Clara Brown – Determined Pioneer Who Held On to Hope

Clara Brown was an enslaved woman. No property, no expectations of life. But she happened to find a kind master who freed her when he died, and she started on two long journeys: one to find a place to live free, and the other to find her daughter. This is the inspiring story of a determined woman who was down, then up, then down again.

Clara’s Journey to Freedom

Clara (took the last name of Brown because that was the name of her master) was born into slavery about 1800. She lived with her mother on a plantation in Kentucky. When she was 18 she married Richard, another slave. They had four children, Richard, Margaret, Paulina Ann, and Eliza Jane. When the twins were 8 years old, Paulina Ann was drowned; Eliza Jane was devastated.

In 1836 she was sold to a different owner. This family, the Browns, were kind and loving to her. She was called “Auntie” by the children, and she spent 20 years with them.

When Clara’s owner, George Brown, died, he left her $300 in his will, and he gave her freedom. The catch was that she had to get out of Kentucky quickly so the slavers wouldn’t grab her and sell her back into slavery. She traveled to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where people were eagerly trying to get to Colorado, specifically Pike’s Peak. Gold had been discovered there, and a wagon train was being assembled.

They agreed to take Clara in exchange for her doing the cooking and washing. She wasn’t allowed to ride in a wagon so she walked the whole way, through a blizzard and a buffalo stampede, and she slept under a wagon.

Clara’s Life in Colorado

Detail of Central City, Colorado | Chamberlain, W. G. [Public domain]
When she arrived in Colorado, for a while she lived in Denver (called Cherry Creek at that time), then in 1859 she settled in Central City, northwest of Denver.

She bought a small cabin and started doing laundry. She saved every penny possible to buy shares in mining stocks and real estate. At one point she had 7 houses in Central City, 16 lots in Denver, and property in Georgetown and Boulder.

Her goodness and benevolence were evident during this time. Much of her money went to helping people. She helped found several churches in the area, Methodist and Catholic. A local newspaper commented on her home, which she had turned into a “hospital, a hotel and a general refuge for those who were sick or in poverty.”

In 1865, after the Civil War, she went back to Kentucky to look for her daughter. She didn’t find her but she did bring a group of freed slaves to Colorado. She paid for their train fare, found them places to live and jobs.

With all of her generosity and the trickery of some unscrupulous real estate speculators, by the time she was in her 80s her money was gone. She scraped together $1000 as a reward to anyone who could tell her about Eliza Jane. Her health went downhill.

Then in 1882 a friend from Denver wrote to say she had found Eliza Jane who was a widow living in Council Bluffs, Iowa. When asked about a sister who drowned, the woman said, Eliza Jane’s eyes filled with tears.

Clara’s health improved immediately! She quickly found money and took a train to Council Bluffs, where she recognized her long-lost daughter, saying her smile reminded her of Richard’s brown eyes. Accounts of their meeting said it was pouring rain and they slipped in the mud as they hugged. What a picture!

Eliza Jane came back with Clara to Denver and the last 3 1/2 years of her life were spent with her daughter.

When Clara died, the city of Denver and the state of Colorado were full of praise for this remarkable woman. She was named to the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame and there’s a permanent memorial chair in her honor at the Central City Opera House.

Clara’s story is one of determination and selflessness. She found her freedom but she never stopped thinking about her daughter and looking for her. It’s wonderful that her dream came true in time.



I used several sources for the information in this article, including Frontier Grit: The Unlikely True Stories of Daring Pioneer Women by Marianne Monson-Burton. Another interesting woman in this book is Charley Pankhurst, who lived her life as a man, drove a stage coach, but had secrets that weren’t discovered until after her death. 




There is no adult biography of Clara Brown. One More Valley, One More Hill is a fictionalized biography for children (ages 8 and up).



Disclosure: The books featured in my posts have links to, and I receive money if you buy a book from one of these links.



Weetamoo – An Amazing Warrior In a Clash of Cultures

Weetamoo was an amazing woman, warrior and chief of a native American tribe who lived in a time of cultural change. She was an influential leader, but because she was a native American and not English – and a woman – her story has been mostly ignored. I had to do some digging so I could tell you a more complete story about her.

The time was the 1670s, in New England (Massachusetts and Rhode Island) a hundred years before the Declaration of Independence. The Salem witchcraft trials were about 20 years in the future (1692-93). Colonists from England had been living in the area for about 50 years and interacting with the native tribes.

Weetamoo was a sachem (actually a sunksqua) – a head chief of the Wampanoag, a group of native Americans. The term “squaw” comes from the word “sunk-squa;” it was a derogatory term used by the English colonists for women native Americans.

We know nothing about Weetamoo’s childhood, but it’s believed she was born about 1635, in what is now Rhode Island, as a member of the Wampanoag tribe. She comes into the records after she became sunksqua, on the death of her father.

Weetamoo as Chief

The conflicts between the native tribes in New England and the English settlers began almost immediately after the English arrived.  As more and more settlers came and needed land, they found new ways to take land away from the native tribes. For example, the settlers brought pigs and cattle with them. Of course, these animals would roam widely, onto Indian fields, eating their crops and stomping on the tender plants.

Sometimes the colonists would trick the native tribal leaders into signing away their lands.  The Indians thought they were just signing treaties of friendship, only to find that the colonists were claiming ownership of the lands. Then the colonial authorities jailed or fined the tribal leaders and took their land in payment for their “debts.”

The sachems in 17th-century tribes were not just leaders. They were diplomats and negotiators, trying to keep the peace while protecting the rights of the tribe. As chief, Weetamoo often went to the colonial court to argue against the confiscation and theft of Indian lands. She is said to have been a skilled negotiator, but it was difficult to fight the English. They believed God had given them this land and they weren’t about to let pagans keep it.

Weetamoo in King Philip’s War

Puritans Attacking King Philip’s Fort**

King Philip’s War is a little-known conflict between the native tribes and the English settlers in New England  (1675-76).

One native tribal chief was Massasoit; you may have heard of him in stories about the Mayflower settlers. (Actually, his name was Ousamequin; Massasoit means “chief.”) At the beginning of settlement by the Pilgrims, he had good relationships with them.

He had two sons – Wamsutta and Metacomet, also known as Philip because he was also friendly with the colonists. Wamsutta was the second husband of Weetamoo. (She had several husbands, as was the custom among the tribal women in this area.)

Death of Alexander (Wamsutta)#

Wamsutta (whom the English called Alexander) died in mysterious circumstances on his way home from a meeting with the English (1662). There is some concern that he might have been poisoned, but there’s no way to know. His death is one of the events leading up to King Philip’s War.

As I said above, tensions had been growing, and a couple of incidents set off the sparks that led to the conflict that began in 1675. Weetamoo led a band of Wampanoag fighters in several battles. The most famous was the Great Swamp Fight.

She was responsible for the safety of the elders, women, and children of the tribe, and she led the English troops on a frustrating march through the swamps until she and her people finally escaped. Weetamoo and her second husband Quinnapin led the tribal group north to Narragansett territory, away from the fighting.


Metacomet | Internet Archive Book Images [No restrictions]
While the English troops focused on Metacomet, they also targeted Weetamoo, knowing that she was a leader and that killing her would cause the fight to go out of the tribe.

Weetamoo and Mary Rowlandson: A Clash of Cultures

In February 1676, Weetamoo and Qunnapin attacked a colonial settlement and captured several inhabitants, including Mary Rowlandson. Mary later wrote an account of her capture, and she described Weetamoo:

Mary Rowlandson’s narrative | John Carter Brown Library [Public domain]

A severe and proud dame she was, bestowing every day in dressing herself neat as much time as any of the gentry of the land: powdering her hair, and painting her face, going with necklaces, with jewels in her ears, and bracelets upon her hands. When she had dressed herself, her work was to make girdles of wampum and beads.*

Mary despised Weetamoo. They were very different, in great part because they were women in different cultures. Mary didn’t understand that Weetamoo was a leader. Mary thought that making wampum was “women’s work,” but it was actually the work of chiefs; wampum was used as money and only the chiefs could make it.

