much nicer schools than hers; her school was twice attacked by arsonists, and the KKK would march through her neighborhood. And though white bullies would sometimes attack Rosa, she would never back down, and would often (dangerously) fight back.

She married Raymond Parks in 1932, who was a card-carrying member of the NAACP. She finished high school in 1933, becoming part of the 7% of African-Americans at the time who successfully did so. However, she could not find suitable work, and often worked unstable employment as a domestic servant. In 1943, she, too became active in the NAACP. At one meeting of the Montgomery chapter, she became elected secretary by virtue of being the only woman in the room. However, she proved to be quite good, serving in this role until 1957.

In 1944, a young black woman was gang-raped by white men, and Rosa spearheaded a successful campaigns to get justice for Recy Taylor, the survivor.

As the Civil Rights movement gained momentum, one of the issues which Rosa’s local NAACP chapter paid attention to was the segregation of the bus system, and decided to protest the unfair rules.

Some narratives have Rosa too tired to move at the end of a long work day. And while Rosa was tired, she was more tired of injustice. Her refusal to move was a deliberately calculated move to force the bus driver to enforce these unfair rules on her (thereby bringing attention to the injustice). This he did, having Rosa arrested and taken to jail.

She was bailed out the next morning, but the Montgomery Bus Boycott had begun. Rosa was eventually convicted of violating the municipal segregation laws, and charged $14 in fines. This, she refused to pay, and appealed her case. A young reverend, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., then a relative unknown, rose to prominence leading the 381-day boycott of the Montgomery bus system. The boycott eventually ended when the Supreme Court ruled in Browder v. Gayle that these laws were unconstitutional.

Though Rosa had by now become a symbol for the Civil Rights movement, that very notoriety made her (and her husband) unemployable. She eventually moved north to Detroit, where she found a system of segregation that, while not official and legal, was no less insidious. However, she provided crucial assistance to John Conyers, then running for Congress. Upon Conyers’ election, Rosa was hired as his secretary, a job she would hold until 1988.

Rosa’s new cause was housing fairness, as she saw how housing inequality and ‘urban renewal’ programs disparately affected blacks and other people of color. She worked for this cause, and many others, until her health eventually declined to the point where that became impossible.

She passed away in 2005.

Wilma Mankiller

Wilma Mankiller

Wilma Mankiller

Perhaps the least well-known woman on this list, I personally can think of no better person to replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill.

She was born in 1945 in Talequah, on Cherokee Nation land in Oklahoma. Her father was a full-blooded Cherokee and her mother Dutch-Irish who nevertheless adopted Cherokee customs and lived in Talequah with her family.

Her father was extremely poor, relying on a small patch of land to survive. However, this land was seized by the US Government (along with the land of 45 other Cherokee families) to expand Fort Gruber. In 1956, the family left Oklahoma and settled in San Francisco.

She married at age 17, to an Ecuadorian college student named Hector Hugo Alaya de Bardi, and had two children with him. She attended Skyline College, then San Francisco State University, finally graduating with a degree in social sciences from Flaming Rainbow University in Oklahoma.

In 1969, she participated in the occupation of Alcatraz Island, a year-long protest meant to call attention the seizure of Native lands. The protest had a solid legal footing – several treaties guaranteed that unoccupied federal land belonged to the Native tribes, and Alcatraz had not operated as a federal prison for six years. Unfortunately, Wilma and her companions did not succeed, as they were eventually forcibly removed by government agents.

However, Wilma did not let this failure dull her activist spirit. She became dedicated to the idea of helping her people.

In 1977, she divorced Hugo and moved back to the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma. In 1983, she was elected deputy chief of the Cherokee Nation, and inherited the role of principal chief when her counterpart took a job with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. She was elected principal chief in her own right in 1987, and served until 1995 (she is often credited with being the first female principal chief of the Cherokee Nation… though it’s doubtless that some of her female ancestors may have also served in similar leadership roles, as Cherokee culture has a long tradition of female leadership).

During her tenure, Wilma was dedicated to improving life for residents of the Cherokee Nation. She worked closely with other community leaders, as well as the United States government, on a variety of programs meant to foster community involvement. She completely redefined tribal relationships with the US government, founded schools, improved tribal health care and increased tribal enrollment to nearly three times what it had been. Her work was not without controversy, but she can be fairly said to have made all her choices with an eye towards making life better for her people.

She married again in 1986, to a full-blooded Cherokee named Charlie Lee Soap; where they lived on Wilma’s ancestral land (the acreage taken several decades before by the government).

