On this day in 1916, two women conclude a remarkable motorcycle ride across the United States. The Van Buren sisters had undertaken the ride, hoping to prove that women could ably serve as military dispatch riders.
Augusta “Gussie” Van Buren and Adeline “Addie” Van Buren were also descendants of the 8th President of the United States, Martin Van Buren.
The women began their ride at Sheepshead Bay, New York, on July 4, 1916. More than 5,000 miles and nearly two months later, they and their Indian PowerPlus “moto-cycles” would arrive in California.
Today, we have paved interstates that would make such a ride easier. The Van Buren sisters had no such luxury.
“There were no road maps west of the Mississippi,” the women’s great-nephew Robert Van Buren said of his aunts’ trip. “The roads were just cow passes, dirt trails, wagon trails, things like that.”
Actually, the sisters may have been happy anytime they found so much as a dirt trail. Sometimes, there were no roads at all.
“Impossible roads, unseasonable weather and difficulties in untold number and magnitude were encountered at every turn,” a contemporary newspaper account reported. “Washouts, mountain slides, desert wastes and wrecked bridges delayed them, but did not deter them. Incessant rains in Colorado made riding conditions the worst imaginable, and those terrific days were followed by an equally ardent week in crossing the Great American Desert in Western Utah.”
The sisters accomplished a stunning feat while in Colorado, however. They were the first to ride motorized vehicles to the top of Pike’s Peak.
But poor roads and bad weather weren’t the only challenges. Would you believe the women were pulled over by police—more than once—because they were wearing men’s clothing?
Hmm. How times have changed.
The Van Buren sisters made it through all these trials. On September 2, they pulled into San Francisco. By September 8, they’d arrived in Los Angeles.
The sisters had hoped to prove that women could serve as dispatch riders, freeing men up for combat if the United States entered World War I. Unfortunately, in those early 1900 years, their motorcycles and their attire got more attention than their accomplishments.
Things would change and women would serve as dispatch riders in World War II.
In the meantime, Adeline would go on to get her law degree and Augusta would go on to become a pilot. Both women were inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2002.
Nevertheless, the ride has proven inspirational to many.
One of the great motorcyclists of their age, Paul “Daredevil” Derkum reportedly called the trip “one of the most noteworthy motorcycle trips ever accomplished.” The Van Buren sisters had proven that the “motorcycle is a universal vehicle.”
Others credit the Van Burens with introducing women to the sport of motorcycle riding. In 2016, as the centennial anniversary of the ride approached, dozens of women decided to commemorate the cross-country trip.
They, too, would start in New York and ride to California. Notably, Sarah Van Buren, the great-great niece of Adeline and Augusta, learned to ride a motorcycle, just so she could participate.
The women started in New York, as the Van Buren sisters had done. By the time they reached California, the group had swelled in size to more than 200.
“Woman can, if she will,” Augusta Van Buren once said.
Yes. She certainly can.
Primary Sources & Further Reading:
Adeline and Augusta Van Buren (AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame website)
Charles Fleming, Sisters Ride: 100 years later, motorcycle sisters ride again (L.A. Times; July 27, 2016)
Craig S. Semon, Northboro man pays tribute to motorcycling sisters from a century ago (Telegram.com; Worcester, MA; Aug. 27, 2016)
Ernestine G. Miller, Making Her Mark: Firsts and Milestones in Women's Sports (2002)
Melissa Holbrook Pierson, Riding into history: Women re-create historic cross-country motorcycle trip (Wash. Post; Aug. 1, 2016)
Our Inspiration (Sisters Centennial Motorcycle Ride website)
Paul Tuthill, Group Ride To Remember Sisters' Historic Cross-Country Trip (July 5, 2016)
Sisters of the Road: Pioneering Women in Motorcycling (American Motorcylist Mag.; June 1996) (p. 26)
Two Girls Cross Continent On Indian Motorcycle (Harrisburg Telegraph; Oct. 7, 1916)
William M. Murphy, Grace and Grit: Motorcycle Dispatches from Early Twentieth Century Women Adventurers (2012)
Women Riders Chosen (American Motorcyclist Mag.; June 1988) (p. 18)
Young Women Ride from Coast to Coast (Bakersfield Californian; Sept. 9, 1916)