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There's a cliche in western cinematography about a gang of bad guys terrorizing a small town. My question is: did such things really happen?
Thought behind my question is that settlers might be tough people, ready for self-defense, and I'd expect almost any person to have a gun, so a dozen of bandits wouldn't have any advantage. But I have no knowledge about real frontier life, so maybe there are historical records known about armed gangs terrorizing settlements.
Lots. Probably the most famous and historically important incidents happened during the ("bleeding") Kansas border war.
Congress made a deal where Kansas would be allowed to vote on whether or not to allow slavery when it entered the union. Most of the territorial settlers at this time came from northern areas and had little interest in slavery. However, the slaveholding states felt creating more of them was vital for their survival. One of them (Missouri) was quite close to hand. Politically motivated violence between the two soon followed.
The "Free-State" town of Lawrence, KS was sacked by a "posse" of 800 pro-slavery settlers on May 21, 1856. In retaliation (and disgust at the non-violent political tactics of his fellow Free-Staters), John Brown formed his own company, and massacred 5 pro-slavery settlers at Pottawatomie Creek.
4 months later a gang of roughly 400 Missourians attacked the Free State town of Osawatomie. John Brown's gang tried to defend it with about a tenth of their manpower, but was brushed aside. The town was looted and burned.
There are some intriguing tales from my own town's history. Tulsa was technically (iow: Legally) in Creek territory prior to statehood. One particularly prominent Creek family was the Perrymans, who had a large ranch south of town. Its difficult right now to find anything negative about them online, but I hear a lot of stories about how they didn't particularly respect the law of the white settlers in Tulsa, were powerful enough to get away with that, and some interesting "exploits" that would often ensue. I think the most interesting one I heard was a tale about a local minister who had the misfortune of saying something during a sermon that one of the Perrymans felt was a personal attack on his wife, and found himself challenged to a duel (there was no option of not accepting)*
* - I believe there are still a fair amount of Perrymans around these parts, so I should hasten to add that I am quite sure they are to a person fine upstanding citizens.
It's true that most settlers were tough, but some were tougher than others. The more legally minded among the tougher ones became sheriffs and "lawmen," while the ones with "illicit" inclinations became horse and cattle thieves, sometimes murdering those who got in their way. One famous fight between the two types took place near (not at) OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona.
So there were documented instances of gangs of criminals terrorizing small, western towns in the nineteenth century. These incidents took place in "frontier" towns that were too far away from population centers to be eaisly protected by the army, or conventional police. And while many knew how to shoot, most men in such towns were more interested in "civilian" pursuits such as mining or cattle raising than defending themselves. What is true was that when "real" lawmen (dedicated fighters) came around, a few civilians like "Doc" Holliday would augment their ranks.
Top 10 Wild West towns in America
The world&rsquos love affair with America&rsquos Wild West has always burned bright, and nothing in the country&rsquos history compares to the period from 1865 to 1895 when prospectors and pioneers pushed their way towards better lives and scrambled for pots of gold. We travel to these former frontier boomtowns, most of which still embrace their Wild West past (gun-slinging cowboys, dastardly outlaws, swinging saloon doors, one-room jailhouses, liquor-fuelled shootouts over hands of poker) and show America as it once was.
Claim to fame: Named for Illinois-born Olive Oatman who was kidnapped for slavery by an Apache tribe and then sold to Mohave Indians (she was eventually set free and became a celebrity), this small mining camp had all the markings of a gold rush boomtown. For a decade, the Oatman mines were among the largest gold producers in America&rsquos West, but in later years the place become another tourist town for visitors passing through the ancient part of Route 66. Nowadays, it&rsquos packed with wild burros (an old Spanish term for donkeys) who roam the streets waiting for their burro chow (hay cubes), which can be purchased in the town. Oatman is also proud of its Hollywood connections the Oscar-winning How the West Was Won was filmed here and it&rsquos also where Clark Gable and Carol Lombard reportedly spent their wedding night in 1939 (the refurbed honeymoon suite at the Oatman Hotel is one of the town&rsquos key attractions).
See and do: Check out the Gable/Lombard Room at the Oatman Hotel (it no longer takes guests, but functions as a restaurant and museum), stroll along the town&rsquos wooden sidewalks, browse in the kitsch Americana shops, take selfies with the impossibly cute burros, and visit the Oatman Jail and Museum to see its holding pens and sheriff&rsquos office. Don&rsquot miss the Ghostrider Gunfighters spectacular Wild West shootouts and comedy performances taking place daily in the middle of town at 1:30pm and 3:30pm (for $100 you can even stage your shotgun wedding here).
Suggested holiday: Self-Drive Golden California &ndash set off early on day 8 to miss the Los Angeles rush hour and you&rsquoll arrive in Oatman in time for lunch, see the shootout and to explore the town. Then its just a couple of hours drive to Las Vegas where you&rsquoll be staying for the next couple of nights.
Claim to fame: The quintessential land of cowboys and cattle situated at the crossroads of America, Amarillo was established in 1887 when Abilene developer J.I. Berry selected this well-watered spot along the way of the Fort Worth and Denver City Railroad (FW&DC). Known as Oneida (this later changed to Amarillo - Spanish for yellow - for the colour of the soil on the banks of the nearby Amarillo Creek), it grew from a 500-strong tent camp for railroad workers to a hard-nosed cattle town complete with big skies, big steaks, big barbeque joints, and big quantities of oil. It now hosts a number of famous rodeos (including the Coors Cowboy Club Ranch Rodeo, Working Ranch Cowboy Association, and World Championship Ranch Rodeo), as well as the annual Polk Street Cattle Drive where the streets of downtown Amarillo are filled with around 60 Texas longhorns making their way to the Tri-State Fairgrounds.
See and do: Watch a performance of the outdoor musical drama TEXAS at the Pioneer Amphitheatre in the nearby Palo Duro Canyon State Park (it&rsquos been performed here virtually every year since 1966), spend time at the American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame & Museum to learn about this incredible breed, and watch the dance troupe perform at the Kwahadi Museum of the American Indian. Also try to sneak in a visit to the Big Texan Steak Ranch for a 72-ounce steak - it is free-of-charge if you manage to finish the whole thing (including the sides) in an hour.
Suggested holiday: Self-Drive Route 66 &ndash half way between Oklamoma City and Albuquerque, Amarillo is a great overnight stop on Route 66.
Claim to fame: Nicknamed &ldquoThe Town Too Tough To Die&rdquo, the entire town of Tombstone was awarded National Historic Landmark District status in 1961 for being "one of the best preserved specimens of the rugged frontier of the 1870's and 1880's&rdquo. Founded by prospector Ed Schieffelin who discovered a wealth of silver in this area in 1877 (he was warned that he would find nothing here other than his own tombstone), the town was the setting of the Wild West&rsquos most notorious events - the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. This 30-second shootout on 26 October 1881 pitted the Earp brothers (Wyatt, Virgil, Morgan) and their sharp-shooting sidekick Doc Holliday against Billy Claiborne, Ike and Billy Clanton, and Tom and Frank McLaury. Though only 30 shots were fired in total, Billy Clanton and the McLaury brothers were dead, and Virgil and Morgan Earp and Doc Holliday were wounded (Ike Clanton and Claiborne had run for the hills).
See and do: Check out St. Paul's Episcopal Church, the Rose Tree Museum & Bookstore, and the Tombstone Epitaph building in the historic area bounded by Fremont, 6th, Toughnut, and 3rd Streets, visit the 1882 Tombstone Courthouse State Historic Park, and take a guided tour of the Bird Cage Theatre - a drinking-gambling-performance venue that operated from 1881 to 1889. Other essential stops include the O.K. Corral for its re-enactments of the West's most famous shootout, and the Old Tombstone Wild West Theme Park for its daily gunfight shows.
Suggested holiday: Exhilarating Western USA - Family Self-Drive &ndash we&rsquove set up this itinerary with families in mind, but its an equally brilliant trip for adults-only and it will all be tailormade for you. Tombstone is just an hours drive from Tucson, so you can visit before, after or during your stay in Tucson.
Dodge City, Kansas
Claim to fame: Founded in June 1872, just three months before the arrival of the Santa Fe Railroad, the Queen of the Cowtowns (named for the herds of longhorns that were shipped west) was patrolled by the likes of Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and gone-to-seed dentist John Henry &ldquoDoc&rdquo Holliday. Attracting an alarmingly high number of gunfighters and brothel-owners (the phrase "Get the heck out of Dodge" was coined for good reason), its reputation for being the wickedest town in the Old West later made it great fodder for Hollywood&rsquos filmmakers. Nowadays, this formerly lawless place is less about shootouts and ladies of the night and more about meatpacking (it is home to not one but two large beef processing plants). It also famously hosts the 10-day annual festival Dodge City Days where the highlight is a longhorn cattle drive down Wyatt Earp Boulevard to kick off the Dodge City Roundup Rodeo.
See and do: Take the Historic Trolley tour to visit the original locations of the Longbranch Saloon, Gospel Hill, and the &ldquoDeadline&rdquo, take a stroll along the Dodge City Trail of Fame in the National Historic District, and visit the legendary Boot Hill Museum to experience the recreated Front Street, circa 1876. Further highlights include swigging a real Sarsaparilla at Miss Kitty's Long Branch Saloon, admiring the remnants of 1865 Fort Dodge (five miles east of the city), and spotting the wagon tracks that are still in existence on the 19th century Santa Fe Trail.
Suggested holiday: One of the reasons Dodge was such an wild frontier town was its location bang in the middle of the country, so it&rsquos not the easiest of locations to reach on a road trip. But you could take a detour from Route 66 or we could tailormake your own adventure taking in Texas, New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas.
Virginia City, Nevada
Claim to fame: As one of the largest and most iconic mining magnets between Denver and San Francisco (much of the latter was built with the treasure dug up from the soil here), Virginia City sprang up as a boomtown in 1859 during the discovery of Comstock Lode - the first major silver deposit discovery in the United States. Named by Virginian miner James "Old Virginny" Finney (rumour has it that he got drunk, smashed his bottle of whiskey, and used the remains to baptise the ground after his home state), the town peaked during the 1860's - and remained a stronghold for silver and gold barons until 1878 when things were pretty much over. Nowadays, what was once nicknamed &ldquoQueen of the Comstock&rdquo feels rather like a frontier theme park complete with historic saloons, wooden boardwalks, restored 19th century buildings, and 850 residents who are mighty proud of their town which was &ldquothe richest place on earth&rdquo in its heyday.
