THERE is a delightful show on at Bath Theatre Royal’s egg studio this week telling the story of Annie Oakley, the sharp-shooting young pioneer woman who became a star of Buffalo Bill Cody’s travelling circus, and is immortalised in the film Annie, Get Your Gun. The new play with music, Little Sure Shot, fills in Annie’s back-story, and shows how a bright girl with an unerring eye and reflexes like lightning became a legend of the plains.
The only other well-known woman from this period is the so-called “Calamity” Jane – also the inspiration for a popular musical – a scout and frontierswoman whose name is inextricably linked with another colourful western character, Wild Bill Hickock.
The life of a woman pioneer was at least as hard as that of the men – in some ways harder, because most of them had to cope with the dangers of childbirth on top of the daily grind of gathering, growing and preparing food, caring for stock, trying to make a home in an inhospitable land with dangerous wild creatures, fierce winds, brutal cold and punishing heat. It is hard for those of us for whom “foraging” is the nearest we get to wilderness life to imagine the hand-to-mouth existence on the great plains of Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and the Dakotas. It was known as a hard-scrabble life – a word that seems to say it all.
It seems all the more amazing that these women still found time to teach their children to read and even play the piano, and to ensure that for church and for special events the whole family could turn out in tidy clothes, the girls in pretty lace-trimmed dresses and the boys in jackets with neckerchiefs.
The lives of the pioneers are largely known from letters, journals and the reports of the few newspapermen who made the trek out to report back to their sophisticated, comfortable East Coast readership. But there was another woman “sure shot” who lived the pioneer life and portrayed it in photographs that deserve to be far better known.
Evelyn Cameron – a surname well-known in this country from Julia Cameron, another pioneer of the early days of photography – was born in England into an affluent upper middle-class family in the Home Counties, and married Ewen Cameron, the eccentric older son of a poverty-stricken Scottish landowner. They went to Montana to start a new life breeding polo ponies. That project failed but they stayed in the dramatic, bleak northern territory, and scratched out a living. Evelyn was responsible for most of the work and basically ran the ranch, while Ewen indulged his passion for studying wildlife.
Perhaps Evelyn’s wide-ranging abilities as housewife, horsewoman and rancher were not remarkable by the standards of pioneer women – but she had two astonishing talents that set her apart and ought to make her a heroine of the period and an icon of achievement for feminists everywhere. Alongside the constant demands of the livestock, the ranch and the life of the community, she became a great photographer and she had an almost uncanny ability to connect with wild creatures. Photos from the archive at the University of Montana and at the Evelyn Cameron Museum in Terry, Montana, not only show her standing on horseback, making butter in her kitchen and riding with other cowgirls, they also show the young eagles to whose nest she gained access by infinite patience and a young orphaned wolf that she tamed.
It is often and truly said that women’s history is largely hidden because most history is written by men. The great names of photography from the days of the Old West into the mid-20th century are all men – Edward Weston, brothers William Edward Irwin and Marvin Elmore Irwin, Timothy O’Sullivan and Ansel Adams.
It is only thanks to an American academic, Donna Lucey, who was researching photographs to illustrate a history of women pioneers in the West that Evelyn Cameron’s photographs were discovered. Her story and her work deserve to be more widely known because she and the people she photographed are just as important in the history of the West as the sharp-shooter Annie Oakley and the rambunctious adventurer Calamity Jane.
Evelyn Cameron turned her back on the comfort – and oppressive tedium – of upper-class Edwardian England, and settled for the rough and tumble hard-scrabble of Montana. She became a legend in her lifetime – an English writer was advised to “be sure to go to the Eve Ranch and see Mrs Cameron. She is one of the wonders of Montana.”(See Private View for some of her photos).