The All-American Cowgirl: A History in Pictures

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Cowboys have certainly gotten their due in movies and pulp fiction over the years, but what about the cowgirl? As early as the 19th century, pioneering women learned their way around a lasso and horse on the American frontier. Holly George-Warren’s new picture book, The Cowgirl Way: Hats Off to America’s Women of the West, follows the evolution of the cowgirl through the years and is chock-full of little-known facts and rare photos. Check out our interview with George-Warren and a slideshow of incredible cowgirl shots from the book after the jump.

Flavorpill: The Cowgirl Way appeals not only to kids, but to adults as well. Did you make it interesting for folks of all ages on purpose?

Holly George-Warren: I’d already written two nonfiction books for Houghton Mifflin’s children’s book division: Shake, Rattle & Roll: The Founders of Rock & Roll (2001) and Honky-Tonk Heroes & Hillbilly Angels: The Pioneers of Country & Western Music (2006). Originally I pitched a picture book on cowgirls. My editor suggested that I write a longer book for older kids. I wanted people of any age to be able to enjoy the book. I’d say that it’s for kids of all ages! I consider myself a kid at heart.

FP: What kind of work did you have to do to find all those cool old photos and documents? Do you have any good stories from digging them up?

HGW: I’ve been inspired by cowgirls for a long time and got to meet some over the years, including entertainers Patsy Montana and Dale Evans. I’ve also done book signings at the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame, in Ft. Worth and got to know the curators and staff. They let me explore their archives, as did the Autry Museum of the American West and the National Cowboy Museum in Oklahoma City. I found some original letters at the latter museum, which were written to and from Fox Hastings, who pioneered bulldogging [throwing (a steer) by seizing the horns and twisting the neck], from a dude ranch in upstate New York, very close to where I live now — that was really a surprise!

FP: Which was your favorite photo in the book and why?

HGW: I really love the photo of Tad Lucas holding her ten-gallon-hat with her baby girl, Mitzi, perched inside! It shows how these very cool women have passed along from generation to generation their courage, equestrienne skills, and spunk. Mitzi went on to become a rodeo star too.

FP: If you could spend a week as one of these cowgirls, who would it be?

HGW: That’s a hard choice! I think it would have been a blast to hang out with a colorful character like Prairie Rose, on the road during the heyday of rodeo in the 1920s.

FP: We’ve read that you collect plenty of your own cowgirl artifacts — which one is your favorite?

HGW: I have an incredible Western shirt with cowgirls embroidered on the front and back. It was designed by Amy Hoban, who’s featured in the book. I have my very first cowgirl skirt from when I was about 5 years old, and I have a Dale Evans outfit that I really cherish. I guess I’m a clothes horse!

FP: Are there any musical artists around today whom you believe to embody the pugnacious cowgirl spirit?

HGW: Yes, there are — and they range from Lucinda Williams to Lady Gaga!

An unidentified woman scout of the late 1800s. Source: Huntington Library Collection

Young horsewoman Helen Bonham in Cheyenne, Wyoming, 1919. Source: National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame, Fort Worth, Texas

An unknown cowgirl from around 1900. Source: Buffalo Bill Museum and Grave, Golden, Colorado

Pearl Hart after she became known as an outlaw. Source: Arizona Historical Society

Annie Oakley in action. Source: Buffalo Bill Museum and Grave, Golden, Colorado

The Wild West Show performer Lulu Parr in one of her beautiful outfits. Source: Buffalo Bill Museum and Grave, Golden, Colorado

Prairie Rose Henderson and a favorite horse, around 1920. Source: National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame, Fort Worth, Texas

Ladies bronc rider Lucille Mulhall. Source: National Cowgirl Hall of Fame and Museum, Fort Worth, Texas

“Sometimes it takes a lot of grit to do what you want to do.” – Rodeo star Fanny Sperry Steele. Source: National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame, Fort Worth, Texas

Cartoons depicting cowgirls featured in a 1931 rodeo convention program. Source: Eleanor and Richard Eaton collection

Tad Lucas with baby Mitzi, 1928. Source: National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame, Fort Worth, Texas

Fox Hastings, a champion bulldogger and All-Around Cowgirl. Source: National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame, Fort Worth, Texas

Odille Jones was one of the first cowgirls to be in both Wild West shows and the movies. Source: Holly George-Warren collection

A songbook featuring Patsy Montana’s festive songcraft. She recorded the million-copy-selling record “I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart” in 1935. Source: Autry National Center of the American West

Prairie Rose Henderson popularized bloomers and pants for cowgirls with her festive garb. Source: National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame, Fort Worth, Texas

In this April 22, 1940 issue, Life magazine featured cowgirl fashions, including designs by Marge Riley, a cowgirl herself. Source: Eleanor and Richard Eaton collection

Madison Square Garden Rodeo Ranch Girl contestants and entertainer Gene Autry show off an array of western styles, 1950. Source: Holly George-Warren collection

Left: Cowgirl Hall of Famer Jan Youren, age 60, still rides bareback in rodeos. Center: Sandra Russell rides bareback in chaps such as these. Right: Jan Youren’s granddaughter Tavia Stevenson is following the family tradition of riding bulls and bareback. Source: Jean Laughton, http://www.jeanlaughton.com

2003 Cowgirl hall of Fame honorees (from left to right) Glenna Goodacre, Sheila Varian, Ann Seacrest Hanson, and Garlene Parris, the daughter of honoree Velda Tindall Smith. Source: Rhonda Hole

The author with a cowgirl in training. Source: Josh Gosfield