In 2010 (after already suffering bouts of myasthenia gravis, a kidney transplant, lymphoma and breast cancer), Wilma was diagnosed with the disease that would kill her – pancreatic cancer. She died in April of that year, leaving behind not only the legacy of a leader who broke gender barriers, but as a symbol of Native resilience in the face of attempted genocide. In 1830, then-President Andrew Jackson worked very hard to pass the Indian Relocation Act, by which the settled tribes of the American South, among them the Cherokee, were to be forcibly relocated east of the Mississipi. This eventually led to the Trail of Tears, in which 4,000 people died during a 21-day forced march from Tennessee to Oklahoma. And yet the Cherokee, as a people, survived. As such, I think it more than fitting for Jackson to lose his place on our money and for Wilma Mankiller to replace him.

However, all four of these ladies are extraordinary, and I encourage you to visit Women on 20s and vote for your personal favorite!

Buffalo Calf Road Woman: Custer’s Killer

A sepia-toned photograph of a Native American woman. She wears a loose shirt and a thick string of bone pipe beads as a mantle. She has long hair, put into two braids and silver medallion earrings

Unverified Photo

Despite living relatively recently, not much is known about Buffalo Calf Road Woman – partly because her people kept some of her exploits secret for over a century. As such, this entry will play up the storytelling aspect of this blog as I use the history of her tribe, the Cheyenne, to tell her story. Though I’ve established a rough timeline of her life, nowhere does anyone describe what sort of person she was. So I’ll be reading between the lines a bit and drawing my own conclusions. This is going to be a long one!

Born in 1844 in Wyoming, she would have called herself Muts-i-mi-u-na of the Tsitsistas. The photo you see is said to be her, but has not been conclusively verified.

At the time of her birth, the Cheyenne lived according to the Treaty of 1825, in which the Cheyenne agreed to the ‘supremacy’ of the United States government and to obey certain trade restrictions (while still largely being left to their own devices).

As you can see from the map below, which includes territories ceded in various treaties, her people spread out over Wyoming, Montana, eastern Colorado, western Kansas and western Nebraska. The would often skirmish over resources with other Plains tribes, such as the Sioux, Lakota or Crow; though they were on friendly terms with the Arapaho.


Cheyenne Territory

Cheyenne Territory

Growing up, she witnessed the first murmurings of Manifest Destiny, as white settlers crossed through her people’s lands on their way to Oregon, California or Utah. Tensions began to build as the Cheyenne competed with these settlers for local resources. As a result of these pressures, the Cheyenne split into two separate bands, Southern and Northern. Buffalo Calf Road Woman lived among the Northern Cheyenne.

A black and white photograph of a small Native American girl. She has her long hair in two braids, and wears a decorated buckskin dress and large beaded necklace. A quilted object rests next to her.

A Cheyenne child

Tragedy struck in 1849, as travelers poured through her homeland on their way to the California gold fields. Unlike other settlers, the Forty-Niners were not particularly hygienic, and their untidy practices caused cholera to ravage the Cheyenne nation. Buffalo Calf Road Woman and her brother Comes in Sight survived, but lost between one third to one half of their people. This tragedy, and the social upheaval it caused, would shape the destiny of the Cheyenne for the decades to come. Buffalo Calf Road Woman grew up in a village full of ghosts, her earliest memories of plague and death. Though Cheyenne culture embraced gender roles, these were less restrictive than those of Euro-American society, and would have loosened even further due to plague-driven depopulation. Few, then, batted an eye when Buffalo Calf Road Woman learned to shoot and hunt.

In 1851, her people, along with several other Plains tribes, signed another treaty at Fort Laramie, Wyoming. Wanting to make the overland crossing safer for white emigrants, the United States attempted to bring an end to intertribal conflict. Official boundaries were established for each tribe, and a general cease-fire called. The Cheyenne were given parts of Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska. In addition, the government secured permission to build roads and forts in Cheyenne territory, promising to pay an annuity in exchange for the land usage.

War on the Plains

War on the Plains

However, white settlers often refused to respect Cheyenne sovereignty. Open hostilities broke out in 1856, when Buffalo Calf Road Woman was 12. Perhaps aware of how the Cherokee had been treated, the Cheyenne began to resist white incursions by raiding wagon trains. In retaliation, the army attacked several Cheyenne settlements. Though few on either side were killed, the Cheyenne’s winter food stores were destroyed and their annuity that year went to the Arapaho in punishment. The hungry winter Buffalo Calf Road Woman spent that year certainly did not inspire any warm feelings towards white men.

A fragile peace held over the next few years; however, the discovery of gold in Colorado created more incursions and more anger on the part of the Cheyenne. In 1861, the US government negotiated another treaty, the Treaty of Fort Wise. The Cheyenne were offered a reservation in Colorado, one-thirteenth the size of their current holdings. Though Chief Black Kettle, a dedicated peacemaker, supported this treaty, most Cheyenne firmly rejected it – including Buffalo Calf Road Woman.

Here, she largely vanishes from the record until 1876, but we do know a few things about her.

