The Van Buren Sisters
Words by Shelby Rossi | Photos courtesy AMA Hall of Fame
Some people never feel the urge to leave their house. They’re content staying in the city they were born in, the couch they sit on, and the 360 degrees that immediately surround them. Then there’s the rest of us—the people who can’t sit still, who want to witness new places, to discover foreign cultures, and who always have a map handy.
Researchers have traced this inherent urge to explore back to one gene, DRD4-7R, a derivative of the gene DRD4, which is associated with dopamine levels in the brain. This gene has been named the “adventure gene” because of its correlation to increased levels of curiosity and restlessness. Studies have found that 7R makes people more likely to take risks; to explore new places, ideas, relationships; and generally to embrace movement, change, and, most importantly, adventure. Augusta and Adeline Van Buren, sisters, must have carried this gene.
In 1916, the Van Buren sisters were the first women to each ride her own motorcycle across the continental United States. They rode 5,500 dangerous miles from Brooklyn, New York, to San Francisco, each on Indian Power Plus motorcycles. In hopes of encouraging others to embrace change and new ideas during World War I, their mission was to convince the military that women were fit to serve as dispatch riders, a job seen as suited only for men.
Augusta was the elder sister, born in March 1884; Adeline was born in July 1889. The sisters inherited the “adventure gene” from their father, Frank, who raised their family in New York City along with their brother, Albert. Despite losing their mother at a young age, Frank offered an energetic and athletic upbringing characterized by swimming, skating, canoeing, wrestling, and sprinting. It’s no surprise the Van Buren sisters naturally took up motorcycling during their early adult years. It was this free-spirited childhood that would shape two of the most inspiring women that motorcyclists have known to this day.
When the sisters decided to make their motorcycle journey across the States, women were suffering from extreme limitations placed upon them by Victorian society. They didn’t have the right to vote, nor were they considered equals to men. Men of the early 20th century believed women were too occupied with domestic duties to consider political debate, and that women weren’t smart or strong enough to handle the responsibilities of voting. Another notorious argument declared that women should be denied a say at the polls due to their lack of participation in military efforts and because they weren’t risking their lives for their country.
Not only were Augusta and Adeline members of the suffrage movement—organizations of women across the nation fighting for women’s right to vote—but they were also involved in the National Preparedness Movement, a campaign started by former president Theodore Roosevelt that began prior to the United States’ entry into World War I. The movement was started to convince the U.S. of the need for American involvement in worldly affairs and that the country must prepare itself for war.
The sisters’ ride had a dual purpose. The National Preparedness Movement was an effort to get the United States ready for the inevitable. Augusta and Adeline believed women could directly help the cause by becoming dispatch riders—which had transitioned a year earlier from men on horseback to men on motorcycles—freeing up men to give combat support. This would eliminate one of the arguments for denying women the right to vote: that women were historically non-participants in war efforts. They would have to prove this point by showing that a woman could handle the difficulties of motorcycling over long distances and tough conditions. Being a dispatch rider was a dangerous job. Performing basic maintenance was unavoidable, navigating difficult trails was a given, and, most importantly, staying clear of opposing forces was a matter of life or death. Most would see such obstacles as defeat, but Augusta and Adeline saw them as opportunities to define their mission. Thus, their plan was conceived...
To prepare for the trip, Augusta and Adeline immersed themselves in riding and started accumulating long-distance rides in New York. Their intent was to use their vehicles and newfound skills as riders to push the envelope for women’s contribution to society. At ages 32 and 26, respectively, Augusta and Adeline were determined to prove that they were just as patriotic and deserving of the vote as men.
On July 4, 1916, the eve of the nation’s entry into World War I, the Van Burens set out on their journey. They packed their motorcycles with tools, tents, and tenacity as they charged ahead to make a point: that women were capable, strong, and fearless. They left Sheepshead Bay Race Track in Brooklyn and started their route on the Lincoln Highway, which ran from Times Square in Manhattan to Lincoln Park in San Francisco. Their first stop was the Massachusetts manufacturing center that produced their motorcycles.
Indian Motorcycles provided two 1916 Power Plus bikes to Augusta and Adeline in return for the publicity that they were getting for their ride. The Indian Power Plus was the top-of-the-range bike at the time. It was Indian’s first flathead, v-twin engine, and was called “Power Plus” because of its 16-horsepower output. The engine drove through a three-speed, hand-change gearbox with a foot-operated clutch and all-chain drive. Selling for $275, the Indian also ran Firestone “non-skid” tires and a gas headlight that would allow riding through the darkest nights. The downside? The bike had no suspension, no shock absorbers, and poor fuel capacity.
