The American Gunfighter
The American gunfighter is unique. While it is true that he had his counterpart in Australia and South Africa during the period when both places experienced gold and diamond rushes, it was the American 'desperado' who attracted most attention. Australia's `bush rangers' certainly emulated the Western gunfighter, and man for man was his equal, but thanks to William Frederick Cody, alias 'Buffalo Bill,' whose Wild West Show toured the world, the Indian and the cowboy captured the imagination of millions. And the cowboy's colorful dress, his pistols and daring horsemanship, quickly lent themselves to the emerging image of the gunfighter as a 'Knight Chivalric of the Plains'. However, the romantic concept of the gunfighter as a nineteenth-century knight errant has been questioned many times, for it creates an entirely false impression of the men who lived and died by the gun.
Some were admired for specific acts or because they fitted the public's idea of what a `frontier desperado' or `civilizer' should be. For beneath the heroic façade there lurked the stark fact that they were all killers, whether by choice or by provocation. And to suggest that they fought fair in the context of today's sense of fair play is erroneous. The business of survival meant getting the drop on an opponent, or disabling him in such a manner as to remove any further threat. This occasionally left the losers with severe gunshot wounds, gouged eyes, bitten ears, broken limbs or the additional indignity of a boot heel rammed into the face. Horrifying though that behavior may seem to modern audiences, it was an accepted hazard of frontier life.
The wilderness that was the West of the early 1840s soon became the focus of attention when mass migration overcame the many hazards that had deterred so many in the past. People moving west on foot, horseback or by wagon were prepared to face all manner of perils. Apart from Indians and wild animals, they also faced arid deserts and mountainous regions. But for the survivors, the rewards were worth the hardships.
The very nature of the country aided those anxious to avoid contact with civilization and its restrictions. For the honest citizen, however, the lack of law and order or communication was yet another of the hazards. From the flat land of Kansas westward to the Rocky Mountains and then the Sierras, there sprang up a number of communities that existed primarily because of gold or silver deposits. Miners and speculators invaded the regions. On the plains where the flat grassland made travel easier, homesteaders soon located, especially in Kansas following its opening up as a territory in 1854. And it was Kansas that attracted the bulk of the cattle industry following the Civil War.
The West of the outlaw and vigilante was also changing. As communications improved across the country, the violent element began to retreat toward the more remote regions. The likes of Jesse James, Butch Cassidy and the Youngers learned the hard way that the West as they knew it was now becoming unsafe. The era of the guerrilla, the roadagent and the 'bad man' was fast coming to an end. Soon, there would be no place to hide. The James-Younger gang were broken at Northfield in 1876, and the Daltons at Coffeyville in 1892. As for Butch Cassidy, he and his friend Sundance were forced to quit the United States altogether. By the early 1900s, the wilderness that had been the violent West was tamed; but its legends and those that inspired them would live on.
The great cattle ranges of Texas, Montana and Wyoming were also the scenes of range wars and family feuds. Some feuds were short-lived, while others lasted for generations until in the end few of the participants were really sure what started it all. The 'blood feud' became almost a way of life to some people who felt obliged to carry on the fight no matter what. The likes of John Wesley Hardin, who joined in on the side of the Taylors in the Sutton-Taylor feud, claimed it was because they were 'kin', but his love of violence may well have been the real reason.
The cattle empires, where cattle took precedence over people, accounted for a number of bloody conflicts. The land on which vast herds of cattle or sheep were run, was comparatively flat, well-grassed and watered. In short (for the time), it was as valuable as oil is to the present generation. Fortunes were made in the rearing of beef and mutton. The benefits were not confined to the United States. A number of English and Scottish companies invested in the cattle business, particularly in Wyoming. Like the Americans involved, they bitterly resented the intrusion of the 'nesters' or 'homesteaders' whom they regarded as interlopers or 'sod-bustin' rustlers'. The Johnson County cattle war was the result of such feeling, In Lincoln County, New Mexico, the 'intrusion' of the Englishman John Tunstall was not welcomed by some, but his death was another incident in a situation that had been building for some time. The later involvement of Billy the Kid in the Lincoln County war was minor at the time. In later years his part was glamorized in legend, an ingredient that aided the legend builders in their efforts to enhance his myth.
The Pleasant Valley war, with its racial as well as community conflict, provided a backdrop of violence and human misery that was to inspire a number of fictional imitators. In fact, the war was the ideal scenario for favorite themes, especially the eternal distrust between cattle and sheepmen.
