Table of Contents
In the words of Gussie Van Buren, one-half of the sister duo that first traversed America by motorcycle, “woman can if she will.” Here’s a look at some of the most inspiring women adventurers in history who flouted societal conventions, broke barriers and proved that women can journey as far and as high as any man.
Gudrid Thorbjarnardottir: New World Explorer
Around 1,000 A.D.—some 500 years before Christopher Columbus ever set foot in the Americas—young Icelandic explorer Gudrid Thorbjarnardottir, nicknamed the “Far Traveler,” set sail across the Atlantic, settled ashore and gave birth to a son.
Gudrid’s exploits are immortalized in two Viking sagas, The Saga of the Greenlanders and The Saga of Erik the Red. While some aspects of the sagas—including ghosts and dragons—are clearly fictional, several archaeological finds lend support to Gudrid’s feats. In 1975, a spindle whorl, evidence of at least one Viking woman inhabitant, was unearthed at L’Anse aux Meadows, a Newfoundland settlement believed to have been created roughly around the time Gudrid visited North America. And in 2001, an ancient longhouse was discovered in an Icelandic valley described in the sagas as Gudrid’s final home. Curiously, the buried house didn’t look like any other structure of its time in Iceland. What it most resembled: a turf house at L’Anse aux Meadows.
READ MORE: What Was Life Like for Women in the Viking Age?
Jeanne Baret: Botanist and High Seas Adventurer
Prior to the Industrial Revolution, most European peasants lived, worked and died all within a day’s travel. Jeanne Baret, born in 1740 to day laborers in Burgundy, France, was a notable exception: She became the first woman to circumnavigate the globe.
In February 1767, Baret, disguised as a man, climbed aboard the ship L’Étoile as an assistant to Philibert Commerson, who had been chosen as “Doctor-Botanist and Naturalist to the King” on French explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville’s round-the-world expedition. In reality, Baret was Commerson’s lover—and also a skilled botanist. With Commerson often plagued by ill health, it’s believed Baret collected thousands of plant specimens on her own during the more-than-year-long undertaking, without any official recognition. Were it not for a small mention in Bougainville’s book, A Voyage Round the World, Baret’s remarkable seafaring achievement would certainly have slipped into oblivion, too.
READ MORE: 7 Female Adventurers Who Broke All the Rules
Sacagawea: Native Guide and Translator to Lewis and Clark
Much has been trumpeted about the early-19th-century Lewis and Clark expedition into the previously uncharted lands of the American West. What isn’t known is how much of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s two-year mission would have been possible without their young Native American guide and translator, Sacagawea.
Born in 1788 or 1789, Sacagawea, a member of the Lemhi band of the Native American Shoshone tribe, lived a short but remarkably eventful life. After being captured by the rival Hidatsa tribe at the age of 12, she later married French-Canadian fur trader Toussaint Charbonneau. The couple’s combined language skills would prove beneficial to Lewis and Clark, allowing the expeditioners to communicate with tribes and make vital supply purchases.
Just as important, if not more so, was Sacagawea’s likely calming effect on the Native Americans they encountered. One of their own, the thinking went—especially a woman carrying an infant son on her back—surely couldn’t signify a war party. Her intimate knowledge of the difficult terrain also proved invaluable. After she successfully guided Clark’s group through the Rocky Mountains using a route known today as Bozeman Pass, he had high praise indeed. “The Indian woman…has been of great service to me as a pilot through this country,” Clark wrote in his journal on July 13, 1806.
READ MORE: 10 Little-Know Facts About the Lewis and Clark Expedition
Isabella Bird: Victorian Adventurer
Born in Yorkshire County, England, in 1831, Isabella Bird was plagued by numerous childhood ailments and underwent a spinal operation in 1850—unlikely harbingers of the intrepid life she went on to lead. Encouraged by her doctor to travel, however, Bird ventured aboard a Cunard royal mail steamer in 1854 for her first transatlantic crossing.
That first trip to Canada and the United States would form the basis of a lifelong love of travel. In the decades that followed, Bird would climb atop volcanic peaks in Hawaii, face a grizzly bear near Lake Tahoe, reside among members of the indigenous Ainu tribe in Japan, camp across the Himalayas and caravan through little-known parts of Iran, Kurdistan and Turkey. Bird, who captured her extensive travels in 10 books, became the first woman fellow of the Royal Geographical Society in 1891.
