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Westward the Woman
OR STAGECOACH TRAVEL IN FACT AND FICTION
by Joyce Aros

FROM THE JUNE 2008 ISSUE
Read what other travelers have to say about hotels in Tombstone Arizona

   I was watching the movie "Tombstone" the other day as I do every once in awhile, and near the beginning of the movie a stagecoach arrives in the town carrying the love interest in the story, the captivating Josie. In years gone by, this very young woman was a mystery to Earp fans due to the omission of her character in Stuart Lake's all-time favorite biography of Wyatt Earp. But in recent decades she has surfaced as a main player in the story. And of course, the movie has given her a pivotal role that perhaps was not really hers in the beginning. But what interested me most about her arrival was her undamaged appearance after a lengthy journey by stagecoach!

   She was immaculate! Her make-up was flawless, her hair was well coiffed and not a hair out of place. Her clothes were clean and pressed, all the little ruffles and ribbons as orderly and fresh as though they had just been ironed. That was difficult to accept with my critical eye as was the next scene when she and Wyatt Earp locked eyes from a distance so great that the first shot of him showed him the size of a quarter down the street. How could they lock eyes when they could hardly make out who was who from that distance?

   But now you see how I get carried away with my overly analytical eye when I am having some fun with one of my favorite movies. It goes on and on, and so I'll get back to my original thought about the lady getting off the stagecoach. I wondered why the movie-makers didn't adhere to a more accurate picture. This is truly in the fashion of some of our old 1960's westerns. The heavy make-up, the fluffy bouffant hair-dos despite the blazing desert sun and three grueling days in the wilderness. A smudge on the cheek and a drop of water running down the neck to indicate the suffocating heat was what created realism for us in those days. But I expected the movies to have gotten a little more realistic by now, and many are. But "Tombstone" is truly in the tradition of the golden oldies that we loved.

   Now all this nonsense got me to wondering just what one would look like after a stagecoach trip across the southwest, let's say in the Springtime, rather than make it too rough in the summer or the winter when temperatures and conditions would be much harder to deal with. I needed to do some research on the matter and got out the books. The first thing to consider was the stagecoach itself. What kind of a conveyance was it and just what kind of ride would it offer. There was a lot of information but not as detailed as I would have liked. But I learned that for the most part, the coach was egg-shaped so that when crossing rivers and such, it would float safely. That surprised me. I thought it was just style. The shock absorbers were actually layers of thick leather straps that were hung from struts under the body and it was these that created the rocking motion that often caused a sea-sickness effect on the passengers. I had to wonder how repeatedly the driver would have to stop for sick passengers that just had to get their sea legs under them.

   The inside of the coach was very small for the length of time that many had to travel together. A bench seat across the front of the inside of the coach and another across the back and sometimes a small bench between them for another two passengers. Research indicates that the best seat was the one inside behind the driver, and was to be offered to the ladies first, even if they boarded further along on the route. Apparently there were fewer bumps and jars than on other seats. The poor fellows who got the middle seats really suffered, as they not only had to perch on the narrow bench, but a leather strap was stretched across their backs from one side to the other to provide support. Where did everyone put their legs? Often, extra passengers rode on the top of the coach as well, and as the horses never seemed to be of the hefty draft type, I have to wonder how they pulled such a heavy conveyance over such unyielding ground with all that additional weight.

   As though all that wasn't bad enough, luggage and freight was often tucked in amongst the passengers' feet when there was no more room on top, the additional weight making me wonder again about the life expectancy of a coach horse.

   The windows were narrow, one on each end of each side, and then one in the door. No glass of course, as the movement of the coach would have broken any glass. Only leather curtains on the outside which could be rolled down to protect passengers from excessive dust, rain or wind. Hardly much defense against such elements, not to mention that such close contact with other bodies under such conditions must have demanded openings that provided plenty of fresh air. I have never found out what was used as deodorant in those days but I suspect it was a type of toilet water the ladies favored, and the men probably ignored the need altogether as unmanly! The Company cautioned the menfolk not to grease their hair for the trip or they would gather huge amounts of dust along the way! And as most chose to deal with discomfort by tipping the flask, the odor emitting from their pores had to be most unpleasant for the ladies.

   Consider the clothing worn in those days. The men wore clothing usually of quite heavy fabric such as wool. Most apparently wore 'long johns' underneath as underwear both winter and summer. Shirts were of cotton for the most part, so they at least, would have been comfortable. The women were not so fortunate. The men could remove their jackets and still be within the confines of propriety, but the ladies! Poor creatures dare not remove a thing in the heat as it would be considered improper, and might invite unwanted attentions. Fortunately, the Company was strict, and any unchivalrous conduct towards the fairer sex brought swift retribution. The offender could be put off in the middle of nowhere despite the fact that it was a long walk back.

