The exaggerated stories that surround the figures of the American West appeal to me as a classic example of the human tendency toward embellishment. In my non-believer’s heart I genuinely feel this tendency lies at the core of nearly all the superstitious nonsense in each of the world’s “holy” books and in all of ancient mythology.
After all, these figures of the Wild West were in action less than 200 years ago, yet look at all the superhuman deeds that are ascribed to them and the outrageous drama that we’re told their lives were filled with. These real-life characters who were often just thugs and criminals have been posthumously transformed into icons whose sagas now bear little resemblance to their actual lives.
I feel that serves as a blueprint for how all mythic belief systems operate. When you magnify the distortions of just 200 years by 10 times or more you can see what tiny little kernels of truth may actually lie buried in the accounts of gods and demigods who are said to have roamed the world ages ago.
All of which brings me back to the annual Frontierado holiday on the first Friday of August each year. I have never denied the need for escapism, I just object to it ever being presented as indisputable reality the way traditional religion and secular political propoganda insist on presenting heroic fantasies to us.
In my Frontierado posts examining neglected figures of the Wild West I openly point out that I’m dwelling on their mythic storylines. For this post, which examines the really big names of the Wild West I’ll take the opportunity that public familiarity with their tales affords to briefly contrast their saga’s mythic elements with what can actually be verified.
7. ANNIE OAKLEY (also see photo above left) – “Little Sure Shot”, as Oakley was called, is the least objectionable western icon from a real-world sense. Her low position on this list stems only from the fact that her story was the least overblown, with only the 1950’s television series presenting her corraling criminals on a regular basis.
MYTH: Annie honed her marksmanship as a child shooting game to feed her impoverished family in post-Civil War Ohio. REALITY: Annie did not kill game to feed her family but to earn money and she was so successful she had paid off the mortgage on her family’s farm by age 15.
MYTH: In 1875, when Annie was 15, she outshot 25 year old Frank Butler, the professional sharpshooter with a traveling show. Frank and Annie fell in love and married less than a year later. REALITY: That is true.
MYTH: The couple traveled for years with Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show during which time Annie frequently stood beside male members of the show driving off war parties of Native Americans as the Wild West Show roamed the unsettled west. REALITY: The Wild West Show never had verifiable armed encounters with Native Americans during its travels in the west but Buffalo Bill was a master at public relations and spun tales just to keep his touring troupe being talked about.
MYTH: Annie had a tense rivalry with Lillian Smith, another female sharpshooter in Buffalo Bill’s show and eventually drove her away. REALITY: Annie left the Wild West Show herself because of the rivalry with Lillian Smith and returned only after Smith was gone.
MYTH: After a career which included performing for the crowned heads of Europe, Annie was injured in a train crash in 1901 and left show business. REALITY: Oakley did not leave the business for good after the 1901 train wreck, but took to the stage and continued winning shooting contests into her declining years. Oakley died in 1926.
MYTH: Horn served as an army scout in many campaigns against Native American tribes and helped bring in Geronimo himself. REALITY: Tom Horn’s service as an army scout has been well-established but there is no evidence that he was part of the final campaign against Geronimo.
MYTH: Tom served in the Spanish-American War as one of Teddy Roosevelt’s Roughriders in the Cuban theater of operations. REALITY: Horn saw action in Cuba during the Spanish- American War but NOT as a member of the Roughriders.
MYTH: Horn once met heavyweight champion Gentleman Jim Corbett in a saloon and wound up brawling with the famous boxer. REALITY: No reliable proof exists supporting the contention that the famous gunman ever brawled with Jim Corbett. The only thing that makes it seem even slightly plausible is the fact that the accounts claim he LOST to Corbett.
MYTH: Tom served as a hired gun in two range wars – the Pleasant Valley War and the Johnson County War – and protected families from Land Barons. REALITY: Horn made his biggest name as a killer for hire but not in a romantic sense, more like a forerunner of modern-day hit men killing whoever he was paid to kill. He really did see service in this capacity in Pleasant Valley, AZ and Johnson County, MT during their notorious range wars but never “protected” anybody.