See and do: Take the Trolley Tour for the lowdown on the major landmarks, spend the afternoon museum-hopping (there&rsquos 17 in total, including the Way It Was Museum for lessons in mining, milling and blacksmithing), and ride on the Virginia & Truckee Railroad from Virginia City to Gold Hill. Also be sure to stop for a drink at Ponderosa Saloon - a beloved watering that has a walk-in 1964 bank vault as well as an abandoned gold mine beneath its bar (the 25-minute tour that guides you through the shaft has been one of the town&rsquos biggest draws since the 1900's).
Suggested holiday: Virginia City is in Nevada close to the California border and is an easy trip from beautiful Lake Tahoe. Take a day out to visit whilst enjoying this tailormade road trip Experience San Francisco, Yosemite & Lake Tahoe Self-Drive.
Santa Fe, New Mexico
Claim to fame: Surrounded by the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Santa Fe is the third-oldest permanent European settlement west of the Mississippi. Established in 1608 by the Spanish who came up from the south, the city has long served as the capital of the Kingdom of New Mexico, the Mexican province of Nuevo Mejico, the American territory of New Mexico (which contained what is today Arizona and New Mexico) and, since 1912, the state of New Mexico. Now a designated UNESCO Creative City for its flourishing arts scene, it has earned its place in history as somewhere where northern traders and trappers could trade with the southern Mexican Indians, and where western silver could be exchanged for artisanal products and local turquoise. It was also where outlaw and federal fugitive Billy the Kid spent his teen years (he was famously captured by Sheriff Pat Garrett in 1880 and locked up in the old Santa Fe jail).
See and do: Spend time at the Museum of International Folk Art, The Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, and the Museum of Indian Art and Culture, and swoon over the amazing art installations at Meow Wolf - an arts collective part-funded by Game of Thrones author and Santa Fe resident George R.R. Martin. Don&rsquot miss the San Miguel Mission, the Loretto Chapel, and the nearly 400-year-old Santa Fe Plaza - a National Historic Landmark most famous for its Indian and Spanish markets and lovely central park lined with grass, trees, and benches.
Suggested holidays: A fabulous escorted tour which highlights superb historic locations and glorious national parks is The Magnificent Southwest, on which you&rsquoll spend two nights in Santa Fe. This great city also features as a day trip on one of our most popular flydrive itineraries Self-Drive Route 66 or this fabulous route which takes in Yellowstone - Self-Drive American Grandeurs. Or you can spend two nights in Santa Fe with this superb itinerary travelling through the spectacular scenery of Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico - Self-Drive Four-Squared.
Deadwood, South Dakota
Claim to fame: The discovery of riches in the southern Black Hills in 1874 kicked off one of the greatest gold rushes in America. Two years later, a slew of fortune-seekers made their move on this gulch of dead trees, turning Deadwood into a rough-and-ready boomtown that steadily lured bands of outlaws, gamblers, and gunslingers. Most famously, it was the stomping ground of the trigger-happy Calamity Jane, Potato Creek Johnny, Seth Bullock, and Wild Bill Hickok (who was shot in the back by Jack McCall while holding a poker hand of aces and eights, known thereafter as the Dead Man&rsquos Hand) - all of whom were celebrated in the far-from-fictional HBO series Deadwood. Nowadays, this charming town (a National Historic Landmark since 1961) keeps its loud and lusty heritage alive with a wealth of Wild West-inspired attractions from museums and parades to lively Vegas-style casinos (gambling was eventually legalised here in 1989).
See and do: Pay your respects to Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane at Mount Moriah Cemetery (they are buried next to each other), check out historical artifacts at the Queen Anne-style Adams Museum, pan for gold at the Lost Boot Mine, and marvel at the wagons, stagecoaches and carriages at the Days of 76 Museum. Don&rsquot leave without watching the daily shootouts on Main Street, attending the nightly trial of Jack McCall at the Masonic Temple, and nursing a whiskey or two at the rowdy Saloon #10, in sight of the (replica) chair Hickok sat in on the night he died.
Suggested holidays: To enjoy a superb Wild West experience, visiting not only Deadwood and Cody, but also staying at the renowned Ranch at Ucross and visiting the iconic sights of Yellowstone, Mount Rushmore and Devils Tower, then look no further than this tour American Parks Trail. Or if you&rsquore looking for a truly epic road trip which features Deadwood plus a dizzying number of &ldquomust-sees&rdquo then check out this holiday The Great American Road Trip.
Claim to fame: Deserving of its &ldquoCowboy Capital of the World&rdquo moniker, this Texas Hill Country site that hosted many a bloody battle between Apache and Comanche Indians and the Spanish Conquistadors was named for its red bandera (meaning banner or flag) that was flown to define the boundary between hunting grounds. Most famous as the staging area for the last great cattle drives of the late 1800&rsquos, life here is as much about the cowboy heritage (honky-tonks, chuck wagon dinners, saloons, dude ranches) as the 120-mile Medina River that thread through the town and into the backcountry. And then, of course, there&rsquos the annual festivals that keep the spirit of the Wild West alive, including the Cowboy Mardi Gras, Wild Hog Explosion, Spring Fling, Bandera ProRodeo, Cowboy Capital Christmas NIGHT Parade, and Mayhem on the Medina.
See and do: Spend time at a dude ranch, marvel at 40,000-plus Wild West relics at the Frontier Times Museum, take a walking tour to see the original jail and county courthouse, wander along historic Eleventh Street, and visit the St. Stanislaus Catholic Church (the second-oldest Polish Catholic Church in the USA). Equally visit-worthy is the Lone Star Motorcycle Museum, the Town Mountain Miniatures Museum, and Polly's Chapel - the picturesque church hand-built in 1882 by Mexican-born scout turned minister Jose Policarpio &rdquoPolly&rdquo Rodriguez.
Suggested holidays: Self-Drive Talkin' Texas &ndash takes you from Dallas Fort Worth to Austin, with two nights in Bandera and then onto San Antonio finishing in Houston. Following a similar route Saddle Up to Texas - Family Self-Drive, has a three night stay at a ranch near Bandera.
Claim to fame: At an elevation of 9,180-feet in the heart of the Million Dollar Highway, and nestled between two rugged San Juan Mountain passes, Colorado's so-called &ldquoMining Town That Never Quit" grew tenfold following 1873&rsquos Brunot Treaty that gave up more than four million acres of the San Juan Mountains (it was previously held as a Ute reservation). As more settlers flooded into Silverton spurred by the promise of riches around the rivers and creeks, it became a hub for the many small towns accumulating around the biggest mines: Gladstone, Eureka, Animas Forks, Howardsville, Red Mountain, Chattanooga, and more. During this time, it was as famous for its &ldquoNotorious Blair Street&rdquo (the four-block seedy red light district lined with a vast number of dance halls, saloons, and bordellos) as for its Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad - the narrow-gauge railroad laid in 1882 that travels over 45 miles of track between Silverton and Durango.
See and do: Board the northern terminus on the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad tour, visit the San Juan County Historical Society Mining Heritage Centre housed in the old Silverton jail, and hang out in the lobby of the Victorian-era Grand Imperial. An absolute must is the Old Hundred Gold Mine Tour - a one-hour guided tour where you&rsquoll get ride an electric mine train one-third of a mile deep into the heart of the Galena Mountain and also watch mining demos using air-powered drills, slushers, and mucking machines dating as far back as the 1930's.
Suggested holiday: The Magnificent Southwest - This tour has already had a mention, but it really does tick so many boxes if you&rsquore looking to discover the history of America whilst exploring spectacular landscapes.
Claim to fame: Much more than just a gateway for Yellowstone National Park, this self-proclaimed &ldquoRodeo Capital of the World&rdquo was named in honour of William Frederick Cody &ndash the charismatic American showman known by local folk as Buffalo Bill (or sometimes The Colonel). Anyone wanting to get to grips with the buckaroo spirit of the Wild West will be rewarded with a dizzying amount of attractions that serve as a reminder of the town&rsquos past not least in the downtown area that teems with cowboy apparel shops, atmospheric saloons, and wallet-friendly steakhouses. It&rsquos also home to the Old Trail Town - an awesome collection of artifacts such as the grave of mountain man John Johnson, the original cabins used by Wild West outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a saloon frequented by the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang, and the home of Curley - the Crow Indian scout who famously survived the Battle of the Little Big Horn.
See and do: Visit the giant Buffalo Bill Centre of the West for its five themed museums (Buffalo Bill Museum, Plains Indians Museum, Whitney Western Art Museum, Draper Natural History Museum, and Cody Firearms Museum), book a ranch tour to learn how to safely shoot a rifle, and take a drive on Buffalo Bill Scenic Byway - the road connecting Cody to Yellowstone&rsquos east entrance. If you&rsquore here between June and August, the nightly Cody Nite Rodeo is a must-do for its bucking broncos, lasso-swinging cowboys, fearless horse riders, and audience sing-a-longs.
Suggested holidays: To spend time in Cody and experience a slice of the Real America then this is the road trip for you - Self-Drive Wyoming's Wind River Country. Cody also features on our epic Great American Road Trip and also on this brilliant motorhome holiday Cowboy Country and Yellowstone by Motorhome
American West in pictures, 1860s-1870s
A man sits in a wooden boat with a mast on the edge of the Colorado River in the Black Canyon, Mojave County, Arizona. At this time, photographer Timothy O’Sullivan was working as a military photographer, for Lt. George Montague Wheeler’s U.S. Geographical Surveys West of the One Hundredth Meridian. Photo taken in 1871, from expedition camp 8, looking upstream.