Notice how Mary focuses on Weetamoo’s appearance. She seems to be saying that Weetamoo was trying to make herself into “gentry” (a high social position just below nobility). To Mary, a mere “squaw” couldn’t possibly be of high status.

Women in native American tribes were considered equal to men. They worked alongside them, trained as warriors, became chiefs, and led their people. They could marry and divorce as they pleased and they could hold property in their own right, all rights not allowed to women in colonial New England. Mary had a difficult time figuring out Weetamoo.

The two women had several memorable clashes, described in Mary’s narrative. Mary was supposed to work, but she sometimes rebelled. When she refused to work one day, Weetamoo picked up a stick and beat her. I’m sure Mary was surprised and angry.

Another time, Mary was reading her bible on the Sabbath when Weetamoo grabbed it from her, tore it up, and threw it away. The Puritans in New England at this time were actively trying to convert the native tribes to Christianity. Weetamoo was reacting against these attempts, as did many other native Americans of the time.

Weetamoo’s baby died on this trek, but Mary refused to mourn him. She said she was happy that now there was more room for her. It’s sad that these two strong women couldn’t connect with each other, but the cultural divide was too big to cross.

What Happened to Weetamoo

After almost a year of fighting and running, everyone was tired. The colonial leaders promised to let the tribes return to their lands and the native American agreed not to destroy colonial towns. Weetamoo and Quinnapin negotiated for their reward for the release of Mary Rowlandson and they headed home.

Of course, the English lied. Using some feeble excuses and the help of natives who allied with the colonists, they began attacking the native tribes. This time the tribes were not able to get to the swamps. One by one, the tribal leaders were captured and killed. In early August, Weetamoo’s sister and her son were captured. Quinnapin was captured in mid-August and Philip was pursued, cornered and killed.

Weetamoo and her family were relentlessly pursued. Someone betrayed them, and they were attacked. Everyone was taken prisoner except Weetamoo, who managed to escape. But not for long. There is no clear information about how she died. She may have drowned trying to escape and was found “newly dead.” Her head was cut off and set on a pole in Taunton. When the captives say her they “made a most horrid and diabolical lamentation.”

While the settlers would have liked to think the war was over, it wasn’t. In Our Beloved Kin, Lisa Brooks says:

The conflict that began in Metacom’s homeland continued long beyond his death, perhaps for another hundred years.” 

When two cultures collide, sparks fly. In this case, differences in beliefs about land led to armed conflict The colonists claimed victory, but at a high cost.

King Philip’s War is considered by many historians to be the deadliest war in American history in terms of losses. More than half of the colonial villages were destroyed or damaged by the native Americans, and both the tribes and the colonists lost many people. The tribal tradition at the time was for warriors to take their families with them, so when a tribe was attacked, a whole tribe could be wiped out.

Weetamoo was involved in this conflict and also a more personal conflict in her interactions with Mary Rowlandson. I doubt if the views of either of these women were changed by their clash, but we can see how it happened. And we can grieve for both of them. Both were proud and brave women.

Note: About 3000 Wampanoag still live in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, on a reservation.



Our Beloved Kin, by Lisa Brooks, is a more scholarly discussion of King Philip’s War and Weetamoo’s place in that war. Much of the detail about Weetamoo, including her interactions with Mary Rowlandson, are from this source.

Weetamoo: The Heart of the Pocassets by Patricia Clark Smith. Pictured above, this is a fiction work for ages 7-10, part Scholastic’s Royal Diaries series.

*”A Severe and Proud Dame She Was”: Mary Rowlandson Lives Among the Indians, 1675, in

**The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. “Puritans attacking King Philip’s fort” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1865.

#The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. “Death of the Indian Chief Alexander” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1885-11.


Disclosure: The books featured in my posts have links to, and I receive (a little) money if you buy a book from one of these links.

Ani Pachen – Brave Tibetan Buddhist nun and warrior

Ani Pachen | Nicolehood [CC BY-SA 4.0 (
Ani Pachen wanted to spend her life in simplicity and quiet contemplation in a Buddhist monastery in Tibet. Instead, she became a resistance fighter against the Chinese invaders in the 1950s, was captured and spent over 20 years in prison. But she was finally able to fulfill her lifelong dream. Her story is one of great courage and steadfast endurance.

Ani’s Commitment

Ani Pachen was born in 1933 and she grew up as a privileged daughter of a chieftain in eastern Tibet, in the town of Lemdha in the Kham province. Buddhism was the religion of Tibet, and she had an early calling to be a nun.

At 17, she overheard her parents discussing a man they were going to force her to marry. She was NOT going to marry, she decided. She got help from one of her parents’ servants when she threatened to jump off the roof, and she went to a monastery. Her father finally relented and said she didn’t have to marry; only then did she agree to come home.

When she came back, she settled into her life of contemplation. Then, in 1950 everything began to change. The Chinese invaded Tibet.

Ani as Rebel Leader

Her father was a chief and he and others began resisting as they saw the Chinese takeovers of villages and the humiliations and torture of Buddhist monks. The Chinese first promised a lot of things, but gradually things got worse, and it was obvious the Chinese were going to wipe out the Tibetans and their Buddhist heritage. “We have to make plans,” her father said.

In 1958, her father’s health began to decline and he died. He had groomed her to take over for him, even training her how to shoot if necessary. She wasn’t sure she could do it, but she knew she had to fight for Tibet.

Tibet’s culture at the time was one of equality; women and men worked side by side and women were fighters. As soon as her father died, the resistance fighters turned to her as a leader.

“That day I passed from my childhood. In a moment, I knew that my dream of a life devoted to meditation and prayer was no longer possible. Unable to follow my heart, I was bound by duty to carry on my father’s work. With my country threatened and my family in danger, I set about making preparations for war. From that time forward, my life was never the same.” (SM, p. 123)

Ani Pachen had to make decisions on where and when to fight. She was responsible for many lives and she had to keep encouraging them to fight. She had to be tough with her “troops;” at one point she ordered a man whipped who disrespected her. She hated doing that; it went against all that her non-violent Buddhist training had instilled in her. Even though she had a gun, she wasn’t sure she could kill.

More and more Chinese troops were pouring into eastern Tibet. The resistance fighters were able to buy weapons and the American CIA began to help them, mostly training resistance fighters. Ani’s troops headed for Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, but then they learned it had already fallen to the Chinese. They learned later that the Dalai Lama had already fled to India.

Tibetan monks in captivity | unknown. Public Domain.

Capture and Prison – For Over 20 Years

“Fear always followed us: fear of being captured, fear of being killed. At times the fear had no object, but floated like a vapor around us.” (SM, p. 163)

The Tibetan resistance fighters and their families lived scattered about Kham province, waiting for food and weapon drops by the Americans. Then the Chinese attacked from all directions. Ani and her fellow resisters tried escaping over the Himalaya mountain passes to India, but Ani and about 100 others were captured and marched away.

Ani Pachen spent the next 20+ years in various prisons and work camps. Each one was terrible, some more so than others. Her autobiography Sorrow Mountain tells of her life during those years. She was interrogated, beaten, starved, tortured, lived in squalor, held in isolation, and denied the ability to worship. Her treatment was worse than for other women because of her “crimes” (resistance) and her status as a “commander in chief.”

Many times she was told to give up and confess to receive special treatment. She didn’t believe the Chinese and she said she would never confess.

In one prison she worked in a laundry washing the clothing of Chinese soldiers; the clothing was full of lice. In keeping with her belief in no-violence, she would brush off the lice and seep them onto the ground so they wouldn’t be boiled and killed. She had to be careful not to let the guards see her.

For several years she was in a prison close to her mother and she was able to see her occasionally; after she was moved from that prison, she never saw her mother again.

