Many Americans consider the era of the Old West as one of the most fascinating chapters in our history. It’s an era that is uniquely American, and people around the world identify America with the era of the Old West. There is much legend surrounding American History of the Wild West when it comes to American outlaws lawmen and violence. But what is the real history about violence in the west? In this paper I will talk about outlaws and lawmen as well as the portrayal of violence of the west and try to identify the myths and legends versus fact from which the American mind as drawn up.
So what is an outlaw? Well an outlaw is pretty much just what it sounds like. Somebody who has broken the law and is on the run from the law. The west was not a lawful place and most of the people in the west where on the fringes with the law to begin with.
One of the most famous outlaws in American history is Billy the Kid. Billy the Kid has come down as a towering mythological figure, yet the history of the real Billy the Kid is something we don’t really know that much about. Other famous outlaws like ‘Jesse James and his gang, and the Wild Bunch with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid had their exploits widely covered by the popular press of the time, and the American public seemed to take great interest in the tales of their exploits.” So could the media of the time period make a lot of stuff up about the law in the American West because that’s what sold?
Or is it just the love for crime and fantasy telling stories is what drives the American mindset. In spite specific incidents of violence, the lawlessness of the Wild West has been blown out of proportion. Ironically, the myth of the lawless West began before the period was over. News articles and books written in the East exaggerated the west’s tales, or simply made up, stories about the crimes and criminals of the West. “Hollywood later fueled the myth, feeding the public’s desire for excitement and adventure with stories of gunfights in the street and stagecoach robberies.”
The true story of the Old West is rather boring to most people. Because of the need to hunt for food or protect themselves from wild animals, many people did have guns. However, fans of Hollywood westerns may be surprised to learn that many western towns had strict gun ordinances, making it illegal to carry guns in
town. People entering the town were required to surrender their firearms to the sheriff. In fact, a story that has come to epitomize the violence of the Wild West involved a conflict over such a law. When Virgil Earp, along with his brothers Morgan and Wyatt and their friend Doc Holliday, confronted five cowboys in the city of Tombstone over carrying firearms in town, violence erupted.
This incident became known as the gunfight at the OK corral and only lasted about 30 seconds yet it’s forever immortalized in our history. We know this because of the countless movies and books written about the event. It’s interesting to note that even in this most famous gunfight of the violent West, only three people were killed. In any modern city today, such a minor incident would probably not even be front-page news. So, was there violence in the mountains, plains, and frontier towns of the old west? Yes.
Most of the settlers moving west, whether they were farmers, cowboys, miners, or some other profession, were honest and hardworking. Just as today, outlaws existed, yet in most places and for most people, violent crime was not the daily norm that popular entertainment would have us believe. As un American as it may be, relatively few people in the Wild West were involved in the gunfights and stagecoach robberies that were immortalized by the movies. As I mentioned before there is no outlaw more legendary than Billy the Kid. Countless books, movies, and songs have been written about his life, but the reality was not quite as sensational.
Often portrayed as a cold-blooded killer, “he entered a life of crime out of necessity, not malice.” People who knew him personally called him brave, resourceful honest, and full of laughter. Under different circumstances, he probably have been a successful person if it weren’t for his upbringing. The most famous myth about Billy the kid was that he killed 21 people, one for each year of his life. In reality this is just not the truth. He was probably only responsible for four killings in his lifetime. In reality a lot of Billy the Kid’s story has also been kind of blown out of proportion, although most of the events are true. Enraged from the murder of John Tunstall, Billy and his fellow companions were deputized and given the warrants to bring in the Murphy men who had killed him. They called themselves the Regulators.
Due to the corruption of the day, the governor sided with Murphy, and the Regulators became the enemy. He was known to have killed four men as mentioned previously but because the media and the American love for action, it was out of proportion. After a daring escape from jail, and a few years on the run, he was shot and killed by Sheriff Pat Garrett while hiding out in a friend’s home. Over the years, several people have claimed to be Billy the Kid, but the chance that he survived and/or his body was misidentified are highly unlikely.
Sticking to the topic of violence in the American West as being somewhat a myth we can look at the California gold rush. In three years, more than 200,000 people had migrated to California, most of them trying to get rich quick. If there were ever a recipe for chaos, this would seem to be one. One would think that these gold camps where home to tons of violence and outlaws. People of varied backgrounds and ethnicities, all armed and all seeking a valuable resource. But the mining camps quickly evolved rules for establishing mining claims and for judging disputes. The fact that each person carried a six-shooter meant that each had a relatively equal amount of power.
