Horses in History: Marie Bynum Smith, Texas’ First Cowgirl

A steer-wrestlin’ cow-cuttin’ calf brandin’ genuine article woman of the wild west.

Marie Bynum Smith on Mercantile Wagon

Marie Bynum Smith on Mercantile Wagon

Marie Bynum Smith was not a “just for show” sort of cowgirl. She wasn’t a glitzy performer in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show or a pretty piece of arm candy for a strapping cowboy. She was a true horsewoman, and the iconic crossroads town of Amarillo once considered her Texas’ founding lady. But the details of her life have never been collected and told in one place before now, despite the truly remarkable life she led.

Born March 7, 1864, Marie was the daughter of a Confederate soldier and his Tennessee bride. Her father had been serving as a skilled horseman in the 7th Tennessee Cavalry when he was wounded in the right arm on September 9, 1862. The wound left him not only unfit for service, but in great pain the rest of his life.

He would come to depend greatly on his children to operate their farm in Mississippi, which the family had purchased from the Chickasaw Tribe before he entered the service. They were direct neighbors with Martin Colbert, a well-known Chickasaw chief who had been culturally integrated into white culture, but still acted as a representative of the tribe and steward of the tribe’s horses and cattle throughout the territory. The Chickasaws were exceptional horsemen and breeders, and Holmes Willis Lemon hypothesizes that the small, stout and fast Chickasaw horses are the true and unheralded ancestor of the American Quarter Horse. It is very likely that the friendship and proximity of the Martins and Bynums was the foundation of Marie’s equestrian skill.

When Marie was in her early 20s, she left the Mississippi delta country to seek her fortune in the untamed cattle country of northern Texas, under the watchful care of her uncle, Colonel Aaron W. Dunn. Coincidentally, we have featured Col. Dunn on Horse Nation before, clearing a hurdle on a trusty steed:

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (public domain)

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (Public Domain)

A syndicated story in 1885 details Ms. Smith’s arrival in Texas, and how she came to impress her uncle’s team of rugged cowboys with her skill when the time came to “cut out the beeves” from his head of 12,000 cattle for market.

Col. Dunn, who is a typical cowman, mounted a mustang horse to help the cowboys, and his niece insisted on going with him. She could not be pursuaded that there was any danger in the adventure, or that her dress and sex placed her at any disadvantage.

She insisted that if she could get a swift pony and a sidesaddle, she would show that she could ride alongside of the wildest steer and turn him, in spite of dangerous horns.

A pony was provided, and Miss Bynum joined the cowboys in pushing the steers towards the pen where they could be separated out. That’s when things start to get interesting.

A big brown steer, all branded over, reared up and breaking out of the line, tossed his horns and started off like a deer. Miss Bynum whirled her pony and started after the animal. She did her work bravely. Her pony dashed alongside the steer and the cowboys expected that, as the animal turned, he would catch his horns in her drapery or she would plunge over the pony’s head as he turned with the steer.

They saw her stop as the steer turned and balanced herself like a skilled equestrienne, and then head off the steer and turn him back. Soon she came dashing back alongside the steer and landed him in the bunch that was headed for the pen. Several of the cowboys pronounced her a ‘thoroughbred’ and a ‘long-horn’ — Their choicest compliments.

With little instruction, Miss Bynum began to help ‘cut out’ the cattle, and she was equal to every steer that invited her pony to a run. Although she was in eminent danger of being dragged off her mount by the horns of some steer striking into her riding habit, she was able to manage her skirts as well as her pony.

According to the charming article’s conclusion, her uncle and the cowboys invited her to join the team for every annual sorting and round-up.

"Cutting out the Herd", circa 1904. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (public domain)

“Cutting out the Herd,” circa 1904. Courtesy of the Library of Congress. (Public Domain)

“I never enjoyed anything so much in my life.” said Miss Bynum to the writer, “and, would you believe it? I didn’t hear the cowboys quote scripture once. I am going to ride at the next round-up, and I expect to do much better.

There is no historic record available to say whether Marie did participate in future round-ups, but I’d like to think she did.

In the years to come, she would marry James Smith and move to Amarillo, where she planted the city’s very first tree (some relatives suggest she planted ALL the trees!) She and her husband started a ranching mercantile and made private loans that helped establish Amarillo commerce. She also started a Ladies Aid Society, founded a chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, and made a fine philanthropist in her community.

Portrait of Marie Bynum Smith

Portrait of Marie Bynum Smith

To some it might sound like settling down, but in the era of quiet women, Marie was a force to be reckoned with. She is remembered in Amarillo as a “pioneer,” but to modern horsewomen everywhere, we’ll remember her as a true rough and tumble cowgirl — a stoic woman of the early American West.

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