During the Cultural Revolution in 1966, she was forbidden to speak Tibetan, wear Tibetan clothing, or practice Tibetan customs. The sacred texts were burned all over the country and any monasteries still left were destroyed.

“Seeing the smoke rise up from the direction of Sera [monastery] was more painful to me than being beaten.” (SM, p. 220).

She had a special turquoise bead that she had kept hidden in her clothes for many years. She hit it in a chink in a wall above a toilet. The guards tried to find it but didn’t. When she went back for it, it was gone.

After Her Release – a Dream Come True

Someone asked her many years after she came to Dharamsala, “What kept you going?”

“The wish to see His Holiness….”

Dharamsala, India  | Gayatri Priyadarshini [CC BY-SA 4.0 (
The 14th Dalai Lama is a special person to Tibetan Buddhists. They call him “The Precious One” and believe he is the reincarnation of the Bodhisattva of Compassion. He was the spiritual and temporal leader of Tibet and he is still a symbol of Tibetan freedom. The Dalai Lama’s escape from Tibet in 1959 freed the Tibetans to continue their resistance.

Since his escape, the Dalai Lama has been living in Dharamsala, India, as head of the Tibetan government-in-exile. Thousands of escaped Tibetans have come to this city to be near him.

After her release, Ani Pachen spent several years on pilgrimage throughout Tibet, including several years in solitude in a cave. Then she came to Lhasa to participate in the continuing resistance there. Finally, in  January 1981, with the Chinese watching her again, she was persuaded to escape to India.

It was shortly after her arrival in Dharamsala that she was able to meet with the Dalai Lama. They talked for a long time and cried when they spoke of their sorrow at what was happening to Tibetans.

Ani Pachen continued to live in Dharamsala in a nunnery. She died in 2002, at the age of 69. At the end of Sorrow Mountain, she said,

“As for me, the story will go like this: She led her people to fight against the Chinese. She was present at the protest in Lhasa. She worked to save the ancient spiritual teachings. When I die, just my story will be left. “ (SM, p 282)

Ani- Pachen’s life, her resistance, and her 20-year endurance were a testament to her faith. Could any of us endure as long as she did, continuing to fight for what we believe in?



Most of my information and the quotes above are from this book:

SM: Sorrow Mountain: The Journey of a Tibetan Warrior Nun. Ani Pachen and Adelaide Donnelly. Kodansha International. 2000. It’s part autobiography and part reflections. Although the accounts of her ordeals in prison were disturbing, I found the book interesting and inspiring.

I also got information from Buddha’s Warriors about the last days of Lhasa, the escape of the Dalai Lama, and the CIA’s involvement in aiding the Tibetan resistance.

You might also be interested in another book called Escape from the Land of Snows, which tells more of the dramatic story of the fall of Lhasa and the young Dalai Lama’s “harrowing flight to freedom.” I found this book at a library book sale and it has started a multi-year study of Tibet, Tibetan adventurers (like Alexandra David-Neel), and the history of Buddhism.




Disclosure: The books featured in my posts have links to, and I receive (a little) money if you buy a book from one of these links.

Annie Edson Taylor – Daredevil Who Went Over Niagara Falls – At 63!

Not all women adventurers did it just for the adventure. Some, like Ada Blackjack and Annie Edson Taylor, did it for money. And maybe fame.

Annie was the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel. And she survived!

She also wins the “shortest adventure” award in the Women Adventurers Club with her 17-minute adventure.

Before She Climbed into that Barrel

October 24, 1838 (remember this date), Annie Edson was born in Auburn, New York, one of 8 children. It was said that she was a tomboy, preferring to play outdoor sports with the boys.

Her family had money and she got pretty much whatever she wanted. Even after her father’s death, the family had enough to live on…and more.

She became a schoolteacher and met her husband, David Taylor. They had a son who died in infancy and her husband died soon after.

Annie had to work hard to find jobs. She learned to teach dance and became an instructor. She wandered around the Midwest teaching dancing, music, and manners. She had a dance school in Bay City Michigan.

It sounds like a tough life for a widow in the late 19th century. She had some money from her parents, but her inheritance dwindled each year and she was always needing money. She worried about how she would live when she couldn’t work anymore. I’m not sure they talked about “retirement” back then. Who could afford to retire? Maybe, as my mother used to say, they feared ending up in the “poorhouse.”

Annie’s Brave Adventure

At 63, Annie was living in Bay City, Michigan, and feeling the pain of having run out of money.

“For a woman who had had money all her life and been used to refinded [sic] surroundings and the society of cultured people, it is horrible to be poor.” *

She read about Niagara Falls and she claims the answer – “Go over Niagara Falls in a barrel!” – came to her in a flash of light.

Annie began by learning how to make barrels and she came up with a barrel design for her trip. Then she found a promoter, Frank Russell, and they signed a contract. Gotta have a promoter! The event was promoted in Bay City, and the barrel was displayed in a window; he initially didn’t give out her name, to keep up the suspense, I guess.

A reporter met them at the train depot and asked her questions. She said she was not contemplating suicide. Her answer shows some interesting facts that she had learned:

“I entertain the utmost confidence that I shall succeed in going over the Falls without any harm resulting to me. The barrel is good and strong and the inside will be cushioned so that the rolling movement will do me no harm. Besides, I shall have straps to hold fast to. There will be a weight in one end of the barrel so that air can be admitted through a valve in the upper end where my head will be located.”

In case you wondered what would happen if too much water came in through the hole (I did), she said the valve would be open until she came to the falls when it would be closed. That means she would have limited air for the time she was going over the falls.

She estimated she could live for about an hour in the barrel and she figured it wouldn’t take anywhere near that much time.  The barrel, she said, would have to start more than a mile above the falls.

Then they headed to Niagara Falls. Annie wanted her death-defying feat to take place on her birthday (remember the date? October 24).

Just to make sure the barrel was falls-worthy, they tested it the day before her trip, with a cat. (I know, some of you are cringing at that. I just tell ’em as I see ’em.) Both cat and barrel came out just fine from the experience.

Annie Over the Falls

Annie Before Her Trip | Niagara Falls Heritage Foundation Collection [Public domain]
And all was ready. Russell put a mattress inside and filled the barrel with air from a bicycle pump. She entered it clutching her lucky pillow. (She would have been better off if she had worn a lucky football helmet.)

By 3:50 p.m. on October 24, as reported in the New York Times, Annie-in-the-barrel was being towed to a specific place in Canada. At 4:05 the barrel was set adrift and she was on her own.

Weighted with a 200-pound anvil, the boat was said to have “floated nicely” in the water, in spite of, or maybe because of, the swift current. It passed over Horseshoe Falls on the Candian side.

Over she went at 4:23, and in less than a minute she was at the base of the falls and going downstream. Finally at 4;40 (17 minutes later!) the barrel was captured.

After her trip over the falls | M. H. Zahner [Public domain]
Annie got out alive and conscious, but she was in shock. She had a cut on the back of her scalp and complained of pain between her shoulders, but she was remarkably well. Her first words:

“I prayed every second I was in the barrel except for a few seconds after the fall when I went unconscious.” And, “Nobody ought ever to do that again.”

Of course, they didn’t listen. Many others went over the fall after her. But she was the first.

A Legacy of Fame – But Little Money

For the moment, she was triumphant, looking forward to fame and fortune. She went around for a while promoting herself by selling memorabilia and her signature. Her manager ran away with her barrel and she used most of her savings to try to find him. “But, she lingered for the rest of her life as an impoverished victor.”**

She died in 1921 in an infirmary. Her grave is in the “Stunters Rest” section of Oakwood Cemetery in Niagara Falls, New York.

They called her the “Queen of the Mist.” Among the acclaims for her feat was a poem written by Joan Murray, as if they were Annie’s words. Here’s a sample:

“I rode low, scraped the bottom stones,
clipped a rock, caught the current.
In a moment I was at the brink, 
thudding on the cusp–
pitching forward, breathless, blind–
from a womb
of my own making. 

