Two Sisters Out to Change the World – On Motorbikes
By: Sasha Pave
In 1916 Augusta and Adeline Van Buren weren’t your average society girls. The sisters, decedents of former president Van Buren, were the first women to ride motorcycles coast-to-coast across the U.S., which in those days was no easy task. However, it wasn’t just a casual Sunday ride for these sisters; they were on a mission to prove that women were far more capable than society gave them credit for.
Gussie and Addie wanted to prove that women could successfully serve in the armed forces. As part of the National Preparedness Movement in the buildup to WWI, the sisters wanted to show that women could serve as skilled dispatch riders delivering communications on the war front. This would prove that women could participate in the war effort, which had been used routinely as a reason to deny women voting rights.
The Journey Begins
On July 14, 1916, the women set off from Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn and headed west through Chicago and Omaha on their Indian Power-Plus motorcycles. At the time they were some of the best motorcycles made, but ninety-three years ago motorcycles were very crude, dangerous, and uncomfortable machines. The fact that they would travel almost exclusively on dirt roads didn’t make matters any better.
West of Chicago they were arrested many times. Not for speeding or riding dangerously, but for wearing men’s clothing (women’s motorcycle gear wasn’t invented quite yet). While passing through Colorado they decided to make things even more exciting by climbing Pike’s Peak, a 14,000-foot mountain that had never been climbed by any vehicle before. Not even a car or truck.
After surviving many crashes, breakdowns, mud holes, dehydration, and treachery of one form or another, they finally arrived in San Francisco on September 2, 1916. Not content with their journey, they traveled to Los Angeles, followed by a jaunt across the border into Mexico to round out the trip.
A Bittersweet Arrival
After completing the phenomenal journey, Adeline’s application to the army as a dispatch rider was rejected. But it wasn’t enough to keep these women down.
Adeline eventually earned her law degree from NYU and Augusta became a pilot, flying with the “99s” women’s flying group founded by Amelia Earhart.
These relatively unknown heroes might not have known it at the time, but they played a significant role in the women’s rights movement. And they did it the old fashioned way—with true grit and determination.
Whenever I see a woman riding a motorcycle these days, I can’t help but feel a little pride for the two pioneering sisters from New York.
The Van Buren sisters were inducted into the American Motorcyclist Hall of Fame in 2002 and the Sturgis Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2003.
Photos: Van Buren Family Archives