Saturday, March 30, 2013

Women's History Month: Miriam Amanda "Ma" Ferguson

Miriam Amanda "Ma" Ferguson 
served as first lady of Texas during her husband's term in office,  
then ran for Governor in 1924 and became the second woman governor in the U.S.

As Women's History Month comes to a close I thought we'd take a look at the life of the second female governor to serve the United States: Miriam Amanda Ferguson, Governor of Texas, who was voted into office 15 days after the first female Governor of Wyoming, Nellie Tayloe Ross. 

Miriam Amanda Ferguson was born and raised in Texas and although she attended Baylor College, she devoted her young adult life to caring for her husband and two daughters. She served as the first lady of Texas during her husband’s term in office, but when he failed to get his name on the ballot in 1924, “Ma” Ferguson decided it was time to go to work as a politician.

Ferguson's Childhood

Miriam Amanda Ferguson was born on June 13, 1875 in Bell County, Texas to Joseph L and Eliza (Garrison) Wallace. She attended Salado College with her future husband, though he was eventually expelled for disobedience and wandered about the country before returning to Bell County. Miriam, however, continued her education at Salado then attended Baylor Female College in Belton, Texas. Ferguson and her husband, James Edward Ferguson, were married on December 31, 1899. They soon had two daughters and Ferguson devoted herself to caring for her young family.

The home of James and Miriam Amanda Ferguson. 

James Ferguson Runs for Office

When Ferguson’s husband, James Edward Ferguson, returned to Bell County, he studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1897. He was also employed in real estate, insurance, banking, and dabbled in local politics. Prohibition was a hot political topic at that time, particularly in the 1914 campaign for governor of Texas. The prohibitionists supported Thomas H. Ball. The anti-prohibitionists attempted an elimination convention, but Ferguson, on record as an anti-prohibitionist, refused to submit his name and the conventioneers were unable to eliminate him. This put the party in a difficult position as they obviously could not name a rival candidate for the position. They did not endorse Ferguson, but all other anti-prohibition candidates withdrew and Ferguson won the nomination for Governor.

James Ferguson's Politics

During his first term in office, he was responsible for enacting state aid to schools and prison landholdings were increased so that state prisons actually showed a profit. Ferguson was re-elected. However, he soon became involved in a quarrel with the University of Texas when he vetoed all funding because they would not dismiss administrators that he personally found objectionable. In 1917, Ferguson was indicted on eleven charges, including misapplication of public funds. He made bond and announced his candidacy for a third term as governor, but failed to be placed on the ballot.

Miriam Amanda Ferguson Runs for Governor

Miriam Amanda Ferguson was a wise and resourceful woman. When her husband failed to place on the ballot, she immediately announced she would run for governor, promising voters that they would gain “two governors for the price of one.” She bravely condemned the Ku Klux Klan, opposed new liquor legislation in spite of the fact that she was a “teetotaler,” and was elected the Democratic gubernatorial candidate. Her Republican opponent was George C. Butte, former Dean of the University of Texas Law School, but she easily defeated him in November of 1924 and was inaugurated only fifteen days after Nellie Ross became Governor of Wyoming and the first woman governor of the United States.

Miriam Ferguson in Office

As Governor of Texas, Ferguson was considered a fiscal conservative. She continued to attack the Klan and to fight against prohibition. However, like her husband, her term in office was steeped in controversy. She averaged 100 prison pardons a month and was accused of taking bribes and receiving kickbacks. There was an unsuccessful attempt to impeach her, and she was ultimately defeated in both the 1926 and 1930 primaries, but she ran again in 1932 and won a second term as Governor of Texas.

Death and Legacy of Miriam Amanda Ferguson

After her second term in office, Ferguson and her husband both retired from politics. Miriam Amanda Ferguson died of heart failure on June 25, 1961. She was eighty-six years old. During her time in office she was responsible for signing into action Texas House Bill 194 in October of 1933, which established the University of Houston as a four year institution. It was never proven that her extensive record of pardons was the result of bribes and some claimed it was her way of alleviating the heavily burdened prisons in Texas. Nevertheless, her actions in this area also led the Texas Legislature to amend Texas law so governors can no longer unilaterally issue pardons. Pardons must be recommended by the Texas Board of Pardon and Parole.

  • Huddleston, John D. “Miriam Amanda Ferguson.” The Handbook of Texas Online. Texas State Historical Association. Retrieved December 30, 2009.
  • Steen, Ralph W. “James Edward Ferguson.” The Handbook of Texas Online. Texas State Historical Association. Retrieved December 30, 2009.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Women's History Month: Nellie Tayloe Ross

In honor of Women's History Month in March, today's post is on Nellie Tayloe Ross, 
the first and only woman to serve as Governor of Wyoming. 
Ross was also the Director of the National Mint for twenty years.

