10 Amazing Women Adventurers and Explorers You’ve Never Heard of

Women do amazing things, and amazing women have been doing them since the beginning of the modern era – and before too!

These women are courageous, determined, and unstoppable. My mission is to bring you their stories to give you inspiration and encouragement. I write about Women Adventurers – women who have endured hardship, left home, and traveled alone. I’ve found amazing women adventurers in almost every continent and in all time periods from the first century to the 21st.

Here they are, in no particular order (but I’m saving my favorite until last):

Isabel Godin By unknown, portrait antérieur à 1770 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Isabel Godin – She Conquered the Amazon – Alone!

Isabel des Odonaise’s extraordinary story begins with her marriage to Jean Godin, a French explorer who was part of a scientific expedition in 17??. Isabel lived in Riobamba, Ecuador, and Jean wanted to take her back to France with him, but first, he decided to make his way east to Columbia?? to prepare the way for her.

After 18 years of waiting for him, she finally got word that he had sent a ship to bring her to him. But she would have to travel over the Andes and down the Amazon to meet the ship. This was 1769; Isabel had been a young girl of 14 when Jean left; she was now a stout matron of 32.

The journey was horrendous. Everyone but Isabel died and she lost everything. She had to make her way through the jungle alone, through wild animals in a dense jungle, with no food or water. And she survived! Read more about her amazing story. 

Weetamoo – An Amazing Chief in a Clash of Cultures

Weetamoo became chief of the Wampanoag tribe during a time of cultural upheaval in colonial New England. Before King Philip’s War between the tribes and the colonial governments, she often to court to negotiate to get back native tribal lands. During the war, she led the fight against the colonial armies. She gathered up her people (including the elderly and children) and led the armies a merry chase through the swamps of Rhode Island before they escaped north.

Weetamoo and her fourth husband Qunnapin captured a colonial woman, Mary Rowlandson, and the conflict between the two women brought out all of the contrasts between the women of native tribes and their freedoms and equality against the subjective position of colonial women.

The war finally ended with Weetamoo’s capture. Her head was cut off and stuck on a pike to remind the native tribes of the dominance of the colonists. There’s lots more to her story; read more about Weetamoo.

Joey Guerrero – Leper Spy and Heroine in World War II

Josefina (Joey, as the Americans called her) discovered she had leprosy at a young age, but she didn’t let her disease stop her. When the Japanese invaded the Philippines in 1940, she started spying against the Japanese.

As a leper, Joey had an advantage as a spy because people avoided her. She became a courier and messenger and soon she was all over Manila spying. Her greatest spy adventure came after the Americans landed. She had to travel through Japanese territory alone to deliver a message about troop locations, knowing that she would be tortured and killed if she was found.

Her life after the war is a testament to her courage and resilience; she found a place that could cure her Hansen’s Disease (the modern name for leprosy), but she had to leave behind her young daughter and husband to go to the U.S. to be treated. I loved reading her story; you can read more about her.

Alexandra David-Neel – Extraordinary Traveler Risked Death to Travel in Forbidden Tibet

Of all the amazing women I’ve read and written about, Alexandra David-Neel has to be at the top for courage – and stubbornness. In her 40s she traveled to India and China, studying as a Buddhist scholar. She desperately wanted to go to Tibet and to the Forbidden City of Lhasa, even more so when she was told she couldn’t go.

She took a long twisting route of several years to get to the Tibetan border. Then in 1923 she and her adopted son Yongden disguised themselves, left almost everything behind, and walked across the border and up into the Himalayas. They slept on slim mountain ledges, under snow and bushes, and traveled outside of villages and at night to avoid being seen. They went days without food or shelter and were close to being found out many times.

Finally, on the Tibetan New Year, they entered Lhasa. Of course, Alexandra didn’t stop there. She continued to travel and write. On her 100th birthday, ever the optimist, she renewed her passport. Read more of her fantastic story. 

Grace O’Malley – Fearless Sea Captain – and Pirate! 

Statue of Grace O’Malley (1530-1603 | Suzanne Mischyshyn / County Mayo – Westport House Grounds / CC BY-SA 2.0

Grace O’Malley was the greatest pirate of her age (in the 1500s in Ireland). She was a nonconformist in warfare and diplomacy and she fiercely protected her clan’s interests.

She did most of her fighting at sea, but she also had to contend with the English, especially Richard Bingham, governor of Connaught. Her castles were taken from her, and she and her sons were jailed several times, but they were either released or escaped.

Bingham tried to break up the clans, but she did an end run around him and went to London in 1593 to meet Queen Elizabeth I. She was told she had to curtsey but she said, “We’re both queens and equals.” She received Elizabeth’s agreement for protection and promised not to pirate anymore. Grace and her family depended on “seafaring” to live, so she quickly returned to pirating.

