Daring bets, tall tales, a drop dead gorgeous cowgirl-turned-starlet, a tragic demise and unsolved mysteries make this story one of the strangest in horse and Hollywood history.
Vonceil Viking would have made the perfect female foil to John Wayne, if only she could have lived long enough to make her mark. Instead, the daughter of a southwest rancher turned Hollywood starlet died at the tender age of 24. And yet, she still accomplished one of the great feats of of early American transit before her death: crossing the United States — from New York to California — by horseback on her trusty mount, Broadway.
It should be noted that the accounts and versions of her story differ so dramatically from telling to telling that without extensive research and discovery of new evidence, there is no way to verify many of the events before, during and after her trek. But we’ll work through the facts and the non-facts with deliberation and respect.
What America knew of Vonceil Viking through the papers was that she grew up a poor and real life cowgirl in New Mexico. She told inquiring reporters Vonceil meant “sky” in Cherokee (it doesn’t). She was in fact born in Oklahoma in 1905 to Mart and Daisy Eslick. Her father an absent railroad man, her parents divorced in her childhood, and her mother remarried a New Mexico rancher named Fred Gehring, where Vonceil likely did grow up doing ranch labor. But they were likely financially better off in Daisy’s second marriage, because Vonceil was sent to Europe for a proper education when she was older. She used her cowgirl smarts to jumpstart her success as an equestrian, and became a well-known champion on “rotten row,” a high society equestrian spot in London’s Hyde Park.
It was supposedly at a party in London in 1927 that the Marquess of Donegal bemoaned the weak and flabby figures of American women, not realizing Vonceil was a guest of the party. Vonceil spoke up and shot back with a sharp American tongue, and the argument allegedly escalated to an outrageous bet: Vonceil wagered 5,000 British pounds (around $25,000 at the time) that, to prove American female sportsmanship, she could ride from New York City to Hollywood in 125 days.
While the argument and wager are unverified, we know from ship manifests that Vonceil took a boat back to America in September 1927, and on October 13, she and Broadway left New York’s City Hall with the Mayor’s blessing for her 2,900 mile trek (this was frequently ill-described as a 4,000 mile trip in the papers).
Along the way, Vonceil had plenty of tribulations. Early on in her ride in North Carolina, Broadway, her coal black thoroughbred gelding, fell and rolled on her, injuring them both. Only a few days later, still bandaged with broken ribs, Vonceil and Broadway were allegedly struck by a hit-and-run automobile, but “got off lightly.”
Coverage of her story gets much more spotty after that; a letter from an acquaintance of Vonceil’s appears in the Harrisburg Telegraph on December 23, 1927 stating that she had ridden 1,800 miles to date, would arrive in Dallas, Texas on Christmas Day, and “was in good spirits and confident of success.” Very little else appears about her trek until she hits San Bernardino, California in early February, and ultimately, arrives in Los Angeles February 10, 1928. This arrival made her journey 120 days, with five full days to spare.
If the story is true, and you account for the 3-4 days that Vonceil and Broadway spent recuperating in North Carolina and taking into account the locations we know she traversed, the pair would have had to cover about 29 miles a day, six days a week to make this time. While it sounds absolutely miserable, it’s not remotely unfathomable that she did in fact do it. More interestingly, there is no evidence that anyone ever questioned it, despite the lack of news, photos, or updates for the majority of the journey. (In fact, young brothers Louis and Temple Abernathy had trekked from Manhattan to San Francisco in a record-breaking 62 days in 1911, so her trek had some precedent.)
(Note: there is an excellent photograph we’re prohibited from sharing of Vonceil arriving in Los Angeles with Broadway looking quite weary, but you can see the photo here.)
Though Vonceil insisted that she never made the journey to earn herself fame or to be a movie star, that is precisely what became of her. Right away she was cast opposite Ted Wells in the movie “Riding Romance,” but was replaced after an accident shooting the opening scene. Her horse tripped and fell, and Vonceil broke her leg, requiring eight weeks of recovery. In true cowgirl form, she bounced back quickly and did a 12 part silent film series with Wells in “The Fighting Forester,” and later starred with Yakima Canutt in “Rovers and Ropes.”
But a long and happy show business career was not to be for Miss Viking. Nor was a family, a foundation, or a legacy. According to an AP Story from December 3, 1929, Vonceil, who notoriously hated and was frightened by cars, accidentally sideswiped an approaching vehicle and was thrown from her roadster, killing her instantly. At the time, she and her sister had been on the way to Hayes Ranch in Palm Springs for a week of riding and camping.
The charming blonde known in Hollywood as “Queen of the Water Hole” was given a starlet’s funeral, and is buried at Valhalla Cemetery. According to the Philadelphia Enquirer (which got all sorts of details wrong, so take it with a grain of salt) Vonceil’s loyal mount Broadway, her sole companion for the full 2,
900 mile journey, was inconsolable when his owner never returned. He was retired to a friend’s sprawling ranch, where he lived out the rest of his days.
Women who live hard, ride fast, and refuse to lose are apt to leave us all too soon. But Vonceil Viking’s incredible trek, which made her the first woman to ride from coast to coast, should stand as a testament to the women who were fighting for equality in sportsmanship long before it was cool. In her own words, she lived “to prove the hardiness and courage of today’s American girl.”