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Women’s History Month 2017: The Bovill Women, Thriving on the Frontier

Updated: Apr 1, 2020

In 1890, the superintendent of the Census declared that the country’s frontier had closed. Settlement of the American West had been so prolific in the latter-half of the 19th century that there no longer existed a distinct region in which the population was below two persons per square mile. Indeed the West was changing. Between 1870 and 1890, the population of Denver grew from 4,759 to 106,713. Railroads proliferated, bringing people and industry to the once isolated region. Even the ubiquitous open range of western lore, inhabited by rugged cowboys and longhorn cattle, was under pressure from homesteaders and land developers.

It was during this period of immense change that Charlotte Emily Robinson moved to America. Charlotte was born in England to a genteel family that claimed direct decent from King Edward III. She was one of nine Robinson children, all of whom were provided an education in the classic subjects. According to biographical notes provided by her daughter, Charlotte’s father “believed in education for women and pioneered to that end. All of his nine children were given the best education available.”

Although the Robinson family had connections and some land in England, dreams of limitless opportunity and prosperity called several of the children to America. The youngest son Fred, along with the two oldest daughters Gertie and Emmie, were the first to take on the adventure. Emmie would eventually return to England, while Gertie married another British ex-pat and accompanied him into the gold fields of Idaho in the 1880s. Charlotte, or Lottie as she was known to her family, set out to visit her sister in Colorado in 1887, thus changing the course of her life.

“Her sister’s baby was born shortly after her arrival,” reads Charlotte’s biographical sketch, “and this event convinced her she had to learn to be more practical and useful if she were to remain in the West.” While in Denver, Charlotte took courses in nursing that would serve her and her family well. Next she moved to Nebraska to assist her brother with a cattle ranch he had just begun. She showed a remarkable willingness to “rough it,” choosing to live in the sod house nearly 100 miles from any town, rather than return to England. In 1891 she became a naturalized American citizen. On the ranch she met another Englishman, Hugh Bovill, and they married in 1894.

Like many of Latah County’s settlers, Hugh and Charlotte Bovill arrived in the area looking for unadulterated open spaces. Their homestead in Sand Hill, Nebraska, which had once provided enough space to graze cattle and make a living, was ringed by competing settlers by the late 1890s, and they were feeling suffocated. In 1900 the Bovill family, which now included daughters Dorothy and Gwendolyn, arrived in Moscow by train and then made their way to Warren Meadows, some forty miles north and east.

Gwendolyn Bovill recalled this new home with great fondest in her memoir, Knight or Knave?

“In later years I, Gwen, remember it well; ponies, horses galore, farm animals, milk, venison, fish, pheasant, bear, huckleberries, fields of hay and grain. It was a paradise for growing girls to roam…The only fly in the ointment as far as I can recall was Mother’s persistence in importing teachers, ‘tutors’ as she called them.”

In the early days of Bovill, as the community would come to be known, you would have been hard pressed to assert that the American frontier was closed. Conditions were primitive and every person had to contribute to the physical settlement of the town. In an article published by the Daily Idahonian in 1954 about the development of Bovill, Charlotte was characterized in this way: “Though she was raised in the city, Mrs. Bovill was a real pioneer when faced with the wilds of Idaho. She did a lot of hunting and bagged her share of elk, deer, bears, and wild cats.” She was also a caretaker to all. Following a tragic dynamite explosion at the WI&M Railroad’s Camp Eight that claimed two lives, Charlotte treated the survivors whose next nearest treatment would have been found in Troy or Moscow.

Charlotte’s daughters inherited their mother’s adventurous spirit and commitment to service. Gwendolyn spent her formative years enjoying all the splendors that the forests and meadows had to offer. There was fishing and horseback riding and conversing with the interesting people who would visit her parent’s hotel and general outfitting store.