Grace outlived two husbands and she was still actively pirating up to her 70s. Her story was lost in traditional history for many years, but it was kept alive by Irish legends. Today she’s an Irish folk hero. Read more about her adventures. 

Annie Smith-Peck – Amazing Queen of the Climbers 

Look at Annie in this image and you can tell she’s unconventional and not afraid of anything. She was born in 1850 and was quite a tomboy. Denied entrance into college when the president said “Women aren’t encouraged to seek higher education,” she found another college and got a Master’s degree in ancient history.

By the time she was in her 30s, she had found her passion – climbing mountains. She climbed all over Europe and the U.S., looking for bigger challenges and a “virgin peak” that no one had climbed before. She settled on Mt.Huascaran, the highest peak in Peru and the second highest in South America.

Unfortunately, Annie’s climbing ability wasn’t matched by her ability to select guides. Most abandoned her, saying it was impossible. It took her six tries to get to the top of Huascaran, but she did it! Read more about her adventures. 

Ada Blackjack – Reluctant Adventurer Stranded in the Arctic

Who would want to almost a year on a deserted island with only the animals, the snow, and a corpse for company? Not Ada Blackjack, but she toughed it out. Ada was born in 1898 in an Inuit community near Nome, Alaska. She was educated in Nome, and she missed out on all the traditional native survival skills of hunting, fishing, and building shelter. Ada married a brutal man and she took her son and left him, walking 40 miles to safety.

In 1921, she answered an ad asking for someone to go on an expedition to Wrangel Island, a deserted island in the Arctic near Russia. She would get paid $50 for what was supposed to be only a few months on the island by sewing and cooking for the expedition. She needed the money, so she reluctantly accepted.

The four men and Ada reached the island and explored there, but the rescue ship never came in time to bring them home before the ice closed off the passage for the year. Three men took off to look for the ship and she was left with the fourth man, who soon died. Ada spent another six months on the island trying to stay alive. This is an unbelievable story; I admired Ada’s determination to survive. Read her story here. 

The “Rabbit-proof Fence” Girls

In August 1931, three half-caste girls escaped from Moore River Native Settlement south of Perth, Australia, and walked almost 1000 miles in 9 weeks to get to their homes.

The girls – Molly (14), Gracie (10), and Daisy (8) – had been forcibly taken from their homes to the settlement, a place right out of a Charles Dickens novel. They figured out how to escape and just walked out one night. They had no maps, only a general sense of direction, but someone had told them to “follow the rabbit-proof fence” and that’s what they did.

The authorities were looking for them to bring them back because they were “anxious that no harm may come to them in the bush.”  Since the girls had grown up in the bush and knew how to use their skills to survive, this is a pretty lame excuse.

Gracie quit the trip after six weeks, but the other two kept on going, arriving at their homes after nine weeks of travel. Amazing girls, amazing story! Read more about their journey. (This story might sound familiar. It was made into a movie in 2002.) 

Ani Pachen – Brave Tibetan Buddhist nun and warrior

Nicolehood [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D
Ani Pachen wanted to spend her life in simplicity and quiet contemplation in a Buddhist monastery in Tibet. Instead, her life took a different turn when the Chinese invaded Tibet in 1950. Her father was the chief of one of the tribes – near the Chinese border, and he was leading a resistance effort. When he died in 1958, Ani-la, just 25 years old, became the chief.

The Chinese had the manpower and resistance efforts had little chance of succeeding, but Ani and her fighters kept on. They were heading for India in 1959 when they were captured. Ani Pachen was considered a high-risk captive because she was a leader, and she spent almost 20 years in various prisons. She was tortured, starved, lived in squalor, held in solitary confinement, and made to do backbreaking work, but she somehow survived.

She was forbidden to speak Tibetan, wear Tibetan clothing, or practice Tibetan and Buddhist customs. After the death of Mao and a (little)loosening of restrictions, she was released in 1981. She took up the fight against the Chinese again, but she finally went to India in 1988, where she attained her life’s greatest dream – to meet the Dalai Lama. Read more about this amazing, courageous woman.

Dervla Murphy – Bicycling Over Mountains and Around the World

Dervla Murphy, who died in May 2022, looked back on her life of adventure and travel and said that the key to travel is to “embrace the unpredictable.” Murphy certainly did that. She had three great loves in her life – her daughter, books, and a love of travel.

At age 6 1/2 she committed herself to read as many books as possible before she died. And at age 10 she received a bicycle as a gift and she made a resolution to cycle to England. She later enlarged that goal, deciding to bicycle to India.

This journey was only the beginning, and she went on to ride her bicycle throughout the world, from South America, Asia, and Africa, to Cuba, the Middle East, and Siberia. My favorite of her books was the first one – Full Tilt.