Niagara! — over me! –under me!–
I spilled into it from every pore,
lost myself
in the blackness of its roar.

You might also be interested in Queen of the Falls, a children’s book by Chris Van Allsburg. (If the art work looks vaguely familiar, it’s because he also wrote Jumanji). The images are lovely, warm and funny.

A poetic video about Annie and her adventure is available at, with poetry by Joan Murray.





*The Lady Who Conquered Niagara: The Annie Edson Taylor Story. Dwight Whalen, Edson Genealogical Association, 1990.

**Annie Edson Taylor (1839-1921). Bay-Journal, Bay City, Michigan.

The Niagara Falls Public Library has more photos of Annie and her trip over the falls.


Disclosure: The books featured in my posts have links to, and I receive (a little) money if you buy a book from one of these links.


Anne Spoerry – A Life of Atonement for a Dark Secret

Anne Spoerry, humanitarian and doctor to many in Kenya for over 40 years, died in 1999. Many thousands of people walked, drove, and flew in to attend her funeral. But her obituary in the Independent (U.K.) didn’t mention the central event of her life, the one she refused to talk about and that would haunt her until her death.

This story about an adventurous woman is significant because Anne Spoerry’s life and what happened to her was revealing and it made me think about my life and the choices I’ve made. 

What would you do to survive ultimate evil and almost-certain death? Would you resist? Would you fight and probably die? Or would you do what you had to, no matter how awful? 

I found John Heminway’s book In Full Flight on a library shelf and I was intrigued. It’s the book that started me on my journey to learn about Women Adventurers.

Heminway doesn’t tell Anne’s story in a chronological sequence. Instead he saves the details of what went on when she was in Ravensbrück concentration camp until the very end. I’m including these details in the story where they happened because it helps explain a lot of what she was going through and what she wouldn’t talk about the rest of her life. 

Who Was Anne Spoerry?

Anne Spoerry’s life was lived in two distinct parts and places. The first part was in Europe until after the end of World War II. The second part of her life was in Kenya, where she lived from 1948 until her death.

Anne Spoerry was born in 1918 in Cannes, France, of wealthy parents. She was very attached to her older brother Francois who treated her like a brother. They had a close loving relationship throughout their lives. After attending school in London and medical school in Paris, she and Francoise joined the French resistance movement when World War II broke out (she would have been 22 at that time).

What happened at Ravensbrück Prison

Female prisoners at Ravensbrück camp. Chalk marks show they are prisoners. [public domain]
Anne was captured and taken to a series of prisons, ending up in Ravensbrück women’s prison. Anne had trained to be a doctor because she wanted to help people and when she first got there she was able to treat patients, giving them medicine and vaccines.

Carmen Mory|member of Army Film & Photographic Unit [Public domain]
Then she fell under the spell of a woman named Carmen Mory. Mory was probably a sociopath. She cozied up to the guards and did terrible things to other inmates, including deliberately torturing them and murdering them. (Look at her eyes; scary.)

There is some question about exactly what Anne did under Mory’s influence, but it seems she participated in torture and maybe murder.

Anne was called “Dr. Claude” by the other inmates, and Mory had some kind of control over her. After Mory left the camp in January 1945, Anne went back to being helpful and courageous. One inmate remembers that she hid other prisons and helped others escape the gas chamber. (Mory was tried and executed.)

After the war, Anne was tried for her activities at Ravsbruck. One French court found her guilty of impersonating a doctor (she hadn’t finished her medical studies), being a traitor, and “bringing shame on France through inhumane behaviour.” She was exiled from France for 25 years.

Anne’s Life in Kenya

Anne quickly finished her medical studies and left for Africa, settling in Kenya. With some family money, she bought a small farm and started being a doctor and becoming involved in the life of the area, playing polo and hunting. The Kenyans called her Kali Daktari (ferocious doctor) or Mama Daktari.

During her time living in Kenya, Anne stayed by herself much of the time and never would talk about her past, telling everyone who asked, “I won’t talk about that.” She dressed as a man most of the time, only wearing a dress when she had to.

Anne played a small part in the Mau Mau rebellion in the 1950s, mostly in protecting her property and her workers. She refused to leave when other women were ordered to go to safety, and she went on patrols with the men. They felt she was a liability and in one encounter she almost got someone killed.

In the late 1950s, Anne became interested in flying and she saw it as a way to help Kenyans in more remote areas and east African coastal islands. She bought a plane and learned to fly it. The natives started calling her Zulu Tango after the call letters of her plane. In 1963 she was instrumental in forming AMREF “Flying Doctors,” a non-profit that is still active today, providing air ambulance and medical services from East Africa to other locations.

She was deeply loved and many thousands of people walked and rode to her funerals (there were four!) in 1999, at 80. Her beloved brother Francoise had died only a few weeks before her.

Tributes to her work are many. Anthropologist Richard Leakey said,

“She probably saved more lives than any other individual in east Africa – if not the whole continent,”

And Dr. Tom Rees, a founder of the Flying Doctors, said,

“she personally eliminated polio from nearly 100 miles of the Kenyan coast.”

Anne Spoerry: Culprit or Victim?

After Anne’s death, John Heminway met her nephew Bernard Spoerry, who spoke of a strange document, dated 1946, in which Anne was “cited for crimes against humanity, including ‘torture.'” (from an interview in Powell’s book blog). Heminway started investigating and talking to survivors of Ravensbrück.

When Heminway published his findings (detailed in his book), he received hate mail from people who said that only Anne’s life in Africa mattered. He also received the support and encouragement to publish his findings.

There seem to be varying accounts of what Anne did inRavensbrück. The people he talked to were remembering events of that time, but most still had vivid memories. Some aid she participated in several cases of abuse, murder, and attempted murder and that she “became brutal and lived without conscience from the minute she fell under the influence of Carmen Mory.”

One Ravensbrück survivor “publicly applauded Anne’s behavior outside Carmen Mory’s influence” and “strongly condemned her activities in Block 10.” 

Another survivor said of Anne:

 “Sixty years ago if I had met [Spoerry] in the street, I would have turned my back on her, walked away, and never talked. … [but] if I were to meet Anne now, taking her life into account, I would forgive her. I would embrace her. I would not have done this sixty years ago.”

Heminway, in his Powells interview, says he wanted to complete the book about Anne:

to document the complexity of human character, the lengths one individual took to survive, serving as her own private jury, handing down her own sentence.

In the last chapter of his book, Heminway says,

Even a year after Anne’s death, some of her desert patients continued to gather under thorn trees in hopes Zulu Tango would emerge from a cloud and alight nearby.” 



Most of the information for this article came from John Heminway’s book In Full Flight.

I also used several articles, cited in the text.

I wasn’t able to get a free photo of Anne Spoerry, but you can see a tribute to her on the AMREF Flying Doctors Facebook page (October 22, 2015.)


Disclosure: The books featured in my posts have links to, and I receive (a little) money if you buy a book from one of these links.

Marthe McKenna: Codename Laura – A Brave World War I Spy

Are spies adventurers? I’d say yes. Case in point: Marthe McKenna, a brave young woman who spied against the Germans in World War I.

Life in Belgium in the first part of the 20th century must have been idyllic. In 1892, when Marthe Mathilde Cnockaert was born in the village of Westrozebeke in the Belgian province of West Flanders, it would have been quiet countryside. But then came World War I, and the German army barrelled through on their way to Paris. And, worse, they stayed.

German troops invading Belgium. Deutscher Sturmwagen in Roye/Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-P1013-316 / CC-BY-SA 3.0 [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (

Life Under German Rule

Life was bad for the people of Belgium. The Germans took all the good food and supplies and left the people with almost nothing. There was bacon, putrid stuff nicknamed “Wilson” (after U.S. President Woodrow Wilson) and a kind of maize (corn) called “Hoover” (chair of the U.S. Relief Committee and later U.S. president) by the residents.

