Women Riders

Women in Motorcycle History: The Van Buren Sisters

Written by  December 31, 2009

Augusta Van Buren and Adeline Van Buren were born before the turn of the 20th century, but their story is anything but ancient. Descendents of US president Martin Van Buren, they were “society girls” who wanted to prove that women could withstand riding motorcycles over the then-treacherous terrain of the continent every bit as good as a man, years before women had the right to vote.

Augusta was the elder of the two, born in March of 1884, and Adeline was born in July of 1889. Along with their brother Albert, they were raised in New York City, enjoying an active athletic life of swimming, canoeing, wrestling, skating and sprinting. Motorcycling seemed a natural progression, regardless of the limitations Victorian society placed on women.

It was 1916 when the sisters embarked on their first transcontinental motorcycle journey. They would cover 5,500 miles of rough terrain, endure heavy rains and muddy washouts. Both sisters had been active members in the National Preparedness Movement, which preceded the US’s entry into WW1. If they could do this adventure, they could prove that women could be excellent dispatch riders, freeing up the men for war.

Riding their Indian Model F’s, they were somewhat challenged by the size of their bikes, but determined nonetheless to make the journey. Heading out of Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn on July 4, 1916, the sisters were later arrested in small towns west of Chicago for wearing men’s clothes--leathers. They reached an understanding with law enforcement and continued on, later being the first women to summit Pike’s Peak in Colorado in any sort of motorized vehicle.

They arrived in San Francisco on September 2, having endured hazardous roads (even being stuck in the mud more than once), arrests, and nearly running out of water in the deserts near Salt Lake. Not content to finish quite yet, Augusta and Adeline continued on, arriving in Los Angeles on September 8 before heading south to cross the border into Tijuana.

The Van Burens more than proved that women had what it takes to make such dangerous journeys, but not, apparently, to the US military. Adeline’s application to become a dispatch rider was rejected. In fact, media of the day focused more on the bikes they used than they did on the women who risked their lives using them.

Adeline and Augusta went on to marry and lead somewhat “normal” lives, continuing to be pioneers in other areas. Augusta became a pilot flying with Amelia Earhart’s flying group, The 99s. Adeline, who had been an English teacher, pursued a law degree from NYU.

In the words of Augusta Van Buren: “Woman can if she will.”

By Louise Reeves


AMA Hall of Fame

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