Nellie Tayloe Ross (1876-1977)

Nellie Tayloe Ross was a kindergarten schoolteacher married to a lawyer and politician. When her husband died, she was nominated for governor with hopes that she would continue his policies. She refused to campaign, but easily won the election, which was only the beginning of a long and successful political career.

Ross's Childhood Years

Nellie Tayloe Ross was born on November 29, 1836 to James Wynn Tayloe and Elizabeth Blair Green near Amazonia, Missouri. The family struggled financially and in 1886, their house burned down, so they moved to Miltonvale, Kansas. Ross attended Miltonvale High School and after graduation, moved to Omaha, Nebraska. After two years of college, she began work as a kindergarten teacher.

Marriage and the Move to Wyoming

Ross met her husband, William Bradford Ross, in Tennessee while visiting relatives. The couple married on September 11, 1902. William Ross was a shopkeeper when they met, but it was his dream to practice law in the American West, so they moved to Cheyenne where they raised four sons.

William Ross also had political aspirations and was soon the leader of the Wyoming Democratic Party. Although he ran for office on numerous occasions, the Republican candidates consistently won the elections. He finally won the election for Governor of Wyoming in 1922, but died two years later during an appendectomy.

Campaign for Governor

Wyoming law required that Ross’s successor be elected at the upcoming general election because he died so close to election time. Wyoming’s politicians offered Nellie Tayloe Ross the opportunity to fill the remainder of her husband's term so she could continue his policies. Ross did not reply, and Party officials understood this to be an acceptance and she officially ran for office against Republican Eugene J. Sullivan of Caspar, Wyoming. 

Nellie Tayloe Ross won the Wyoming Gubernatorial election on November 4, 1924, and on January 5, 1925, she was sworn in as the first woman governor in the history of the United States, and fifteen days later, Miriam Amanda Ferguson became the second woman governor in the history of the United States when she won the election in Texas. This was definitely a good year for women and politics!

Ross Loses Bid for Re-Election

At first, Ross’s political stance was a continuation of her late husband’s, but eventually she made it her own. She dismissed a few of the politicians appointed by her husband because they did not meet her expectations. She did, however, continue her husband’s demand for tax cuts, assistance for farmers, and reforms on banking institutions. She fought for legal reforms to protect children, women laborers and miners, issues that were hotly debated at that time. She fought hard for a federal amendment prohibiting child labor. She was also a staunch prohibitionist. 

Ross did run for re-election, and although she was considered a successful and competent governor and could have easily won a second term, she once again refused to campaign. It is believed that she lost because of her strong support of prohibition, which did not make her popular with many residents in Wyoming, but the facts that she once again refused to campaign and was a Democrat in a primarily Republican state were also believed to be causes for her defeat.

Further Work in Politics

Ross later served as vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee and Director of the Democratic National Convention Women's Division. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt took office, one of his goals was to be the first president to appoint women to cabinet positions. Roosevelt appointed many women to federal offices, including Nellie Tayloe Ross who was appointed to the position of Director of the United States Mint on May 3, 1933--another first for American women. 

Nellie Tayloe Ross inspecting nickel designs on April 20, 1938.

In this position, Ross was in charge of the American gold and silver bullion reserve, as well as the minting of coins for the United States and foreign governments. While serving in this position, Ross changed the system from manual labor to automation. Her focus was on efficiency and she reduced costs tremendously. 

 In fact, to further support her belief in efficiency, in 1950, Ross told the Congressional Appropriations Committee that she was returning approximately $1 million of her budgeted $4.8 million appropriations because the increased efficiency of the system reduced her budgetary needs. 

Nellie Taylor Ross served successfully and admirably as the Director of the United States Mint for five full terms. She retired in 1953.


After retirement, Nellie Tayloe Ross continued to stay active in politics, writing articles for numerous women’s magazines. Many of her speeches and writings can be viewed at the Rocky Mountain Online Archives. Ross also traveled extensively, lecturing at universities and meetings for women’s organizations. She died on December 19, 1977 at the age of 101 and was buried in Lakeview Cemetery in Cheyenne, Wyoming.


  • "Nellie T. Ross." Mini Biography. Wyoming State Archives. Retrieved December 29, 2009.
  • "Nellie Tayloe Ross." Women's History. Gale Cengage Learning. Retrieved December 28, 2009.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Natural Fort Revisited with Photograph of Battle Marker

James Beckworth, Colorado Mountain Man 

On March 13, 2009, I wrote a post for Wild West History about one of my favorite historical places--The Natural Fort. The Natural Fort is a large rock formation made of sandstone, carved by centuries of wind and rain. My children and I spent many afternoons at this fort, which is near what is now the Terry Bison Ranch. We loved climbing over the rocks, hiding in the "cubbies," avoiding broken beer bottles and reading the graffiti, some so old that they also have local historical significance, dating as far back as 1866! Sometimes we made up stories about the great battle that took place at the fort, and many times we simply enjoyed the sun on our faces, and the protection from the fierce winds.

