The remarkable ride across the United States by Two-Gun Nan was big news 100 years ago. Now, her story is being retold. Tom Moates reports.
The dawning of the 20th century remained an age where stuffy Victorian ideals hemmed in women at every turn, but a few heroines blazed new trails into uncharted territory – these were the original “cowgirls.”
These adventurous characters, even now, remain as detectable primer charges for larger, later cultural explosions. Within a few years, the daring spirit they embodied spread among women like a prairie fire in a drought. Women’s suffrage and rights movements were born in large part thanks to brave women not only living in the unglamorous trenches of frontier life out west, but also those who embodied new ideals in the hugely popular and very public wild west shows, western vaudeville theater acts, and rodeos.
The momentum of the cowgirl legacy is still felt today, and their stories remain as relevant as ever. Two-Gun Nan, towered with the tallest of these larger-than-life figures. She did so not only in the show arena as a lead in the rather masculine realm of trick roping, sharp shooting, archery, stunt riding, bronc riding, and steer riding, but also as the sensuous, beautiful, entirely feminine Oriental dancer character she portrayed known as Princess Omene as well.
Still, even boasting these startling talents that eventually made her the highest paid star in the biggest show of the era – the combined venture of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Pawnee Bill’s Far East troupe – none of this was what she was best known for. Her most remarkable feat was real, not staged, and incredibly difficult and dangerous.
Two-Gun Nan’s magnum opus came in 1910-11 when she rode from San Francisco to New York on her Thoroughbred mare, Lady Ellen, covering 4496 miles and taking 180 days in the saddle. At 31 years old, she became the first woman to ride from coast to coast. She did it wearing pants and split skirts, riding astride, which was likely still illegal in some parts of the country. She did it packing a pistol, which she used on at least two occasions to shoot up inhospitable towns. And, she made the ride alone.
The Cowgirl, Two-Gun Nan
The term “cowgirl” itself emerged as the 20th century dawned to describe the likes of Two-Gun Nan Aspinwall. The expression quickly acquired a mythic quality, but that is due mainly to the larger-than-life real women who instigated its coining.
Lucille Mulhall is said to be the woman on whom the title was first bestowed – roping by the tender age of eight, it is reported she was immortalized when Teddy Roosevelt called her a cowgirl in 1899 when she was only 14, but already on the path to an illustrious career in wild west shows, rodeos, and vaudeville acts. Of course, there was Annie Oakley, one of the first women to break the gender barrier into what was traditionally considered masculine roles when she shot her way into Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show in 1885. And Calamity Jane might have been an honest to goodness unmitigated mess by the standards of any age, but make no mistake … she really fought Indians in close combat, knew Wild Bill Hickok, and wore pants and pistol around the infamous and lawless town of Deadwood, South Dakota.
It was, however, Two-Gun Nan Aspinwall that stunned America and inspired women of a new generation with her transcontinental ride.
“A travel-stained woman attired in a red shirt and divided skirt and seated on a bay horse drew a crowd to City Hall yesterday afternoon,” reported the New York Times on 9 July 1911.
“They gazed upon Miss Nan Aspinwall who had just finished her lonely horseback ride from San Francisco. She had many adventures and once spent a week in hospital after her horse stumbled down a mountainside. ‘Talk about Western chivalry!’ said Miss Aspinwall. ‘There’s no such thing. In one place I rode through town shooting off my revolver just for deviltry. At another place I had to send several bullets into a door before they would come out and take care of me’.”
Equally skilled with a gun or a horse, the Los Angeles Tribune reported that while in New York upon completing her journey in 1911, Two-Gun Nan, “entered a 12-storey building and startled her friends by remaining in the saddle and ascending to the top floor,” (via the freight elevator).
Two-Gun Nan became an instant legend. At a time when the frontier to the west had closed, and barbed wire cut across every stretch of once open country along the entire continent, this cowgirl single-handedly found a way to rekindle the American fascination of saddling up, heading to the horizon, and banging around the vast expanse of a country that spread from one sea to another. Perhaps more importantly, she proved this dream and this country were open to women as well as men.
The ride became part of the greater Western mythology almost instantly, where it remained solidly for half a century. In 1938, almost three decades after the ride, Nan’s journey was included on the Mutual Broadcasting System’s national radio broadcasts of Famous First Facts, where she reported that it was the suggestion of Buffalo Bill and Pawnee Bill in 1909 that instigated her to make the ride. The media legend of the ride again was recounted on the radio in 1942 on a broadcast of Death Valley Days. In 1958, Nan’s adventure made the jump to black-and-white television when it appeared in an episode of the Judge Roy Bean television show.
Two-Gun Nan’s Career: A Disappearing Act – Historical Long Rider Rediscovered
At this point in Nan’s story, while the legends of the other aforementioned original cowgirls continued to circulate, the curtain drops on that of Two-Gun Nan. She just disappeared from view. Nan herself, it was recently discovered, lived until 1964. In recent decades however, several researchers, including equestrian author Mary Midkiff, aware of her historical significance sought to find information on this incredible cowgirl, but without luck.
Born Nan Jeanne Aspinwall, she added the last name Gable when she married her first husband, Frank Gable, around 1900. These two traveled and performed together, and after 1913 even ran their own touring wild west vaudeville production, Gable’s Novelty Show. Frank died around 1929, and Nan dropped from view not long after that.
Yet another century would be turning before the diligent academic research of Mary C. Higginbotham would put all the clues of Nan’s disappearing act together. Higginbotham was a student doing a masters thesis on the evolution of the cowgirl that ended up centering on Nan, but she never realized people were looking extensively for information on the missing Long Rider.