O’Sullivan’s pictures were among the first to record the prehistoric ruins, Navajo weavers, and pueblo villages of the Southwest. In contrast to the Asian and Eastern landscape fronts, the subject matter he focused on was a new concept. It involved taking pictures of nature as an untamed, pre-industrialized land without the use of landscape painting conventions. O’Sullivan Above all, O’Sullivan captured, for the first time on film, the natural beauty of the
Pah-Ute (Paiute) Indian group, near Cedar, Utah, in 1872.
The completion of the railroads to the West following the Civil War opened up vast areas of the region to settlement and economic development. White settlers from the East poured across the Mississippi to mine, farm, and ranch. African-American settlers also came West from the Deep South, convinced by promoters of all-black Western towns that prosperity could be found there. Chinese railroad workers further added to the diversity of the region’s population.
Settlement from the East transformed the Great Plains. The huge herds of American bison that roamed the plains were virtually wiped out, and farmers plowed the natural grasses to plant wheat and other crops. The cattle industry rose in importance as the railroad provided a practical means for getting the cattle to market.
Twin buttes stand near Green River City, Wyoming, photographed in 1872.
The loss of the bison and growth of white settlement drastically affected the lives of the Native Americans living in the West. In the conflicts that resulted, the American Indians, despite occasional victories, seemed doomed to defeat by the greater numbers of settlers and the military force of the U.S. government. By the 1880s, most American Indians had been confined to reservations, often in areas of the West that appeared least desirable to white settlers.
The cowboy became the symbol for the West of the late 19th century, often depicted in popular culture as a glamorous or heroic figure. The stereotype of the heroic white cowboy is far from true, however. The first cowboys were Spanish vaqueros, who had introduced cattle to Mexico centuries earlier. Black cowboys also rode the range. Furthermore, the life of the cowboy was far from glamorous, involving long, hard hours of labor, poor living conditions, and economic hardship.
The myth of the cowboy is only one of many myths that have shaped our views of the West in the late 19th century. Recently, some historians have turned away from the traditional view of the West as a frontier, a “meeting point between civilization and savagery” in the words of historian Frederick Jackson Turner. They have begun writing about the West as a crossroads of cultures, where various groups struggled for property, profit, and cultural dominance. Think about these differing views of the history of the West as you examine the documents in this collection.
Members of Clarence King’s Fortieth Parallel Survey team, near Oreana, Nevada, in 1867.
The Pyramid and Domes, a line of dome-shaped tufa rocks in Pyramid Lake, Nevada, seen in 1867.
Panoramic view of tents and a camp identified as “Camp Beauty”, rock towers and canyon walls in Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona. Tents and possibly a lean-to shelter stand on the canyon floor, near trees and talus. Photographed in 1873.
Old Mission Church, Zuni Pueblo, New Mexico. View from the plaza in 1873.
Boat crew of the “Picture” at Diamond Creek. Photo shows photographer Timothy O’Sullivan, fourth from left, with fellow members of the Wheeler survey and Native Americans, following ascent of the Colorado River through the Black Canyon in 1871.
Browns Park, Colorado, 1872.
Shoshone Falls, Snake River, Idaho. A view across top of the falls in 1874.
A man sits on a rocky shore beside the Colorado River in Iceberg Canyon, on the border of Mojave County, Arizona, and Clark County, Nevada in 1871.
Timothy O’Sullivan’s darkroom wagon, pulled by four mules, entered the frame at the right side of the photograph, reached the center of the image, and turned around, heading back out of the frame. Footprints lead from the wagon toward the camera, revealing the photographer’s path. Photo taken in 1867, in the Carson Sink, part of Nevada’s Carson Desert.
The mining town of Gold Hill, just south of Virginia City, Nevada, in 1867.
A wooden balanced incline used for gold mining, at the Illinois Mine in the Pahranagat Mining District, Nevada in 1871. An ore car would ride on parallel tracks connected to a pulley wheel at the top of tracks.
In 1867, O’Sullivan traveled to Virginia City, Nevada to document the activities at the Savage and the Gould and Curry mines on the Comstock Lode, the richest silver deposit in America. Working nine hundred feet underground, lit by an improvised flash — a burning magnesium wire, O’Sullivan photographed the miners in tunnels, shafts, and lifts.
The head of Canyon de Chelly, looking past walls that rise some 1,200 feet above the canyon floor, in Arizona in 1873.
Headlands north of the Colorado River Plateau, 1872.
Native American (Paiute) men, women and children sit or stand and pose in rows under a tree near probably Cottonwood Springs (Washoe County), Nevada, in 1875.
The junction of Green and Yampah Canyons, in Utah, in 1872.
Nearly 150 years ago, photographer O’Sullivan came across this evidence of a visitor to the West that preceded his own expedition by another 150 years — A Spanish inscription from 1726. This close-up view of the inscription carved in the sandstone at Inscription Rock (El Morro National Monument), New Mexico reads, in English: “By this place passed Ensign Don Joseph de Payba Basconzelos, in the year in which he held the Council of the Kingdom at his expense, on the 18th of February, in the year 1726”.
Aboriginal life among the Navajo Indians. Near old Fort Defiance, New Mexico, in 1873.
The Canyon of Lodore, Colorado, in 1872.
View of the White House, Ancestral Pueblo Native American (Anasazi) ruins in Canyon de Chelly, Arizona, in 1873. The cliff dwellings were built by the Anasazi more than 500 years earlier. At bottom, men stand and pose on cliff dwellings in a niche and on ruins on the canyon floor. Climbing ropes connect the groups of men.
The “Nettie”, an expedition boat on the Truckee River, western Nevada, in 1867.
Man bathing in Pagosa Hot Spring, Colorado, in 1874.
A distant view of Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1873.
Maiman, a Mojave Indian, guide and interpreter during a portion of the season in the Colorado country, in 1871.
Alta City, Little Cottonwood, Utah, ca. 1873.
Cathedral Mesa, Colorado River, Arizona, 1871.
Big Cottonwood Canyon, Utah, in 1869. Note man and horse near the bridge at bottom right.
Rock formations in the Washakie Badlands, Wyoming, in 1872. A survey member stands at lower right for scale.
Oak Grove, White Mountains, Sierra Blanca, Arizona in 1873.
Shoshone Falls, Idaho, in 1868. Shoshone Falls, near present-day Twin Falls, Idaho, is 212 feet high, and flows over a rim 1,000 feet wide.
The south side of Inscription Rock (now El Morro National Monument), in New Mexico in 1873. Note the small figure of a man standing at bottom center. The prominent feature stands near a small pool of water, and has been a resting place for travelers for centuries. Since at least the 17th century, natives, Europeans, and later American pioneers carved names and messages into the rock face as they paused. In 1906, a law was passed, prohibiting further carving.
Why Americans Love Guns
Americans have always had a romantic notion about the frontier, how we arrived with our guns and honor, and settled the land in a fair fight. The passion extends to firearms themselves, which seem to possess a magic power to turn us into sharp-shooting heroes defending the homestead from any danger. But today our relationship with guns is in turmoil, as the bleak reality impinges on the myths we’ve come to hold dear.
“The better the weaponry, the more people started dying in the Old West.”
After the Autry National Center, a museum dedicated to the American West, was gifted a collection of some of the finest American firearms from the 19th century, the news broke of yet another mass shooting. Overnight, the ethical implications of showcasing and celebrating guns began to weigh heavy on the museum’s curators.
“Firearms were such an important part of the history of the American West, so they have always been featured quite prominently within the museum,” says Jeffrey Richardson, the curator of the new “Western Frontiers: Stories of Fact and Fiction” exhibition, which opened July 27, 2013. “In the past, the museum had treated firearms no differently than any other object, be it a saddle, spurs, or a painting. But as we move forward, we’ve begun to question that particular thinking. The reasoning being that every so often, we have a terrible tragedy that occurs in America, and it gets us debating these national issues about gun control and gun rights.”
Richardson explains that as he and his team at the Los Angeles museum were preparing this new show of opulent Western guns last December, a shooter murdered 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, before taking his own life.
Top: Gary Cooper plays a U.S. marshal in New Mexico territory who has to face-off with his enemy in the 1952 Hollywood Western, “High Noon.” Above: An example of a Kentucky rifle, manufactured by Nicholas Beyer circa 1807, the earliest type of gun on the frontier. (From the George Gamble Collection, Autry National Center)
“Firearms present a unique challenge for curators that just about no other object does,” he says. “Regardless of whether it’s the most beautiful, historically important firearm you’ve ever seen, a firearm is a tool that is designed to hurl an object at speeds that can kill people and animals and cause all sorts of destruction. We can never remove that baggage from a firearm.”
It’s true that the history of United States is inextricably entwined with the history of gun manufacturing. And perhaps that’s why the fervor for unrestricted gun rights never dies down, even when chaos breaks out. Without firearms and the determined settlers carrying them, this country would be a fraction of its size, never realizing what we called the Manifest Destiny to span the American continent coast to coast. But the real history of the Old West is far less noble and clear-cut than the legends we hold in our collective imagination.
This idealized illustration, “A Chancey Shot,” by Harry C. Edwards, graced the cover of a 1914 calendar for Remington-UMC Firearms-Ammunition. (From the George Gamble Collection, Autry National Center)
In the early days of the United States, when the country was comprised of 13 states hugging the East Coast, the West seemed a boundless source of possibility and hope. Any man who wanted a new life could pack up his family and strike out westward in a covered wagon. Bringing an American longrifle, also known as a Kentucky rifle, used for hunting and self-defense, was simply a necessity.
“The notions of what was wrong, what was right, law and order—all of those things were quite amorphous on the American frontier.”
“To get the food that was necessary to live, you had to hunt,” Richardson says. “In the West, everyone relied on a hunter, be it someone directly in their camp or someone outside, for their survival. Early settlers had a firearm not only to hunt but to face whatever hostile elements that they might come across—both animals and people. Then, firearms were also used to make war or to keep the peace. And they were used the same way by all people in the American West, by white settlers, Native Americans, and African American Buffalo Soldiers.”
Of course, aside from wild animals and Native Americans unhappy with the invasion, pioneers had to stay alert for bandits, other white folks who decided to survive on the frontier through armed robbery, “pretty much as soon as white Americans got here,” says Bob Boze Bell, the executive editor of “True West” magazine. “I’m sure banditry happened in Native Americans times, too, but when the pioneers got there, they started writing this stuff down, so you get the record of it. Where there isn’t law, you’re going to have gangs of roaming marauders that are looking for plunder. The criminal element was here hundreds of years before the Wild West even, when the Spanish were here. And some Native Americans stole horses from the Spanish to go on raiding parties against other tribes.”