The Germans took their clothing to make sandbags, so they had to use blankets, tablecloths, curtains, and sheets for clothing.

Animals were also hard to find because the Germans took them too. One of Marthe’s neighbors had a goat that she loved and that gave good milk. She trained the goat to hide every time someone came into her house, by climbing into a hole between two houses!

How Marthe Got Started Spying

Marthe and her family were burned out of their home and had to move to a different town. She had been enrolled in a medical school, but it closed because of the war, so she found the only work she could do – as a nurse in a German hospital.

Like Rose Zar in World War II, Marthe was for a while living “in the mouth of the wolf” by working alongside the Germans. It was ironic that the Germans valued her services so much she was awarded their Iron Cross for distinguished service.

The dilemma for Marthe, like many people in Europe during wartime, was whether to help the hated Boche, as they were called to keep her family alive and get privileges or to resist and possibly be killed. Marthe found an uneasy balance – she worked with the Germans but she also spied on them. It was a dangerous life for a young woman with almost no training. She was even asked by one German officer to spy for the Germans and get more privileges! If she had said no, she would have been under his suspicion. She did some spying, but very little, toward the end of the war.

Marthe’s spying began when an acquaintance noted her liked Marthe’s cool, calm personality and intelligence and she persuaded her to spy for British Intelligence. She learned how to recognize fellow resistance fighters by the “two safety pins” they wore under their coat lapels. in the Philippines in World War II, Marthe worked in her father’s café in the evenings, where she passed on information she overheard. Like Joey Guerrero in World War II in the Philippines, she delivered messages and noted troop movements. Later she was asked to get information, which involved getting into restricted areas, a more dangerous task.

It’s ironic that women in Belgium during World War I were not able to vote or hold political office, but they could serve – and die for – their country by spying. 

How Marthe’s Dilemma Played Out

The central dilemma of all spying is whether or not to act on the information you have found. If you find out about something by spying, and you act on it, you might be able to stop the enemy temporarily, but the other side knows you were spying on them and they find new ways to communicate. If you don’t act on the information, you take the risk that your own troops or civilians will be killed.

Several times Marthe’s spying cost Allied lives. At one point, she notified the Allies of a big German ceremony in another town. The doctor at the German hospital wanted her to take some of the wounded German soldiers to the parade. Marthe had already told the Allies about the parade and she knew they were planning on disrupting it, possibly with bombs.

When she found out that she would have to be there, she tried to get word to the Allies, but it was too late. She was lucky that she wasn’t in the area where the bombs went off – it could have cost her her own life.

Mata Hari | Lucien Walery [Public domain]

Marthe  Was Not a Mata Hari

One part of the spying business that Marthe didn’t like was having to deal with German soldiers and officers. According to Tammy Proctor,* “Women, particularly working-class women, were seen as sexually available by many soldiers.” Woméen who ran boarding homes or cafés were particularly vulnerable and Marthe’s family ran a boarding house with a restaurant attached.

She had to pretend to be the girlfriend of a German officer and even spend a night with him, in order to get information. She always managed to avoid becoming intimate (or so she reports in her autobiography), but it was difficult.

The Most Terrible Secret Marthe Found

Marthe and another spy were digging in a yard when they found some suspicious cylinders.

Gas attack. United States. Army. Signal Corps. |[Public domain]
They reported the cylinders to the British authorities, who didn’t think they were important and called Marthe’s suspicions “highly speculative.” The true purpose of the cylinders became obvious on April 23, 1915, when the first choline gas attack was launched against the French at Ypres, Belgium. This was after the tear gas attacks and before mustard gas was used. Terrible way to kill people.

Marthe’s Life after the War

Marthe managed to survive the war without being captured. She was awarded honors by Britain, France, and Belgium for her espionage work. She married a British army officer named John “Jock McKenna.

During World War II, she was living in Machester, England, but she was still under suspicion by the Nazis and listed in Hitler’s “Black Book”  to be arrested if they invaded Britain. She died in 1966.

In his Foreword to her autobiography, Winston Churchill said,

“[She] fulfilled in every respect the conditions which make the terrible professional of a spy dignified and honorable. She reported the movement of troops; she destroyed, or endeavored to destroy, ammunition dumps; she assisted the escape of British prisoners; she directed the British airplanes where to strike at the billets, camps, and assemblies of the German troops, and thus brought death upon hundreds of the enemies and oppressors of her country.”


Sources: Most of the information for this article came from Marthe’s autobiography, I Was a Spy. The New York Times, in its article on Marthe McKenna in its Overlooked series, said, “Much of the account was later determined to be invented….”

*I also used information from the section on Marthe in Female Intelligence: Women and Espionage in the First World War. Tammy Proctor. NY University Press 2003


Disclosure: The books featured in my posts have links to, and I receive (a little) money if you buy a book from one of these links.

Hester Stanhope – The First Great Queen of the Desert

Lady Hester Stanhope on Horseback /Wellcome Collection [CC BY 4.0 (
Three women have been given the title “Queen of the Desert” for their adventurous travels in the Middle East.* The first one, Hester Stanhope, began her travels in the early 1800s when she left England. She was the first person to run a modern archeological dig in the Holy Land. She never returned from her travels, ending her days in a mountain hideaway in Lebanon.

I originally put off writing about Lady Hester because I didn’t like her; she could be rude and dismissive to people she didn’t like.  Then I read more about her and I came to admire her determination and her audacious, exuberant attitude to life.

Hester’s Early Life

She was Lady Hester, born into a wealthy aristocratic family in 1776 in Kent, England. Her mother died when she was 4 and her father remarried. Her father was quite a character. He wouldn’t wear a wig at court, was a fan of the revolutionaries in France, called himself “Citizen,” and renamed his ancestral home Chevening “Democratic Hall.” Hester was his favorite, probably because she was as unorthodox as he. But she was definitely an aristocrat.

William Beechey [Public domain]
In 1803, she went to live with her uncle William Pitt, the British Prime Minister at the time. She ran his household and was his hostess, being presented at court, and talking with high-ranking people in England.

But she was also a student of war and fighting; she loved weapons and carried a dagger and mace when she traveled. Pitt said she would have made a fine military commander. Not quite as she is pictured here.

After Pitt’s death, restless and unattached, she began traveling.

Meeting Michael Bruce

Michael Bruce, probably the “love of her life,” was 11 years younger than she was, but they quickly fell in love. They met briefly in Gibraltar in 1810 and started their love affair in Malta a few months later.

Bruce had to get his father’s permission to the affair because his father controlled the purse-strings. Both Hester and Michael sent him letters, and he approved, but would always try to get Hester to give him up.

Hester never considered marriage and there’s evidence that she sensed their separation was inevitable, because of their difference in age and his father’s influence to get him to come back to England to have a political career. They would be together on their journeys for five years until Hester finally convinced him to go home to England. The break-up was traumatic for both of them.

In Athens, later that first year, she and Bruce met the poet Lord Byron, who said she was a “dangerous female wit” and a “she-thing.” *…

Changing Her Style

Mameluk. Louis Dupré lithograph [Public domain]
In her travels, Hester started experimenting with new styles of clothing– daring and unconventional like her father. In Rhodes, she began to dress as a Turk with “mannish layers of silk and cotton shirts…a coat and long breeches, tucking a pistol and knife in her sash.” She topped this outfit off with “a large bunch of natural flowers on one side.” I wish I had a picture of this outfit. I love her daring!

In Egypt, she mimicked the dress of a Mameluk (an Arab slave/soldier), dressing in “cinched-in waists and pantaloon style trousers” with, of course, a turban and a sword or scimitar, like this young fighter.