The roads weren’t any better. Most routes were dirty and muddy, some merely cow paths, and fuel was difficult to find. Broken chains and flat tires were left to the sisters’ own ingenuity and know-how. The weather ranged from heavy rain for days to unrelenting desert sun. With no helmets, just a leather cap and goggles, Augusta and Adeline were truly exposed to the elements. Yet weather and murky maps weren’t their only obstacles.
Just outside of Chicago, the motorcycling pioneers were pulled over by police—not for speeding, but for the way they were dressed. In some states it was still illegal for women to wear pants. Though women’s fashion was shifting from corsets to more casual attire, dresses were considered the standard. The Van Burens’ military-style jackets and leather riding breeches, covered in grime and dead bugs, got them arrested again and again by confounded cops. Between ridiculous arrests and bad-weather delays, the sisters’ one-month journey extended into two.
By August they reached Colorado’s Rocky Mountains and became the first women to reach the 14,109-foot summit of Pikes Peak by motorized vehicle, earning their first record. On Aug. 6, 1916, the pair shared their enthusiasm with the Colorado Springs Gazette-Telegraph. “We didn’t really feel that we had achieved anything wonderful until yesterday,” Adeline told the paper while writing a telegram to her family in New York.
Because the sisters were running behind schedule, they abandoned their plan to ride north through Wyoming and chose a more direct path through the Rockies. They endured relentless rain that turned the mountains’ dirt paths into heavy mud that trapped their tires. After mercilessly trying to free their wheels in the freezing weather, the exhausted duo was forced to leave their motorcycles behind and seek out help on foot. Hours later, the sisters found the small mining town of Gilman, Colorado. The miners offered them food and rest, then walked back with the sisters to help free their bikes.
The pair continued their trek, but unfortunately another misadventure came 100 miles west of Salt Lake City. The heavy winds whisked away the desert trail, and eventually it disappeared entirely. Low on fuel, water, and energy, Augusta and Adeline were closer to defeat than ever. Again, fate smiled upon them. A prospector came along who not only had a horse-drawn cart packed with supplies, but also a keen sense of direction to get them back on their way.
With so many remarkable trials and tribulations, news outlets had endless inspiring stories and victories to choose from to share with the world. Unfortunately, much of the media coverage they received was negative. Leading motorcycle magazines focused on the bikes, not the bikers. Others ignored the purpose and historical significance of the Van Burens’ journey, criticizing them for forsaking their roles as housewives. Worse yet, The Denver Post accused the sisters of exploiting World War I to abandon their duties at home and “display their feminine contours in nifty khaki and leather uniforms.” Despite the negativity in the papers, the sisters received nothing but support from the people they met along the way. Everyone they ran into helped them in some fashion, and Augusta and Adeline were never bothered or accosted by anyone. It was this support and motivation that gave them the extra push to get to their end goal.
Reaching their two-month mark, the sisters arrived at their destination in San Francisco on Sept. 2, having traveled 5,500 miles in 60 days. Proving that women could ride as well as men, the two earned their second record and became the first women to ride solo cross-country on motorcycles. They continued south and completed their journey on Sept. 8 after arriving in Los Angeles. Still they pressed on, traveling across the Mexican border to Tijuana.
After succeeding on their record-breaking journey, both sisters were still intent on joining the military. But even after they’d proven their abilities and courage, their applications to become dispatch riders were rejected by the U.S. Army. Women would wait another four years for the right to vote and another World War for the chance to serve in the military. But that didn’t hinder the Van Burens’ spirits nor tarnish the magnitude of their accomplishments. Instead, the two persevered in a male-dominated world and succeeded in even greater feats.
Adeline went on to earn her Juris Doctor degree at New York University during a time when it was unheard of for a woman to be practicing law. Augusta learned how to fly a plane and joined the Ninety-Nines, an international organization of female pilots established in 1929 by 99 women, with Amelia Earhart as their first president. Coincidentally, the organization played a significant role in the women’s-rights movement, something both sisters were still passionate about.
With one goal in mind, these women didn’t take no for an answer. They were bright, enthusiastic, and broke the stereotypes of their time, proving that a woman could do anything a man could do. In the words of Augusta, “Woman can, if she will.”
While their trip across the country didn’t deliver the impact the sisters had hoped for, today they are remembered as pioneers for women and motorcyclists alike. The sisters’ courageous spirit and extreme independence are celebrated by family members and admirers who have kept their legacy going through similar cross-country rides that traced the Van Burens’ path on the trip’s 90th and 100th anniversaries. Because of the historical significance of the Van Burens’ efforts, they were inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2002.
Both Augusta and Adeline lived their truth. They took risks, they fought for what they believed in, and they enjoyed full lives with careers that thrilled them. Having a family that loved them and still cheers them on decades after their deaths at ages 59 (Adeline) and 75 (Augusta), is what carries this legacy forward.
Now it’s time to live our truth, in honor of the Van Buren sisters.