How wild was the Wild West?

Tales of a lawless frontier are ingrained in American culture, but, as Pat Kinsella explores for BBC History Revealed, the West had to be tamed

The nearly 2,000-mile First Transcontinental Railroad, seen shortly before completion in 1869. (Photo by Fotosearch/Getty Images)

The most famous shootout in the history of the Wild West – the gunfight at the OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona – lasted just 30 seconds. In that half-a-minute of mayhem and murder at around 3pm on 26 October 1881, three outlaws from a gang known as the ‘Cowboys’ were shot dead when they faced off against the Earp brothers and their friend Doc Holliday.

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That the brief and bloody shooting happened isn’t in doubt. But the real gunfight little resembled the way it has been portrayed in numerous films and books. Aside from the brevity of the action, the shooters were extremely close together, standing about six feet apart when the exchange of bullets began. It hadn’t been prearranged, almost all of the 30 shots were fired from handguns, and it didn’t even happen at the OK Corral, but in a vacant lot on the side of a photography studio nearby.

The dead Cowboys have been largely greyed out of the collective memory of the event, reduced to anonymous villains when compared to town marshal Virgil Earp and his deputies. But in the aftermath, and amidst a swell of sympathy in Tombstone for the dead, the Earps and Holliday were arrested on charges of murdering brothers Tom and Frank McLaury and 19-year-old Billy Clanton as they tried to surrender. They were put on trial and spent time behind bars before ultimately being acquitted.

In the grand scheme of things, the gunfight was a minor, albeit lethal, scuffle. It was borne from a simmering feud involving ageold themes – jealousy, power, money, mistrust and machismo – which, in the febrile booze-and bullet-filled atmosphere of the time, got out of hand.

That year, 1881, was one of the wildest 12 months in the American Old West, at least as big-name shootouts go. Three months before the OK Corral, on 14 July, Sheriff Pat Garret gunned down Billy the Kid, while earlier, in April, the ‘Four Dead in Five Seconds Gunfight’ had taken place in the infamously lawless town of El Paso, Texas.

Wild stories

The Wild West was being mythologised before the era even ended, with gunslinging cowboys and lawmen representing freedom and tough justice; living the original American Dream. The gunfight at the OK Corral didn’t became widely known until 1931, when Stuart N Lake published a. biography of Earp. It was long after the West had been tamed. Yet for years already, ‘dime westerns’ – cheap and popular, pulp fiction-style booklets – had been transforming the gritty, hard-bitten, weapon-wielding characters into legends.

The Earp biography inspired the classic films My Darling Clementine and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. That was nothing unusual. In every decade since its inception, the film industry has delighted in the antics of trigger-happy cowboys, bandanna-wearing bandits, vigilante posses, and justice-serving sheriffs and marshals, which now define the Wild West.

The gunfight at the OK Corral
The OK Corral became an icon of the Wild West. (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images)

And so, albeit belatedly, the names of Doc Holliday, Wyatt Earp and his brothers joined the like Jesse James, Billy the Kid, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – a cast of characters who transcend the genre. Well over a century since they bit the dust, they remain familiar to multiple generations of people, many of whom know little else of the frontier. They have become icons of American culture and their acts of violence and thievery are celebrated. But have the spaghetti westerns fed us a load of baloney? These famous names were active in the 1880s, or later, when in many respects the West was not as wild.

The outlaws of the Wild West

Billy the Kid

William H Bonney, who also went by the name Henry McCarty – but will always be best remembered as Billy the Kid – had a short career as an outlaw. By the time of his death at the age of 21, he is reputed to have killed eight men.

He had become a fugitive after shooting dead a blacksmith who had been bullying him in a bar fight. Then after some cattle rustling, he took part in a violent feud known as the Lincoln County War in New Mexico, in which he sided and fought with a gang called the Regulators. Accused and later convicted of killing Lincoln County sheriff William J Brady during the conflict, the Kid remained at large for some time and famously shot and killed Joe Grant at Hargrove’s Saloon in Fort Sumner, New Mexico. Grant had allegedly come after him, but after the Kid asked to admire his would-be assassin’s gun and surreptitiously ensured it wouldn’t fire, he shot him first.

Sheriff Pat Garrett captured the Kid in December 1880. He was sentenced to death, only to escape, killing both of his guards in the process, and remain on the run for two months until Garrett tracked him down again at Fort Sumner. The Kid died on 14 July 1881 in a shootout with the sheri , who then collected the bounty of 00. Garrett later wrote a book called The Authentic Life of Billy, the Kid.

