September 12, 2019 — Clara Belle Rose was a tough and tender saloon-keeper from a wild little town known as Devil’s Colony, then Winona, across the Missouri from Ft. Yates. Frank Fiske described Clara Belle as: “A contemporary of Calamity Jane and Poker Alice of Deadwood fame; known to cowboys and frequenters of the glittering palaces of frontier towns as Mustache Maude*, this woman was as fearless as the wildest gunman and was able to ‘hold her own’ in any company.”
Clara Belle left home at 15 and saved enough to open her own saloon by age 23. She became known for wearing men’s clothes, except for her skirts, which were scandalously short for the day. Dangling from her pocket was a Bull Durham tobacco tag, and on her hip was a 6-shooter.
In 1898, Mustache Maud married one of her customers, a colorful cowpoke named Ott Black. The military abandoned Ft. Yates soon after, and the arrival of the railroad drew business away to the nearby towns of Linton and Strasburg. So, after a few years, the Blacks closed their saloon and eventually started ranching.
Author May Hinton writes, “[Mrs. Black] did the work of a man as well as a man could, always acting as foreman on their ranches even when extra men were there to help in roundup, branding etc. At a time when women rode side saddle, she rode astride a horse like a man...She was definitely the executive type and did well when she was bossing men doing the work of a ranch.”
There was also another side to Mustache Maud. While yet a teenager, she worked in a hospital, which, for many, qualified her to be the local doctor. A 1932 story in the Selfridge Journal read, “Mrs. Black always found time to assist the needy in times of illness and distress, and was the only woman in those days who could be called on when sickness and death came… An instance is recalled when Mrs. Black heard of a sick lady 25 miles from Lemmon, and immediately took her saddle horse over the prairie and down into the valley, with the thermometer registering 28 [below] and a northwest blizzard raging, to take care of the sick woman. Soon after her arrival the lady died, and Mrs. Black took care of the remains and saw that she was given a burial.”
Hinton writes that as a midwife, Mustache Maud “was fond of stating that she had spanked half the bottoms in the area. She was sure to appear on her horse with food, clothing or whatever was needed when there was distress in a family. If chores needed to be done, she did them, as well as doing the housework and the nursing. She might well have been known as the Florence Nightingale of the Dakota prairies.”
After 20 years of marriage, the Blacks separated. Ott went into the horse business, while Mustache Maud stayed on the ranch. It was noticed, from time to time, that her cattle herds mysteriously increased in size, and in 1927, she was arrested for cattle rustling and accused of butchering a cow and calf belonging to a neighbor.
The cow was a government issued animal with an Indian number brand. Maud was the original owner, and it came back to her ranch after she sold it. She had wintered the cow with her herd, but had, as accused, butchered the calf.
This wasn’t the big news during the trial, however. On the day she was cross examined, Mustache Maud showed up in a feminine blue dress and crocheted lace while on the witness stand. She received no sentence, but she is attributed the dubious honor of being the only woman in the United States who’s been convicted of cattle rustling.
Tomorrow is the anniversary of Mustache Maud’s death. She passed away in 1932 and is buried in the Golden Wealth cemetery near Selfridge.
(* variously spelled Maud and Maude)
“Dakota Datebook” is a radio series from Prairie Public in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota and with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council. See all the Dakota Datebooks at prairiepublic.org, or subscribe to the “Dakota Datebook” podcast.