From the Desk of John Clayton: Caroline Lockhart’s Legacy

John Clayton is author of  The Cowboy Girl: The Life of Caroline Lockhart (Nebraska, 2007), which profiles the bestselling Western author, rodeo founder, newspaper owner, and homesteader Caroline Lockhart (1871-1962). The book was a finalist for a High Plains Book Award and named Book of the Year from NewWest.net.

 

Almost 56 years after her death, Caroline Lockhart is finally getting some of the fame she always wanted. Last month Lockhart was elected to the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame as part of the Fort Worth, Texas-based organization’s class of 2018. The induction ceremony is November 1.

Lockhart had a lifelong quest to live the life of a cowgirl: independent, on horseback, in the beautiful open country of the West. That quest took her through a variety of careers: bestselling Western author, rodeo founder, homesteader, and cattle queen. But she once expressed an ambition to be the best-known woman west of the Mississippi. I’d like to picture her enjoying the election reception—assuming liquor is served.

Raised by a Kansas cattle trader, Lockhart was an outstanding horsewoman. She once wrote that she’d been “born on a horse.” In the 1900s and 1910s she went on multi-day horsepacking trips to places like Wyoming’s Hole in the Wall, home of Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch and thus a potentially dangerous destination for a single female. As owner of the Cody Enterprise newspaper in the early 1920s, she often saddled up her horse for the ride to work, despite the fact that it was only a three-block walk.

When I wrote The Cowboy Girl, I took the title from Caroline’s suggested title for her most autobiographical novel, published as The Full of the Moon (1913). In 1898–1902, when she first drafted the novel, the word “cowgirl” was hardly ever used. For her to call herself a “cowboy girl”—to insist that this new term “cowboy” be applied to both genders—was a courageous move.

Lockhart was a historically significant figure, often underappreciated today. She was a bestselling novelist in the 1910s, and three of her books were turned into movies. Just ten years after Owen Wister published The Virginian (one critic favorably compared her debut, Me-Smith, to that classic), Lockhart presented an alternative path for the romantic novel of the West: compared to the eventually-successful Zane Grey formula, she had stronger female characters, more humor, and a more vivid sense of place.

Lockhart began her career as a journalist in Boston and Philadelphia, a “stunt girl” in the mold of Nellie Bly. She wrote under her own name, and translated her local nonfiction success to a national fiction career. She moved West because that’s where the stories were (and where her heart was). She chose Cody, Wyoming, because one or possibly two of her boyfriends were living there. (Lockhart never married, though she had dozens of boyfriends. Her quest to live a sexually liberated lifestyle in a repressed era might be equally worthy of trumpeting, if only it were better documented and less controversial even today.)

In 1920 she returned to journalism, most notably when she purchased the Cody Enterprise newspaper, founded by Buffalo Bill. Her journalism—immersed in issues such as Prohibition—was as vivid as her fiction. For that matter, so was her personal life, complete with a pet bobcat and a bar in her living room, boasting a sign that said “Men Will Fite Outside.”

Simultaneously, Lockhart co-founded the Cody Stampede rodeo, serving as the first board president. Today the Stampede is one of the world’s most significant events in rodeo and cowgirl life. Furthermore, the Stampede (as aggressively publicized in the Enterprise) helped transform the character of the town of Cody, from an aspiring farming community based on irrigation to one of the world’s great cowboy/cowgirl towns, centered on the legacy of Buffalo Bill. After the showman’s death in 1917 it was Lockhart who insisted that Cody honor him. Her success at helping to persuade Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney to sculpt a statue—now the centerpiece of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West museum at the heart of Cody—raised his profile among Eastern elites. It was also a fascinating example of two women promoting Wyoming’s frontier character.

But Lockhart’s real quest was to live that life, not just honor it. Thus at age 55 she retreated from Cody to homestead her very own ranch in the southeast reaches of Montana’s Pryor Mountains. It was an incredibly hard place to make a living running cattle, especially as a single female. Nevertheless, one year her cattle topped the market. Despite her literary, organizational, business, and civic successes, she saw becoming a Cattle Queen as one of the highlights of her life.

By then, she’d nearly given up on fame. But recently, a grand-nephew, Mike McAfee, led a tireless campaign to get her elected to the Hall of Fame. Assisted by librarians and well-wishers in her old hometown of Cody, he persuaded the induction jury to vote unanimously for Lockhart. They told him that the in-house museum reaction was, “How did we not know about this woman?”

In addition to being the subject my biography, Lockhart is now a major character in a play called “The Cody Monologues,” now starting its third season. And with next year as the 100th anniversary of the Cody Stampede, she may yet get an even bigger taste of the fame she always wanted.

 

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