One of my dreams when I was young was that my parents would drop me by the side of the road (in this case, The Belt Parkway in Brooklyn, NY) and I would get on my horse and just ride away clear across the USA. Little did I know that, as far as the cross-country ride was concerned, another woman had beat me to it some fifty years earlier.
Nan Jane Aspinwall was also born in New York, in 1880, but she spent most of her formative years in Nebraska where her parents were shopkeepers. By 1899, she was performing in burlesque as an oriental dancer by the name of Princess Omene, but by 1906 she had reinvented herself once more as ‘Montana Girl.’ With this moniker came a reinvented history—that she had been brought up on a ranch in Montana. Whatever the truth of the matter, she did manage to learn trick roping, stunt riding, steer riding, archery, sharp-shooting, and other rodeo show events, eventually gaining medals and becoming the highest paid artist in the combined Buffalo Bill Wild West and Pawnee Bill Far East show. Also in the show was husband Frank Gable, whom she had married around 1900. Apparently, it was on a bet from Buffalo Bill that she undertook the cross-country ride carrying a letter from the mayor of San Francisco to the mayor of New York.
Going against advice to ride a sturdier horse, Nan chose instead to ride her Bay thoroughbred, Lady Jane. Now think about this: in an age when women were still not permitted in many states to ride astride, Nan, aged 31, undertook this ride of 4,496 miles, over some 180 days, alone and with full responsibility for her horse—whom she had to shoe some fourteen times herself. She supported herself by giving roping and riding demonstrations and hoping for hospitality, which was not always forthcoming. Two towns at least disapproved of her so greatly, that she shot off her gun in disgust.
Somewhere between Shafter NV and Procter, Utah (now, apparently ghost towns), Nan turned off onto an old prospectors’ trail she believed a shortcut through the mountains. Unfortunately, the trail petered out, and the
She crossed the desert, sixty-five miles with only arsenic water available, in one day. At other times, she made as much as ninety-five miles a day, but from San Francisco to Denver she averaged forty-one miles a day and thereafter only twenty-seven. On July 8, 1911, Nan completed her journey, drawing a crowd to City Hall Park where she delivered the letter to the mayor. She also took her horse into the freight elevator and went up twelve flights! News articles of the day all mention the fact she was wearing a divided skirt, an item just coming into fashion according to the New York Times.
Nan and Frank ran their own Gable’s Novelty Show after 1913, a sort of vaudeville Wild West show. Frank passed away around 1929 and sometime in the 1930s, Nan remarried to an Al Lambell who also predeceased her. For whatever reason, Nan removed herself from public life. She moved from Seattle, where she had been living, to southern California in 1954, apparently to be near a brother. She was childless, heavily involved with the Christian Scientist church, and spent her last seven years on a farm in San Bernadino, where she died in 1964.
Nan’s amazing ride was immortalized both in a radio show and in a 1954 TV episode of Death Valley Days. At a time when nice girls rode side-saddle, and barbed wire had already cut across the country, Nan faced both prejudice and open hostility as well as the hardships of the elements and geography.
It makes me think that perhaps that little daydream of mine might have turned into a night-mare.
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