 

Butch Cassidy

Robert LeRoy Parker, better known as Butch Cassidy, was born in 1866 in Beaver, Utah, the eldest of 13 children in a Mormon English immigrant family. He began a life of crime by stealing a pair of jeans, and quickly moved to larger-scale robberies. Around 1896, Butch formed the Wild Bunch along with a group of his friends. He would go on to recruit Harry Alonzo Longabaugh – the Sundance Kid. The gang enjoyed immense success with train robberies, until they came to the attention of the Pinkerton Agency. In 1901, Butch fled to South America with Sundance, travelling to Argentina and ultimately on to Chile and Bolivia. They led a relatively quiet life, probably punctuated by a couple of bank jobs, but both are believed to have been killed in anshootout with police in November 1908, after robbing a courier carrying the payroll for a silver mine. During his entire criminal career, Butch claimed never to have killed anyone.

 

The Sundance Kid

Born into a Baptist family in Pennsylvania in 1867, Harry Alonzo Longabaugh worked as a ranch hand and drover until he began a life of crime by stealing a horse. He took the name Sundance after the town where he was jailed for the crime – his only time behind bars. After joining Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch in 1896, his career took off with audacious robberies. Along with long-term partner, Etta Place, and Cassidy, he was pursued to South America by Pinkerton agents. He probably died alongside Cassidy in Bolivia in November 1908.

 

Jesse James

Jesse James and his brother Frank were graduates of the Quantrill’s Raiders in the American Civil War, a pro-Confederate militia responsible for various atrocities. After the war, the brothers turned to violent crime and were among the most feared outlaws in the south from the 1860s to 1882.

His James-Younger Gang committed more than 20 bank and train robberies, and stole an estimated total of 00,000. There is no evidence of them distributing wealth, but they were popular and even celebrities of the day. Communities in Missouri protected them despite the allure of huge bounties.

Ruthless killers, the gang was responsible for the murders of multiple innocent civilians – infamously, Jesse shot a banker in the heart at close range on 7 December 1869 – and two Pinkerton operatives. The agency’s inability to take down the James brothers was its biggest failure. Jesse was eventually shot in the back on 3 April 1882 by a new recruit to his gang, Robert ‘Bob’ Ford.

Life on the edge

For large periods of the preceding 200-plus years, ever since pioneers began exploring inland from the English settlement at Jamestown in Virginia, the rolling western frontier was a more dangerous place than it was towards the end of the 19th century, when many westerns are set.

There were many factors contributing to this. The huge swathes of unforgiving natural terrain and the resistance put up by aggrieved indigenous occupants of the land made any attempts at travel a serious risk. Then there was the fact that the newcomers would be transient, overwhelmingly single males, tooled up with increasingly affordable firearms bought with gold-rush cash. Typically, they were fiercely protective over what was theirs, brutalised by conflicts such as the American Civil War, and concentrated in lawless boomtowns.

Would-be settlers heading out west in wagon trains were thus vulnerable to everything from severe weather to Native American raiding parties, bandit attacks and opportunistic crime. As the colonists, immigrants and prospectors travelled with all their possessions and whatever money and gold they owned, they made for easy targets to desperadoes, such as Jack Powers. The Irish highwayman terrorised a section of El Camino Real, a long road in California, and dominated the city of Santa Barbara in the early 1850s, until he was chased out of town by a band of vigilantes.

Such community-led justice was evident all over. Many of the frontier settlements adopted their own code of honour and methods of policing, so that when warned that gangs of outlaws were nearby, they genuinely would raise a posse to drive them away. !eft within the community would be punished harshly, and vigilantism and lynchings became commonplace.

Just behind the frontier, a unique culture evolved around the cattle industry. The term ‘cowboy’ back then was considered derogatory as it was associated with criminality, so honest men working with cattle were called herders. It was a rough and ready life, which could easily see them embroiled in feuds with their rivals and neighbours.

Some men – including Billy the Kid, who was never known as a thief and killed more men in self-defence than out of malice – became outlaws simply by backing the wrong side or getting in with the wrong people.

Gold and war

For much of the era, official law and order was almost entirely absent as authorities struggled to keep up with a restless and ever-expanding landscape.

Things only got worse when a carpenter named James W Marshall struck gold at Sutter’s Mill on 24 January 1848. In the California Gold Rush that followed, hundreds of thousands of (mostly) men from all over the world arrived in the hope of getting rich. This created a social situation where the only recreational outlets were brothels, saloons and gaming houses. Mexican laws no longer applied in the embryonic state, and American rules were loose – with few lawmen to enforce them.

