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ADV RidesVan Buren Sisters Trailblazing Motorcycle Journey A Century Ago

Van Buren Sisters Trailblazing Motorcycle Journey A Century Ago

 A record-breaking journey across America to prove a point.

Published on 08.05.2019

Think you know something about adventure? In the modern sense you probably do. In a world where we have GPS tracks and satellite messaging, technical riding gear and incredibly sophisticated motorcycles. But if Augusta and Adeline Van Buren were alive today, they would school us all on the meaning of adventure.

That’s because in the summer of 1916 when the sisters set out on their transcontinental journey aboard Indian Powerplus motorcycles, the majority of their 5,500 mile route was wild backcountry. “There were no road maps west of the Mississippi,” their great-nephew and historian Robert Van Buren said to the Telegram. And yes, it does sound like the ultimate BDR, only you don’t have a map. Or front brakes. Or perceptible suspension.


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With America’s involvement in World War I looming, the trip was a way for the sisters to prove women were capable enough to serve as military dispatch riders in the front lines. Of course one has to remember that in 1916 women didn’t even have the right to vote and were completely barred from combat service. Women were housekeepers and baby-makers, not motorcycle adventuresses.

The Quest

Adelina and Augusta Van Buren were posthumously inducted into the AMA Hall of Fame.
Their Indian Powerplus motorcycles used gas headlights, had a throttle on the left, another twist grip on the right to retard or advance the spark, and no front brakes.

While a wild hair or two may have been involved, Augusta and Adeline, 24 and 22, did not roar away from their well-to-do life in New York in some flight of fancy. The sisters, descendants of Martin Van Buren, the 8th President of the United States, were well engaged in politics, and with the country on the brink of war, they wanted to be of service in some way. If women could be deployed as motorcycle dispatch riders, they knew it would free up male soldiers for active duty overseas. To prove their point, Augusta and Adeline felt they would have to show they could handle the difficulties of motorcycling in harsh conditions on long journeys.

The sisters encountered many challenges along their remarkable adventure, including multiple arrests in the midwest — not for traffic violations, but for wearing pants which was considered men’s clothing. “It was the pants that drove the cops mad back then. Out in the Midwest you just didn’t do that stuff.” explained Martin Van Buren to the Telegraph. Moreover, getting lost was an everyday occurrence and being mired in mud, routine. Many times when they got stuck they had to walk until they could find someone with a mobile pulley to pluck the bikes from the muck.

In 1916 leather-bound guides called the Blue Book were the only source of route information for cross-country road travel. This was years before road signs and maps and decades before the numbered highway system we rely on today. Instead of maps, the books offered complicated turn-by-turn directions, explaining how to piece together an infinite combination of local farm roads and main roads.

Van Buren Sisters on the road.

How much help the Blue Books would be when you’re so busy coaxing your 430-pound Indian along a rutted road is questionable. One can only imagine the duo relied mostly on directions proffered by locals who were surely stunned to see the two women riding on their own.

Of course the sisters also had to cross the treacherous Rockies on their cantankerous machines and did so in high style becoming the first women to summit 14,109-foot Pikes Peak with any sort of vehicle. The ride up to the summit was dangerous but they just took it as another challenge. Once on the other side of the mountains they encountered many more obstacles due to extreme weather. Freezing and fatigued, they became hopelessly lost in the desert west of Salt Lake and had to be helped by a prospector when their water ran out.

Exhausted yet overjoyed, the Van Buren sisters finally arrived in San Francisco, two months after leaving New York, to become the first women to ride across the United States on two solo motorcycles. Invigorated by their triumph, they carried on to Los Angeles and finally over the border to Tijuana, Mexico, where they hung up their leather caps and breeches for good.

Van Buren Sisters in Mexico.

The Result

Crazy, but outside of their own circle the sisters received very little congratulations for their monumental effort piloting those kickstart, suicide-shift Indians across 5,500 miles of primitive backcountry. In fact, the prowess of the motorcycles garnered more positive press than the Van Buren sisters themselves. Some publications went as low as making it appear the women were having one last “vacation” before settling into marriage.

Worst still, Augusta and Adeline’s applications to become wartime dispatch riders were denied. Rosie the Riveter wasn’t even a gleam in America’s eye. The sisters did get married, but they also continued to be role models in the quest for women’s rights, Augusta as a pilot in Amelia Earhart’s Ninety-Nines international women’s flying group and Adeline as a lawyer.

Adelina and Augusta Van Buren were posthumously inducted into the AMA Hall of Fame.
Adeline (left) and Augusta (right) were posthumously inducted into the AMA Hall of Fame and the Sturgis Hall of Fame.

Posthumously, the two were inducted into the AMA Hall of Fame as well as the Sturgis Hall of Fame. And when Indian Motorcycle was resurrected in 2016 it sponsored a 100th Anniversary Ride to commemorate their accomplishment.

And for women everywhere who ride — especially those of us who started back when it was still frowned upon, these sisters and their arduous journey will forever be a brightly burning torch to light our way. As Augusta famously penned: “Women can, if she will.” In other words: Just do it!

For more details about the Van Buren Sister’s journey, check out the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame.

Author: Jamie Elvidge

Jamie has been a motorcycle journalist for more than 30 years, testing the entire range of bikes for the major print magazines and specializing in adventure-travel related stories. To date she’s written and supplied photography for articles describing what it’s like to ride in all 50 states and 43 foreign countries, receiving two Lowell Thomas Society of American Travel Writer’s Awards along the way. Her most-challenging adventure yet has been riding in the 2018 GS Trophy in Mongolia as Team AusAmerica’s embedded journalist.

Author: Jamie Elvidge
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3 thoughts on “Van Buren Sisters Trailblazing Motorcycle Journey A Century Ago

  1. Love the outfits – truly authentic no fashion statement being made by these gals. True grit !
    As I read through this the old jingle ( can’t recall the singer or movie it was famous for) “ whatever you can do I can do better” was playing in the back of my thoughts !

  2. Well written article. And just WOW what a great story. Those two broads where tough as nails and that’s saying a lot for those times.