The Van Buren Sisters
I took a break from watching Hallmark Christmas stories last week, and scrolled through the other offerings on television. I landed on a show about the town of Sturgis, SD, long-known for its affinity for motorcycle riders, as well as its somewhat turbulent past. What captured my attention was not Wild Bill Hickok, or any of the other infamous folks who once walked the streets. What interested me were Adeline and Augusta Van Buren. Allow me to introduce you to these two ladies.
Addie and Gussie, as these two were known, were descendants of Martin Van Buren, eighth president of the United States, and were society girls who obviously had a zest for life. With World War I looming, 24-year-old Augusta and 22-year-old Adeline were already members of the national Preparedness Movement, a grass-roots organization formed in opposition to President Woodrow Wilson’s position of neutrality towards what was happening in the world. Wilson’s views changed with the sinking of the Lusitania by German U-boats, and the National Defense Act of 1916 was implemented to augment the size of the military and the Preparedness Movement faded.
The sisters wanted to continue their part in the military movement and hoped to serve as military dispatch riders, thereby freeing up males to take care of the actual fighting. To prove females were up to the task, Addie and Gussie decided to ride their Indian motorcycles across the country, 5,500 total miles on roads that were for the most part, unpaved. They donned clothes appropriate for motorcycle riding–military-style leggings covered with leather breeches. They began their journey from Sheepshead Bay in New York on the 4th of July 1916, hoping to make the journey in one month’s time. They may have succeeded in their time line if not for a multitude of arrests along the way in small towns west of Chicago, for wearing men’s clothing. They were the first women to summit Pike’s Peak by a motorized vehicle and the first women to cross the continent by motorcycle. Along the way they fell off their bikes numerous times, got mired in mud and walked until they found a group of miners who used pulleys to get the bikes unstuck. They stopped along the way for photo ops with the locals, who admired the ladies for what they were trying to do.
The press coverage of their lengthy ride was long on the attributes of the top of the line Indian motorcycles they rode, but not on the ladies, who were seen as taking a vacation before they settled down into marriage. Despite the success of their cross-country ride, their request to become dispatchers was denied. However, they can today be seen in the American Motorcyclist Association’s Hall of Fame Museum in Pickerington, OH and in the Sturgis Motorcycle Museum & Hall of Fame in Sturgis, SD. In 2016, the Indian Motorcycle Company sponsored a commemorative 100-year anniversary ride from New York to San Francisco.
Addie and Gussie eventually did marry. Addie became an attorney and educator. Gussie became a pilot in Amelia Earhart’s Ninety-Nines international women’s flying group. Both ladies made significant contributions to the women’s rights movement in the United States. Gussie said it best: “Woman can if she will.”