The growth of the cattle industry following the Civil War proved to be the salvation of the Southern states. It also led to a massive expansion in meat products, and with the introduction of refrigeration, to exports of American beef to places as far off as England, where by the 1880s tons of beef were being shipped into the ports of London and Liverpool.
The trails sprang up, following existing routes (such as Chisholm's trail up from Texas to Wichita) or were blazed in the direction of a known location. But it was the railroads that proved to be the key factor, supplying direct routes east and west. When the Kansas Pacific Railway began issuing maps to potential trail drivers, they included a detailed account of the trail. Here, for example, is how they described the route from Cox's Crossing to North Fork on Bluff Creek: Trail from head of Pond Creek bears a little west of north to Cox's Crossing of Bluff Creek, about a quarter of a mile west of mouth of north fork. This is the best crossing on Bluff Creek, and is the only place where wagons can cross for several miles up and down the creek. C. H. Stone's store will be located here. Drovers should lay in supplies here as there is no other store or settlement until Ellinwood is reached. Good camping grounds on north and south side of creek; plenty of weed and water. Take wood here for five or six days' use.
The gunfighter was ubiquitous: he was to be found in most parts of the West. Elsewhere we have noted the terrain best suited to the lawless element anxious to escape any kind of civilization. But for the lawmen, the closer they were to established procedures the better. The mid-West of the 1870s-80s underwent the transition from lawlessness to law-abiding much quicker than some of the outlying regions. Early day peace officers experienced frustration when dealing with the ungodly. Lack of organized law and great distances across hostile territory proved a bonus for the outlaws and a chore for the men who wore the star.
Folks who lived on the cattle trails or in the cowtowns or mining camps were used to the sight of such as Hickok, Earp, Masterson and others meandering around with a pair of pistols prominently displayed. Some felt that so long as such men were around upholding the law, there was an element of safety. Others, however, were anti-firearms and were vociferous in their opinions. It became increasingly obvious by the late 1870s that the day of the 'pistoleer' was drawing to a close. Man-killers were facing a changing world. The gun was giving way to the gavel: where once a squeeze of the trigger settled an argument, the emphasis was now on the courts. Soon, the exploits of the James gang, the Daltons, Youngers and others would be history. As also would be the deeds of the lawmen who faced or pursued them. Police forces, both civil and Federal, co-operated in the fight against crime, which meant that the traditional peace officer exemplified by such as Hickok, Masterson or Tilghman would be obsolete. Communities no longer needed to rely upon noted individuals to keep the peace.
During the period 1860-1900, the gunfighter, whether on the side of the law or against it, had made his mark on a nation. But that was about to change. Now it was the turn of the courts. The gun abdicated in favor of the gavel. The period that witnessed the westward movement, the mining ventures, the railroads, the Indian wars and the immortalizing of the cowboy, the ubiquitous 'man-killer' or 'gunfighter' achieved a notoriety of his own. But few of those who became famous lived to a ripe old age. Some, like Edward Masterson, Tom Nixon and Tom Smith died in the line of duty, while others, such as Hickok, Stoudenmire, and the likes of Jesse James and Billy the Kid, were murdered either because of their reputations or for financial or personal gain. Of those that survived, perhaps Wyatt Earp was one of the few who, in old age, was lifted from obscurity to become 'heroic', not for what he actually did but for what he symbolized.
As early as 8 March 1879, the Dodge City Globe had forecast both the end of the cattle trade and a determined effort to 'civilize' the West: There is a class, still a large one .. , which looks with horror upon the approach of manners, customs and ideas tending to drive out the 'frontier' character[is]tics of Dodge. They look with profound contempt upon a town whose police officers are not walking arsenals. They look back with regret to the time when 'a drink was a quarter and a cigar two bits'. They are not such bad fellows after all; but they do not long for a quiet life. They are not so many as they were. Some have lately felt the cordon of grangers pressing upon them and they have flitted; some to [Las] Vegas, some to Silver Cliff, and some to Leadville.