A 1792 map of North America, made by Thomas Brown, shows that Spain had claim to the land west of the Mississippi River. (From the Autry National Center)
At first, the frontier was anything west of the Appalachian Mountains. By the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, the West had been pushed to the other side of the Mississippi River. With the help of the Transcontinental Railroad opened in 1869, civilization swallowed up the last of the American frontier by 1890, just 25 short years after the end of the war. It was the Old West’s last hurrah.
In the early 1800s, “the West just didn’t have that many people in it,” Bell says. “Just prior to the Civil War, in the 1850s, you start seeing settlements throughout the West—pockets, really. After the Civil War and the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, what was a trickle became a deluge. Even then, you had urban areas like Tucson, but you could ride for 10 miles and all of a sudden you were in the middle of nowhere and could be attacked by Mexican contraband people or Native Americans or rogue gangs of white outlaws.”
In the early days, those American rifles, which had to be packed with gunpowder and ammunition through the muzzle for every shot, had nothing on the number of arrows a Native American warrior could shoot at a hapless homesteader in a short amount of time. But in the end, white settlers defeated everyone who laid claim to that land, be it Native Americans or Mexican vaqueros, thanks to rapid advances in American gun technology in the 1800s.
A collection of American longrifles, also called Kentucky rifles. (Via deadlyweapons-army.blogspot.com)
While the rough-and-tumble Westerners had no love for the elite industrialists of the East Coast, ironically, it was those companies and their precision manufacturing that gave the white settlers the upper hand in the 1800s, as they revolutionized gun technology between 1830 and 1870. Certain Native American tribes had access to firearms—which they would also use to lord over enemy tribes—but the white man got the lightest, fastest, and most accurate guns first.
“The protocol of either counting down to draw or allowing the other person to draw first, that’s pure made-up hooey.”
“At the beginning of the 1800s, you had the flintlock system, which required the individual to separately load both the gunpowder and the bullet,” Richardson says. “You had a flint on your gun, and that flint would spark, which would cause the gun powder to ultimately explode, which would cause the projectile to shoot out. It was a very labor-intensive process to load the gun and to clean the gun so it remained accurate. By the time you get to 1900, you have repeating, breech-loading guns using metallic cartridges, which are the types of firearms that we see today.”
The web page for the Weitzenhoffer Fine Arms Gallery at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City explains: “Between 1830 and 1870, firearms technology advanced from muzzle-loading, single-shot weapons employing percussion ignition, to ingenious breech-loading and repeating arms using dependable metallic cartridges. This rapid evolution in design and function coincided with a virtual revolution in the means and methods of industrial production. Initiated and perfected among domestic arms makers, this ‘American System of Manufacturing’ relied on specialized machinery, precision tooling and gauging, and mass-production principles like the uniformity of constituent parts and the division of labor among trained mechanics rather than artisan gunsmiths. Employing this ‘system,’ American arms makers produced hundreds of thousands of machine-made firearms that often rivaled traditional European standards of craftsmanship while at the same time providing greater mechanical ingenuity and superior firepower.”
This 1864 cased presentation New Model Army Revolver, manufactured by E. Remington & Sons and engraved by Louis D. Nimschke, belonged to U.S. Major General George G. Meade, who defeated Confederate General Robert E. Lee in the Battle of Gettysburg. (From the George Gamble Collection, Autry National Center)
Samuel Colt patented his design for a repeating, revolving-cylinder in 1836. His wasn’t the first revolver—in fact, he simply improved upon Elisha Collier’s 1814 flintlock revolver. Colt’s game-changing innovation was making every part of a handgun by machine, so each piece of a revolver was uniform and interchangeable with any other gun of that same model. But Colt’s Patent Fire Arms Manufacturing Company, based in Hartford, Connecticut, didn’t rely on machines alone. In the early 1850s, Colt brought in a stable of brilliant artisans, metal workers and engravers, who could personalize any Colt firearm, making it a unique work of art.
When Colt’s patent expired in 1857, Remington Arms Company of Ilion, New York, got in on the revolver action, producing high-quality and reliable machine-made firearms that rivaled Colt’s. Around the same time, Horace Smith and Daniel B. Wesson, based in Springfield, Massachusetts, produced an even better revolver featuring a bored-through cylinder and self-contained metal cartridges. Smith & Wesson guns quickly became the favorites of soldiers and lawmen like Wyatt Earp. However, when Colt issued its Single Action Army Revolver—also known as Colt .45—in 1873, it quickly became the most popular gun on the frontier, and it’s often referred to as “the gun that won the West.”
However, that title is a matter of dispute. After all, handguns, like revolvers, are only effective at a close range. Long arms, such as rifles, were more important on the frontier, because they can hit a target from a distance.
An unnamed Union sergeant is armed with 1st model revolvers, a Colt Dragoon and a Colt Army, as well as a sword in this ambrotype. (From the Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs, Library of Congress)
While Christian Sharps developed a successful single-shot breech-loading long arm in 1848, many inventors were attempting to make “repeating” or multi-shot long arms as well, but most of these early models failed in the market. In the 1850s, Smith and Wesson tinkered with a repeating rifle that had first been patented by Walter Hunt in 1849 and then improved upon by Lewis Jennings. Wesson and Smith first established the Volcanic Repeating Arms company in 1855, but their less-than-successful endeavor was quickly taken over by an investor named Oliver Winchester, who forced the founders out in 1856 and relocated to New Haven, Connecticut.
“For those who did not experience the frontier, Wild West shows solidified that connection between firearms and the American West.”
As Smith and Wesson went on to build their own successful namesake revolver company, Winchester charged plant foreman Benjamin Henry with perfecting the repeating rifle. Winchester’s New Haven Arms Company produced the first Henry rifle in 1860, which was so popular with the Union Army during the Civil War that soldiers, who were never officially issued those guns, would buy them with their own money. The Union soldiers were also sometimes armed with repeating rifles developed by Christian Spencer. Confederate soldiers, who were still using muzzle-loading single-shot weapons, were stunned.
After a financial dispute with Henry, Winchester organized his company again, this time as the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, and had his engineers once again improve upon Henry’s repeating rifle design, issuing the first Winchester rifle in 1866. However, it was the Model of 1873, with its center-fire cartridge, that dominated the long-arms market in the late 19th century, rivaling the Colt .45 for the designation of the legendary “gun that won the West.”
Top: This 3rd Model 1876 Carbine—manufactured by Winchester Repeating Arms Company in 1884 and engraved by Louis D. Nimschke—belonged to President Theodore Roosevelt. (From the Autry National Center) Above: This Winchester repeating rifle, photographed in 1921, is thought to have belonged to outlaw Jesse James. (From the Library of Congress)
Richardson makes a case that the Winchester was arguably the most important gun on the frontier, because it also made great strides for hunters. “As guns got lighter, more powerful, and more accurate over time, it allowed individuals to hunt at greater distances,” Richardson says. “While we don’t think of the buffalo, or more accurately, the bison, as being this dangerous wild animal, it certainly was. You didn’t know exactly what would happen when you got up close to one. As the technology improved, men were able to hunt buffalo at greater and greater distances, which was obviously a lot safer for them, but it wasn’t a good thing for the buffalo.”
But the buffalo weren’t the only ones that were suffering at the hands of new weapons. “The better the weaponry, the more people started dying,” Bell says, although never in the sort of rule-abiding shootouts seen in Hollywood Westerns, such as “High Noon” or countless John Wayne films.
“The protocol of either counting down to draw or allowing the other person to draw first, that’s pure made-up hooey,” he says. “In the real old West, there were stand-up face-to-face gunfights, but they were much more straight-up, go-to-fighting kind of affairs. Up through the 1860s and 1870s, everyone was heeled, which means that they were armed, so you had more people cocking guns in other people’s faces. And of course, in most of the fights, the idea was to get the drop on the other person, and that meant, more often than not, shooting from a safe place in an ambush, or shooting someone in the back, unfortunately.”
Illustrator Frederic Remington toured the Old West in 1881 just before it slipped away and created iconic images, such as this 1887 oil painting, “An Incident in the Opening Up of a Cattle Country.” (From the Autry National Center)
Hearing that, you’d think that people living in the West survived bloody horrors every day, living in a state of post-trauma shock where they constantly had to watch their backs. But the truth is, if you weren’t in the wrong place at the wrong time, you could go decades without witnessing violence in West.
“There are a thousand movies made about them, so you’d think that there were gunfights every day,” Bell says. “And when you read the diaries or you talk to the old-timers, they’ll say things like, ‘Why, I never saw anybody pull a gun in anger, and I lived on the range for 40 years.’ Did most people settle their differences in court? Yeah, probably. Did they use their fists more than their guns? Yes. Were there a lot of deaths from shooting in saloons? Oh yeah. It was a wild time. It’s safe to say that the West had its moments. And what we celebrate in legend are those dramatic moments. They weren’t all the time, and they were not like Hollywood portrays, but if you portrayed it real, nobody would go see the movie.”
Historians continue to debate how “wild” the Wild West actually was, Richardson says. Most towns were not as lawless as they were portrayed, while others, like Dodge City, Kansas, and Tombstone, Arizona, went through extraordinarily violent periods.
An engraving of a Colt that appeared in “Four Thousand Years of the World’s Progress from the Early Ages to the Present Time,” by Samuel J. Burr, published in 1878. (From the Library of Congress)
“Some historians have argued that Western frontier towns were safer than modern cities, but Los Angeles, for example, had much higher crime rates in 1900 than even today, which people might be surprised to learn,” Richardson says. “In Western towns, the lawmen oftentimes found themselves on the other side of the law. The notions of what was wrong, what was right, law and order—all of those things were quite amorphous on the American frontier. Sometimes the good guys did bad, and sometimes the bad guys did good.”