That minimized violence. Dozens of movies have portrayed the nineteenth-century mining camps in the West as places of anarchy and violence, but according to Roaring Camp “beginning in 1848, the miners began forming contracts with one another to restrain their own behavior. There was no government authority in California at the time, apart from a few military posts. The miners’ contracts established property rights in land that the miners themselves enforced.” Even though there was some violence in these camps the miners more or less kept civilized. Gunfights never really broke out and violence was kept at bay because of the law.
Though we don’t learn about this too much because of the movies and media once again. So what about gunfights with outlaws and lawmen? It is in everybody mind that two men meet a high noon in the middle of a busy street for everybody to watch and then when the clock strikes you draw your pistol and shoot. Though movies and television would like us to believe otherwise, it was very rare when gunfights occurred with the two gunfighters squarely facing each other from a distance in a dusty street.
“This romanticized image of the Old West gunfight was born in the dime novels of the late 19th century and perpetuated in the film era, to such a point that this fictional version is what our mind’s eye quickly conjures up when we hear the word gunfight.” In actuality, the real gunfights of the Old West were rarely that “civilized.” In fact, there are several misconceptions about these gunfights. The first of which is that very rarely, did the gunfighters actually plan a gunfight to occur, calling out their enemy for dueling action in the street. Instead, most of these “fights took place in the heat of the moment when tempers flared, and more often than not, with the aide of a little bottled courage.”
They also didn’t occur at a distance of 75 feet, with each gunfighter taking one shot, one falling dead to the ground, and the other standing as a “hero” before a dozen gathered onlookers. Instead, these fights were usually close-up and personal, with a number of shots blasted from pistols, often resulting in innocent bystanders hit by a bullet gone wild. Much of the time, it would be difficult to tell who had even won the gunfight for several minutes, as the black powder smoke from the pistols cleared the air. This is not to say that it never happened similar to the movies.
One of the rare instances is the Wild Bill Hickok-David Tutt Shootout in Springfield, Missouri. Even then, it wasn’t a “planned” event, but rather, “it occurred when Wild Bill ran into Tutt in the street and was insulted.” Always shown bravely facing each other in the popular westerns movies with the like of Clint Eastwood and John Wayne, in reality, the opponents were more often running around shooting wildly and ducking for cover. The gunfights were not usually clean either, as the “fighters were drinking and missing normally easy shots, continued to shoot until they had emptied their pistol.”
This popular idea to the public mind that the frontier of the American West was an extremely violent place with little value placed on a human life is far from truth it seems. Small Western cow towns are thought to have witnessed hundreds of murders and killings. As well as, many outlaws and their gangs riding through the towns robbing banks, trains and stagecoaches. In fact, “there were only five killings in Dodge City during its most homicidal year of 1878. Deadwood, S.D., had five deaths in its worst year with Tombstone, Ariz., experiencing five killings in its most violent year.” So why do these towns claim these accounts? Well that’s easy to answer. The west was opening up and settlement was becoming vast in nature.
A lot of people moving westward were already on the fringe with the law. So these cities saw this as a selling point for people to come to their towns. That the law didn’t exist in the towns. Once again we see the media using the myths and legends to there leverage. Some of the real violence and outlaws that happened during the expansion of the west we don’t often hear about. The homestead act of 1862 contributed to rapid settlement of western lands, and thus to conflict and violence, specifically with the cattle barons that were already there. Cattlemen often “claimed large areas of open range, using it for grazing and for driving their cattle to market.”
Although in most cases they had no legal claim to the land, they had used it in this way for years, often fighting off Indians and other cattlemen in order to do so. Along with their wealth and the power provided by the men working for them, they “felt that having come first gave them the right to do whatever it took to drive the homesteaders out. This was especially true when homesteaders fenced off their land, limiting access to already scarce sources of water.” The most famous of the conflicts that resulted is the Johnson County War, which ended only after the cavalry was sent in by order of the President.
The large cattle barons also fought among themselves for control of the open range and lucrative government supply contracts. The most infamous of these fights is the Lincoln County War of 1878, in which the outlaw Billy the Kid as who I mentioned earlier rose to fame. Of course, miners, homesteaders, and cattlemen alike also had to worry about the native tribes that they were displacing. These conflicts also led to violence. Many Americans consider the era of the Old West as one of the most fascinating chapters in our history. It’s an era that is uniquely American. There is much legend and myths about history of the Wild West when it comes to American outlaws lawmen and violence.
As we have seen in this paper, a lot of the violence and outlaws were blown out of proportion for the most part due to the over romantic love of violence the American mind has come to love. This is due to the western movies and novels because that’s what sold the American heart. Although we do see that violence did exist in the west with the Johnson and Lincoln county wars and outlaws like Billy the Kid and Jesse James, most of the history of violence is was too dramatized. Why? Well I don’t know about you but John Wayne and Clint Eastwood seemed to be pretty big heroes in my mind, and well the movies are great way to feed our ego boosting American mindset of how the west was really won.