The message was plain: change was inevitable. And by the middle 1880s police forces were being issued with uniforms. In effect, the West had adopted an Eastern appearance. The change was subtle but significant. And as its 'wildness' retreated, so did the frontier image. Gone was the familiar broad-brimmed hat, white shirt and open waistcoat, and one or a pair of pistols openly displayed. Indeed, were such a character to be seen by the turn of the century, many people would have been alarmed. Only later, when those who lived through the era grew old and reminiscent about the old days, was there any regret for their passing. Today, of course, the man with the large hat and prominently displayed pistols is the image most people cherish of what to them was indeed the Age of the Gunfighter.
The midday sun bakes the raw trail's end cow town. The rutted street bordered by frame houses is deserted, even the benches on the drover's hotel porch are empty. There is a menacing stillness, a sense of suppressed violence about to explode.
Suddenly the gunfighter appears. He is tall, tanned to the color of old saddle leather. Under the rim of his sombrero his blue eyes are cold, steady. Holsters with six-shooters are tied to his thighs with buckskin thongs. He advances slowly down the street, hands casually hanging at his sides.
Men and women peer anxiously from doorways and windows. In the livery a horse, waiting to be shod, snorts impatiently. A hot breeze toys with the dust. Somewhere a door slams.
Then another man appears. There is an arrogance in his walk. Like the gunfighter he wears guns. He approaches, stops. For a long moment they take each other's measure in the taut silence. Almost as if someone had given a signal, the hands of both men flash to the butts of their guns. The stillness is shattered by the roar of single-action Colt .45s. The gunfighter continues to stand erect, untouched while his opponent slowly crumples. The town erupts, men and women pouring out into the street, some looking with awe at the gunfighter who calmly, almost sadly, holsters his gun and walks away while others bend over the man who was dead before his body hit the ground.
This trite, ritualized scene has been played countless times in books, songs, ballads, on television, and in movies, always with the gunfighter as the central character.
He is one of our nation's most popular folklore figures, more popular than Washington's Continentals, Lee's cavalrymen, troopers of the Indian Fighting Army, mountain men, explorers, miners, loggers, prizefighters, and rivermen.
His specific crimes or acts of violence are largely forgotten, but the romantic pageantry remains. Perhaps evil is more interesting than goodness.
In reality the gunfighter lived in the Wild West from about the time of the founding of the cow towns after the end of the Civil War to the 1880s. By the turn of the century the few survivors were frontier anachronisms unable to cope with a more sophisticated society. They were finally done in by barbed wire, the telephone, and a more effective form of law enforcement which, ironically, they had helped to establish.
Richard Fox's pink Police Gazette first molded their image. Its circulation was enormous; it has been estimated that the male half of the population of the latter part of the nineteenth century read the Gazette in cow camps, saloons, barbershops, bordellos, pool halls, gambling houses, and livery stables. The paper passed from hand to hand until it literally fell apart.
Fox's editors quickly recognized the inherent drama of the gunfighter. In every story he was handsome, a superb horseman, a skilled marksman who provided the oppressed with life, liberty, and an opportunity to pursue happiness.
His motivation for entering a life of danger and self-destruction was usually a false arrest, a father killed by corrupt lawmen in the pay of a mortgage holder, or the most popular version - a southern cavalier, a patriot of the Confederacy, who had been driven into outlawry by his ruthless enemies in the North.
Frank Leslie's Weekly and Harper's, while generally more factual and less garish, also focused on the Wild West, assigning special correspondents like Theodore Davis, a superb Civil War artist. Writers sent back stories of wild stagecoach rides, Indian attacks, buffalo hunts, cattle drives, railroading, the trials and tribulations of homesteaders - and interviews and sketches of gunfighters.
Together with the Gazette, many frontier newspapers, and Beadle's dime novels, they helped to make the bloodletters romantic figures, majestic in their bearing, Lochinvars of the cow towns.
The saga of Wild Bill Hickok is an excellent example of how they turned an obscure stock tender into an imperishable American hero. When Colonel George Ward Nichols of Harper's New Monthly Magazine, who had fought with Sherman during the Civil War, met the handsome Hickok on the frontier, he was completely lost, swallowing Wild Bill's outrageous lies of how he had killed a band of desperados at the Rock Creek Overland Stage Depot in Nebraska. The tall tale was believed by generations; it wasn't until 1927 when George W. Hansen's article in the Nebraska History Magazine exposed the fraud and revealed how Hickok had cold-bloodedly killed two unarmed men and watched while a third was beaten to death with a hoe.
In contrast, Billy the Kid, known across the world as one of the leading actors in the Wild West, was portrayed as an adenoidal moronic killer. A cache of extant, little known official documents in Washington, D.C., reveals the incredible role he played as leader of a group of ranchers fighting a powerful frontier ring of corrupt officials.