And because some of the guns from the 1800s are so aesthetically pleasing, it’s easy to forget their capacity for devastation. Like Colt, Winchester also offered a wide variety of ways to have your gun embellished and personalized. The most opulent guns were rarely used they often became status symbols for wealthy ranchers and entrepreneurs, who passed them down as prized family heirlooms.
“A common individual, be it a typical settler or a typical law enforcement officer, would’ve carried a very basic gun,” Richardson says. “All of the examples in the ‘Western Frontiers’ exhibition are superior, exceptional examples of their type, beautifully engraved, in excellent condition, owned by historic individuals. We have examples that are gold-plated or silver-plated, with ivory or mother-of-pearl grips, gold inlay, inscriptions, and engraving.
This 3rd Model 1866 Rifle was manufactured by Winchester Repeating Arms Company in 1871 and engraved by Conrad or John Ulrich. (From the George Gamble Collection, Autry National Center)
“We do have one example that shows wear from use, which is Teddy Roosevelt’s Colt Single Action Army, his favorite Western revolver,” he continues. “That particular gun, which originally had gold-plating and these wonderful ivory grips, is beautifully engraved with T.R.’s monogram on one side and a bison on the other, which was the first big-game Western animal that Theodore Roosevelt ever killed. But because Roosevelt used it every day—he carried it with him, he took it in and out of his holster—all of the gold plating has been completely removed from the gun through wear.”
“Up through the 1870s, everyone was heeled, so you had more people cocking guns in other people’s faces.”
Even more guns flooded the West at the end of the Civil War in 1865, as disgruntled Confederate soldiers and sympathizers angry about the Reconstruction began to form outlaw gangs like the James Gang. “The Civil War created the dynamic where both sides wanted part of the West, and that created conflict,” Bell says. “After it was over, then you had this collision of people from Texas, who were Southerners, meeting the people from the North, who were Yankees, in the West. And you had the people who were coming up from Mexico. Then you add all the Native American tribes already here, and you got a recipe for fighting.”
Also, during the frontier days, the U.S. government would send marshals to keep law and order in towns springing up in the West, who may or may not have gotten along with the locally appointed sheriff. Making things even more complicated, the local lawmen might own a controlling interest in the mines nearby or the town’s gambling hall.
This presentation New Model 1 1/2 Revolver, manufactured by Smith & Wesson in 1870 and engraved by Gustave Young, belonged to President Ulysses S. Grant. (From the George Gamble Collection, Autry National Center)
“There were lots of jurisdiction problems—and then there were just problems with having too much territory to cover,” Bell says. “In Lincoln County, this huge county in New Mexico, a judge would travel to a jurisdiction once a year, or maybe twice a year, to hear all the complaints and warrants for murder. By the time he got there, more people were dead. That was a case of the law being few and far between. In that same county in 1878, you had the Lincoln County War, where two rival camps went to different towns and got sworn in as lawmen. Then they were out hunting and killing each other. So then you had too much law.”
Most towns would only have a couple law enforcement officials, say a sheriff and his deputy, so if they heard a known outlaw was approaching town, they’d form a vigilante committee. Of course, they didn’t have to adhere to the notion of “innocent until proven guilty.” “When a group mentality took hold and vigilante justice would be forced upon individuals,” Richardson says, “it was usually to keep minorities down.”
“Every town had a vigilante group,” Bell says. “If keeping the peace got too much for the lawmen, who were usually only one or two people, they would form a vigilante group and they would act to protect the interests of the town. Of course, sometimes they went too far and they got on a hanging jag. The next thing you know they would hang 10 people, and nine of them were innocent.”
A post-death photo, known as a memento mori, of the Dalton Gang, (from left) Bill Power, Bob Dalton, Grat Dalton, and Dick Broadwell. (From Cramers Art Rooms of Cherryvale, Kansas, via WikiCommons)
Well-known outlaws like Jesse James and Billy the Kid were protected by impoverished locals, who benefited from the bounty the criminals pilfered. “As long as they had local protection, they could act almost with impunity,” Bell says. “Southerners hated the Yankees. When the James brothers were robbing trains and banks, most people in Missouri, and certainly the South, didn’t have any love for the banks, so they didn’t care.
“But the James Gang made a mistake when they went to Minnesota because they tried to rob the bank in Northfield and they thought that it was going to be a pushover,” he continues. “The local people had money in that bank, and they fought back and defeated the gang. The same thing is true with Billy the Kid. The Spanish-speaking community loved and protected and hid him. But he finally pushed it too far and lost his base of support.”
Cowboys and ranchers, as it turned out, could be just as much of a menace. Traditionally, ranchers grazed their cattle on the open range, and before settlement, the West had plenty of it. Post Civil War, the demand for beef was growing on the East Coast, where ranchers could get $40 a head for cattle (as opposed to $4 in the West). Ranchers from Texas, for example, would hire cowboys to drive their cattle to the railhead at Dodge City, Kansas, where they would be shipped back East.
Saddlemaker Edward H. Bohlin owned this cased Bisley Model Single Action Army Revolver, manufactured by Colt’s Patent Fire Arms Manufacturing Company, circa 1903. He engraved it himself, and Gene Autry eventually bought this gun. (From the Autry National Center)
But homesteading acts and the Transcontinental Railroad brought more and more settlers, who established farms and put up barbed wire fences right across cattle trails. When competitive ranchers saw how much this hurt rival cattlemen, they’d erect fences everywhere, even on public land. Angry cowboys cut every fence they encountered, set the posts on fire, or organized vigilante posses to retaliate against their enemies with violence. And every cattleman had it in for the shepherds, whose flocks destroyed good grasslands.
“Where there isn’t law, you’re going to have gangs of roaming marauders that are looking for plunder.”
“What really happened in the Range Wars is that you start to get the big, financed corporations from San Francisco, Chicago, New York, and London buying up the ranches,” Bell says. “It always starts with the little prospector and the little guy, and he comes upon something. Within hours, they’re bought out for $500-$1,000. All of a sudden you have another buyout, just like what’s happening today, in cable or with the Internet. A big fish is taking a bite of a little fish, and then the next thing you know you got two huge juggernaut companies, and they slug it out. What happened with the cattle: You had little cattlemen and little farmers, and now here we are, 125 years later, and Monsanto runs the entire Midwest.”
Yes, most violence in the West was about money, and explicitly competing business interests. Even the most famous gunfight, the shootout at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona, had its roots in business: the Earp family, the town’s lawmen, had mining-interest disputes with the ranching Clanton and McLaury families. And over time, resentments simmered in myriad ways. The Clantons (from Texas) and McLaurys (from Iowa) identified as Southerners, while the Earps and the townspeople (from Iowa), identified as Northerners.
The Dodge City Peace Commission, a vigilante group pictured in 1883, featured (from left) Charlie Bassett, W.H. Harris, Wyatt Earp, Luke Short, Frank McLain, Bat Masterson, and Neal Brown. (Photo by Camillus S. Fly, via WikiCommons)
“The gunfight at the O.K. Corral, which is a very well-known event, was something that had social, political, cultural ramifications,” Richardson says. “You had two sides. One was Northern Republicans one was Southern Democrats. They had conflicting mining interest, and there was a love triangle. All of these things led up to the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. The actual shootout, which lasted 30 seconds, was ostensibly over gun control: The Earp faction, which was representing law and order, asked the cowboys to disarm as they were making their way into town at Tombstone. Well, the cowboys did not do so, and that ostensibly led to the fight.”
That’s right, the West had gun control. In the early days, the Western towns were largely populated with rowdy young men working as miners or cowboys. But as more white families flooded into the West, people started to be concerned about safety. Starting in the 1880s, many of these towns started to post gun-control ordinances that required anyone coming into town to check their guns at the local law-enforcement office or the hotel. “As they became civilized and people brought their wives and families out, they didn’t want a lot of gunplay,” Bell says. Of course, outlaws completely disregarded those laws.
On his way to Nome, Alaska, in 1900, Wyatt Earp checked his pistol at the U.S. marshal’s office in Juneau, Alaska, but he failed to claim it. It’s now on display at the Red Dog Saloon in Juneau. (Photo by Eric V. Blanchard, via WikiCommons)
The 1890 U.S. Census revealed that the West was too well-populated with American citizens to be considered the frontier anymore. Idaho and Wyoming territories became states that year only Utah, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Arizona territories remained. But pop culture, in the form of traveling vaudeville shows, had already begun to mythologize the Wild West. In fact, a writer named Ned Buntline produced one of the first Western dramas, “Scouts of the Prairie,” in 1872, based on the life of and starting bison hunter, “Buffalo” Bill Cody. Cody went on to launch his own circus-like traveling show, “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West,” in 1883.
“As America started to move away from that frontier past, nostalgia built up and people wanted to see it before it disappeared,” Richardson says. “For individuals on the East Coast, one way for them to do that was to go to a Wild West show, which was packaged as a historical re-creation, as fact. Of course, certain things were embellished for the sake of drama and adventure. Then film and television followed upon those myths. People first saw Westerns at the movies. They just assumed that this has to be exactly like it was. And the same thing occurred with television.
Sharpshooter Annie Oakley, pictured in the “Police Gazette” newspaper in 1899, would show off her talent in “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” show. (From the Autry National Center)
“The Wild West shows had shooting competitions and exhibitions because, again, firearms were so intricately tied to the narrative of the West,” he continues. “So for individuals who did not have that real experience of the frontier, Wild West shows solidified that connection between firearms and the American West the same way that the television industry would 50 years later.”
Bell says it makes sense that we created these myths about the Old West because the truth is too uncomfortably gray, too much like our regular lives. “When you go to a movie or read a story, you want to see archetypes and want to see conflicts resolved,” he says. “That’s why you go to the movies or read a book, you want to escape from the fact that everything’s pretty darn gray.”
The simpler the Wild West tropes got, the more damage they did to American culture. In the 1950s, mothers began to complain about all the violence in TV westerns, so the studios responded by toning it down. The honorable hero would shoot the gun out of his enemy’s hand and win a gunfight without hurting anyone.
