Jewish Wild West Women

June 6, 2012 | By

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Rebecca Cohen Mayer was born to German-Jewish immigrants in 1837 and raised in Mexico and Texas. When she was 15 years old, she married a man twice her age and set off on the Santa Fe Trail. In a company of over 50 explorers, she was the only woman.

The new book With a Doll in One Pocket and a Pistol in the Other (find it here) is a retelling of her life. Historian Kay Goldman came upon Mayer’s diary, written in the style of a memoir, and Goldman used it to reconstruct Mayer’s story and family history.

Curiously, Mayer’s diary opens not with her own birth, but with her husband’s, in Ober Ingelheim, Germany. Mayer can be forgiven for romanticizing, if only because her style is so colorful and energetic:

“In the quiet little town where Henry Mayer was born, very few exciting things ever happened. However, when Henry was seventeen he visited an aunt who lived some distance away. While there he heard a great deal about America, the land of adventure, where all men were equal and even a poor man could amass a fortune. Best of all there were Indians there to conquer.”

Unlike Rachel Calof, a frontier mail-order bride who kept a diary, Mayer was born in America, and embarked on the wagon train of her own free will. As the story attests, she also has a much more daring spirit: Meeting Indians, exploring on her own (on foot and on horseback) when the wagons are camped, and managing the sometimes-less-than-competent menfolk.

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