Carole Nash
Content Writer
Published: 10th July 2017

Rider Of The Week is a segment that looks at famous motorbike riders and what they’ve accomplished. Rather than focus on one rider, we’d like to put the spotlight on the Van Buren sisters, who made history as the first women to ride motorbikes coast-to-coast across the USA. They went on the journey to prove women could ride as well as men and serve as military dispatch riders.

Start of the journey

In 1916, the sisters were in their 20s and active in the national Preparedness Movement, a campaign set up by Leonard Wood and Theodore Roosevelt to strengthen the military after the outbreak of WW1. Women were unable to serve in the armed forces, which had been used as a reason for them being denied the right to vote. Gussie and Addie decided to do something to change that.

On July 14th, 1916, they set off from Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn and headed west through Chicago on their Indian Power-Plus motorbikes. Indians were the best bikes made at the time, but they were still uncomfortable machines to be riding. Adding to the danger was the fact the Van Burens travelled mostly on dirt roads.

Along the way, Gussie and Addie faced many challenges. They were arrested multiple times, not for speeding, but because they were wearing men’s clothes. They became lost in the desert 100 miles west of Salt Lake City and could have died from dehydration if not for a prospector giving them water.

Making history

Despite the challenges, Addie and Gussie arrived in Los Angeles on September 8th 1916 after travelling 5,500 miles. Determined to go further, the sisters crossed the border into Mexico to finish off their journey.

Even though they were successful, the Van Buren’s application to be military dispatch riders was rejected. Newspaper articles at the time downplayed their involvement and praised the bikes. Paul Derkum of the Indian Motorcycle Company said “Beyond question the Van Burens have made one of the most noteworthy trips ever accomplished, chiefly because they have proven the motorcycle is a universal vehicle.”

This didn’t deter Addie or Gussie and they continued to live their lives to the fullest. Addie went on to be an educator, earning a law degree from New York University. Gussie became a pilot and joined Amelia Earhart’s Ninety-Nines International women’s flying organisation.

The Van Burens were inducted into the American Motorcyclist Hall of Fame in 2002. The sisters deserve recognition because they played an important role in the women’s rights movement.