The American Civil War (1861–65)  had a major impact on the West too. While predominantly fought in the east, it left young communities splintered and spat out a generation of experienced killers, heavily armed and desensitised to violence. Once the war was over, some of these men, among them Jesse James and his brother Frank, put their skills to work robbing banks.

On the rails

For the rise in lawlessness, however, the late 1860s also saw an explosion of investment in the West. Just four years after Civil War hostilities had ended, the ‘golden spike’ was hammered home at Promontory Summit, Utah, which symbolically connected two rail tracks, Central Pacific and Union Pacific, to create the First Transcontinental Railroad. Several bridges had to be built before this Atlantic–Pacific line was truly operational, but by the end of the 1870s, travel across the breadth of the expanding United States had become relatively easy.

The journey took a matter of days on a train, compared to weeks or even months by wagon – and that came with the threat of attack at any moment. Migration went up enormously, with many women and young families among the new arrivals, and goods and resources could be transported coastto- coast like never before, which fuelled the economy of the West.

Yet during the laying of the track, the rail companies decimated wild bison numbers on the plains, employing men like William Frederick ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody, to hunt them by the thousand. Ostensibly this was to provide meat for the rail workers or remove the threat the large animals posed to trains, but the practice removed a chief source of food and clothing for the Native American populations. Simultaneously, the government forced tribes onto reservations.

The railroad heralded major changes – so much so that some historians have argued its completion marks the beginning of the end of the true Wild West – but there were still opportunities for outlaws. Huge expanses of land meant they could easily disappear by heading through remote passes or into the badlands to hide out. Famously, the Hole-in-the-Wall pass in the Big Horn Mountains of Johnson County, Wyoming, was used by gangs throughout the era, including by Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch, and was never penetrated by lawmen. For most outlaws, though, their crimes were petty and opportunistic, driven by drink, gold fever and an absence of controlling factors, such as family and effective authority.

Posses and pinks

The state of law enforcement in California, where the population and crime rate had risen rapidly after the gold rush, led to the creation of the San Francisco Committee of Vigilance in 1851.  The 700-strong citizen mob dealt with alleged indiscretions immediately, passing judgment on suspected criminals without trial and dishing out justice, including death by hanging and shooting. Similar committees sprouted up in Texas and elsewhere, and many were active for decades.

Private agencies assumed the role of law enforcers and property protectors too. The best-known of these was the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, established by Scotsman Allan Pinkerton, a pioneering detective and spy. He had been appointed Chicago’s first detective in 1849 then launched the North-Western Police Agency, which became the Pinkertons.

Allan Pinkerton (left) with US President Abraham Lincoln
Allan Pinkerton (left) with US President Abraham Lincoln in 1862. (Image by Library of Congress)

In the mid 1850s, Pinkerton was engaged by the Illinois Central Railroad to protect their trains. It was after solving a number of robberies that he met the company’s lawyer, one Abraham Lincoln. Once elected president and with the American Civil War clouds gathering, Lincoln chose Pinkerton to head his personal security and run the Union Intelligence Service (precursor to the US Secret Service). It proved to be a wise move, as Pinkerton successfully saved Lincoln’s life by foiling a planned assassination attempt as the president travelled to his inauguration.

After the war, Pinkerton established a private law-enforcement agency in the West, where gangs were running amok, robbing banks and trains. His agents – known derisively as ‘Pinks’ by their prey – were unrestrained by state borders in their relentless hounding of outlaws, from the Reno Gang to the Wild Bunch. They chased Butch and Sundance right down into South America, but Pinkerton famously failed to catch Jesse James.

Draw your gun

Despite vigilante groups and the pursuit of the Pinkertons, some settlements were notorious as ‘outlaw towns’. Yet as time went on, even the wildest started introducing some rules. Tombstone, Dodge City and Deadwood were some of the places that banned the carrying of concealed weapons by civilians within town limits. There were later prohibitions on the open carrying of guns too, so cowboys couldn’t necessarily swagger the streets and drink in saloons with six-shooters hanging at their hips.

That didn’t stop gunfights taking place, of course. The first recorded quick-draw duel was between ‘Wild Bill’ Hickok and Davis Tutt in 1865, fought in the town square of Springfield, Missouri. There was bad blood between the former friends over a woman, which worsened until a duel was called over a gambling debt. Unlike portrayals of such fights in westerns, the men stood sideways to present a smaller target and about 70 metres apart, before drawing their guns and shooting. Tutt missed – Wild Bill’s bullet pierced his opponent’s heart.

Hickok was arrested two days after the duel and tried for murder, but the judge advised the jury that, while he was undoubtedly guilty of manslaughter, they could apply the unwritten law of the ‘fair fight’. He was acquitted and later worked in Kansas as marshal of Hays, sheriff of Ellis County and then city marshal of Abilene. Hickok would be involved in many more fatal gunfights while a lawman until he was eventually relieved of his duties after accidentally shooting dead one of his deputies.