Riding side-saddle was considered the only way decent women could ride at the time, but Hester (again the unorthodox) started riding astride, and she liked it so much she never rode side-saddle again. She also made secret trips to mosques to observe their prayers, always disguised and discreet, because women were banned.

Druze woman. Félix Bonfils (d. 1885) [Public domain]
During her travels in 1812, she and Bruce traveled to Lebanon, where she met the Druze people (an eclectic sect). She fell in love with the Druze, saying they were “savage and extraordinary,” and she especially liked the dress of the women.

Hester’s Grand Entrance

Hester went to Damascus in September 1812, where her reputation proceeded her. “The Universe is My Country!” she proclaimed as she made her grand entrance into the city. She rode through the entrance gate unveiled (something women were NEVER supposed to do), with a Turkish scimitar at her side.

The people cheered – some of them probably wondered who she was, but everyone loves a parade. She was allowed to go into the mosque to look at ancient books, again something forbidden to “infidel” (Christians) and women, and she was feted at banquets.

She wanted to go to Palmyra, the home of Zenobia, a fifth-century warrior queen of Palmyra. (I’ll be writing about some warrior queens soon and I’ll give you more details on this amazing woman then.)

In November 1814, Hester, her doctor, and two maids became very ill, with high fevers. Hester was near death for three weeks and when she recovered, she had changed. She was no longer the free, unconventional gypsy. Dr. Meryon said she had “a mind severe indeed but powerfully vigorous. ” Friends noted “a certain bitterness and reserve.” She looked her age, and she had to cut her hair short because it had fallen out in clumps.

Despite her weak condition, Hester wasn’t hesitant to go off the beaten track to get to places she wanted to see. She went to Palmyra, Baalbek, and then Ashkelon.

Hester’s Archeological Digs

Men sitting to smoke with a panoramic view of the coast by Ashkelon, Israel. Colored lithograph by L. Haghe, c. 1843, after D. Roberts. Credit: Wellcome Collection.

Hester went to Ashkelon ^ searching for buried treasure. She had received an anonymous note that 3 million gold coins had been buried in the Middle Ages in the ruins of the mosque. She believed it was genuine because it was specific about where in the city the treasure was located.

She persuaded Sultan Mahmud that she would give the gold to the Ottoman government if he would give her permission to search for it. Her sense of adventure, as usual, outweighed her interest in money. This expedition was “singular and surprising,” according to Dr. Meryon because they had never given anyone, let alone a woman, permission to excavate in Palestine.

Hester and Meryon uncovered two “small earthen phials,” and a marble statue. The statue was missing its head but was still almost seven feet tall. They realized that the site was stratified by the remains of different cultures. (This was a new idea in the infant field of archeology at this time.)

Part of the east pediment. Photograph © Andrew Dunn, 3 December 2005. CC 2.0 Wikicommons.

Although they never found the gold, Hester and Dr. Meryon recognized the value of the marble statue. But they were in a quandary about what to do with it. Part of the problem was the Elgin Marbles. No, these weren’t marbles as in the game played with small balls.

The Elgin Marbles were a set of marble sculptures at the Parthenon in Greece. Lord Elgin went to Greece in 1801 and took these sculptures back to England, as he said, to preserve them from being looted and destroyed. (They reside in the British Museum to this day.) The public outcry was quite loud and many accused him of theft.

Hester was concerned about bringing back the statue and being accused of theft or of being out for her own gain. She also didn’t want it to give the statue to the Ottoman governor, who had been taking treasures for himself. So she had the statue destroyed. This caused a lot of people to be horrified. But she was only doing what she thought was right. (It sounds like a case of “darned if you do; darned if you don’t” to me.)

A Home in the Mountains of Lebanon

Djouni, mountain home of Hester Stanhope/John Carne [Public domain]
Remember I said Hester had fallen in love with the Druze people and the area around the mountains of Lebanon. In 1831, she decided to settle down, and she was able to get some land from Sheikh Jumblatt. On the top of a mountain, she built a home where she stayed until she died in 1877 at age 94, in her garden.

She wanted her papers burned but Dr. Meryon had made copies and he wrote a six-volume memoir.

Lady Hester Stanhope’s Importance

Hester really opened up the Middle East for travelers, especially women travelers. She also was the first person to do serious archeology in the desert. Historian Gad Sobol said,  “She examined the area’s geographic data and collected material from local residents,” and [s]he proved to the Ottomans that it wasn’t dangerous to dig.” Before her, there were grave robbers and wealthy people who carted off objects and there was much superstition about digging. She proved it was worthwhile to dig and to do it the right way, for scientific purposes.

Lady Hester he was quite an object of celebrity and many in the Middle East still recognize her name today.


*The other two Queens of the Desert are Gertrude Bell and Freya Stark. I’ll be adding articles about each of them soon. 


**Most of the quotes in this article are from Star of the Morning, the best and most complete biography of Hester Stanhope. There is much more to tell about Hester Stanhope and I’m sure you would enjoy her biography.

^The source for this section is an article from the Biblical Archeology Review (this article is a copy).


Disclosure: The books featured in my posts have links to, and I receive money if you buy a book from one of these links.





Kate Rice, Prospector, Pioneer, and Extraordinary Woman of the Wilds

Kathleen (Kate) Rice / St. Mary’s Museum [Public domain]
Looking at this lovely young lady, you wouldn’t picture her living in the wilds of northern Manitoba province, Canada, in a cabin, wearing men’s clothing and carrying a rifle. Kate Rice was a prospector, probably the first woman prospector in Canada. Her life wasn’t easy, but it was the life she wanted.

Kate’s Early Life

Kathleen Creighton Starr Rice was born December 22, 18822 in St. Mary’s, Ontario, Canada. Her father, born in Tipperary, Ireland, was a grain merchant. Her mother Charlotte “Lottie” was a socialite, but Kate was closer to her father. He wanted her to be educated, but he also instilled in her an appreciation for nature. From her father, she learned the lore of the stars, how to canoe and shoot a rifle and make a camp in the wilderness. She read about Daniel Boone and other adventurers (probably none of them women).

Kate graduated from the University of Toronto in 1909 and found a job teaching school, first in Ontario, then in Alberta. There are some stories that around the time of college graduation that she had a boyfriend/maybe fiance who died suddenly. I couldn’t anything about him, so you might want to take this as romanticizing.

Heading to the Wilderness and Prospecting

Restless, she swore she was done with teaching. She went to Yorktown, Saskatchewan. Yorktown was a frontier town, on the edge of civilization. Helen Duncan, in her book Kate Rice, Prospector,* says “the main street ended abruptly, breaking up into branched winding trails that led to a skyline of trees….”

At 6 ft tall and blonde, with bobbed hair and overalls, Kate must have been a striking sight, especially to all the male prospectors, trappers, and hunters. It was about this time that she became “Kate.”

She intended to homestead, but she had been doing a lot of reading about prospecting and decided to try it. In 1912, she went to The Pas in northern Manitoba, at a time where there was a “gold rush” of sorts. She spent several winters alone, aided by Cree Indians and occasional trappers and prospectors. The Cree called her “Mooniasquao” (white woman).

She studied geology and minerals and began staking claims in various mineral rights, in copper, silver, and zinc.

Life in the Manitoba Bush*

Winters in Manitoba are about as bad as you might expect for northern Canada, with heavy snows and temperatures 20 to 30 degrees below zero. The snow might be 20 feet deep, so someone in snowshoes might be walking level with the top branches of trees. It was 100 miles from Yorktown to The Pas, and she would have to make the trip by canoe and sometimes by dogsled.

Kate and her dog team/St. Mary’s Museum [Public domain]
On one trip, she had a toboggan and a team of dogs. A winter storm was on the way, and there were wolves around. The dogs turned on her and she had to whip them. She created a camp against a boulder using two willow poles and length of canvas for a roof. She could hear the wolves and see them slinking around. Then she heard a bull moose and she ran for a fallen tree to hide, forgetting her rifle.