Sadly, her childhood in the idyllic forests of northern Latah County came to an end when the Weyerhaeuser timber company forced its way into the town site. Gwendolyn completed her schooling in Coeur d’Alene and then moved with her parents and sister to western Montana. Hugh and Lottie bought a piece of property from which their daughters could explore the Bitterroot Mountains and the Missoula River. As Gwen recalled, “The fact that there was only a partially built shack to live in was of little concern.”

Gwen quickly passed the state’s teaching exams and was given a small schoolhouse about ten miles from her parent’s home. Her accounts of that first harrowing year are too good not to share.

“Blizzards had a habit of hitting when I was on my way home, in which case I let my horse loose and waited in the sleigh for Dad to rescue me. The horse always went home, and soon as Dad saw him he would ride his big stock horse, Red Dog, to find me. A strong arm and my foot in his stirrup pulled me up behind his saddle, and away we went leaving the sleigh to sit until I could redeem it. Not even a wolf would be out in such blizzards. My eyelashes would freeze together until I was unable to see anything, and I still wonder how my horse always got home. If the weather prevented my horse from traveling, I had to snowshoe past the nearest farm in order to get any pay. No tracks, no pay, and I got $50 a month so I made tracks.” – Knight or Knave?

The Bovill’s adventures next took them to Newport, Oregon. During the waning years of World War I, Gwendolyn enrolled in the Army Physical Training course. She was one of 12 to pass the course in Portland and she was transferred to San Francisco. Before she could deploy oversees, the Armistice was signed. As a trained “physiotherapist” she soon found employment at the University of California Hospital. In that position she gained respect among the doctors as an innovative therapist with a proven track record of healing patients.

“Around this time [1922], a large medical building was under construction on the corner of Post and Powell. The top specialist in San Francisco were leasing space for their offices and they wanted a physiotherapist in the building. I had a co-worker, Hazel, with a fine record, but we had no money and I told Dr. Moffett that. With his help we got a group of the specialist together and offered to work for them exclusively for one year if they could keep us busy and if they would pay our rent and loan us the money for our equipment. Hazel and I were jubilant when they agreed. Weeks before we could move into the building, they learned I had an automobile and began using me for house calls down the Peninsula and around the Bay Area. Hazel carried on at the hospital during which time we started a joint business account. I loved driving, and my house calls consisted largely of dealing with children in their homes. After morning appointments, I was frequently invited to stay for lunch and in time I made many friends among the famous and wealthy people who had been or still were my patients. Our business flourished and we both were happy in spite of long hours and demanding work. What a happy day it was when we moved into our very own suite in the Fitzhugh Building and could work with all the best doctors.” – Knight or Knave?

It was through her work that she met her first husband, Major Louis Cassel. Eventually she would move to Hong Kong with Louis and spend many years overseas. Upon his unexpected death, Gwendolyn returned to the states. After marrying and being widowed a second time, she moved in with her sister and brother-in-law’s home. She remained an active woman and spent a great deal of time as a family historian. Before passing away in 1980 she wrote three books related to her family's many travels. Although short, her obituary alludes to her penchant for exploration and her love of people. It concludes by noting “She will be remembered by her many friends in Europe, Asia, California and Idaho for her graciousness and generosity and so will be greatly missed.”

When considered as individuals, Charlotte and Gwendolyn Bovill were undeniably vivacious and interesting. The pictures of Gwen as a proud outdoorswoman are what first caught my eye. Truly they are some of my favorite images in our photo archives. The more I read about the remarkable Bovill women, however, the more I was reminded that they were just two among many who had little regard for the societal expectations of women during their lifetimes. Men dominate our popular images of the American West. Yet there was a sisterhood of fierce, self-reliant, smart, and compassionate women who built communities across the mountains and plains. Yes, they carried out important domestic tasks like cooking and child rearing. But they also provided in less traditional ways – Charlotte hunted for her family’s dinner and Gwendolyn opened her own medical practice. Women blazed trails, saved lives, and added to the fabric of America.

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