Three of Annie Oakley’s guns, gold-plated cased presentation pistols, manufactured by Smith & Wesson and J. Stevens Arms & Tool Company, circa 1891. (From the Autry National Center)
“The Hollywood version of the Wild West had a huge impact,” Bell says. “One of the most shocking things in the Vietnam War, which was all run by Baby Boomers, is we had an actual Army edict that we wouldn’t fire unless we were fired upon. Well, that came straight out of a diet of Westerns that came out after mothers got upset about all the violence on TV. All of a sudden we get into a war, and they’re saying we can’t fire unless we’re fired upon? That’s straight out of the myth of the Old West, but it never happened in the Old West. It’s a dangerous belief.”
Still, our frontier roots mean that Americans may never give up the idea that we’re all gun-wielding cowboys who can make it on our own in the wild.
“Other cultures didn’t have the resources of land that the United States did,” Richardson says. “That’s one of the many things that set apart the American experience from, say, Europe or Asia. Of course, ‘open land’ is a huge misnomer, as if the land was not in use, as if there were not people here. But still this notion of the availability or the supposed availability of land certainly determined America’s arc. It determined American history.”
In the 1958 TV show “Wanted: Dead or Alive,” Steve McQueen carried this shortened Model 1892 Carbine, manufactured by Winchester Repeating Arms Company in 1908, known as the “Mare’s Laig.” (From the Autry National Center)
(To learn more about the history of the firearms that “won the West,” visit the Autry National Center in Los Angeles or the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. To read about the realities of gunfights in the Old West, check out “True West” magazine.)
36 comments so far
Great article! Fascinating historical accounts with illustrative rare photos of the “Wild
West” — i.e., the Dalton Gang, Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, etc. But there are other reasons why Americans love guns: Liberty and protection from government tyranny!
Thank you for this great article!
This article misses a few things. The Europeans who came to America were aggressive people. The people in Europe who were content, or who didn’t want to change their situation, stayed. The people who were aggressive risk-takers came here. They knew they would face violence here, and so the only people who came here were the ones willing to do that. We selected the most aggressive and, yes, violent people from Europe to be the founding population of America. That’s a huge factor.
The other factor which no one talks about is America’s history of violent racial conflict. Usually when you have two different ethnic groups sharing the same territory, the interactions are unhappy, often violent. America is no exception. Europe and the peaceful countries in Asia (Japan, Korea) have none of this conflict. America has a lot more problems than Europe because we don’t have the same demographics as Europe. I promise you, as Europe is now vigorously importing violent third world immigrants, who care exploding the crime rate there, Europeans will soon enough discover a love for guns and CCWs.
I don’t get the gun fetish at all. If it’s in essence a Hollywood inspired form of nostalgia, then why don’t we have a “horse fetish”, or “butter churn fetish”? After many years of wondering about guns, I’ve pretty much concluded that Americans are just grown up kids, and they just like their toys in the same fashion they like HumVees, Dirt Bikes and other ‘big kid toys’.
Interesting, but the notion that the US Army’s rules of engagement in Vietnam were driven by concern for America’s Mom’s or the rules of the Old West is laughable. Do a little googling, please.
The photos are a treat but I have a few quibbles with the writer’s thought process. To walk down a single path, the cowboy mythos, to explain the love of guns is a bit off-putting. My love of guns comes from being taught at age ten the care and handling of guns by my father, an officer in the US Army. At one time in his military career he had been a Military Policeman and had trained in martial arts, self defense and situational awareness. He did his best to pass this on to me and one of the most memorable things was his gun training. He did not hunt.
Many people derive their love of guns from this same fount. Childhood memories of a father teaching a son or daughter to hunt with the concomitant gun training necessary.
As to the Old West, I’m a Texan and I think I have a clear idea of how to separate the sheep from the goats when it comes to things “western”. We do have schools and universities here and writers and researchers on the subject who are widely read. Perhaps the idea of the gun as an icon rather than a tool is not as widespread as you posit.
This article’s premise seems to rely heavily on some weird assumption that most Americans are unable to differentiate between the real history of our nation and the fiction of Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley, pulp novels, and TV Westerns. The author should have spent more time proving her theory of widespread romanticism being central to gun culture rather than rehashing American history we learned about as children in middle shool. If anything, the Americans that hate guns rely on the romanticised version of the Wild West to bolster their claims that private gun ownership is a threat to society, completely contrary to her claim that it is why all Americans love guns.
America is country formed by revolutionaries who achieved their ends with guns. This mindset has never changed all problems can be solved with a gun.
Firearms are a symbol of freedom from oppression for Americans. It is not the west that fostered this. It is the Revolutionary War, being able to provide for self and family, etc… The idea of self sufficiency and responsibility that drive the culture. It is not the tool but what it represents and what it enables.
You do not have to wait until after a crime to get protection. You can provide in a very primitive sense, for your family and community, that you are an adult, responsible and can stand on your own. The warrior creed may play into a portion of this but it is the similar to many cultures right of passage to adulthood.
That is the symbology of the firearm. Self sufficiency in life. A symbol of honor, discipline and courage. To master this tool requires concentration, discipline and fortitude. And above all freedom from those who feel the need to control or dictate how others should live.
Except that firearms are not “unique”. Museums have crossbows, bows, atl-atls, swords, spears, maces, halberds, daggers and all sorts of other weapons.
The discussion of Frontier Influence on the Modern Mind will inevitably become the wider focus as the socially minded citizen continues this evolving experiment. Considering the forum in which we find this article it is appropriate. As a Kiowa raised with those stories of fighting Spaniards, cowboys, and pretty much everybody, this sense of hanging on the old ways remains. Aho Lisa!
because there’s an industry-sponsored lobby that’s making a lot of effort and spending a lot in order to make them a mix of cultural icon + cult, and ensure high sales, whatever the cost in human lives and suffering ?
Many ship loads of different kinds of people from all countries came to America while fleeing from oppression, proverty, as well as adventure from all directions around the world. Today all freedoms America once had has this country under the same and worse oppression than what our ancestors excaped from. There are good and bad standing on every corner .. As in the past guns aren`t to blame for what has happened it is people that kill people. The history of guns and its place in history is wonderful.
I’ve never understood the anti-gun notion.
People have different interests. Why can’t that be understood? Most gun owners are law-abiding citizens that never hurt anyone. There’s a lot of things that can be done with guns, and enjoyed. Hunting (for sport and survival), entertainment (see: Wild West Show), trap/target shooting, and many even like to collect guns.
There’s several things that I don’t enjoy or “love,” but you don’t see me calling for a ban on them. Nor do I lump all those people together like “Americans loving guns.”
Ron B. Really sums this up well. Americans have a cultural predisposition to simplicity. i.e. we don’t hate paying taxes, we hate the nagging suspicion that we are paying more than we should, and that others are exploiting the complexity to not pay what they should. Guns are just another form of simplicity. Contrary to a popular saying, violence solves LOTS of things quickly and with simple rules, and guns level that playing field.
Americans are really blind to nearly everything that dont fit the echo chamber.
What we is the great civilian arms race it started with pistols no m16 ak47
But it will not stop there the bad guys will be bad guys and will figure out how to use chemical and biological weapons exploding bullets and M203 40 mm grenade launcher just a matter of time. Air power against cop cars in crime.
It will all keep escalating and you aint seen nothing till very smart people print their own 3d inventions.
They are not going to take your wallet or your phone they are going to make you use it to log on to your bank account and transfer everything you got.
Wait till a bad recession depression comes because of a stupid political party and most of the safety net is destroyed.
Then the cops are scared and the army does try to take the guns.
The 2 acr disarmed the republican guard in 2 days how long you?
I’d like to answer to Joe (comment No.2)… Europeans who went to the US were mostly poor people in search of an opportunity, not aggressive people. Ok, adventurers and maybe some bad-to-do guys went there too, but in any case I don’t think it was a massive “bad Europeans” invasion. At the beginning Australia was mostly populated with convicts and up to some point Canadians had to face a pretty similar history to that of the US people. Both Australians and Canadians also used a hell of a lot of guns and other fire arms and I don’t see any massive shooting happening in their countries…
I quite agree with Ron B. (No. 7) “America is country formed by revolutionaries who achieved their ends with guns. This mindset has never changed all problems can be solved with a gun”, and partly agree with John Reagan (No.3) when he says “I’ve pretty much concluded that Americans are just grown up kids, and they just like their toys in the same fashion they like HumVees, Dirt Bikes and other ‘big kid toys’.”
On the other hand I totally agree with Alice Venables, but I think she was lucky to be taught by her father to respet both people and arms. unfortunately not everybody has that approachment to arms.
By the way, can anybody tell me when did the first massive shooting happened in the US?
The Viet-Nam war was run / controlled / mishandled by the World War I and World War II generations, not by the teenagers who were conscripted to fight in it.
For those living in the large cities of the USA, the gun and hunting is still a way of life in the rural area’s of America. People in those areas still depend on deer and other animals for food. While most people go to the local store for their food there are those that depend soley on themself for dinner. It is also a issue of security. When law enforcement is not near by they must protect them self and their
Life on a small farm today teaches that guns did more in rural America than fight or hunt. Varmints are a big problem now, and were a bigger problem then. Urban Americans have no concept of shooting a coyote that is going for the recently born calves or other vulnerable farm animals. Wolves no longer run in packs, but they once attacked and killed children.
One cannot be without a gun on such a farm. It would be death.
A males desire for a gun is based simply on a desire for power. It is most common among those males who basically never matured past their teen years. Men who are educated or wise know that real power comes from knowledge and accomplishments.
What is your desire to engage in ham-handed, reductive pop-psychological analysis based on? Ignorance, arrogance or some mix thereof? )
BrainFromArous asks whether my October 6 comment, to the effect that immature males love of guns is based on a desire for power, is due to my ignorance or arrogance, or both. The answer, of course, is that it may well be based on both. In this case, I like to think that the main basis for my opinion is due to my personal experience with guns and males who are attracted to them. However, the only relevant question is: is my comment correct? BrainFromArous avoids answering that question, and instead chooses to make an irrelevant personal criticism. If he does choose to answer it, he likewise will have to admit his ignorance and arrogance, but the important thing will not be the extent of his ignorance or arrogance, but what is his answer to the comment?