Finally, the moose wandered off, but all but two of her dogs had gone and her supplies had been raided. She started back and was met by her partner, who had gone after her.

Kate and Her Partner, Dick Woosey

In 1914 she hired a guide and went on her first prospecting trip. The following year, a friend grubstaked her and she found gold and base metals near Beaver Lake in Manitoba. Around this time she met Dick Woosey, a British army veteran of the Boer war who had moved to Canada. He had a wife and son, but they didn’t like the “bush*” life and went back to England.

Kate and Dick decided to become prospecting partners, signing a partnership agreement. They would continue their partnership until his death in 1940. They were very clear that their relationship was only as business partners, although they did share his cabin for a time. Rice never discussed her personal living arrangements with reporters or gossips.

She was asked if she regretted giving up marriage and family, and Kate said she thought about it, but she wanted her life. She loved the Aurora Borealis and wrote articles about it. She liked spending the night on the ground (no tent), seeing the stars on a clear night. She didn’t like the “onrush of civilization” and she only talked to people when necessary. (But she did enjoy the radio.)

Kate on Snowshoes outside her cabin/St. Mary’s Museum [Public domain]
The partners staked claims in various places, and in 1920 they settled on Assessment Island (later renamed Rice Island, for Kate). They discovered copper, nickel, and vanadium.

Rice and Woosey were better prospectors than business people, and they tended to be taken advantage of. At one point, they sold claims on the island for only $20,000.

Kate, being a woman, wasn’t considered a “person” in Canada, so someone else had to sign documents for her. Women weren’t didn’t get personhood in Canada until 1929.

After Woosey’s death, Kate settled on her island, gardening, prospecting, and writing articles, some for scientific journals about prospecting and mining.

Kate’s Later Life

About 1962, Kate went to a mental health facility, under confusing circumstances. I found two versions of what happened. In one version, Kate checked herself into the facility because she was worried about being confused, thought she was crazy. In another version, I read that she was “briefly detained” at the facility. When she was evaluated, the psychiatrist said she was just “unconventional,” not crazy.

Women at this time (even in the early 20th century!) were considered insane if they didn’t conform to the standard (male) version of normalness.

She spent her last days in a nursing home, penniless, and she died in 1964 and was buried in an unmarked grave. It was rumored that she had continued to receive checks for her mining rights, and they might have been buried near her house.

In 2009 admirers collected money for a headstone for her grave. The black granite marker proclaims

“Kate Rice: Prospector and Pinoeer of the North, Extraordinary Woman of the Wilds.” 

Kate Rice had the life she wanted, even though it was the “last job in the world for an educated woman.” She ventured into the unknown, living a life of independence and unconformity.

Kate was honored by being inducted into the Canada Mining Hall of Fame in 2014. At the induction ceremony, Mary Ann Mihychuk, president of Women in Mining, said:

“Exploration as a venture, then as now, is not for the faint of heart. At a time when mean barely tolerated women in the industry, Kate Rice shattered the preconceptions about what a woman could achieve in the mineral industry. …she accomplished what no woman had done before in Canada.”


(*You may have heard the term “the bush” in relation to Australia. It’s any rural, undeveloped country area.)

*Kate Rice, Prospector, by Helen Duncan. This is a fictionalized version of Kate’s story, so take it with a grain of salt. Did Kate feel lost and scared her first winter alone? Did her father really come to The Pas, sick and wan, to take her home? Who knows? Kate left no memoirs to verify what happened. Duncan does tell an interesting story.

Several online articles tell bits of Kate’s story: 

Kate Rice Still Making History. Thompson Citizen. October 30, 2013. 

Swings on Her Own Gate by Carly Peters, in Northern Prospector 2013-2014.

Kathleen Rice: Trailblazing the Manitoba wilds. Jen Glanville, May 1, 2014. CIM Magazine. 


Disclosure: The books featured in my posts have links to, and I receive money if you buy a book from one of these links.




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

“There came to me also a most feminine sea captain called Granny Imallye.”

Grace O’Malley and Elizabeth I (from Anthologia Hibernica volume II) [Public Domain]
This quote is from Sir Henry Sidney, Lord Deputy of Ireland. “Granny Imallye” is really Grace (Grainne) O’Malley (Mhaille), also called Granuaile (meaning “bald” for her short hair). The occasion was Grace’s visit to Queen Elizabeth I in 1593. The etching here doesn’t seem to portray Grace in the way I see her, as a wild nonconformist, who was proud of her sexuality, a seasoned sea captain, and fierce in her protection of her family. She seems to me very much like the statue in County Mayo (below).

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

How Grace Got Started as a Pirate

The O’Malley clan had controlled the Atlantic coast of Ireland for centuries, with their large galleys that carried 200 fighting men. They have been called “mercenaries,” “plunderers,” ‘marauders,” and “pirates.” Mostly they fished, plundered other vessels for bounty, and fought battles with their rivals. They also had a string of strategically placed castles up and down the coast. They were called “lions of the great sea,” and their clan motto was terra marique potens, “powerful by land and sea.”

Grace was born around 1530 and she grew up on board ship, probably sailing with her father. She married Donal O’Flahety at 16. expecting to take up the traditional housewife roles. But being submissive to a husband after years out on the open sea was probably not for Grace. She had two sons and a daughter by Donal.

He died, and she had to fight for his lands and possessions because women couldn’t become a clan chief.

An old poem says of Grace:

“No braver seaman took a deck in hurricane or squalls since Grace O’Malley battered down old …castle walls”

The Adventures of Grace O’Malley

The wonderful biography Pirate Queen-The Life of Grace O’Malley, by Ann Chambers, tells many of her exploits and adventures.

She fought like a tigress when her castle was taken after Donal’s death. Determined not to surrender, she had the lead roof of the castle stripped off to make molten lead to pour over the heads of the besiegers.

When her lover Hugh de Lacy was killed by the MacMahon clan, she captured their boats overpowered them, killed many, and took their castle for herself.

She was docked at Howth, near Dublin, and wanted hospitality at Howth Castle according to Gaelic law. But the castle was held by an English lord, who refused her that right. So she kidnapped his grandson and wouldn’t give him back until the Lord promised that the castle would never again be closed and an extra place would always be set at the table for visitors.

Grace gave birth on a ship, in a storm, while the ship was being besieged by rivals! (This might be an exaggeration.) It was said that she put down the baby grabbed a musket, and joined the battle.

She chose her second husband for his political connections, but it didn’t take long before she tired of him. After a one-year trial marriage, she locked him out of his castle (they later reconciled).

Ballynahinch Castle, where Grace born. Lisa Harbin [CC BY-SA 2.0 (
She was jailed several times and was on the run from the English governor Richard Bingham after her second husband’s death. The second time she was taken to Dublin Castle, which was reserved for the “most notable” prisoners. While her compatriots in the prison were executed, Grace was released after almost two years of imprisonment. No record can be found about why she was released.

Grace and the clans spent much of their time over the next decade fighting the English, in the person of Richard Bingham, governor of Connaught. He had been sent to break up the clans, and he took particular aim at Grace and her clan. He called her “nurse to all rebellions in the province for 40 years.”

Over and over, Grace would harass his troops and he would take her territory, killing rebels, taking their land, cattle, and goods. He impounded most of her fleet. The time of the clans was coming to a close, and the fight was bloody.

Grace O’Malley and Queen Elizabeth I

In 1593 Grace went to London to talk to Queen Elizabeth to ask for her help. Grace was now in her 60s, but she had some fight left. She was hoping to persuade the English queen to help a poor defenseless woman (Grace!) against the mean old English troops and to receive some provision because she was a widow.

Grace’s son had been locked up by Bingham for treason and he was to hang. Grace told the Queen she would fight the Spanish (Elizabeth saw them as the real enemy) if Elizabeth would help her. From June through September 1593 Grace patiently gave her testimony then waited.

