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Old West Myths...And Things Little Known

  • "The most important lesson I learned...was that the winner of a gunplay usually was the one who took his time. The second was that, if I hoped to live on the frontier, I would shun flashy trick-shooting--grandstand play--as I would poison...In all my life as a frontier peace officer, I did not know a really proficient gunfighter who had anything but contempt for the gun-fanner, or the man who literally shot from the hip."

    Wyatt Earp (as quoted in Bill O'Neal's book -- see reference at end of story)

Stories about the old west often contain errors or exaggerations. Different books may report different versions of the same events, each implying truth was being told. Many western movies and TV shows are especially inaccurate in showing guns used by gunslingers and lawmen which weren't even produced until long after the story time of the movie. (Clint Eastwood and Tom Selleck were two actors who promoted the period accuracy of guns used in their western movies.) And did you ever wonder about characters in a western movie or TV show firing 20-30 bullets from their "six-guns" without re-loading?

The gunfight duels popular in movies, TV westerns, and pulp fiction with quick draw shooting from the hip were rare by most historical accounts. Shooting accurately usually required a slow aim down the barrel of the gun. In his book on gunslingers, O'Neal struggled with the definition of a gunfight. If a gunfight was defined as a fast-draw, showdown duel only a handful of the 587 gunfights described in his book by over 30 different gunfighters would fit into that definition. Some gunmen could shoot accurately from the hip--most couldn't or wouldn't as indicated by the quote by Wyatt Earp at the beginning of this story.

The popular media is also fond of depicting gunfighters with low slung holsters tied to their leg. Most gunmen wore their holsters with the gun butt at or slightly below the waist. Low-slung holsters did not work well when on a horse. A cross-draw holster (with gun butt forward on the opposite side from the strong hand) worked better for most on a horse. Many gunmen did not even use holsters but wore their gun inside their belt.

In the preface to his book on the early history of the Texas Rangers, Lone Star Justice, Robert Utley noted that he thought it would be appropriate to see how Hollywood treated the Texas Rangers in their films as part of his research. In the start of the 1956 film, Lone Ranger, Utley noted with surprise that the Rangers were shown to be fighting in an area thick with saguaro cactus and commented that he had yet to see a saguaro growing in Texas. That film also had the Texas Rangers wearing the wagon wheel star badge that was not adopted until the 20th century.

In case you think errors occur only in the popular media, one of the early scholarly histories of the Texas Rangers, that of Walter Prescott Webb's history, originally copyrighted in 1935, describes the Colt Paterson used by the Texas Rangers as a six-shot revolver (p. 84 in 1991 paperback edition). According to Flayderman (and all other references reviewed), all Paterson models produced by Colt were five-shot revolvers. (See, also, the updated story on Handguns of the Old West in this website.) I found other errors about the guns of the Texas Rangers in that book. The book additionally has a number of important omissions. In an October 14, 2005 conversation with Byron Johnson, Director of the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum in Waco, Texas, Johnson noted that Webb could not read Spanish and ignored Texas Ranger history contained in significant Spanish language documents. Webb's book might also give the impression that there were no Mexican or Indian Rangers (not true.)

In the appendix to his book on the early history of the Texas Rangers, Wilkins describes legends that have emerged from the re-telling of stories, sometimes embellished and sometimes with entirely new material created by the story teller. One of the oldest of questionable Texas Ranger stories, according to Wilkins, is the famous story about Ranger Jack Hays fending off Indians by himself at Enchanted Rock. This legend is depicted in a diorama in the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum (and noted in a bronze plaque at Enchanted Rock) but is probably a myth. Utley notes this story is without verifying documentation, and Wilkins outlines documentation of Hays' activities and his reports at the time that also make the story unlikely.

In communication with Byron Johnson at the Ranger Museum about the Enchanted Rock story, he acknowledges that no contemporary documentation about Enchanted Rock is known to exist. He adds, however, that the story had wide currency, which makes him believe that something happened between Hays and Indians in the shadow of Enchanted Rock giving birth to the legend. Johnson further points out that the 1854 painting of Hays from life has him on a romanticized version of Enchanted Rock. Johnson believes it is unlikely that Hays would have sat for a painting with a wholly fictional setting.

