by Heather Blanton
A simple question on the surface, I thought a quick Google would give me the answer. Turns out, a few females claim the honor. So after a little more serious digging, I came up with Mary Hallock Foote and her first novel, Led-Horse Claim: A Romance of a Mining Camp published in 1883.
Turns out, Mary was quite an interesting gal. Born in 1847 in New York to Quaker parents, she attended school at the very proper Female Collegiate Seminary in Poughkeepsie. Her gift for the creative arts convinced her father (clearly a forward-thinking man) to invest more in his daughter’s education. He sent her to Cooper School of Design for Women, and by her early twenties, Mary was a sought-after illustrator and designer for some of the most notable publishers in New York City. She loved her job. She loved the city. But she loved a man more.
In 1876, she married Arthur De Wint Foote, a young mining engineer whose career would take her deep into the wild-and-wooly Western frontier. Mary saw it all. From Deadwood to Leadville, from Idaho to Mexico.
Impressed, sometimes astonished, at the characters populating these rowdy mining towns, Mary wrote and illustrated dozens of articles for readers “back East.” She quickly gained the reputation for being one of the sharpest observers of, and most civilizing influences on, the bawdy mining, and ditch (irrigation) towns out west. According to an article in the Oregon Cultural Heritage Commission, “The Victorian gentlewoman traveled the American West dressed in hoop skirt and petticoats, insisting that her children be educated by an English nanny and fed by a Chinese cook, so that she could work on her illustrations and stories, without interruption.”
What this quote doesn’t tell you is that Mary didn’t have time to raise the children because she had to help put bread on the table. Her husband’s career as a surveyor and civil engineer was difficult, at best, due to his unswerving honesty. Apparently, fudging numbers was expected in the mining industry, but Arthur didn’t play along. Hence, the continual moves from one town to the next. But Mary wrote about it all and her short stories and serials gained in popularity. They were published alongside the likes of Rudyard Kipling. Her articles and observations of life in the Wild West were met with lavish reviews, especially by those who could recognize the ring of authenticity—because they lived it.
Mary’s stories leaned more toward Western romance, though, as opposed to Owen Wister-style shoot-outs and brawls. She wrote fifteen novels in all. However, her husband eventually landed a job managing a mine in California and as his salary increased, Mary’s hectic writing pace decreased. Her last book was published in 1919. She didn’t seem to miss writing.
Mary and Arthur were married nearly sixty years. She, ever hardy and determined, lived until the ripe old age of 90. Unfortunately, while her life was long, her fame was not. It is nearly impossible to find the complete collection of Mary’s works now, even on Amazon. What a loss for the Western Romance genre.