The Van Buren Sisters – Motorcycle Pioneers for Women’s Rights

July 5, 2017

“Woman can, if she will.” So said Augusta Van Buren in 1916, and she would, so she did. In those days, women could not vote and rarely even drove. Only a few people of any sex had ridden motorcycles across the country in 1916. Pants were against the law in some jurisdictions. Yes, you read that right – it was illegal for women to wear pants. Road maps for the half of the continent west of the Mississippi were hard to come by, mostly because they simply did not exist. So hatching a plan to ride vintage motorcycles across the United States was a bold move indeed! The Van Buren Sisters wanted to show the world what women were capable of and they did.

Patriotic Preparedness – Trading Privilege For Hardship

Like motorcyclist and inventor Robert Edison Fulton, Adeline Van Buren and Augusta Van Buren could have lead an easy life. They were descendants of President Martin Van Buren, and appropriately patriotic. They grew up in New York, wrestling, skating, swimming, diving and canoeing with their brother Albert. You could say they were “tom boys.” Augusta was known as “Gussie” and Adeline was called “Addie.” So, yeah, tom boys. Just a bit. Call us crazy, but we love a woman who is not afraid to get a little dirt under her fingernails.

Augusta Van Buren Sisters

Augusta Van Buren

The two were active in the Preparedness Movement, a national project to ready the United States for inevitable entry into World War I. The Van Buren sisters wanted women to be able to contribute directly to the war effort, and they figured while nobody was about to let women fight on the front line, they could serve as motorcycle dispatch riders.

Adeline Van Buren Sisters

Adeline Van Buren

Women could not vote at the time. Adeline and Augusta thought if women could win the right to ride for their country, that would also help win suffrage. So, in order to show that women had the mettle and the moxie to serve as dispatch riders, they conceived their plan: the two would ride across the entire country.

Riding Across the United States on Motorcycles

On July 4, 1916 they mounted up in Brookyln’s Sheepshead Bay headed for San Francisco via Chiacgo. The 5,500 mile journey would take them 60 days to complete. They rode on Indian Power Plus Motorcycles, then in their first year of production by the Hendee Company and priced at an affordable $275. At 16 horsepower, the flat head side valve engine was considerably more powerful than the previous models. The motorcycle had a twist grip throttle on the left and a twist grip on the right to advance or retard the spark.

Van Buren Sisters motorcycle trip across the USA

Van Buren Sisters motorcycle trip across the USA

On the way they got stuck in the mud and crashed multiple times, riding through heavily rutted roads barely worthy of the name and struggling against fatigue. Road maps being largely unavailable, they navigated by consulting with locals. Some were more friendly than others. They were arrested more than once for the egregious and outrageous offence of wearing pants, garb legally reserved for men in some jurisdictions. But every time they were able to talk their way out it. We suspect the half-way wise local constables took note of their impressive pedigree and decided that prudence dictated they show some lenience.

Danger in the Desert

The desert was not so kind, caring not for rank or birthright. West of Salt Lake, they lost their way, uncertain which faint track they could call the road. Running low on water, they came perilously close to ending their journey anonymously in the unforgiving and parched wilderness. As luck would have it, they came upon a prospector, who gave them some extra water and set them on the right track, and on they went, undaunted by their close call.

Newspaper Coverage of the Van Buren Sisters Motorcycle Trip

Newspaper Coverage of the Van Buren Sisters Motorcycle Trip

On their way, they elected to ride up Pikes Peak, over 14,000 feet in elevation, becoming the first people (with or without “kick stands,” let’s call them) to do so. After reaching San Francisco on September 2nd, they decided to ride on to Los Angeles and then cross the border to Tijuana. Now that, friends, is true grit!

Epilogue to the Van Buren Sisters’ Journey

Their accomplishment was greeted with rather less fanfare than they had hoped. Newspaper coverage of their feat focused on the motorcycle and the tires! Editors barely mentioned the Van Buren sisters in telling of their heroic crossing of the continent, which they referred to as “a vacation.” The government neither granted suffrage nor accepted the Van Buren sisters application to serve as military motorcycle couriers.

But to their credit, at least, the Hendee Company realized that doubling their market size would not be such a bad idea. Hendee Executive Paul Derkum said: “Beyond question the Van Burens have made one of the most noteworthy trips ever accomplished, chiefly because they have proven that the motorcycle is a universal vehicle.”

Adeline worked as a school teacher for a few years and then went to New York University to earn a law degree. After a stint as a librarian, Augusta  left the stacks behind and learned to fly and joined Amelia Earhart’s women pilots group, the Ninety Nines.

More True Tales Vintage Motorcycle Pioneers

The history of the vintage motorcycle period is filled with inspiring figures and remarkable stories. Bessie Stringfield rode across the country whilst being a woman and black at the same time, one of which might still put a person at risk to this very day. Did you know motorcycle pioneer Glenn Curtiss, who never graduated high school, deserves a lot of credit for inventing the airplane? He also rigged an enormous blimp engine onto a motorcycle frame and set an insane land speed record. And speaking of land speed records, you might want to take inspiration from the story of Burt Munro tinkering on his 1920 motorcycle for about 40 years before setting a land speed record riding it while he was in his 60s.  For another tale of long distance adventure, check out Carl Clancy Stearns, the first person to ride a motorcycle around the world.