READ MORE: 5 Things Victorian Women Didn’t Do (Much)
Nellie Bly: Pioneering Investigative Reporter
In 1887, Nellie Bly, born Elizabeth Cochran on May 5, 1864, feigned mental illness to gain admission into Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum, one of New York’s most notorious mental hospitals. Bly’s ensuing newspaper exposé would change the course of American journalism and create an entirely new, immersive style of reporting now known as investigative journalism.
A few years later, Bly made waves again, with a travelogue on her record-breaking 72 days circumnavigating the globe via everything from steamship to donkey. She sailed against a monsoon in the South China Sea, as her cabin filled with water, and recounted mesmerizing sights from alligator hunters in Egypt to snake charmers in Sri Lanka. She not only beat the fictionalized record set by Phileas Fogg in Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, but also cemented her legacy as one of the foremost journalists in history.
Harriet Chalmers Adams: Turn-of-the-Century Explorer and Journalist
For Harriet Chalmers Adams, born in 1875, bold adventures started early: At the age of eight, she traveled through the vast Sierra Nevada mountain range on horseback with her father. In 1903, along with her husband Franklin Pierce Adams, she began a journey that would cover 40,000 miles in Central and South America, trekking peaks in the Andes 23,000 feet high, descending into the Amazonian wilderness and traversing an ancient Inca highway.
Adams didn’t just travel; she also documented her exploits in National Geographic, reported from the trenches in World War I and criticized injustices as she saw them. “There is no reason why a woman cannot go wherever a man goes—and further,” she proclaimed in 1920. After being rebuffed from the New York-based Explorers Club, Adams became the founding president of the Society of Woman Geographers in 1925.
READ MORE: 7 of the Gutsiest Women on the American Frontier
Gussie and Addie Van Buren: Cross-Country Motorcycling Sisters
Descendants of U.S. president Martin Van Buren, sisters Augusta and Adeline Van Buren became the first women to ride coast to coast across America on two solo motorcycles. Setting off on their journey from Brooklyn on July 4, 1916, they also became the first women to summit Pike’s Peak in the Rocky Mountains on any kind of motorized vehicle, before arriving in San Francisco on September 2. Without superhighways, or even many paved roads, their trek was a treacherous one. The sisters fell off their bikes numerous times, and were arrested on several occasions, too—not for speeding, but for wearing men’s clothing.
“Their intent had a dual purpose,” wrote historian Robert Van Buren of his aunts for the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame. They wanted to prove women were capable of being military dispatch riders for the upcoming American entry into World War I. “This would remove one of the primary arguments for denying women the right to vote—women were historically non-participants in war efforts,” he wrote. While the military eventually rejected Addie’s application as a dispatch rider, the sisters would still go down in history for their brave and boundary-pushing ride.
READ MORE: How World War I Helped Women Ditch the Corset
Annie Londonderry: Pioneering Cyclist
In an 1896 interview in the New York World, the suffragist Susan B. Anthony sang high praise for the bicycle: “I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance.” Two years earlier, Annie Cohen Kopchovsky embodied that feeling when she climbed onto a 42-pound Columbia bicycle and rode down Boston’s Beacon Street to start her journey around the world.
Kopchovsky, known as Londonderry during her excursion, bucked societal norms as she left her husband and three young children behind, at least temporarily, and self-financed her travels through an assortment of money-making schemes. (Her new name, for instance, was a promotion for one of her sponsors, the Londonderry Lithia Spring Water Company of New Hampshire.) While there is some doubt over whether Londonderry actually cycled all around the world—the evidence is strong that she traveled some portions by steamship—she did, indeed, cycle thousands of miles solo, itself a pioneering feat.
READ MORE: 7 of History’s Most Fearless Female Daredevils
Valentina Tereshkova: First Woman in Space
Born into a peasant family in Maslennikovo, Russia, in 1937, Valentina Vladimirovna Tereshkova made her first parachute jump at the age of 22 under the auspices of a local aviation club. Her skydiving skills attracted the attention of the Soviet space program, and in February 1962, Tereshkova was selected to begin intensive training to become a Soviet cosmonaut.
On June 16, 1963, aboard Vostok 6, Tereshkova would make history as the first woman to travel into space. After 48 orbits and 71 hours, she then made her most important parachute jump ever—back down to earth after re-entering its atmosphere at about 20,000 feet.