She married during this time, a warrior named Black Coyote known for his passionate nature and short temper. She stayed with him until her death; and since divorce was remarkably easy among the Cheyenne, we can assume they made each other happy. They had two children together, though I could not find their names.

An example shield

An example shield

And, at some point, she joined the Elk Scraper Society. As a warrior culture, the Cheyenne had several exclusive martial fraternities. The most famous, of course, are the Dog Soldiers, but several others also existed (and some still exist today, or are in the process of being revived). Though most societies admitted only men, the Elk Scraper Society was expressly for the few Cheyenne women who chose to fight. Their standards were quite high, and a woman would have to prove her skill, bravery and determination before being initiated by a medicine woman (no men – men were expressly forbidden from witnessing or participating in Elk Scraper rituals).

As a sign of her membership in this elite society, Buffalo Calf Road Woman began carrying a specially-crafted shield along with her rifle. Likely, she went on raids with the other warriors, letting other mothers in the tribe care for her children while she did so. The Cheyenne increased the severity and frequency of their raids on white settlers, often kidnapping women and children in an attempt to replenish their numbers (remember, this is barely a decade after the cholera plague wiped out a significant number of Cheyenne).



Notable events for the Cheyenne were the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864, and the Battle of Washita River in 1868. Both times, ostensibly peaceful Cheyenne settlements were attacked by the United States Army. Outnumbered and outgunned, several hundred Cheyenne died in these two battles – mostly civilians, elderly and children.

Some accounts of Sand Creek in particular tell the story of Mo-chi, a woman who fought off a rapist and helped bring survivors to safety among their northern relatives. Mo-chi, also called Mochi or Mochis, is sometimes confused with Buffalo Calf Road Woman, as her name translates out to a roughly similar meaning, and Mo-chi became a warrior after Sand Creek. However, they are two separate women.

Buffalo Calf Road Woman and her kin could see the writing on the wall: they were among the last free Native Americans. Even those Cheyenne who followed Black Kettle and tried to live on a reservation found that government corruption and indifference made the land unlivable (Chief Black Kettle himself died at Washita, and with his death went the last Cheyenne leader interested in trying to come to a peaceful accord). Settlers and prospectors continued to flaunt the treaties; and construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, which disrupted the migration patterns of the wild buffalo upon which all Plains tribes relied, loomed large as a serious threat to their traditional way of life.

These are the conditions which set the stage for the rise of Crazy Horse, a Lakota who brought his tribe, Sioux, Arapaho and Cheyenne together against the United States. Buffalo Calf Road Woman gathered her shield, her gun and her horse, and with her brother Comes in Sight and husband Black Coyote, joined Crazy Horse’s army.

Ledger drawing of the rescue

Ledger drawing of the rescue

Crazy Horse and his army first met the U.S. Army near Rosebud Creek, after which most American history textbooks name the battle. The Army was led by General Crook, leading approximately 1,000 cavalry and supported by Crow scouts eager to attack their tribal enemies (and Calamity Jane, then a teamster disguised as a man!).

At first, General Crook’s forces gained the upper hand, and Crazy Horse signaled a retreat. Comes in Sight stayed near the rear, providing covering fire to the retreating soldiers. A bullet hit him, and he fell from his horse.  Buffalo Calf Road Woman saw this, and when the other men did nothing, she spurred her horse onward and rode directly into the line of fire. She found her brother, dragged him onto her horse and rode them both to safety. Her bravery set an example for the other warriors, and, thus inspired, they turned retreat into victory. Among the Cheyenne, this battle is known as The Battle Where the Girl Saved Her Brother.

I would like to mention the heroics of two more women on the battlefield that day, Osh Tisch and The Other Magpie, Crow women on Crook’s side, whom you can read about at Rejected Princesses.

Depiction of Little Bighorn, by Kicking Bear

Depiction of Little Bighorn, by Kicking Bear

Eight days later, Crazy Horse and his army met with Custer at Little Bighorn. Alternately called the Battle of the Greasy Grass or Custer’s Last Stand, this has become perhaps one of the most studied battles in American military history. On this fateful day, roughly 700 American soldiers met 1,500-2,000 Native American warriors. As we learned last week from Boudica, sometimes superior firepower can make up for being outnumbered, but not at Little Bighorn. Accounts of the battle are conflicting, and archaeological investigation has provided largely circumstantial evidence.

Another Native depiction of the battle

Another Native depiction of the battle

However, this much is clear: Custer made several significant tactical errors, and died on a hilltop after being overwhelmed by Native American forces. According to various Native accounts, Buffalo Calf Road Woman knocked Custer off his horse, a Sioux named Fast Eagle held him down while another Sioux, Moving Robe Woman, stabbed him (though this last detail conflicts with the post-mortem reports of Custer’s body – however, I do entertain the notion that stab wounds to the back might have been suppressed information by a government less than thrilled at having the press try and brand Custer a coward as well as an incompetent general). The Cheyenne storytellers and historians assert, however, that Buffalo Calf Road Woman did knock him off his horse, which led quickly to his death.

