I’ve always been lucky to be surrounded by tough, strong women. My mother is a strong woman. In fact, when I think of emotional strength, I think of her. Physical strength too. That sort of physical strength that allows one to endure hardship, to hold on and not let go. She came from a line of strong pioneer women who settled the West. And let me be clear, for all the gunslingers, loggers, hunters, cattle drovers, farmers and cowboys who starred in every book, movie and television show as icons of the American West, it was the wind-hewn, raw-boned women who did most of the actual work.
Still, I won’t be guilty of idealizing these women as we have the men with whom they were partnered. They are not mere double-x chromosome John Waynes. These women were real. They had their own foibles and their own problems. They had issues derived from being strong-willed. They had issues derived from being survivors. They were victims of abuse. They could lie, cheat and steal as well as any man. Basically, they were human and none of my relations appear to be more human than the Johnstone Sisters of Alzada, Montana- Ella, Edith and Esther.
I’ve been thinking about these relations of mine for awhile now. And although they seem to be larger than life, they are merely human and no more or less than perfect examples of modern pioneer women trying to survive in a modern era.
Edith Ila Johnstone was referred to as the Ugly Duckling. She was the oldest of the sisters and born in 1913. Although she wasn’t ugly, she was cursed with having sisters far prettier than the norm.
Ella Fern Johnstone was the youngest and born in 1916. It’s been said that there wasn’t a man in Alzada who hadn’t slept with her. She was known by her fiery red hair, which was rumored to glow even in the dark corners of the town’s bars, giving her a special witch light with which to arrange her assignations.
Esther Louise Johnstone was the middle sister and born in 1915. Where most middle sisters become lost among the passions and activities of the older and younger, Esther stood out for being a woman as mean as she was beautiful.
My mother remembers traveling from Western South Dakota in an old pickup to Alzada, Montana when she was five years old. “Esther and her first husband were both blondes. Esther had huge hair. They were two beautiful blonde people. They had a horse farm and I remember seeing them both astride golden palominos, gold on gold, like they were creating their own romantic vision.”
The golden time didn’t last. Esther’s husband, Merle Blasted, must have certainly been proud to have such a beautiful wife, but was unwilling withstand the abuse she constantly levied upon him. When he finally got the nerve to ask her for a divorce, she shot him and ran away to Sheridan, Wyoming where she “took to living with a black man.” This same man was later rumored to have shot her in an altercation at the Silver Dollar Bar in Thermopolis, Wyoming.
Edith, Ella and Esther were cast from the same pioneer mold but were very different women. Each of them represented something quintessential to our pioneering spirit and our humanity. What caused Mean Esther to be so mean? Why did Ella give of herself so freely? Was Edith happy to be the normal one, or did she secretly desire what her sisters had?
This is all I know of these women. I ache to know more. I want to be able to weave who they were and what they represent into the American quilt we call our history. Hopefully one day soon I will. Until then, I have the shades of these three women to live with, haunting me, a constant reminder that I must tell their story and explain to the world who they were and what they wanted to be. After all, like all women, they were once little girls with dreams of who they wanted to be. Perhaps if I can figure out what those dreams were, I can figure out what happened to them and tell the story of why they became so mean and free and ordinary.