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15 Inspirational Female Explorers You Should Know: 6-10

By Chelsea La Near

We continue to celebrate Women's History Month by feminizing our historical canon! It's important to remember that then just as now, the ability to travel was often the privilege of the wealthy, particularly the wealthy from imperial powers. This week, we begin by recognizing the extraordinary journey of a Native American woman who was rather the victim of such colonial efforts, who traveled tirelessly to fight for the dignity of her people. We also learn about a late-blooming Mexican botanist, an unbelievable American socialite, and two European women who used their privilege to advocate for others.


6. Sarah Winnemucca (1844-1891): Native American Rights activist

"...In the saddle night and day; distance, about two hundred and twenty-three miles. Yes, I went for the government when the officers could not get an Indian man or a white man to go for love or money. I, only an Indian woman, went and saved my father and his people.” - Sarah Winnemucca

Sarah Winnemucca was born in present-day Nevada to a Piaute family. Her father was a respected Shoshone war chief who married an influential Paiute woman. Sarah's grandfather, Truckee, had helped with US expeditions in the West and fought alongside Americans in the Mexican-American war. Sarah and her sister briefly attended a convent school in California until white parents complained about their children mingling with Natives, so they lived and studied with a Catholic family in the area. The Winnemucca's had always advocated friendly relations with local settlers. However, in 1860, this benevolence became impossible when the settlers, including many former family friends, organized against the tribe for killing two US men who had kidnapped and abused Paiute girls. Then in 1865, after Nevada became a state, US cavalry officially attacked Sarah's people, killing her mother among many others.

More tragedy awaited the Paiutes after they were sent to Malheur Reservation where they encountered racist agent William Rinehart (who would later be elected Senator in Seattle). Rinehart appropriated money and supplies intended for the Paiutes, including food they grew themselves - a common offense from white leaders against Natives at the time. The suffering experienced by the Paiutes as a result of this theft drove Winnemucca into action, and her eloquence in English convinced the government to send additional supplies.

In 1878, Sarah worked as a messenger, scout, interpreter, and negotiator during a skirmish between the U.S. military and the Bannock Indians. Despite her courageous contributions, her tribe was sent to another, even worse, reservation in present-day Eastern Washington. The conditions there outraged Winnemucca, and she began to travel the country giving hundreds of lectures on the plight of her people, even lobbying the government in Washington, D.C. In 1883, she published an autobiography, Life Among the Paiutes, the first known autobiography and copyright registration by a Native American woman. Her book thoughtfully recounts the fraught history of federal lands and injustices against Native Americans.

Winnemucca then spent a year lecturing in San Francisco, prompting Rinehart to publicly denounce her as a drunk, a gambler, and a whore. She returned to Nevada where she and her brother opened a school for Indian children to promote Paiute language and culture. However, the Dawes Severalty Act of 1887 forced the school to close as it required Native American children to be educated in English. Despite each setback and tragedy Winnemucca encountered, she persisted in her tireless efforts to bring awareness to the plight of Native Americans across the country. Her success can be found in the sheer number of Americans she reached though her lectures and writings. At the time of her death, her efforts were widely known, and her obituary was published in the New York Times.

7. Aimée Crocker (1864-1941): The Queen of Bohemia

The adventures of Aimée Crocker can at times seem too outrageous to be true. The indulgent American heiress to railroad fortunes defied every convention turn-of-the-century women were to ascribe to: she married five times, was romantically linked to scores of men, traveled all over Asia for fun, followed the Buddhist religion, and sported visible tattoos. In hindsight, Crocker certainly had a problematic penchant for cultural appropriation and was naive in her privilege. Still, she deserves credit for shattering sexist, racist, classist, and colonialist ideologies. Her unapologetic attitude towards her lifestyle continues to inspire a cult following.

Crocker was born in Sacramento where at 10 years old, she inherited what would today be 233 million dollars. Even as a young woman, she had a taste for amorous escapades. In an effort to keep her away from San Francisco sailors and other suitors, Crocker’s parents sent her to complete school in Germany. This didn’t help, and by the time she was 18, she had been engaged twice, once to a German prince, after which she became entangled with Spanish bullfighter. At 19, she married Porter Ashe, whose family had given their name to Asheville, North Carolina. Their marriage fell apart not long following the birth of their daughter, and a brutal, well-publicized custody battle ensued. Crocker’s unconventional past was undoubtedly brought up in the proceedings, and despite Ashe’s gambling and speculation debts (many of which he had bet against his wife’s fortune), likely infidelity, and an attempt at kidnapping his daughter, he was deemed the more stable of the pair and awarded full custody.

The public humiliation motivated Crocker to accept an earlier invitation from King Kalākaua to visit Hawaii. On the islands, she lived in a hut and wore regional dress, raced on horseback with the locals, danced the hula, and indulged in torch-lit Waikiki swimming parties, all of which earned her the chagrin of missionaries stationed there. “It appears that they felt I was setting a bad example to the natives they were trying to convert by not acting superior to them,” she later wrote. The king, on the other hand, was enthralled with the young socialite - he gifted her an island and an official title: Princess Palaikalani—Bliss of Heaven.

Hawaii instilled Crocker with even more wanderlust, so she took off for the Far East. She recounted extraordinary adventures including a three-week stint in a harem outside of Bombay, a mystic search for liberation in a Maharashtran cave, and two bizarre sensual experiences - one with a boa constrictor and another with a Chinese violin. She wrote of murder attempts by knife-throwing servants in Shanghai and another by headhunters in Borneo, who suspected their prince was trying to take the Western woman as his bride. The Bornean prince was just one of Crocker’s well-documented romances with powerful Asian men.

Back in America, Crocker started a Buddhist colony in Manhattan where she met her third husband, songwriter and showman Jackson Gouraud. The power couple dubiously contrasted “slumming” tours of lower New York City with their lavish and eccentric parties. Examples of Crocker's entertainment extravagance include arriving atop an elephant, gifting chameleons as party favors, and presenting her pet boa constrictor, Kaa (sound familiar?), as the guest of honor. Though much of New York Society shunned her outrageous antics, the media and the Bohemians were spellbound. Her legendary appeal could bring together such diverse guests ranging from opera prima donnas, maharajas, senators, and academics to Broadway showgirls and Bowery rogues - even just for an informal afternoon tea. When her husband died in 1910, the devastated heiress retreated to Paris where she lived on and off for the next 27 years, continuing her life of hedonistic excess. Duri