Following are some of the inconsistencies and little known facts that I have picked up on so far in my old west history research. The first three describe challenges to the commonly accepted versions of well-known stories.

Butch Cassidy

The story of how Butch Cassidy met his end has been argued in a number of accounts and books. The movie version had Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid killed by Bolivian troops in South America, a version supported by most. However, more than one account has Butch Cassidy returning to the U.S. and living to a ripe old age (almost all accounts have the Sundance Kid killed in South America). One book by Larry Pointer has a seemingly well-documented version of Butch Cassidy returning to the U.S. and eventually ending up at a county poor farm in Spangle, a few miles south of Spokane, where he passed away July 20, 1937. There are supporters of both versions--those having Butch Cassidy killed in South America and versions having him returning to the U.S.

Billy the Kid

Most (but not all) versions of Billy the Kid's death have him shot to death by Sheriff Pat Garrett in Fort Sumner, NM in 1881. A 2005 book by a former President of the Western Writers of America, W. C. Jameson, adds to the controversy of the death of Billy the Kid by indicating he died of natural causes in 1950 in Hico, south of Fort Worth. In that account, it was a friend of Billy the Kid who was killed by Garret. The book makes good reading.

The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone

The story of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral has been told by a number of "eyewitnesses," each with some variation. Unlike movie versions which seem to indicate the gunfight itself lasted for some time, most accounts have the gunfight starting and ending in a minute or so. In addition, the description of the gunfight in Tombstone's Daily Epitaph of October 27, 1881 (the day after) has the actual gunfight on Fremont Street near the O.K. Corral, a location also reported by others.

Some little known facts about famous lawmen and outlaws

--Gunmen often exaggerated the number of people they had killed in gunfights believing it would give them a mental edge over future gunfight opponents. Wild Bill Hickok claimed that he had killed over a hundred (see Time-Life book below). The real number? O'Neal could verify only seven, maybe one more (see reference below.)

--Frank James lived long after his brother, Jesse, was killed. At age 70, Frank was selling tickets to tourists who wished to visit the James' brothers birthplace (where he also sold pebbles from Jesse's grave.)

--Bat Masterson hung up his guns toward the end of the 1890s and went east where he earned his living as a successful sports writer in New York City.

--The famous outlaw, John Wesley Hardin, studied law books while in prison. After his pardon, he started a brief law practice in El Paso in 1895 before being killed.

More information...

--Invitation to a hanging? Official invitations would often be sent to the press and posted for legal hangings. Many of these invitations were as formal as those for weddings and other celebrated events: "Your presence is requested at the execution of _____ for the murder of _____ to take place in _____ on _____."

--O'Neal notes that the gunfighter's era did not really begin until after the Civil War. He attributes this both to the technical improvements made in firearms at the time and the fact that thousands of men had fought in the Civil War. Gunfights were most common during the 1870s and early 1880s with what O'Neal refers to as a "revival" of gunfight activity during the mid 1890s.

Errors and exaggerations aside, the stories of the old west are entertaining reading. Enjoy reading this literature and pat yourself on the back when you find errors and contradictions...or just plain old liberties with the facts.

Note: An edited version of this story has been published in The Cowboy Chronicle December 2010, pages 30 and 32.

References used for this story:

  • The Gunfighters, A Time-Life Book with text by Paul Trachtman, 1974.
  • Enclyclopedia of Western Gunslingers by Bill O'Neal, University of Oklahoma Press (paperback edition), 1991.
  • Enclyclopedia of Western Lawmen & Outlaws by Jay Robert Nask, De Capo Press, 1994.
  • The Texas Rangers: A Century of Frontier Defense by Walter Prescott Webb, University of Texas Press, Second Printing of Paperback Edition, 1991.
  • Flayderman's Guide to Antique American Firearms...and their values by Norm Flayderman. DBI Books, 6th edition, 1994.
  • Lone Star Justice: The First Century of the Texas Rangers by Robert M. Utley, Berkley paperback edition, 2003.
  • The Legend Begins: The Texas Rangers, 1823-1845 by Frederick Wilkins, State House Press, 1996.
  • In Search of Butch Cassidy by Larry Pointer, University of Oklahoma Press, 1977.
  • Billy the Kid: Beyond the Grave by W. C. Jameson, Taylor Press, 2005.