For her actions at the Rosebud and Little Bighorn, Buffalo Calf Road Woman earned a new name, Brave Woman.

Though Crazy Horse’s army won the battle, Little Bighorn has become the textbook definition of ‘winning the battle but losing the war.’ The US Army only increased their determination to force the Plains tribes onto reservations, and Buffalo Calf Road Woman resisted. She and a small band of her people stayed on the move, fleeing the advancing army. Slowly, other Cheyenne surrendered, allowing themselves to be taken to a reservation in Oklahoma. But Buffalo Calf Road Woman, despite being pregnant, giving birth and having an infant with her during this time, fought back hard. She helped defend a small band of approximately 30 Cheyenne from being captured.

Sand Creek Massacre Memorial Park

Sand Creek Massacre Memorial Park

However, she could not hold out forever. Eventually, she and the other holdouts relented, and were force-marched by the Army to the reservation in Oklahoma. However, conditions there were awful, and Buffalo Calf Road Woman felt homesick for her prairies. Likely, she also abhorred the idea of raising her children on the reservation. And so, with 300 similarly-minded Cheyenne, she snuck out of the reservation and fled to Nebraska.

The government didn’t let them go easily, and her band of Cheyenne had to continually run and hide from the soldiers hunting them. Unfortunately, her husband Black Coyote got into an argument with another warrior, Black Crane, and killed him. For his crime, Black Coyote was banished from the group, and Buffalo Calf Road Woman, their children and a few relatives went with him into exile. As one might expect, she and her family were quickly captured by Army officers. Black Coyote killed one American soldier while trying to defend his family, for which he was tried and sentenced to be executed at Fort Keogh (it’s a good thing her people swore to keep her story secret for ‘100 summers’, or else she might have been in more trouble than him!).

Sand Creek, Unknown Artist

Sand Creek, Unknown Artist

Heartbroken and alone, Buffalo Calf Road Woman fell ill with either malaria or diptheria. She died in Miles City in May, 1879. The Cheyenne were one of the last tribes to surrender to Manifest Destiny, and Buffalo Calf Road Woman was one of the last Cheyenne to surrender. She displayed a depth of bravery and devotion to defending her people and their way of life, giving her all to resist the forces of colonialism and a government which refused to acknowledge her personhood on several levels.

She did not live to see the establishment of the Lame Deer Reservation in 1884, in her ancestral homeland of Montana, and current home of the Northern Cheyenne Nation.  However, she surely would be pleased to know that her people, though they no longer live exactly as she or her ancestors did, have still managed to retain much of their culture and traditions.

Buffalo Calf Road Woman was not the only Native American woman who fought. At least two other women fought at the Battle of the Rosebud, and several women warriors were present at Little Bighorn. One woman, Minnie Hollow Wood, earned the right to wear a war bonnet because of her bravery at the battle. I also uncovered the story of the intriguingly-named Yellow Haired Woman, another member of the Elk Scraper Society. The stories of many Native warriors have been erased, the sad result of a culture with a strong oral tradition going to war against a wealthier, more advanced culture with a tradition of literacy.


Cheyenne Nation

Some historians have argued that what happened to the Cheyenne and other Native Americans was inevitable. To a certain extent, they are right – cultures cannot come into contact with each other and remain unchanged. The Cheyenne, as a horse-centered tribe, had already changed as the result of Europeans – horses didn’t exist in North America until brought by 16th-century Spanish explorers. But that does not absolve the United States of the choices they made, to deliberately and systematically dispossess Native Americans of their resources, strip them of their culture and treat them as an obstacle to be overcome rather than a people to be respected. So I hope Buffalo Calf Road Woman stands as a representative of the other women and men, known and unknown, who fought like hell to protect their people.

Click for Store Link

Click for Store Link

Buffalo Calf Road Woman features as the heroine of an award-winning historical fiction inspired by her story. You can also purchase a figurine of her firing a gun from horseback. If you’d like to know more about the Cheyenne or the wars they fought in the late 19th century, Ken Burns’ documentary series The West covers these battles and more in greater detail. The TV show Longmire, though it fictionalizes quite a lot, does a good job capturing modern Cheyenne culture.



Amazing Women in History

Battle of Little Bighorn – Native Participants

Battle of the Rosebud

Cheyenne History

Cheyenne Language

Cheyenne Memories of the Custer Fight

Mad Mike’s America

Native American Encyclopedia

Northern Cheyenne Nation

Resurrecting History’s Forgotten Women

Sunshine Skyways

Washita Memories: Eyewitness Views of Custer’s Attack on Black Kettle’s Village