Women of the desert
Sep 27, 2017 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
I’ve been thinking a lot about women’s history lately – most likely because I’ve been learning more about the strong women from my own family. My ancestry is filled with pioneering gals who had gumption and unbreakable spirits; while they may not be in the nation’s history books, they are beacons of hope for me. Reading passages from my great-grandmother’s journals I see she was both vulnerable and tenacious, a devoted mother and wife who didn’t lose her sense of self. All around a pretty amazing woman, who also had the devotion and love of her sisters. (Pretty incredible in and of its own right, as women typically struggle to offer support for each other.)
One sister was a nurse with the Mayo Brothers and while she never became a mom, she doted on her nieces and nephews. My great-aunt Dickie (that was her nickname as she always was on the farm in her overalls!) taught me that you don’t have to have kids of your own to have a full life. The other sister, my great-aunt Allie, always made me feel safe and happy. She taught me how to bake and was one of the most joyful people I’ve ever met. As I look through old family pictures, I consider their stories and my place in the narrative of my family. A pretty amazing group to be a part of for sure, and now that I feel very rooted to my adopted home state, I think it’s time to get to know a few of the strong women of the desert. Let me know if you have some additions to the list!
Gertrude Webster is a lady I’m most acquainted with as she helped create my favorite place in Phoenix – the Desert Botanical Gardens. Much like me, she wasn’t native to Arizona, but found a passion for the landscape. A wealthy Northeast socialite, she took a keen interest in cacti in particular. In 1936 she became president of the Arizona Cactus and Native Flora Society. This group went on to combine efforts with a Swedish botanist by the name of Gustaf Starck. Their goal was to create a safe place for cacti to flourish and be enjoyed by the community.
It would have been very easy for Gertrude’s contributions to be merely financial in nature. (After all, for a wealthy woman that was all that was expected.) But this was a woman who enjoyed pushing the limits. She wasn’t going to be restricted in how she could help because of her gender! In fact, her interest went beyond the mere effort of funding. A natural leader, she oversaw every aspect of construction and even used her political capital to secure the garden’s acreage. Accounts of her management style employ words such as “brash.” Sounds like she quite the powerhouse! Mind you, in the 1930s seeing a woman taking control of a construction site wasn’t a common occurrence.
She undoubtedly ruffled a few feathers, but she cared not for her goal was to save the desert for future generations. Gertrude saw something special in this valley and sought to protect it. When she passed away in 1947, she left her entire estate to the gardens. This “living museum” continues to bloom thanks to her generosity. Today it boosts over 50,000 plants and an accreditation from the American Alliance of Museums.
Rachel, like Gertrude, wasn’t native to Arizona but made a lasting impression on the state’s history. A school teacher in Utah, she left with her husband and journeyed to the desert by covered wagon in 1881. The caravan arrived in 1882 (not exactly as timely as today’s travel options!) and she set to raising her growing family. In 1912 Arizona officially became a state and promptly gave women the right to vote in state matters. Kind of cool that they were eight years ahead of their time!
A couple years later, she ran for and successfully won the office of State Legislator for Apache county. Rachel was one of the first women in the country to obtain such a role. During her time in office she fought for education, child welfare, and good roads. She also worked on the bill for the state flag. A feisty gal who fought for her beliefs, she also attempted to ban the smoking of cigars in the Legislature. It was one of the few battles she didn’t win! Rachel left the legislature, but remained devoted to public service. She went on to serve on various boards that mirrored her political efforts.
Rachel was a young woman of 23 when she first set foot in Arizona. In 1948, she passed away on Thanksgiving day at her Phoenix residence. Her mind stayed sharp til the end and one of her quotes that I feel captures her zest for life is something she said during her 89th birthday party. She wouldn’t dream of becoming “just an old lady with nothing to do.” Seems Rachel was never at a loss for projects or purpose. I can see why she was inducted to the Arizona Women’s Hall of Fame in 1984.
In today’s culture we talk about the “triple threat.” Well, Nellie will see our triple and raise us to a quintuple! She was a nurse, businesswoman, restaurateur, philanthropist, and gold prospector. Hailing from Ireland, Nellie first arrived in Boston in the mid-1850s. Arriving with her mom and sister, she took work at local hotels. Her time was not spent idly helping – Nellie was taking notes. Her family migrated to San Francisco a decade or so later and she put those notes to use. Nellie set about starting a boarding house for local miners, who regularly contributed to charity (at her request). She must have been quite a force of nature to get men to part with their hard-earned money in a place crazed with gold fever! During her time on the West Coast she also led a rescue of ten miners in the Cassiar Mountains. Some reports claim that the Army advised the rescue party to abort the mission based on severe weather conditions. Looking at her doe eyes, I can see how her presence would have commanded a room! After the rescue, she nursed the survivors back to health. Her nickname was “Angel of the Cassiar” – a well-deserved title.
But another decade approached, and Nellie started a new chapter. In 1880 she relocated to Tombstone, Arizona. Her first project was the construction of a Catholic church, which is impressive in and of itself, but on top of this endeavor she raised her orphaned nieces and nephews, continued nursing, and started a successful empire of restaurants and boarding houses (she was the first female businessowner in town). Talk about a working woman, having it all in the Wild West! As you can imagine, with all these endeavors Nellie became a pillar in her community and she took that platform very seriously.
Nellie’s biographer described her as “pretty as a Victorian cameo and, when necessary, tougher than two-penny nails.” Quite an awesome combo if you ask me!
In 1883, a group of bandits were convicted of committing a massacre in Tombstone and were sentenced to death by hanging. The community was rejoicing the verdict, but Nellie stated that no death should be celebrated, going on to offer spiritual guidance to the prisoners. Her friends helped her tear down the grandstand citizens had constructed near the gallows. Nellie was a woman who stuck with her beliefs. When a local medical school wanted to exhume the remains for study, she had their gravesites guarded.
This tenacity was shared by her friends and fans. One popular legend is that when a patron complained about their meal at her restaurant, fellow diner Doc Holliday didn’t take too kindly to the criticism. Doc drew a pistol on the poor soul and got him to proclaim it was the best dinner he’d ever enjoyed! I’d say that’s more powerful than a Yelp! review, wouldn’t you?
As the 1890s closed, she migrated North to Canada, trying her hand at gold prospecting. She was so successful in her attempt Nellie went on to be inducted to the Alaska Mining Hall of Fame. Nellie’s legacy situates her at the crossroads of Wild West / frontier culture. She is referenced in books on Wyatt Earp and the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame. When I think about the extreme desert conditions she faced in the Arizona wild, I can’t imagine the strength she had to muster to not just survive but thrive. Tell me, dear reader, now that we’ve met a trio of awesome Arizona gals, anyone you want to add to the list for your neck of the woods?