MYTH: The notorious gunslinger was completely innocent of the murder for which he was hanged in 1903. REALITY: Yes, it is very likely that Tom did not kill the young man whose murder he was hanged for. Indications are that he was framed by one of his high-powered clients to shut him up when Horn was shooting his mouth off too much about the gangland- style Range Wars he served in. He was a self- confessed killer for hire, however, so its hard to shed any tears over it.
5. CALAMITY JANE – Jane Cannary (sometimes spelled Canary) is as much a household name as Annie Oakley. She is lodged forever in the national consciousness as a rugged woman in buckskins, appealing to successive generations of American women as a virtual pioneer of feminism.
MYTH: Born sometime between 1848 and 1852, Jane ran away from her parents’ Montana home and by 1869 was living in Cheyenne, Wyoming, making a name for herself as a female mule team runner. REALITY: That much is true.
MYTH: Clad in fringed buckskin, Jane became legendary for shooting as well and drinking as much as any of the men transporting supplies around the west, often using her guns to keep her overly aggressive suitors in line. REALITY: As with the male legends of the west Jane’s shooting ability is incredibly overblown.
MYTH: In the early 1870’s, when Wild Bill Hickok was a lawman in Kansas he and Calamity Jane got drunk and got married one night. By 1873 Jane gave birth to Wild Bill’s daughter, Jean. REALITY: Calamity Jane’s romance with and alleged marriage to Wild Bill Hickok is hotly disputed and largely dismissed as a fabrication on her part. Oddly, though, her daughter Jean was officially recognized as the daughter of Jane and Hickok in 1941 by the U.S. Office of Public Welfare.
MYTH: Jane eventually gave her daughter up for adoption and in 1875 became an army scout for General Crook and saw much action in his campaigns against Native Americans. REALITY: How much action Jane supposedly saw with General Crook’s forces is questionable. However, the issue does present a textbook example of how mythology changes according to societal attitudes. Back when it was still considered “heroic” to have fought Native Americans Jane’s reputation as an Indian fighter was accepted and probably embellished. Now that it’s much less socially acceptable to have taken part in the campaigns against American Indians Jane’s role is dismissed to spare our mythic heroine from potentially unpleasant associations.
MYTH: Calamity Jane toured the U.S. and Europe with Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show and the Palace Museum Show but was fired from both for drunken lapses in her performances. She was fired from the Pan American Exposition in 1901 when she drunkenly shot up a bar and resisted arrest. REALITY: Jane’s substance abuse problem and the public problems it gave her may be exaggerated a bit, but they seem to be as believable as the rowdy behavior of modern-day celebrities on binges.
MYTH: In Terry, South Dakota, Calamity Jane died on August 2nd, 1903, the 27th anniversary of Wild Bill Hickok’s death. Mourners honored her last wish – to be buried next to Wild Bill. REALITY: Jane is indeed buried next to Wild Bill, but one of Bill’s friends, subscribing to the claim that the two were never romantically involved, supposedly said “It’s a good thing Bill’s dead. He’d never stand for that if he was alive.” The quote itself is sometimes dismissed as fictional, providing another example of the circles within circles of myths about these figures.
4. BILLY THE KID – William Bonney, to use just one of the Kid’s aliases, was the major gunfighter to emerge from the Lincoln County War. He’s been portrayed on the big screen by Emilio Estevez, Paul Newman, Jack Beutel and others too numerous to mention.
MYTH – Billy the Kid’s prowess with guns almost single-handedly kept the outnumbered and outmoneyed Tunstall-McSween faction competitive in the Lincoln County War for as long as they were. REALITY: Because of the Kid’s fame there is a popular misconception that his side of the Lincoln County War must have been “the heroic underdogs” but in reality both sides were pretty ugly and the conflict was more like a modern-day gangster war with no good guys.
MYTH: Billy and his fellow gunmen on the Tunstall/ McSween side held off their foes for several days in the besieged McSween house. REALITY: That is true, believe it or not.
MYTH: The Kid came forward to heroically testify as a state’s witness during some of the trials following the Lincoln County Range War. REALITY: Billy was willing to testify to try to save his own neck, like any other criminal does when they give evidence against their fellow crooks. Given the “snitches get stitches” mentality I can’t believe Billy gets a free pass on this.