Who were these men? Where did they come from? Were they all illiterate, psychotic killers? What is the truth of their lives and their legendary exploits?
Ironically you can find some of the answers in their own writings. Some wrote their autobiographies or assisted their biographers; others supplied material for newspaper feature stories or serials; nearly all had been interviewed by reporters, not only from frontier newspapers but from New York City papers. They also wrote letters to editors, complaining that the news accounts of their time portrayed them inaccurately.
Despite the horrors of Huntsville prison, John Wesley Hardin read law, emerged a lawyer, and wrote his autobiography. Ben Thompson, who, Bat Masterson claimed, had no peer in the fast draw, was elected marshal of Austin, made that community one of the safest in Texas, and spent a great deal of time with his biographer, a respected judge.
Billy the Kid's letters to New Mexico's territorial governor, Lew Wallace, the author of Ben Hur, and his affidavit to Washington agent Frank Warner Angel (sent to investigate official corruption in the Territory) are impressive proof he was not illiterate.
Tom Horn, who hired his gun to the cattle barons, finished his autobiography just before he was executed.
Their accounts are difficult to find. Many of their books were published by local newspapers or job shops as paperbacks. They were sold in small quantities by "candy butchers" on trains and quickly disappeared. Some issues of frontier newspapers are not even in the Library of Congress or state historical societies and can only be found in smaller regional or private collections.
The gunfighters all had enormous egos. Harvey Logan, the deadly Kid Curry of the Wild Bunch, wrote to a friend in Montana that after he escaped from the Knoxville jail in 1901 his exploits would "outshine" those of Harry Tracy, another gunfighter and killer then being hunted in the Northwest.
Wild Bill Hickok preened like a peacock, strutting in Fifth Avenue fashion about the cow towns and rough army posts. Harry Tracy, while he admitted that newspapermen were more to be feared than the bullets of the posses, usually advised his victims to notify the nearest sheriff so photographers could take their pictures and mention his name. Tom Horn bitterly excoriated the "yellow journals" of his day for convicting him in the press but never refused an interview and posed gladly for visiting photographers while he waited execution.
They lived and died by the gun. Single-action Colt .45s, fashioned to a hair-trigger response, oiled and polished daily like a favorite deadly toy, sawed-off shotguns, rifles, derringers, army and navy Colts - were all used. Confrontations took place in saloons, alleys, streets, and other public places.
Curiously, several of these cold, calculating killers were among the best lawmen in the Wild West. Only a thin, almost invisible line separated them from the posts of marshal and sheriff. Their expertise with guns was badly needed as the wild cow towns flourished after the Civil War by rushing beef to the East. For the killer to cross the line was simple: the harassed, perhaps terrified town council, after quickly voting to hire the gunfighter, gave him their blessing and a tin star. They knew he had the raw courage to wade into a mob of drunken armed young Texans fresh from a long drive.
Gamblers were also intimidated and prevented from cheating the cowhands - unless they had made an "arrangement." "He (Wild Bill Hickok) broke up all the unfair gambling, made professional gamblers move their tables into the light and when they became drunk stopped the games," Joseph G. McCoy, mayor of Abilene recalled. He had hired Hickok in 1871 for $150 a month and 25 percent of all imposed fines. Wild Bill was charged by Abilene's town council to be "industrious and vigilant" in bringing offenders to justice and to control or prevent all "affrays, riots and breaches of peace." Any vagrant, drunk, "or former Confederate soldier" caught carrying a pistol, bowie knife, dirk or deadly weapon was fined $100 or three months in jail.
The town fathers were also aware that the gunfighter's reputation as a man killer would be enough to make any would-be desperado turn around and ride off. As the old rustler's jingle went: When we turned our sixes loose, we let the sheriff know, It took a joe dandy to bring us back from Mexico!
The gunfighter's fame, however, made his life a prize. A hasty killing was often then a premium on the only sort of life insurance he could carry. He had to be quick to strike and ready to do so at the slightest provocation or forfeit his rank and fame - and perhaps his life. "Fair play is a jewel," King Fisher of Texas once said, "but I don't care for jewelry."
Was the gunfighter a coward or a valiant? The question can be safely answered only by saying that sometimes he was one and sometimes the other.
