When I first began researching rodeo cowgirls for my dissertation, one archivist told me to quit. She said I was looking for a needle in a haystack and I would not find sources adequate for a dissertation on women. Not to be deterred by one grump, I continued looking. It hasn’t been easy, and not just because part of my dissertation includes the “black hole” in rodeo that is part of this Digital History project at Oklahoma State University. This “black hole” as you may recall from previous posts is from 1929-1949, when women begin to be forced out of certain events in what is now professional rode and in which they had been competing since rodeo began. It is an underdeveloped area of study.
One of the reasons for that portentous word of caution directed at me a couple of years ago was that rodeo is a small-town event scattered across the United States and Canada as much as it is the big-name, big-city rodeos we all know today like Cheyenne, the Pendleton Round Up, Fort Worth, Denver, and of course Las Vegas. Many rodeo producers did not keep adequate records, if any, until the 1920s during the Golden Age of Rodeo, and even those records are haphazard and often not part of larger archival collections. Because of the travel on the rodeo circuit, and the number of producers who lost their businesses, the records are piecemeal at best. Nevertheless, some resources are available in local historical societies, local libraries and county libraries in towns where rodeo has a long history. Information on the more famous contestants, stock contractors, and producers is available at the larger archival collections such as the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame, and, for information after the organization of professional rodeo, the ProRodeo Hall of Fame – Museum of the American Cowboy. But of course this is not news to anyone who has even looked at rodeo history.
Add to all of this the typical challenges of researching women in history, which for the most part has been written by and about men. Because efforts to rectify this since the 1970s, the volume of literature has increased as scholars have reviewed the usefulness of traditional methodology and written about how we can better research women, including how to locate women’s sources. These lessons are particularly fitting for a tough subject like rodeo women. Having experience with this, here are what I would consider the top three most helpful hints and the results of my own hard work in researching this topic:
1 – Think outside the box. Often women’s resources are not found in the usual documents one finds when researching men. It requires piecing together evidence that is sometimes initially quite strange to the historian, such as, but not limited to: quilts, art, household account records, letters, and diaries, travel narratives, court documents, and even sermons. My recommendation for anyone working in women’s history is to read Contesting Archives: Finding Women in the Sources by Nupur Chaudhuri, Sherry J. Katz, and Mary Elizabeth Perry (see the Additional Resources link above for more information about this book).
2 – When you look for women in records, particularly where they shared a career with their husbands as in rodeo, look in the husband’s records. True, today it seems odd that she might still be known only by her affiliation with her husband – especially in archival records, but it is often where information is kept. Additionally, some women continued to rodeo under their maiden names, while others used their married names – either way, her information may still be listed in her husband’s collection.
3 – Finally, look for yourself! Don’t expect someone to do the work for you, and don’t expect these rules to be iron-clad; there are always exceptions. More times than not, when someone says there is nothing useful in a particular collection, this is false. Besides, that advice is hopefully from someone working on a different project than your own. Also, no matter how good your elevator speech is, or how well you describe your thesis and project in the brief letter of introduction to the archivist, he or she still has very limited knowledge about your work. Having said that, many archivists are very good at piecing together the materials and resources in their collections that will be of use to you, get to know them; talk to them about what you need and why you are looking for the information you seek. This is most successful when you do so in person. The bottom line is that you have to review the collection and see what is useful.