MYTH: The Kid killed 21 men – 1 for each year of his short life. ### REALITY: As with all the other big-name gunfighters the Kid’s real kill total is unknown and in Billy’s case may have been under 10. The “one kill for each of the years of his young life” business sounds good and, in keeping with the theme of this post, I’ll point out that a tale that sounds good will get much more circulation than a fact that’s less romantic.
MYTH: The Kid’s betrayal by his former friend Pat Garrett when Garrett became a lawman is one of the great tragedies of the west. REALITY: This ain’t Pancho and Lefty. True, Garrett and the Kid had been friends off and on since Pat’s buffalo hunting days, but they didn’t have a long, continuous friendship like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Billy was still an outlaw, Pat had become a lawman, period.
3. BELLE STARR – This colorful and capable woman lived an action-filled life of crime in which she rubbed elbows and often more with the James- Younger Gang, Sam Starr, Jim Reed, Blue Duck and other famous outlaws of the west.
MYTH: Belle’s father and brother were officers in the Confederate Army during the United States Civil War. REALITY: Belle’s father and brother actually served with Confederate bushwackers, who were more like looters and plunderers.
MYTH: Belle’s first experience riding with a gang of outlaws came when she hooked up with the Sam Bass gang in Texas. REALITY: Belle’s first experience riding with a gang of outlaws DID come in Texas, but with her first husband Jim Reed and the gangs he hooked up with, including the James- Younger Gang. Belle may never have even met Sam Bass.
MYTH: Belle cut a striking figure alongside her husband in criminal exploits, wearing black and shooting up a storm at lawmen and vigilantes in Texas and Arkansas, all while riding side-saddle. REALITY: Believe it or not, this is supported by contemporary accounts.
MYTH: Belle married her second husband Sam Starr when he killed her first husband for leadership of the outlaw gang. REALITY: Jim Reed was killed in Paris, TX in August 1874 by lawmen. Belle by this time was living in Indian Territory (Oklahoma) with the Starr family – Native Americans who ran a crime faction involved with whiskey hijacking, rustling and stealing horses. Sam was part of that established outfit and did not take over any gang Jim Reed was affiliated with.
MYTH: Belle was married to Confederate Diehard Outlaw Cole Younger for three weeks in 1878. REALITY: Like Calamity Jane’s alleged marriage to Wild Bill Hickok this has never been confirmed. She did, however, definitely marry Sam Starr in 1880.
MYTH: Belle Starr was a criminal mastermind who never served a day in prison. REALITY: By the time of her marriage to Sam Starr Belle was serving as the brains of the Starr Family Crime Faction and managed their criminal enterprises in Indian Territory, Texas and Arkansas so well they could afford to “own” lawmen and politicians, just like modern- day organized crime outfits do. In 1883 she and Sam were sentenced to prison by a judge they did NOT own – “the Hanging Judge” himself, Isaac Parker. Belle was released on good behavior after nine months in a Detroit prison.
MYTH: Belle went straight after she saw her husband Sam shot to death before her very eyes in a battle with lawmen. REALITY: Sam Starr did indeed die in a firefight with the law in December of 1886 in Texas, but Belle was back home in Indian Territory at the time. She did go straight, however, but scandalized the community by having affairs with Blue Duck, Jim French and others before marrying her late husband’s brother Jim, who was fifteen years younger than she was.
MYTH: Belle Starr was killed by her jealous husband Jim Starr in 1889. REALITY: Belle’s real killer has never been established and may have even been her own son by Jim Reed.
MYTH: Doc’s tuberculosis, which caused him to move west to avoid a very early death in the humid east (or so it was thought by the physicians of the time) forever separated him from his one true love. REALITY: The woman he left back in Georgia was his cousin, which I know wasn’t as gross- sounding back then as it is today, but still. And if she was his “one true love” she could have moved west with him.
MYTH: Doc Holliday became friends with Wyatt Earp in Dodge City, KS and the two remained close until Doc’s death in 1887. REALITY: The locale of Doc’s initial encounter with Wyatt is often disputed and some sources claim it was really Morgan Earp that Holliday was close friends with, not Wyatt. That could be the real motive for Doc participating in the revenge killings following Morgan’s death and his separation from Wyatt not long after. Earp’s famous book about Doc in this context would be like today’s celebrity biographies written by people who weren’t really as close as they pretend to the dead icon they wrote about.