Grace was reported to be barefoot when she saw the Queen, but she did wear her best Irish dress.  One chronicle says that during her audience with the Queen she wiped her nose on her handkerchief and threw it in the fire, which scandalized the court. (It was noted that Irish won’t carry dirty things.) She also turned down the offer of becoming a duchess, saying that a title could not be conferred by a Queen on someone of equal status (another Queen!)

Finally, Elizabeth granted her petition and her son was released and Grace was free. She immediately went back to the sea – back to her pirating and plundering.

That must have been a fascinating time. Two powerful women were pitted against each other. Both had charisma and loyal followers. Both were determined to save their countries from outsiders.

The two women were also very different. Elizabeth was pampered and doted on. She had never traveled or led men personally. Grace, of course, had traveled often, was used to the rough life of the sea, and had loyal sailors she could count on.

Bingham was convinced that Grace had gotten the better of the Queen and he fought the decision but finally gave in. In a surprise move, two years later Bingham was sent home in disgrace and imprisoned.

Grace at the End of Her Life

Lifespans were much shorter in the 16th century, and the average age of women at the time was 40. But Grace broke the mold in this way too. She outlived two husbands, was chief of her clan for many years, took up pirating again when she got out of jail, and was still active up to her 70s, dying in 1603.

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

Grace’s Place in History

In the annals of the time, there is no mention of Grace O’Malley, a “remarkable bias,” according to her biographer Ann Chambers. It’s not surprising. The men who wrote the history of Ireland didn’t know what to make of her, so they ignored her. It wasn’t until much later that she became known through the folk tales of Irish storytellers and balladeers.

Grace’s name is seen in several places in the west of Ireland.

The Granuaile Visitor’s Centre in Louisburg, Co. Mayo, tells her story.

She has been the subject of many movies and books. If you are in Tampa, Florida, in February, you might see some of the Grace O’Malley Krewe in the annual Gasparilla Festival.




My main source was the biography above by Ann Chambers. You can find it in several editions.

I also found information in Rejected Princesses: Tales of history’s boldest heroines, hellions, and heretics by Jason Porath. 2016.



Disclosure: The books featured in my posts have links to, and I receive money if you buy a book from one of these links. 


Anita Garibaldi – A Warrior and Adventurer for Love

Anita Garibaldi. By Gaetano Gallino (1804 – 1884) [Public domain]
Anita Garibaldi was a bright flame who shone briefly in her native Brazil and Italy.  She was the companion in arms and wife to Giuseppe Garibaldi and a hero in her own right. Her story is wonderfully romantic and tragic.

Anita’s Early Life

Born in 1821 in Brazil, Anita (named Anninha) was her father’s daughter. She loved being with him breaking horses or helping with the herds, rather than sewing for her wedding chest. She had her father’s love for the outdoors, mountains, streams, flowers, and trees.

When he died in a construction accident, Anita was devastated, and her mother was left destitute.

Statue of Guiseppe Garibaldi, Nice, France. Miniwark [CC BY-SA 3.0 (
Women in South America at that time were expected to marry, in part because they had no other way of making a living. Anita’s mother remarried quickly after her husband’s death, and she expected her three daughters to marry too. But Anita was willful.

Her father had said she would probably want to find her own husband. She agreed. But when her mother begged her to marry a shoemaker who was much older, she did, to get stability. He turned out to be a brutal, violent man. Her life was boring when he was sober and terrifying when he was drunk.

Then Anita met Guiseppe Garibaldi.

Giuseppe Garibaldi was a larger-than-life figure in European history. He was a freedom fighter who fought throughout his life for the cause of Italian liberation and unification. At the time they met in 1836 he came to South America as a political exile but also to help the Brazilians fight for their freedom.

He had long red-gold hair, dark blue eyes, and great charm. Just the sort of person Anita might fall for. It was love at first sight, for both of them. He was 29, and she was just 15. When he sailed on a short journey, she begged to go with him. He told the crew she was his wife. Anita loved the life of the sea and she quickly took on sailor’s duties and won the admiration of the crew.

Her Most Dangerous Adventure

Anita became Garibaldi’s companion in arms, went everywhere with her “Jose,” as she called him.  She fought with him and cared for the troops as a nurse after the battles were over. A few years after they met, on a campaign against the Brazilian empire, she was captured and put into prison. She shared her daily meal with other prisoners, refusing special treatment because she was a woman.

She managed to escape from the prison and hid in the woods until dawn. She got some help from a farmer and his wife and she headed south on a horse, through a summer storm. For two days and two nights, she got little rest and food, eating grass to keep going.

On the third day, she crossed a desert and a raging river. As she stepped out of the river, an imperial guard saw her, as her hat came off, revealing her hair. He fled as if he had seen a ghost. She finally found Garibaldi and his soldiers.

It didn’t take long for her to become pregnant, but she didn’t let it stop her from traveling with Jose as a guerrilla fighter. Twelve days after she had the baby (a boy named Menotti) she wrapped him in a blanket, slung him on her saddle, and rode with the men.

Italian Flag. I, Sailko [CC BY-SA 3.0 (
In 1840, Jose and Anita and their son went to Uruguay. He tried to settle down, but it wasn’t the type to do that. He soon took a post with the Uruguayan navy.

It was during this time that she made his famous “red shirt” uniform, and his comrades in Italy took on that name when they fought for freedom.

They had three more children, one dying from pernicious anemia. Garibaldi wanted to go back to Italy, even though he had a death sentence on his head in Sardinia.

Anita and the children went ahead of him in 1847 and lived with his mother in Nice. When they left, Anita told him she was taking red, white, and green cloth with her on the journey, to make him a flag to carry when she met him on his return to Italy.

Sure enough, in June 1848, she met his ship with the flag waving by her side.

Fighting in Italy – and Her Death

Garibaldi stayed only a few days in Nice after he landed. He took off immediately for Rome and she followed, leaving the children with his mother, determined to fight by his side.

They couldn’t conquer Rome, so they headed for headed off to fight in Milan. I can see her in her legionnaire uniform of “red shirt, baggy pants tucked into her boots, large round hat with a plume, concealing her hair.”

Anita was pregnant again, but she refused to go home. The Apennine mountains were difficult, and she was feverish and in pain. Her tent was lost on a pass, and she slept on a bed of leaves. In Venice, a doctor told her not to travel further, but she lied to Jose and didn’t tell him about the doctor’s orders. Through her “amazing willpower” she kept going as Garibaldi and his legionnaires tried to avoid the Austrian troops and escape to Switzerland to avoid a death warrant on him. She was weaker and weaker, stubbornly continuing to walk.

Finally, they found her a bed in the home of supporters and her body finally gave in. She died on August 4, 1849. Garibaldi had to leave immediately after she died because the Austrians were chasing him

Anita – After Her Death

Anita Garibaldi’s body was buried as an “unknown woman” to keep the Austrians guessing, but the neighbors knew exactly where she was. In 1859, Garibaldi and his two surviving children took her body to Nice to be buried.

You may be wondering why she would leave her children to fight with her husband. It’s simple. She said,

“I love my children, but…I love Jose more than I love any other creature in the world.”

Anita Garibaldi’s Monument in Rome / Sergio D’Afflitto [CC BY-SA 3.0 (
In June 1932, her ashes were taken to Rome, where a monument to her still exists. The Lisa Gergio, the author of the biography below, says,

“On the summit of [the hill of] Janiculum, her body outlined against the Roman sky, she leaps with her horse, not as an Amazon, but as a wife and mother who had turned warrior for the sake of the man she loved and of the freedom she learned to love.”



Most of the information in this article and all the quotes come from I Am My Beloved. Unfortunately, the price of this book is high ($45.19).

I also found information in Rejected Princesses: Tales of history’s boldest heroines, hellions, and heretics by Jason Porath. 2016.



Disclosure: The books featured in my posts have links to, and I receive money if you buy a book from one of these links.