In a gross miscarriage of historicity, the 1967 film The Ballad of Josie, starring the bouffant blonde Doris Day, dances on the grave of the real Josie Bassett, Northern Colorado’s erstwhile Queen of the Cattle Rustlers.
Despite the film’s feminist premise — that a woman can do anything a man can, like wear pants or raise cattle —, its story takes an all-too expected turn when *spoiler alert* Josie falls for the handsome male lead who’s been a jerk pretty much the whole movie. She reminds women not to be too independent… or you might find yourself literally under siege. And then, shockingly, the film closes with the opposite of a bra-burning call to arms: Josie tosses her lusty Canadian tuxedo into the fireplace in favor of a corset and bustle.
Needless to say, Kendra and I were none too pleased with the alternative facts and regressive messaging; however, we thoroughly enjoyed being the peanut gallery over a bottle of Malbec.
What’s ultimately baffling, though, is the true story of Josie Bassett and her little sister Ann is just as fitting for the silver screen. The Butch Cassidy even makes a cameo as a ranch hand and teenage love interest! We’ll go deeper into their story during our Women’s History Walk, but for now, here are some actual facts about the feisty Bassett family:
The Bassets moved to Colorado from Arkansas in 1877 in order for Herb, the father, to avail himself of the dry climate and hopefully relieve his asthma. Known as “a little old maid of a man,” Herb left the pants in the family to Elizabeth, the mother, who took up the reins economically and, struck with cattle fever, set about building her herd. So from the beginning of their time in Colorado, which for Ann was from birth, Josie and her little sister were used to a woman taking the lead. For them, cattle ranching became synonymous with women’s equality.
At times, the sisters’ stories contain both tragic and ridiculous turns: Josie churned through four different husbands by the time she was forty, including running the fourth off with a frying pan. Ann’s fiancé was murdered in the middle of the street by a rival cattle baron trying to scare her off; Ann then married the foreman on her rival’s ranch out of revenge.
Josie eventually homesteaded on Cub Creek near the Colorado-Utah border. Ever a rule-breaker, she made and sold moonshine during Prohibition (apricot brandy anyone?) and earned a reputation as a robin hood by rustling meat for poor families in the community. Josie lived alone in this rustic, creek-side retreat well into her eighties, cementing her celebrity as the picture of independence, even if Hollywood chose not to see it that way.
More than Petticoats: Remarkable Colorado Women, Gayle C. Shirley, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2002.
“LIFE Visits Josie, Queen of Cattle Rustlers,” LIFE Magazine, January 5, 1948: 84-87. Print.
The Ballad of Josie, Andrew V. McLaglen, Universal Pictures, 1967. Film.