Tough, gun-toting frontier women have audience appeal these days. Maybe it's because they stood shoulder-to-shoulder with their men to clear the land and homestead the American wilderness.
They endured cold winters, swarms of locusts, clouds of mosquitoes, hot summers, Indian attacks, gave birth to babies, and instructed a new civilization in the ways of textbooks and table manners.
Vermont's most famous pioneer woman, Anne Story - who built a cabin and defended her family near today's Salisbury-Middlebury town line - became a trailblazing icon for women as the American frontier moved west during the 19th century.
Frontier historian and author Nancy Williams loves women with true grit like Anne Story - even though Story was an Easterner on the northern frontier. Story moved to Vermont from Connecticut via oxcart in 1774. Pioneering females of the old west owe a nod to Story and other dames who struggled on the colonial frontier, she said.
Williams is the winner of the Paul Gillette Award in the 2009 Pikes Peak Writers' competition for her frontier novel "Grace." "Hawkmoon," another frontier work, is her first published novel; it was a finalist for the Colorado Humanities 2010 Book Award.
Williams is interested in the historical authenticity of women on the frontier.
At the moment, she is interested in the new film remake of the 1969 John Wayne classic, "True Grit." While Williams said the depiction of its strong teenaged female character, Mattie Ross, is wonderful, "It's not completely true to history."
Williams said her problem with the character of 14-year-old Ross, as played by Oscar hopeful Hailee Steinfeld, was that she did not represent the typical young woman of the old West.
"At first glance, I would say the movie is not very true to history," said Williams. "Frontier women typically didn't carry a gun, straddle a horse, or talk back with such brazenness." Although Vermont's Anne Story could sure handle a Brown Bess, a hatchet, and a team of oxen, "They either kept the house, cooked and tended the children, or they were school teachers or prostitutes. The stereotypes we see in the typical western novel or movie are not without basis in reality."
Williams said that Calamity Jane, Annie Oakley and Sally Skull are three 19 century frontier women she thinks were tough hombres - right in the footsteps of Anne Story, who lived a century earlier.
"These women, like the movie's Mattie Ross, were tough, capable, and sometimes deadly, rivaling any man in the ability to shoot, ride, play cards and talk trash," she said.
We asked Williams a few questions about the real lives of frontier women and men:
Q: How accurate is Hollywood's depiction of the frontier these days?
A:I would say in the last 20 years or so Hollywood has made more of an effort to be more historically accurate in all aspects of the Western. "Unforgiven" comes to mind as an excellent example. Most problems arise in scenes where gunfire is involved. Anyone who has ever shot a pistol or a rifle with open sights knows how ridiculous most scenes in the movies are. "Unforgiven" and "True Grit" both do a fine job of demonstrating the realities of hitting a target, especially from the back of a horse.
Q: How did people talk on the frontier? Was it the foul language we saw on TV's "Deadwood"?
A: I thought "True Grit" went a little far with the use of formal language, though it was extremely entertaining. A mix of both formal language and slang was often used, and depended on the situation, or to whom a person was speaking.
Q: The old West lasted a short time. What is your timeline?
A: Most historians consider the time period to be post Civil War to the turn of the century. I would agree with this, though the heyday for me was the mid-1870s, when there were still buffalo around in significant quantities. The Battle of Wounded Knee was considered to be the last major Indian conflict, and that really wraps up the era for me.
Q: Widespread prostitution on the frontier: True or false?
A: Prostitution was very extensive in the old West. If a woman had lost her husband or had been a victim of rape, there were few other options in the small frontier towns. It was illegal, but the law looked the other way for the most part, often doling out small fines to keep the proper citizenry happy. In reality, it was good for the local economy, and most public officials were themselves customers. Prostitutes had a hard life and typically died young and in poverty.
Q: Who was the first woman newspaper editor on the frontier?
A:As far as I know, Ann Smith Franklin was the first female newspaper editor, but she ran a paper in (civilized) Rhode Island in 1762. Others of the time period we are concerned with were Ida Tarbell, Margaret Fuller, and Nellie Bly. I believe these latter women were writers and journalists, not editors. The story of Ms. Bly is particularly interesting - check her out.
Q: Are any of your books of interest to Hollywood?
A: The film rights for "Hawkmoon" have been optioned by a Canadian production company and a screenplay is in the works.