It’s interesting to me as someone who trains many new and newer shooters in defensive firearms techniques, (mostly women lately btw) that I’ve never ONCE in all that time heard a student being nostalgic about the “Old West.” I’ve never once heard a student ask about Wyatt Earp or Bill Hickock, even though we do talk a little about the history of firearms.
The only people I ever hear talking about “the old west” in relation to guns are those who are convinced we should outlaw guns.
Of course, Richardson might have just as easily said…
“Automobiles present a unique challenge for curators that just about no other object does,” he says. “Regardless of whether it’s the most beautiful, historically important automobile you’ve ever seen, an automobile is a tool that is designed to hurl an object at speeds that can kill people and animals and cause all sorts of destruction. We can never remove that baggage from an automobile.”
Lisa, although this article is well written some of the sweeping generalizations wound me as a human being. The references to the “unsettled west” and “Where there isn’t law, you’re going to have gangs of roaming marauders that are looking for plunder. The criminal element was here hundreds of years before the Wild West even” as if the Native Americans had no law and were not legitimately here well before white aggression. And the “Then you add all the Native American tribes already here, including the most vicious warriors on the face of the earth, the Apaches and the Comanches, and you got a recipe for fighting” as if the native people already living here were some kind of boogeymen.
If you wanted to be more factual you could have included information on how natives were disarmed by the government and not allowed to hunt to feed themselves. Slaughtered repeatedly after being disarmed inside their reservations.
The improvement of the rifle allowed for the wholesale slaughter of millions of bison and helped destroy the native way of life.
I want to apologize to you for hurting you as a human being. That was not might intention, and I am grateful for your post pointing these facts out. I wrote this piece with the assumption that most people are now aware that white European colonists, and later Americans, felt entitled to land that did not belong to them and committed genocide to get it. But I realize now that I should have made that more explicit.
My desire was to talk about the fantasy of “unsettled” land, which of course, led to the genocide—along with the idea that people who were not a part of white culture around the world were subhuman “savages” to be tamed, which I talk about in my other piece on missionaries. I wanted to explore how this idea of “settling” on “free land” hinged very much on this white American ideal of individuals owning property—which, as far I as understand, was not a part of many Native American cultures, if any—and how that led to taking up a gun to protect this staked property, even if the people coming at you had a rightful claim to the land.
To me, the lawlessness remark was more about places that are not densely populated being harder to patrol. Of course, I’ve heard that the continent was much densely populated before the explorers arrived and brought the plague with them, which devastated native communities throughout North and South America. I agree with you about the word “vicious,” so I took it out. I hoped to convey through that quote that the Apaches and Comanches were able to hold their own in terms of fighting battles to stand up for their tribes and their territories. But “vicious” implies “unnecessary cruel” as opposed to proud warriors you should not cross. I also appreciate the reminder of how the loss of the bison wreaked havoc on the native way of life, particular for the nomadic hunting tribes.
Largely, I wanted to convey that none of the people who “won the west” with guns were saintly heroes, as they are often depicted in cowboy movies. As Jeffrey Richardson told me, the word even “winning” implies that someone lost, in this case, through an endless campaign of violence against the people who were there first.
Thank you again for your enlightening post.
I never finished college so technically I am not an educated man but this comment was troubling to me: “When a group mentality took hold and vigilante justice would be forced upon individuals,” Richardson says, “it was usually to keep minorities down.” I see no connection to outlaws coming into town and keeping minorities down, I would be happy to retract this statement if the author could produce some factual data rather than this silly statement. I am in no way condoning vigilante justice and recognize that innocent peeople were hanged I am simply challenging how the author went from a group of armed citizens out to protect the town from outlaws to discriminating against minorities. There are a few things I think are important to call out. Alcohol was a factor in violence then, and it is a factor today the article seems to point at an increase in gun violence in saloons. A gun in the 1800’s was the equivilant of a computer today an angry grizzly bear cannot be reasoned with and without a gun, you were powerless to control your own destiny. Outlaws have been around since the beginning of time and they do not fight fair and are not moral people. A threat to your life can come from nature or a man either way a gun was the ONLY way to protect your family as you were on your own in the wilderness. It is for this reason I respectfully disagree with Portland Oregon here is why. If we are educated, learned, and wise men/women that means we are capable of reason. We are only able to reason with reasonable people being able to reason does not require education, it simply means you lend yourself to reasonable thought. There are some people who do not have compassion for their fellow man, they lack values, and they lack a strong character these people are not capable of reason. Individuals and groups like this only understand one thing and that is strength a gun in the hands of the weak gives them the strength to stand up to the unreasonable element in society. Whether the threat is a bear or a man, having a gun does not mean you are on a power trip. It means you ARE educated and wise enough to realize there are certain elements that cannot be defeated through reason or bargaining. The article was very specific, there were bad people in the 1800’s as the West was being settled most of these bad people were not capable of reasoning. There are bad people today and it is naive to think being educated would allow you the power to control an unreasonable person bent on harming you or your family. As I heard in a movie one time, you can get farther with a kind word and a gun than just a kind word. It is for this reason that I make this closing comment I would rather HAVE a gun and NOT need it, than NEED a gun and not have it.
Thank you for your thoughtful response. I do agree that people may know that the land we all live on was once Indian land. I had too recently reread “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” and this likely made what should have been light reading of an article a bitter pill to swallow. One would think that true American history is taught in school these days but much of the less savory events are glossed over.
Without mentioning the Southern tradition, that white men must all have guns in white-minority areas lest the slaves rise up, as they periodically did, this article is awfully incomplete.
I love guns for the simple reason that I lived through an earthquake. The phones where out, the electricity was out, and even if you called for help no one would answer. Anyone could throw a brick through your window, shoot your dog, and then you. Guns make it possible for a 5″ 120 pound woman to level the playing field when confronted by a man a several inches taller and 100 pounds heavier. That’s all – oh, and they have saved a lot of lives. Gun deaths in the USA are much lower than they are in countries that have strict gun controls – and that is a fact.
The title of your article is “Why Americans Love Guns”. The only answer you give is because of the romantic and factually incorrect notion of the gun’s role in the old west. This is exactly the same as saying that the only reason Americans love cars is because of the romantic notion of independence and mobility brought about by automobiles in the mid 20th century. Sorry, but you are simply WRONG.
Your entertaining history of guns in the old west, while appropriate for this Collector’s forum, ignores the REAL reasons (note the plural there) many Americans today, who are no less intelligent or American than you, own guns. If the owner of this site would like a balanced, reasoned, and RESEARCHED article on Why Americans Love (and collect) Guns there is no shortage of authors to provide it, including me. I’ll be your Huckleberry.
The picture of the civil war soldier has him carrying a Whitneyville Walker Colt and an 1851 Colt Navy
Not a Dragoon and an 1860 Army Colt.
Joes comment about Europe and Asia being peaceful displays willful ignorance of the 20th Century.
This century saw the largest series of conflicts in history throughout Europe and Asia and to a large extent this conflict has driven the movement to disarmament and to peace.
Someone asked when the first mass shooting occurred in America. I do not know when but it surely could have happened as soon as the shooter got word he could find an area where a criminal would be the only one in the crowd with a firearm.
Chicago has become the ideal city where a criminal can finally go about his business without having to look over his shoulder worrying about some idiot that actually wanted to protect himself. The people that are working at disarming us are not stupid, evil yes, gun laws create gun crimes which help them to create more laws which in turn create… well I’m sure the smart ones can figure the rest out and the ones that disagree can go on helping the lawmakers. If you want peace and trust in your town guns are the solution, not the problem.
Most of those guns listed as “Kentucky” are actually half-stock or plains rifles aside from the top one, and by no means was the Kentucky rifle the first gun of the frontier. Smoothbore muskets would have been the most common for a very long time. Kentucky rifles are just one of the most iconic frontier guns.
As time passes, the wolves etc. are not at the farmer’s door, but at the urban dweller’s door as criminals. Why should either be denied the right to defend themselves, family & property. It’s obvious that the laws & police can’t. Has any criminal surrendered his guns because of a gun law? Only the law abiding will. When your life is threatened, it takes 3 finger motions to dial 911 & a long wait if you go that route. If you have a gun, it only takes 1 finger motion & there is no wait. You can decide your route, but I know which one I will take before many have decided. I hesitated once & got shot. Lesson: Don’t hesitate! (It hurts!). Think of the time & expense you save the government. I think gun control advocates should be hanged. LOL! I haven’t lived in the States for 46 yrs. & have seen 1st hand what irresponsible guns create. I saw a bumper sticker once in FL that read, “WHEN GUNS ARE OUTLAWED-ONLY OUTLAWS WILL HAVE GUNS. As an antique gun collector, I thought that was a bit too much. After living where guns are outlawed, I think about that sticker and think, oh so true!
Great article and really enjoyed it, since I am into collecting antique guns. Keep up the good work.
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America’s Last Frontier: Oklahoma
Word rang out across the Western world that at noon on the 22nd of April, 1889, upon the sound of a shotgun fired by a U.S. cavalryman, anyone with the guts and wherewithal to do so could rush into the Unassigned Lands in the center of present-day Oklahoma and claim their 160-acre spread from two million acres’ worth of government-designated tracts. In a singularly American feat of bravado and imagination, 50,000 people — including nearly a thousand African-Americans — from every state in the Union descended on the area to do just that.
When the shotgun fired, they thundered across the line on horseback, mule, bicycle, and foot in wagons and even inside, outside, and on top of trains churning in from Texas and Kansas. Some got land, but most didn’t. There were fistfights, shootouts, and court battles. Many sneaked in early and claimed some of the best 160-acre tracts and town lots. These energetic folks earned the label “Sooners.”
By sundown on April 22, however, the entire country was settled, including the present-day towns of Oklahoma City, Norman, Stillwater, Kingfisher, and Guthrie, the latter designated as the territorial capital. More than 12,000 pioneers poured into Oklahoma City alone, which that morning had been a quiet railroad station on the prairie, sporting less than 10 structures near the dry banks of the North Canadian River.
