Some people just live larger than the rest of us. Nan Jeanne Aspinawall Gable Lambell, known as “Two Gun” Nan, was certainly one of them. In 1910-11, she became the first woman to ride on horseback from San Francisco to New York, covering 4496 miles and spending 180 days in the saddle. She was 31 years old, wore pants and split skirts (riding astride, which was likely still illegal in parts of the country), packed a pistol, and did it alone. During the course of her ride, she shod her own horse 14 times.
“A travel-stained woman attired in a red shirt and divided skirt and seated on a bay horse drew a crowd to City Hall yesterday afternoon,” reported the New York Times on 9 July 1911.
“They gazed upon Miss Nan Aspinwall who had just finished her lonely horseback ride from San Francisco. She had many adventures and once spent a week in hospital after her horse stumbled down a mountainside. ‘Talk about Western chivalry!’ said Miss Aspinwall. ‘There’s no such thing. In one place I rode through town shooting off my revolver just for deviltry. At another place I had to send several bullets into a door before they would come out and take care of me’.”
Upon completing her journey in 1911, Two-Gun Nan, “entered a 12-storey building and startled her friends by remaining in the saddle and ascending to the top floor,” (via the freight elevator).
Nan’s mount for her epic ride was her Thoroughbred mare, Lady Ellen. In the Alaska Citizen, May 15th 1911, she said in an interview that if you wanted to ride across the county you should get a thoroughbred. “It was Lady Ellen that saved my life,” she said. When I was getting ready for the ride everyone told me I wanted a bronc. I knew better. I wanted a thoroughbred.”
Riding up to ninety miles a day, she crossed arid, dangerous lands with limited food and water. Denied hospitality in the town of Mitchell, at the top of the Tenessee Pass, she shot out every window she saw. “That story got around,” she says, “and after that I could not draw my handkerchief without starting a panic, so I quit carrying the gun.”
Nan Aspinwall was married twice. With her first husband, Frank Gable, she traveled and performed together, even running their own touring wild west vaudeville production, Gable’s Novelty Show. Frank died around 1929, and Nan dropped from view not long after that. Her fate was discovered not long ago by scholar Mary Higginbotham, who wrote her masters thesis on the evolution of the cowgirl. After remarrying a man named Lambell, Nan led a quiet life, turning increasingly toward Christian Science. She died in 1964 at the age of 84. Her death certificate said she was a housewife.