Who were the Van Buren sisters? Why, WWI era badass who rode across the continent on a couple of Indian Motorcycles, long before there were major highways and interstates, that’s who. Mad Duo
WCW: The Van Buren Sisters
There are plenty examples of women from the past who were tougher than shit, took no shit, and made shit happen. Last summer I had the opportunity to learn about and celebrate the lives of two women who embodied these qualities: sisters Adeline and Augusta Van Buren.
Back during the national preparedness movement before the United States entered WWI, these two ladies wanted to join the United States Army. The sisters thought they could be of service to the army as motorcycle messengers, allowing the men to stay on the front lines. They were denied, of course — as women, the Van Buren sisters weren’t even allowed to vote at the time.
Nevertheless, the girls were so intent to prove their worth, they decided to take two Indian motorcycles and ride across the United States.
The girls left Brooklyn on July 3rd, 1916, and rode up to Springfield, Massachusetts, where they got a lesson in motorcycle maintenance from the Indian Motorcycle factory. With this new knowledge under their belts, they headed west. As you can imagine, roads at this time weren’t paved, and conditions were pretty rough for the girls. They encountered numerous challenges and obstacles, but refused to accept defeat.
One of the folks I spent time with last summer was Bob Van Buren, great nephew of Adeline and Augusta.
As an example, upon a stop in Omaha, Nebraska, it was discovered the sisters were traveling unarmed. Some local boys (they had a tendency to attract lots of local boys) thought the girls were crazy to be traveling unarmed, so they gave them a pistol for protection. Luckily, the girls never needed it, but Augusta went on to keep that pistol. She would later collect many other firearms.
Augusta had a farm house in Delaware, and stashed handguns there at strategic points like stairway landings. The firearms were her means of personal protection after her husband’s death. One night a drifter broke into her house — she let ‘im have it with a shot in the leg.
Another challenge came up in Gilman, Colorado. It was a wet, rainy period and the motorcycles got hopelessly stuck in the mud.
Since they traveled unaccompanied, the sisters’ only choice was to start hiking west. They did so, leather outfits covered in mud, until they came upon a miners camp. Think about that: they didn’t know how far they would have to hike until they found someone, but they set out on foot anyway. The guys dug their bikes out and cleaned them up, and the Van Burens set off in the right direction once more.
Their nephew Bob said it’s notable that whenever the sisters ran into strangers, they were almost never attacked or bothered — only helped.
One inconvenient exception was when cops arrested them outside Chicago for wearing leather pants. It just wasn’t socially acceptable for women to wear pants in 1916.
Fortunately, times have changed.
Another tough time was when they were west of Salt Lake City, traveling on a desert path. After many miles, the path eventually turned out to be the wrong one, and dissipated into nothingness. The girls were lost in the middle of nowhere, low on water and fuel, and at great risk. As they were devising a plan, the improbable, if not seemingly impossible, happened: a prospector showed up. He stopped, helped them out with water, food, and fuel, and sent them on their way.
After three arduous months of riding, the Van Buren sisters finally arrived in San Francisco. There was no one there to greet or welcome them. Being the adventurers they were, they decided to ride south to Tijuana. These girls were unafraid of risks.
I’d give just about anything to have hung out with them.
Despite their efforts on the cross-country ride, they never were allowed into the Army. Adeline went on to attend NYU, where she got her law degree and became a practicing lawyer. Augusta became a pilot, flew with Amelia Earhart and the Ninety Nines, had her own biplane, and kept flying for her entire life.
Through their efforts, the Van Buren sisters no doubt helped change the status quo in this country, and helped pave the way for women to vote and serve in the military. I know many women (and men) who bow in respect to these two badass ladies. Thank you Adeline and Augusta Van Buren — you are without a doubt women worthy of a woman crush!
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About the Author: Sara Liberte, who wone the MF lottery when it comes to last names, grew up the younger sister to an Army Ranger…she blames that for everything (awesome) in her life. A photographer/videographer of supreme talent and utter disregard for inclement weather, arduous conditions, or little things like the law of averages, Sara is an eleutheromaniac who loves firearms, motorsports, motorcycles and…well, all vehicles, really, as long as they’re the kind that gets dirty and generates adrenaline. She travels the US in a van called the Dodge Mahal, dog at her side (he also rides in her motorcycle sidecar). If you need to find her, you’ll have to look outside. Try moto-events, mountain ranges, or firearms classes.
Liberte, whose favorite movie is “First Blood”, runs the website Garage Girls and is the author of How to Repair and Maintain American V-Twin Motorcycles and 1000 Biker Tattoos. Her work has appeared in Easy Riders, In The Wind, Hot Bike, Street Chopper, IronWorks, Cycle Source, and RECOIL Magazine.
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