Sins of Omission

The Saint of the Sourdoughs

More than 20 years ago, I presented a paper on the Old West at an historical conference and was surprised to find that I upset several female professors in the audience.  I had not disparaged their frontier sisters.  Quite the opposite: I described how strong, courageous, enterprising, and successful were many of those pioneer women.  The professors in question did not want to hear that.  They wanted me to describe the women on the frontier as oppressed, brutalized, raped, victimized—by white males, of course.  That is not what I found, however.  Not only were there countless numbers of inspiring women on the frontier, but the respect given to them—by white males—was virtually universal and omnipresent.  Account after account, by the women themselves, by men, by travelers of all sorts, by foreign correspondents, all mention the deference paid to women on America’s many frontiers.  The life of Nellie Cashman, known as the Frontier Angel or the Saint of the Sourdoughs, is but one testament to the courageous women who helped make America’s conquest of the West our Homeric era and who, in turn, received the utmost respect.

Born in County Cork, Ireland, in 1844, Nellie lived up to her surname, which in its Gaelic form—O’Ciosain—comes from a root word meaning “tribute” or “rent.”  She would spend much of her time in the West...

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