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Nevada’s First Woman Sheriff

In 1919 Clara Dunham Crowell, a former waitress at the Two Bit House, was the law in Lander County, Nevada.

Clara Dunham married George Crowell, a teamster who drove a stage coach, in 1898. The Crowell family flourished with the addition of two children. George, who was highly regarded for his honesty and “can do” attitude, was elected sheriff of Lander County.

He tackled the job with the same enthusiasm he used to drive his old six-horse stage. Clara learned much from her husband about the qualities of a good sheriff – how to anticipate trouble, how to keep calm, and how to use a gun.

Clara herself was not in the habit of running from trouble. During his stage-driving days George often returned late and if he was carrying company money he would keep it safe at home until the bank opened the next morning. One night Clara and her niece were in the house alone when a strange man knocked on the door. “I know there’s money in there,” he said. “Open up or you’ll be sorry.”

Clara opened the door in his face and demanded, “What will I be sorry for?” Then she chased him out the gate.

As sheriff George Crowell was highly respected, but when he was struck down by illness and died in 1919 the local lawmen and women circulated a petition calling for Clara to become the first woman sheriff in Nevada history. There were several male aspirants for the job, but none made a formal application after the petition was circulated and presented to the county commissioners. They unanimously selected 42 year old Clara Crowell to be sheriff for the remaining two years of her husband’s term.

Clara proved that she could handle any situation. She was involved in the apprehension of cattle rustlers, horse thieves, robbers, and other criminals. As sheriff she demanded respect for the law in Lander. She and her deputy, Thomas White, even enforced the new Dry Law, which among other things prevented people from transporting bottles of liquor.

On several occasions she even entered saloons and broke up brawls. In an administrative overhaul, she removed Deputy White who had served under four sheriffs. She earned a reputation throughout the West as a tough law officer. When her term came to an end many people encouraged her to run for election. But she was respected also for her nursing skills and she decided to take the job of matron, or administrator, of the county hospital, a position she held for the next 20 years.

Posted from “The Historical Nevada Magazine.”

5 Responses

  1. Very cool. And it sounds like a wonderful premise for a book, too.

  2. Cool story! I love how these real life stories can fit right into the fictional worlds we create. She’d make a great romance heroine.

  3. I was thinking the same thing about using the idea in my next story. I’ve been floundering on what kind of heroine to have. Thanks for stopping by on my first day back in a long while. I love research so look forward to being her on time.

  4. What a great true story. Someone should definitely be inspired by her.

  5. Looks like everyone reading this had the same reaction. Clara was a perfect Western heroine. I love the part about her asking the would-be intruder what she would be sorry for.
    Great Blog!

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