Pioneers of the American West

More Joy Girls of
the Golden West

On her way to Murray, Idaho, Molly b' Dam aka Molly Burdam rescued a mother and child from a blizzard. Molly later gave food, clothing, and shelter to the poor, and organized the town to fight a smallpox outbreak.


The first legislative session of the territory of Washington was held in 1853 in a lavish brothel owned by Madam Damnable, or Mary Ann Boyer.
Big Nose Kate aka Mary Katherine Horony saved John Henry "Doc" Holliday's life by setting fire to a stable to distract his would-be lynchers. Holliday went on to become a hero of the famous gunfight at the OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona.
High class courtesan Julia Bulette of Virginia City, Nevada nursed sick men back to health, fed the poor, and received an honorary membership in the Virginia City Company Number One in recognition of her assistance to the fire department.
Dutch Annie of Tombstone, Arizona, "Queen of the Red Light District", was renowned for her kindnesses, including giving poor miners their "grubstakes"--capital to get started. Over 1,000 mourning townsfolk followed her funeral procession to Boothill in 1883.
Prostitutes were foremost among the bold pioneer women who tamed the American West of the 1800s.

Due to the harsh living conditions and predominately masculine work opportunities on the frontier, women were generally rare among the pioneers of the westward expansion of the United States during the 1800s. Indeed, the ratio of men to women in some areas was as great as 45 to one. Prostitutes were the exception; thousands worked in brothels, dance halls, saloons, cribs, shacks, and streets, providing female companionship for the lonely prospectors, cowboys, and soldiers who tamed the West.

In so doing, prostitutes helped populate the land--as this famous poem from San Francisco succintly explains:

The miners came in '49,
The whores in '51,
And when they got together,
They produced the native son.
Census-takers canvassing the frontier found that many prostitutes were single parents, using their earnings to support children. Some of these women teamed up, sharing living quarters and the responsibilities of caring for their offspring and each other, especially in times of illness. Others, such as successful prostitute/madam Ella Hill of Amarillo, Texas, paid for their children to be brought up by reputable families or boarding schools elsewhere. Descendants of prostitutes surely comprise a substantial portion of the population of the western states today.


The Chicken Ranch and other
legal Nevada brothels continue
their proud tradition today.
Some 100 military garrisons protected the burgeoning West against desperados and hostile natives. Prostitutes provided a welcome diversion for soldiers trapped in the hard, dreary life of the fort. Officers and enlisted men alike visited brothels in neighboring towns. Closer and cheaper bordellos, called "hog ranches", were situated along nearby roads. Prostitutes even worked right inside the base, some officially listed as "assistants" to civilian shopkeepers, others employed as "laundresses" by the military itself. Still more pretended to be military wives (living with soldier "husbands") but actually serviced the entire garrison. Some made no pretense at all, simply dwelling and working in abandoned shacks. Others sneaked in among Mexicans who were allowed to set up temporary marketplaces within the forts. Meanwhile, "camp followers" accompanied military expeditions. Prostitutes found myriad ways of serving their country by "entertaining the troops".

Because their profession brought them into contact (literally) with many men, prostitutes were able to provide crucial testimony to frontier law enforcers. The courtroom statements of these women frequently helped convict the guilty and exonerate the innocent. For example, the testimony of Ida Snow, Florence Vaughn, Mary West, and other prostitutes about a shoot-out in Cheyenne, Wyoming in 1879 made the difference between life and death for one Charles Boulter--who had killed a man in self-defense. Similarly, in 1890, a soldier named Miller was cleared of suspicion of murder because he had spent the night in a Cheyenne brothel with a prostitute called Rose. (Would a "virtuous" woman have been willing to provide such an alibi?) The lasting benefit of all such testimony was that it helped law enforcers overcome widespread skepticism of their ability to fairly dispense justice on the chaotic American frontier. Prostitutes thus brought respect for law and order to the Wild West.

Most of modern Nevada retains attributes of the pioneer days: rugged mining and farming work; vast, sparsely populated plains; and people who distrust government interference in their lives. Thus it is unsurprising that prostitutes still work in legal brothels in this last bastion of the western frontier.

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