Sisters, Augusta and Adeline Van Buren, were descendents of President Martin Van Buren, but they were far from the stereotypical society ladies from the first quarter of the 20th century. They couldn’t vote, no woman could yet vote*, but they could ride a motorcycle and ride it well. In 1916, they were the first two females to ride solo cross-country.
They left Sheepshead Bay in New York City on July 4th and arrived in Los Angeles on September 8th. Their journey took them over rough muddy roads and washed-out roads, and lasted 58 days. They encountered heavy rains and wash-outs along the way but did not let that deter them from seeing their dream become a reality.
Their journey took them from New York City through Buffalo, Chicago, Des Moines, Omaha, Denver, and Salt Lake City, before arriving in San Francisco and then going on to Los Angeles. Before leaving New York, they estimated making 100 to 150 miles per day. A descendant, Robert Van Buren, told the AMA Motorcycle Museum that the girls were arrested after leaving Chicago for wearing men’s clothing (trousers).
Augusta was born March 26, 1884, and Adeline on July 26, 1889, making Augusta 31 years old and Adeline 27 when they set out on their grand adventure. The sisters were great proponents of women’s rights and Augusta is remembered for her comment, “Woman can if she will”.
The sisters chose Indians, Model F with Power Plus 1000 cc twin, and they made the ride hoping to demonstrate that women were able to ride and that by approving women to work as dispatch riders, men could be freed up for other tasks in WWI. The U.S. Army wasn’t convinced women could contribute to the war effort, however, and when Adeline applied to the position after finishing the trip her application was rejected.
The ladies were forward-thinking and great advocates of National Preparedness. They didn’t get into the army as dispatch riders, but the sisters certainly got into the history books, both for making the cross-country run and when they rode to the top of Pike’s Peak on their way to California, the first women to do either. In fact, accounts say they were the first, male or female, to make it to the top of Pike’s Peak with any vehicle – even a car or truck.
Paul Derkum, an official of the Indian Motorcycle Company said of the sisters, “Beyond question, the Van Burens have made one of the most noteworthy motorcycle trips ever accomplished, chiefly because they have proved that the motorcycle is a universal vehicle.”
The girls garnered a great deal of publicity both for Indian motorcycles and for Firestone “non-skid” tires which they’d had their motorcycles outfitted with prior to leaving New York. The longest stop the sisters made was in Akron, Ohio where they toured the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company’s plant.
After seeing the care, the skillful workmanship and the quality materials put into Firestone tires and the high standard of the whole organization behind the Firestone products we are now able to understand why our tires are giving us ‘no trouble’ service over all kinds of roads. Our trip through the factory has shown us that Firestones are as good inside as they look outside. – Augusta Van Buren, from Motor Cycle Illustrated. July 27, 1916.
Because they were women, the sisters did not receive the media attention they deserved for all their exploits, but it is known that Augusta rode in a sidecar in 1917, passenger with rider Calvin R. Webber, in a 150 mile race on New Year’s Eve. Webber rode his 1917 Indian Power Plus and both finished in the top position with 989 points out of a possible 1000.
In 1917, Adeline received a warm welcome after riding her Indian 30 miles through snow and slush to the Baker, Murray, & Imbrie headquarters for “Indian Day”. A magazine article said, “Owing to the snowfall, comparatively few enthusiasts appeared with their machines, but the inclement weather did not interfere in the least with the indoor observances of the day”, so out of 600 people who attended, Adeline was one of only a handful of riders who rode to the event. In an age when magazines and newspapers still advertised wagons and wagon parts, headlines proclaimed the company sold 28 motorcycles that day.
Who knows how many of those buyers were positively influenced by seeing Adeline ride in on her Indian after her successful trip the year before? The following glowing recommendation is a quote from Augusta after touring the Firestone facility in Akron.
It is hardly necessary to state that our Indian motorcycles are doing all that we expected of them-and then some. We have done lots of traveling over storm-washed roads, and have had a few spills, but our Indians are at top notch efficiency. – Motor Cycle Illustrated July 27, 1916.
* It wasn’t until 1920 that women throughout the U.S. were allowed to vote, ending a campaign for women’s suffrage that began in the early 1800’s. One of the arguments against women voting was that they did not serve their country in times of war, so even though their efforts to have women approved to deliver messages to the front in WWI failed, the attention they brought to the suffrage movement probably had a direct influence on legislators who voted in favor of the amendment.
Bibliography: The International Sep.1898; Motorcycle Illustrated, Jan. 4, 1917; Northern Automotive Journal 1915; Motorcycle Illustrated March 1, 1917, American Motorcyclist, Aug. 1988; American Motorcyclist June 1996; Crow Bar Magazine for Blacksmiths, Horseshoers, and Wagon Makers Vol. 24 & 25, 1916.