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Early female sheriff follows husband, blazes trail

It’s no secret. Nevada history is not exactly burgeoning with examples of women rising to positions of power in government or business.

And until recent generations the very thought of a woman serving in a top job in law enforcement was entirely out of the question. And during Nevada’s wild formative years, well, the idea of a woman deputy or even sheriff was something downright unimaginable to most.

That’s why Clara Crowell is one of Nevada Smith’s favorite characters. In March 1919, just weeks before American women won the right to vote with the passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, Crowell fired a shot for equality by taking on the difficult duties of Sheriff of Lander County. She won appointment after her husband, Sheriff George Crowell, died after a long illness with two years left in his term.

Clara was appointed to the job, but it wasn’t a ceremonial sop. She was selected over several male applicants after a petition circulated Austin and the outer the county. That impressed even the male-dominated Lander County Commission. Historian and journalist Craig MacDonald observed in a 1980 article for Nevada Magazine, “Upon seeing the petition, the commissioners unanimously selected 42-year-old Clara Crowell to be sheriff for the remaining two years of her husband’s term.”

Although the total of her law enforcement experience consisted of watching her husband do his job, he in turn had been a stagecoach driver prior to becoming the keeper of the peace in Lander County.

National newspaper readers had their eyes on the rise of women’s suffrage, but out in Nevada Sheriff Clara Crowell was big, big news.

From a March 8, 1919 edition of the Battle Mountain Scout: “The county is unique in its appointment of a woman as sheriff. Being a woman does not in any way interfere with the performance of duty and there is no doubt in the minds of the people that duty will be the watchword of Mrs. Crowell.”

In keeping with the times, the intrepid newspaper reporter couldn’t resist adding, “If she needs any help from the outside, there are plenty of men who are ready and willing to do the rough part of the work for her.”

Clearly the writer didn’t know Clara Crowell. The former waitress, who served the community of Austin as a nurse and midwife, wasn’t about to take on a job and play the princess card. In two years of service, she rounded up horse thieves and highwaymen. Any mug who thought Lander County had become a pushover had a big surprise in store courtesy of the new sheriff.

Crowell was even tough on purveyors of liquor. In those days, Lander County was “dry” but had no shortage of bootleggers and moonshiners, and she enforced the law where it made practical sense. She broke up barroom brawls when necessary and didn’t wait around for her deputies.

She even practiced a little creative detective work. Writes MacDonald, “Sheriff Crowell proved to be a woman of action. She collared some crooks by working undercover. Once she posed as an old Indian to catch a man who was selling liquor illegally to Indians. After catching the storekeeper in the act, Clara threw open her coat, exposing the sheriff’s badge, and placed the man under arrest.”

By the end of her term, she had impressed her friends and won over most skeptics. She was encouraged to run for election, but she had already found a way to serve the community she loved as a nurse and the administrator of the county hospital.

She died on June 19, 1942 at age 66.

The community of Austin turned out en masse to pay its proud respects to Clara Crowell, the sheriff who wore a dress and blazed a trail for women in Nevada’s most inhospitable climate.

John L. Smith is a columnist for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. E-mail him at jsmith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295.

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