The west’s fluid frontier

From the early 17th century, when British colonists first laid down roots on the east coast of the New World, the wide western horizon beckoned and teased with promise. Over the next three centuries, hunters, explorers and prospectors pioneered the way, battling over frozen mountain passes, across arid deserts and through hostile terrain. Not far behind were settlers and farmers in wagons – and then desperados and bandits often lurking on the trail.

The original borders of the sovereign United States were set in 1783, with the Treaty of Paris at the end of the American War of Independence. The new nation was bounded by Canada to the north, Florida to the south and the mighty Mississippi River to the west, but this last line was fluid and constantly being pushed outwards.

The territory around and beyond the western frontier was enormous, but far from empty. Native American tribes had long lived on the land and many fought back ferociously against the encroaching colonists, but they were decimated by European firearms and diseases. The survivors were gradually hounded onto reserves.

The Louisiana Purchase in 1803 added another 828,000 square miles of territory, acquired from France, which instantly doubled the size of the country. Texas joined the union in 1845 and Mexico ceded California and huge swathes of other future states to their rapidly expanding northern neighbour in 1848 and 1853. The American Civil War interrupted US expansion, but after the hostilities ended a railroad was laid right across the continent, making coast-to-coast transportation and travel easier, quicker and safer.

In 1890, the US Census declared there was no longer a clear line of advancing settlement. Manifest Destiny – the belief that Christian settlers were divinely ordained to control the whole of North America – seemed fulfilled. The era of the Wild West was effectively over, if not in American popular culture.

Rogue lawmen

Often, the only discernible difference between an enforcer of the law and a gun-toting outlaw was the star on their chest. It needed grit in the guts to wear that badge, plus a flexible attitude to due process.

On 11 April 1881, the noted gunslinger Dallas Stoudenmire was sworn in as El Paso’s sixth town marshal in eight months, and three days later, he was caught up in the ‘Four Dead in Five Seconds Gunfight’. With a hail of bullets, he caused three of the fatalities. Then, during a botched attempt at revenge, Stoudenmire shot the testicles off his would-be assassin and watched as he bled to death. Such a life could only end one way – on 18 September 1882, he was shot by the Manning brothers.

Another feared gunman, ‘Longhair Jim’ Courtright, carved out a successful career as a lawman in Fort Worth, Texas, halving the murder rate (mostly by shooting repeat offenders). But he notoriously used his badge and deadly reputation to extort money from business owners, a practice that came to an abrupt end when Luke Short killed him in 1887.

Both Short and Courtright were friendly with Wyatt Earp, a rambling gambling character who worked for a while as a lawman in Dodge City, before moving to Texas. There, his life was saved by a cowboy dentist named John ‘Doc’ Holliday and the two became close. In 1879, Earp moved to the silvermining boomtown of Tombstone with his brothers James, Morgan and Virgil, who was city marshal and Deputy US Marshal. A little under two years on, their conflict with the Cowboys spilled over in that most famous of gunfights at the OK Corral.

That was not the end of the feud, though. Surviving members of the Cowboys gang ambushed Virgil and Morgan, maiming the former and killing the latter. In response, Wyatt, despite now being a Deputy US Marshal after taking over from his injured brother, decided to take the law into his own hands. He gathered his brothers Warren and James, and, together with Holliday, led a posse in pursuit of the Cowboys across Arizona. His extra-judicial vendetta ride resulted in the deaths of four outlaws, and arrest warrants being issued for the rogue lawmen.

End credits

Perhaps the gunfight at the OK Corral and its violent aftermath have been so celebrated because the saga not only epitomised many elements of the Wild West, but came at a time when the era was coming to an end.

Soon afterwards, policing became more professional in the western states, as encapsulated by the careers of a trio of legendary lawmen known as the ‘Three Guardsmen’: Deputy US Marshals Bill Tilghman, Chris Madsen. and Heck Thomas.

Between 1889 and the turn of the century, they effectively cleaned up the Indian Territories and future state of Oklahoma. They pursued the Dalton and Doolin gangs, which ended in the deaths of Bill Doolin, ‘Dynamite Dan’ Clifton, Richard ‘Little Dick’ West and William ‘Little Bill’ Raidler. And they were credited with the arrest of more than 300 outlaws within a decade, leaving the West a place much less wild.

Pat Kinsella specialises in adventure journalism as a writer, photographer and editor.

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This article first appeared in the July 2019 issue of BBC History Revealed