   Did these women actually wear those cotton armor corsets under all public conditions? If they did, they suffered unmercifully. Well, now, is it possible I am over-stating the situation? Like the expression, "you don't miss what you never had," perhaps these ladies did not suffer as badly as I imagine because they knew nothing else from puberty on. Wearing the corset was just done, and they probably could not imagine stepping out of their home without one, therefore they accepted the discomfort. I'd have lit the thing on fire after ten minutes. However, I recently learned that there were actually different corsets for different occasions! Can you believe they were that important? Yes, they were. And the women actually had to wear a "traveling corset" when they went by train or stage. It seems that the regular corsets did not allow a women to sit straight up but rather to sit turned slightly sideways with one leg bent back; almost like a curtsy! Therefore, the traveling corset was cut higher at the waist allowing a woman to fold her body more comfortably. I suppose it did not work as well for a little pot belly and that was probably the reason for the longer corset. This subject is a study in itself!

   High button shoes would also contribute to their uneasiness. Silk stockings were for the wealthier ladies so cotton stockings were likely the norm. In colder weather, the Company recommended wearing shoes or boots two or even three sizes larger than normal, and for heaven's sakes, bathe your feet before travel! Layers of petticoats and heavy fabrics had to be burdensome, not only sitting squeezed in a small space up against others equally scrunched, but in getting on and off the coach.

   Some of the suggested rules for the traveling public were quite humorous. Gentlemen were admonished to pass the bottle to their fellow passengers when taking a drink. I wonder what the protocol was for the ladies? Were they to be omitted from such generosity? Though chewing tobacco was permitted, one was cautioned about spitting out the window. The wind could carry the unpleasant object back into the coach if not projected at the right time or under ideal conditions, therefore the rule was to spit WITH the wind, not against it!

   Passengers brought their own blanket rolls for cold weather and though the Company would also include buffalo robes in colder weather, hogging the coverings could get a passenger forced out of the coach and restricted to riding in the open up by the driver. Passengers were also cautioned to keep their shoes on at night. I can't imagine how they would even get them off after awhile. I would think their feet would be too swollen. Sleeping in the coach would be an exercise in futility, but surely total fatigue would take over for short periods. Certainly in such close quarters the passengers would often slip over into their neighbors' narrow territory by falling asleep on the shoulders of others and perhaps ungentlemanly drooling on a lady's jacket or blouse. I cannot imagine the ache of sitting day and night in the same position, longing to stretch one's legs when there is no room. At times passengers would actually lock knees to hold their position on their seat during exceedingly rough terrain. How embarrassing! Consider that few of us today would have survived the threat to our circulation, a caution on today's aircraft, but something I'm sure they were totally unaware of back then.

   The stagecoach was not the fastest method of transport as the horses would only be trotted on level terrain. Motion pictures show the stage barreling over the countryside, whip cracking over the wildly galloping horses, and clouds of dust billowing up behind them. The passengers are shown being jostled a little, but nevertheless, in animated conversation. In reality, the horses would not last long if they were driven so hard, and they needed to be changed about every eight or ten miles or so. When the horses were changed, the passengers could get a little respite from the tortuous ride in the one ton egg. At times, when covering hilly or excessively rough ground, the riders would be asked to walk for awhile to relieve the horses. The Company rules suggested that the customers not complain about these inconveniences as the driver would not make such a request unless necessary.

   Stage stations were not able to offer the most comfortable accommodations as they were often in remote outlying districts, often in danger from marauding Apaches or outlaws. The buildings would be a ranch house or small adobe structure, many times with dirt floors and very uncomfortable seating. Thank goodness for the bustle! Cleaning up would be done out back at a small table that held a metal basin and a jug of cool water. Everyone would have to use the same wash rag and towel. The outhouse would be most unpleasant but necessary, and the ladies would try to get to it without being noticed. The food served would likely be plain fare such as beans and biscuits, and not fluffy ones at that. Again, the Company would ask that passengers not complain about the food as the caretakers did the best they could. This despite the fact that travelers had to pay for the food over and above their fare. The noted writer Mark Twain once referred to the food at such stops as enough to turn a goat's stomach! Often last week's bread, condemned army bacon, and a swill that was passed for tea which turned the complexion a soft green color. These stops were not much more refreshing than the ride itself.

   I have to wonder how the immaculately attired Josie kept her decorum under these conditions, and also how she kept her clothes so neat and clean; not a wrinkle. I would have expected her to step down out of the coach somewhat disheveled, hair coming apart and little hat all askew, not at all perky; dress totally crumpled and the frills all wilted and stuck to her skin; ribbons hanging with sweat stains and dirt smudges. What a picture! And overall, the layers of powdery dust churned up by the horses' hooves. Actually, I wouldn't have been surprised if she stumbled off the coach and spit on the ground to get rid of the dust in her throat!

   Would Wyatt have looked so twitter-pated as they locked eyes over the distance of two town blocks? Would she have met his gaze with such cocky confidence? Would Doc Holliday really have observed her disheveled appearance and uttered those charming words in the movie... "Well...... an enchanted moment!"

END

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