MYTH: Doc’s girlfriend Big-Nosed Kate Elder once set fire to a building to cause a distraction so she could free the jailed Doc. REALITY: Variations of this story also show up in the sagas of other western legends and their significant others. None of the accounts have been verified.
MYTH: Doc Holliday and the Earp Brothers cleaned up Tombstone, AZ, which was under the thumb of the Clanton- McClaurey Crime Faction. REALITY: Doc and the Earps were also a crime faction running some gambling and prostitution in Tombstone. They were the upstarts to the established Clantons and McClaureys who also controlled rustling and political graft in the area. The Holliday- Earp faction DID win the gunfight at the OK Corral and made headlines with the gangland- style executions of several of their enemies after Morgan Earp was killed. However, the Clanton faction won in the end, with Doc and the Earps fleeing Arizona Territory. It’s fun watching how badly movies twist the facts to present Doc and company as the victors of that gang war.
MYTH: Doc Holliday gunned down John Ringo during the war in Tombstone. REALITY: Nobody knows who really killed John Ringo or even if he commited suicide.
MYTH: Doc Holliday was one of the finest lawmen of the west. REALITY: Doc was more like a western gangster than a lawman. When Holliday was jailed for tampering with a horserace in Denver after fleeing Arizona, a newspaper war broke out over the controversial figure, who was in danger of being extradited to Arizona Territory where his old enemies could easily engineer his death in prison. Doc naturally cooperated with the anti- extradition newspapers pushing him as a heroic lawman figure against the pro- extradition newspapers depicting him as a criminal. Many myths about Doc Holliday, especially about him being a lawman, had their origin in this outrageous tabloid war.
MYTH: Doc Holliday lived to a ripe old age. REALITY: Doc died at age 35 or 36.
1. WILD BILL HICKOK – This veteran of the Union Army in the Civil War was possibly the most famous lawman of the old west, even though his story is incredibly overblown, just like the sagas of “lawmen” like Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson.
MYTH: Wild Bill Hickok was the legendary Marshal of iconic Dodge City, KS. REALITY: In real life Hickok wore a badge in various Kansas locales, but never Dodge City.
MYTH: Wild Bill and the future Buffalo Bill Cody both served as mail carriers in the legendary Pony Express. REALITY: Bill Hickok worked as a teamster for the parent company of the Pony Express, not the Pony Express itself. He and Buffalo Bill’s paths really did cross several times over the years, though.
MYTH: Hickok was the fastest draw in the west. REALITY: There’s no accurate way of measuring this. The notion of it being a benefit in a gunfight to be “a fast draw” has been debunked thoroughly over the years, but that applies to instances where you intend to shoot. As a lawman a “quick draw” in reality was a lifesaver since rapidly having a gun in your hand would discourage the other party from even trying to draw theirs. It’s a small, but major, distinction. Hickok wore his guns loosely stuffed into the crimson sash he wore as a belt to facilitate his fast draw.
MYTH: Wild Bill was an island of honesty in a frontier crawling with outlaws and corrupt town bosses. REALITY: Lawmen were often corrupt out west, behaving more like redneck sheriffs in the south do. Hickok was no different. Wearing a badge AND owning a saloon, as Wild Bill often did, meant you could ruthlessly enforce the laws against your competitors but overlook your own establishment’s violations. However, in general that and acceptance of bribes marked the extent of his dishonesty.
MYTH: After accidentally shooting his own deputy Hickok never pinned on a badge again, but remained active as a gunfighter. REALITY: In fact, Hickok was so distraught over the accidental shooting of Deputy Mike Williams that he seems to never have drawn his gun again, let alone kill anyone, no matter what you see in fiction.
MYTH: After he was shot from behind by Jack McCall, Wild Bill Hickok’s poker hand of a Full House, aces over eights, became famous as the Dead Man’s Hand. REALITY: Hickok’s final poker hand was two aces and two eights, with the fifth card unknown, but the Full House story is pretty catchy, so naturally it gets a lot of exposure.
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