Two-Gun remarried at some point in the 1930s to a man whose last name was Lambell. With the new name of Nan Jeanne Aspinwall Gable Lambell, the adventurous cowgirl spent the last 34 years of her life living in anonymity and solitude. Higginbotham’s tireless efforts paid off, and searching in various places under Nan’s numerous names finally struck pay-dirt when she found a treasure trove of Two-Gun Nan’s photos, papers, and a variety of family information inadvertently hidden from view behind one of the married names.
It is now known Nan outlived her two husbands and died alone with no children. It seems clear she chose to remove herself from the limelight. She seemed, according to her personal letters, to have turned increasingly towards Christian Science as the center of her life in the latter half. It was learned from her amazing collection of information now housed at the Nebraska State Historical Society that Nan relocated from Seattle, Washington to southern California in 1954, presumably to be near her brother in her last years. The last seven years of her life she lived on a farm in San Bernardino County. She died of acute circulatory failure on October 24, 1964 in the Mt. View Sanitarium Hospital in San Bernardino. Her death certificate claimed she had been a housewife her entire adult life.
The Long Riders’ Guild (LRG) had researchers on the lookout for anything on Two-Gun Nan for five years. The LRG is an international organization comprised of equestrian explorers with continuous horseback journeys of 1000 miles or more under their belts. Its members hail from 38 countries and have logged long-distance horseback adventures on every continent and towards all points on the compass – some continuous journeys in excess of 10,000 miles, and a few even beyond 20,000 miles. The LRG is itself the largest repository of equestrian travel knowledge ever assembled in history, but while they knew about Nan and Lady Ellen’s historical Long Ride, they too lacked significant information about it.
A special listing exists in the LRG for “Historical Long Riders” which honours those adventurous souls who met the criteria to be considered Long Riders in former times. LRG founding member CuChullaine O’Reilly knew that the thesis on Nan existed, and tracking it down took four years. Higginbotham was astonished that anyone was even interested in Nan when he finally contacted her via one of her former professors. The LRG was delighted to connect with Higginbotham and finally access documentation regarding Nan’s historical Long Ride and incredible life.
“We must not forget that in addition to the climatic challenges facing any Long Rider riding ‘ocean to ocean’,” explains O’Reilly, “Nan would have also encountered a sense of hostility and prejudice from an entrenched armed male society who disapproved of women riding astride. While women in western states sometimes rode astride out of necessity for short distances, no female had ever broken through the social blockade which dictated that ‘nice girls’ rode sidesaddle.
“Nan struggled mightily, not only against the elements, the geography, and the constant need to keep her horse healthy, but against the prejudices of the population as well. Thus it was a gruelling physical, mental and emotional challenge, laden with the realization that if she failed there were those who would mock her, and all women, as being too weak to accomplish what men had been doing for generations. Yet she rode Lady Ellen into New York in terrific shape. This demonstrates that Nan devoted herself to the horse’s welfare, a fact that is reinforced by the knowledge that she shod the mare 14 times herself.”
Commenting on the Nan’s extreme reaction to rudeness along the way, pulling her pistol and firing on towns, Long Rider O’Reilly continues, “That sort of daily devotion [to a horse] also brings with it an intense amount of unrelenting anxiety and as equestrian travel history demonstrates, you don’t mess with a Long Riders’ horse. So, knowing that this was no pony picnic that Nan was on, we can read between the lines and determine that when she was denied hospitality, ‘Two Gun Nan’ reacted in a way that while it might have appeared normal for Wild Bill Hickok, took the Old West by surprise.
“The lady Long Rider was obviously tired, angry, and having ridden hundreds if not thousands of miles, wasn’t in the mood to let a bunch of pedestrian misogynists treat her with contempt or allow her horse to suffer.”
Upon finding Higginbotham had written an academic work, In Genuine Cowgirl Fashion: The Life and Times of “Two-Gun” Nan Aspinwall, the LRG immediately offered to publish the work in their “Equestrian Travel Classic” series. The book has been released with never-before-published photos of Nan in the saddle and on stage, with a preface by Dr. Juti Winchester, PhD, Curator of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming.
In addition to her equestrian accomplishments, Two Gun Nan can also be credited with having inspired another lady Long Rider to make equestrian travel history.
Alberta Claire made one of the most remarkable rides of the early 20th century. The daughter of an English sea-captain who settled in frontier Wyoming, young Alberta set off in 1912 on an 8000 mile journey which took her from Wyoming to Oregon, south to California, across the deserts of Arizona, and on to a triumphant arrival in New York City.
The diminutive pistol-packing Long Rider undertook her journey for two special reasons. Though few people now recall, women were denied the right to vote in 1912. Furthermore, polite society expected women to ride in a sidesaddle. Thus Alberta made her ride in an effort to promote the still-revolutionary ideas of a woman’s right to vote and her right to ride astride!
After Teddy Roosevelt endorsed women’s suffrage in the Presidential election of that year, the 500-year old use of the sidesaddle disappeared from use almost overnight thanks to Alberta Claire and Two Gun Nan.
This article, first published on Horsetalk.co.nz on May 26, 2008, is based on original research done by the Long Riders’ Guild Academic Foundation. For more information, please visit their websites, www.lrgaf.org or www.thelongridersguild.com.
It was written by Virginia-based journalist Tom Moates and was first published in the United States by I.M. Cowgirl magazine.
The book about Two Gun Nan and her exploits is available from the guild’s publishing operation dealing with horse travel books, www.horsetravelbooks.com.