The Natural Fort is located near the Wyoming/Colorado border, an area with winds so strong they'll take the shirt right off your back. Through the years, those winds carved holes in the rock (we called them cubbies) just deep enough to fit a man, or a Blackfoot warrior. This is where our story begins, and ends, at The Natural Fort, with a few unlucky Blackfoot warriors who sought shelter in the rocks in 1831, and the Crow warriors who surrounded them, waiting for their enemies to die.

Three Blackfoot Chiefs photographed in 1916.

The year 1831 was a drought year, and the Apsaalooke Crow and Blackfoot warriors were both following the trail of the buffalo, searching for water and food for their families. These two tribes were generally found on opposite sides of Yellowstone, but the drought was severe and they traveled long and far past their territories to find sustenance for their families. Jim Beckwourth, the famed black mountain man, fur trader and explorer, claimed in his memoirs that he was Chief of the Apsaalooke Crow at this time and was married to the daughter of one of the former chiefs.

The exact day in 1831 that the following events occurred is unknown, but it is a day that changed the lives of many Blackfoot families forever. On that day, warriors from the two tribes were moving through a stream bed when they spied each other near The Natural Fort. The Blackfoot warriors were seriously outnumbered. They had 160 warriors in their hunting party, while the Apsaalooke Crow, traveling with Jim Beckwourth, had 600 men. Fighting began almost immediately, and the Blackfoot warriors had no choice but to seek shelter in the nearby rocks, The Natural Fort. 

Sketch of The Natural Fort from the memoirs of Jim Beckwourth: 
The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth, Mountaineer, Scout, and Pioneer, 
and Chief of the Crow Nation of Indians.

The Natural Fort is a fascinating structure created by nature. It has archways, doorways, hallways and rooms, like a mansion built of rock. There is a problem with this mansion, though--there is no source of water or food. When the Blackfoot chose the fort, they probably thought they were making a wise decision. What they did not realize was that Beckwourth and his 600 warriors would surround The Natural Fort and kill the Blackfoot, one by one, as the warriors starved to death or succumbed to dehydration and stood from their cubbies, wandering around the rocks in their delirium. 

When my children and I first visited the fort we thought it was exciting, like a natural playground, but on the opposite side of the highway, the other section of the fort, we discovered an aging sign, a marker that has since disappeared. When we read about the battle that occurred at this place, it was no longer a place of fun and play. The Natural Fort was suddenly a place of great mystery, and death. 

We stood listening to the wind blowing through the gateways making a howling, haunting sound. We spoke in whispers of the Blackfoot warriors, how they must have felt as they sat in the wind-carved holes, staring down at their enemies, waiting to die. We spoke of their leaders, sitting on the sand floors of the rooms, making plans in the ground with sticks, plans that they knew could never happen as they were completely surrounded.

Through the years the fort was stripped of all remains of the battle, including arrowheads and other artifacts. The January 2007 issue of The Senior Voice reprinted an article by Greeley, Colorado historian Hazel E. Johnson who explained the battle. Johnson’s father once homesteaded on the property where the natural fort still stands. She mentioned the marker, which my children and I saw that day.

Then one of my readers, Eric Kurtz, spotted the story of The Natural Fort on this blog. Kurtz knew all about the sign that marked this place of battle. He had seen the marker in a collection of photos that belonged to his father, L. Glenn Kurtz. Eric Kurtz sent me a copy of the photograph and suddenly, those memories of warm summer days with my children and that moment in time when we read of the battle, the story that changed our understanding of the natural playground forever, came flooding back to me. I have posted the photograph of the marker below. 

Thank you for your kindness, Mr. Kurtz, from all of us--my children, me, all of the readers of this blog who understand the importance of history, and the Crow and Blackfoot warriors who fought and died at this place. This is a moment of history that will soon disappear.

Interstate 25 was built in the 1960s, carving its way straight through the middle of The Natural Fort. It continues to attract teenagers and beer bottles, cigarette butts and graffiti, but it also attracts those of us who know, who remember, who have felt the haunting memories that remain in these rocks. It is sacred, a hallowed ground where dedicated family men surrounded their enemies and equally dedicated family men crouched in holes and found temporary shelter in cold, dark, stone rooms, listening to the screaming wind, waiting for the inevitable.

Friday, March 8, 2013

"The Despoblado offers me an immense sanctuary in which to be alone long enough to settle and see the underlying truth of humanity that leads to the fact that we cannot love part of life and hate the rest. It is all one body, struggling awake from the deep sleep of sentient matter, moving out of nothing toward the light. We are no better or worse than viral molecules, or the whole association of the living world, but we are blessed with the agony of knowing." --Jim Bones, 'Texas West of the Pecos'

(Note: Spanish explorers called the western regions of Texas El Despoblado. El Despoblado is also used to refer to a desert region.) 

Christmas dinner for a family, from a series of photos documenting Gen. John J. Pershing's 1916 Punitive Expedition into Mexico. ...