While being held in a frontier jail for trial on charges of murder, one said: "It's all right to talk about courage but courage is a mighty peculiar thing, and nobody's got it with him all the time. Take me on a sunshiny day, full of good grub and with a couple of drinks under my belt, I'd stand up to a regiment and take my chances; but take me on before daybreak in the rain, hungry and cold, and I'd run from one Greaser if he was hunting me. . ."
The bravest of them had their moments of weakness. It was said there were times when Wild Bill Hickok went to sleep "as nervous as an old maid peering under her bed for intruders." He would spread the floor with newspapers, to be awakened by the rustling. He personally inspected all doors and windows and refused to lie in line with a window. A light sleeper, he was up a dozen times at night. Charles Michelson, who knew many of the gunfighters and badmen of the Wild West, described in Munsey's Magazine of 1901 how Wild Bill entered a room: "He would never enter a place and walk up the middle of the floor, or turn his back to the door. His mode of entry was to step swiftly across the threshold of a room and move to one side so that nobody who saw him enter could shoot him from the outside. Next, standing close to the wall, he would survey the room, noting every person in it. Then he would make his way along the wall to the bar or wherever he desired to go. It may be noted that this was caution made necessary by the knowledge that many men would assassinate him at the first opportunity. . ."
In our time, Hollywood's films and television's electronic tube have become the modern mythmakers of the West. After the movies emerged from Coney Island peep shows, the West became the most popular and profitable subject. The plots were simple, a weeping heroine and stalwart gunfighter, upholding law and order, played their roles against the cattle town facade built in Fort Lee, New Jersey. By the Great Depression, westerns were Hollywood's bread and butter items. In the 1950s gunfighters were seen almost every night on television, fanning the hammers of their guns in the backlot streets. Apparently no one told the producers that the guns of the West were mostly inaccurate and in reality any man slamming his hand down on a heavy Colt .45 would have been a candidate for the local Boot Hill.
From this endless flow of silly fiction we have come to regard the gunfighter of the Wild West as a flawless fighting machine, walking down the street at high noon to kill an enemy in an awesome display of his fast draw. Such is not the case. Some, as Meredith said, were caught in the "incredible imbroglio of comedy."
What of New Mexico's Governor Lew Wallace who indignantly wrote to Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz that the jailed Billy the Kid was being serenaded by groups of citizens who stood outside the outlaw's cell window?
What of Kid Curry who hurled himself through a rear door of a saloon to escape a posse only to fall into a deep railroad gulch?
What of the frontier editor who received an indignant note from Wild Bill Hickok insisting he was very much alive and had not been killed in a gunfight?
What of Ben Thompson, whom Bat Masterson called the West's premier gunslinger, denouncing the villain of East Lynn, firing his six-shooter at the actors and laughing as the theatre emptied? The shots were blanks.
But not all is comedy. Billy the Kid coolly called out a greeting and killed the guard Olinger as he escaped from jail. Tracy shot the guards from the wall of the Oregon Penitentiary and Tom Horn, who boasted murder was his business, cut down a sheepherder's fourteen-year-old son. . .
Many times the truth is more exciting, more romantic. Conveying the authentic rather than mere debunking is the point of this book. In the case of the gunfighter, myth and legend have always had an incestuous relationship with fact and reality. The broadest truth about these strange, violent figures is that even well before the turn of the century they had been isolated as anarchic men of action in a nation slowly but steadily moving toward regimentation in lawful and orderly communities.
One finds this appeal of the gunfighter of America's Wild West is now worldwide. Outside Paris, in a replica of a western cow town, famous gunfights are played and replayed by aficionados. In Italy their lives and times are discussed by some with as much gravity as the current political crisis. In London a group issues a scholarly publication. From a tiny village near the Arctic Circle a correspondent sends a thoughtful letter, detailing the relationship between Billy the Kid and the Santa Fe Ring.
Yet, for all this international attention and magnification, an examination of their lives yields the commonplace conclusion that crime does not pay. They were men of evil, ruthless killers who could scorn fair play and shoot from ambush. Ironically, therefore, they helped to develop the very forces that destroyed them. Certainly the killings they committed, even in the name of law and order, did point up the corruption of some sheriffs and marshals and the cowardice of others and finally awakened the frontier communities to seek out better men to protect them. The gunfighters, saints and sinners, are a vital part of the history of the western frontier.
-- James D. Horan, The Notch, 1976
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