The “Run of ’89” was an international sensation. “Unlike Rome, the city of Guthrie was built in a day,” trumpeted Harper’s Weekly, the dominant periodical of the era in the United States. “To be strictly accurate in the matter, it might be said that it was built in an afternoon. At twelve o’clock on Monday, April 22d [sic], the resident population of Guthrie was nothing before sundown it was at least ten thousand. In that time streets had been laid out, town lots staked off, and steps taken toward the formation of a municipal government.”
Mrs. Welling Haynes, daughter of a widowed, sharecropping Kansas mother and “’89er,” left this witness to the memorable day:
We got in line ready to make the run when the signal was given. Then, real excitement began — everybody yelling, horses’ hoofs clattering, all in a hurry. Mother applied the whip and the horses started running. She didn’t try to guide them until we came to land on which very few people could be seen. She stopped the horses, jumped out of the wagon and stuck up her stakes. (This claim was one mile east of Crescent.) Mother then looked over her claim for a likely place to pitch our tent. She found a wide rocky canyon and a good spring of water.
The Unassigned Lands Run of 1889 was only the first, and not even the largest, in a series of such epic adventures. It continued a chain of events that stretched nearly to the founding of the American Republic and that would soon close the American frontier and produce the 46th state in the Union.
To make sense of the Oklahoma land openings of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, one must explore the central role of the area in U.S. policy toward its aboriginal tribes during the preceding hundred years. As far back as the presidency of Thomas Jefferson at the dawn of the 19th century, the “Indian problem” had bedeviled a United States that was advancing across the North American continent and with an exploding population comprised of peoples from around the world.
The aboriginal American tribes, which had migrated thousands of years before from Asia, shared neither the Christianity, Western culture and education, technological advancement, nor social progress of the European immigrants who settled America. Numerous Christian missionary efforts went out to the hundreds of different tribes. Thousands of Natives embraced American culture and beliefs, and many assimilated into that society. The redoubtable Jefferson himself evinced a deep affection, respect, and concern for the Indians in numerous statements over many years. Yet his own words well articulated the intractable problem: “inability of the 2 cultures … one greater, one weaker … to mesh.”
The challenge was exacerbated by what Jefferson called “the interested and unprincipled policy of England,” which had “defeated all our labors for the salvation of these unfortunate people. They have seduced the greater part of the tribes within our neighborhood, to take up the hatchet against us, and the cruel massacres they have committed on the women and children of our frontiers taken by surprise, will oblige us now to pursue them to extermination, or drive them to new seats beyond our reach.”
Thus, American policy evolved into persuading, pressuring, and sometimes forcing the many tribes east of the Mississippi River to the other side of that great mid-continent divide. From at least 1820, “Indian Territory,” the area comprising present-day Oklahoma, except for its Panhandle, became the focus of government efforts — always reflective of American public sentiment — for the resettlement of the tribes. Trouble and sometimes tragedy ensued. The most infamous examples were the multiple Trails of Tears in the 1830s, which forcibly uprooted the Five Civilized Tribes (Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole) and cost thousands of Indian lives and untold suffering. Though the government often attempted humane treatment of the Natives — providing them free land, provisions, large financial payments, and military protection — again and again, its commitments to them faltered, though nearly always unintentionally. It was a frustrating, frequently maddening coalescence of genuine benevolence and even the Christian missionary spirit with misunderstanding, insensitivity, greed, and violence.
Why They Came
The stream of American citizens pioneering west for land and destiny gushed like a tidal wave following the end of the Civil War in 1865. Unclaimed frontier land was disappearing in the face of this millions-strong armed migration. The largest portion of land yet remaining was Indian Territory. There, only around 100,000 people — perhaps 80,000 of them Natives — lived on about 70,000 square miles of land. In comparison, the state of New York had around 4.3 million people living on 47,000 square miles.
In the face of such need and opportunity, the burgeoning U.S. populace demanded that their elected officials open the vast, sparsely inhabited lands previously reserved for the Indians to settlement. Elias C. Boudinot and other progressive-minded Indians, many of them mixed-bloods, urged their tribes to participate in, even excel at, the ways of the expanding American Republic, rather than shrink from its inevitable primacy.
Numerous other factors drove masses of American settlers west for a new, or last, chance. A decade of harsh and controversial post-war federal “Reconstruction” policies birthed financial overspeculation in the railroad industry, carpetbaggers, scalawags, robber barons, the Black Friday Stock Market Crash, the most corrupt presidential administration in U.S. history, the Gilded Age, the Ku Klux Klan, the Union League, and lasting enmity between the black and white races in the South.
Black Friday, the financial Panic of 1873, the nationwide Long Depression of 1873-79, the Panic of 1893, and a growing monopoly frenzy generated ongoing social and economic instability and upheaval for huge numbers of Americans. Also, the citizenry caught wind of the corruption, bribery, and other misbehavior that fueled many of the colossal fortunes accruing in the North and East, sections that had triumphed in the recent war.
Meanwhile, in 1866, the United States confiscated most of the western half of Indian Territory from the Five Civilized Tribes to punish them for their widespread alliance with the Confederate States of America during the War Between the States. Then the government forcibly placed other, mostly Great Plains or “wild” tribes, who were more nomadic, violent, and resistant to American culture, in bounded reservations on this land. This spawned a series of bitter, bloody wars between American horse soldiers and these Plains Indians, particularly the Comanche, Kiowa, Cheyenne, and Apache. By the late 1870s, the Indians were pacified, though a multitude of outlaws and gangs had rendered large swaths of Indian Territory a lawless enclave or “Robber’s Roost,” despite the Indian republics’ efforts to stop them.
Thus, as the U.S. military gained the upper hand in western Indian Territory, American pioneers increasingly agitated for land ownership there. Many of them migrated west from crowded, crime-ridden northeastern cities, many others from Southern lands destroyed by rampaging Union armies during the war, or lands just worn out from overplanting. The Southern ranks included thousands of blacks, many of whom sought a fresh start out from under the grim, deadly serious post-war Reconstruction conflict between Southern whites and the federal government.
Some of these white and black pioneers, known as “Boomers” because they were “booming” or trumpeting the settlement of Native lands, urged immediate opening of the vast, sparsely peopled southern plains of western Indian Territory. The scion of a famous and controversial family in Oklahoma history rose up as their standard bearer. Elias C. Boudinot, an accomplished mixed-blood Cherokee whose Cherokee father had defied the dominant powers of his tribe to bring thousands of his people to Indian Territory before the carnage of the Trail of Tears and suffered martyrdom for it, himself now defied the ruling powers of the whites and Natives alike.
In early 1879, Boudinot fired a written shot heard round the world through the editorial pages of the large and influential Chicago Times newspaper. In it, he challenged the U.S. government to open to the American populace as public domain the lands it took from the Indian republics in 1866, as he claimed that federal homestead laws demanded. Galvanized by this electrifying manifesto, would-be settlers poured into southern Kansas and southwestern Missouri, as well as the Red River Valley of north Texas, preparing to stake their claim in what Americans increasingly called the “Oklahoma Lands” or “Oklahoma.” Choctaw Indian chief and Presbyterian minister Allen Wright coined the latter term for the area. It means “Red People” in the Choctaw language.
A swashbuckling Union Army veteran named Charles Carpenter, who sported Custer-like long hair and buckskins, rallied hundreds of Boomers around himself and served notice that the birth of a new state loomed — with him as its apparent leader. Government officials intimidated Carpenter into backing off in 1879, and the army burned out early settlements of Boomers near present-day Oklahoma City.
As the 1880s arrived, however, a sea change roiled in Indian Territory. Gone were the buffalo — slaughtered by the millions to bring the wild tribes to heel in the Plains Indian Wars — and the rule of the Natives. Coming or already there were the U.S. Army, white entrepreneurs, a tidal wave of new Boomers, and the railroads, the colossus of 19th-century American industry. The government had subsidized the railroads with millions of dollars to help spur westward settlement, and the railroads needed passengers and cargo-shipping customers to, literally, pay their freight. This demanded American settlement of Indian Territory.
Maybe the government — earnestly attempting to honor its latest commitments to the Indians — could turn back Carpenter, and perhaps even David Payne, the more influential Boomer leader sometimes called the “Father of Oklahoma” who followed him. But U.S. industry and the American people now had their sights trained on the Oklahoma country. And history has shown many times that once that happens, for better or worse, there is no turning them back.
The year after the Run of ’89, Congress passed the Oklahoma Organic Act, which legally divided Indian Territory into the Twin Territories. Oklahoma Territory now comprised roughly the western half of the original Indian Territory, that portion to the west of the five Indian republics’ lands and the smaller tribal enclaves to the northeast. The roughly eastern half remained Indian Territory. In response to settlers’ petitions, the Organic Act also established a republican form of representative government for Oklahoma Territory. It called for Republican President Benjamin Harrison to appoint a territorial governor, judges, and other officials, and for the people to elect a territorial legislature. And it designated Republican bastion Guthrie as temporary territorial capital.
Farther west, the Organic Act also folded the rough-and-tumble Panhandle (then variously called No-Man’s Land, the Public Land Strip, the Cimarron Country, or Robber’s Roost), into Oklahoma Territory. A haven for outlaws and fugitives until cowboys, cattlemen, and settlers cleared them out, its law-abiding citizens had applied unsuccessfully for territorial status as the Cimarron Territory. Now the government opened it for settlement under the provisions of the 1862 Homestead Act.
At this time, fewer than 30,000 people lived in the entirety of unsettled Oklahoma Territory — an area larger than many American states. This helps illustrate why the American people demanded its settlement. Indian Territory, meanwhile, though Congress strictly regulated its system of land ownership and it possessed an advanced system of constitutional law unlike the Oklahoma Territory, suffered rampaging lawlessness that the tribal governments who still possessed local authority were unable to stem.
Against this unsettled backdrop, the Unassigned Lands (a title minted by Boudinot in his famed newspaper article) Run, enabled by the nation’s legislative branch through the Springer Amendment to the Indian Appropriations Act, sponsored by Illinois Representative William Springer, was roundly considered a triumph of historic magnitude. The stage was set for more of them, including the biggest in history.
More Land Runs
Through the 1890s, whole new towns bustling with thousands of people rose up overnight from the Oklahoma prairie in a series of spectacular land runs, lotteries, auctions, and even a U.S. Supreme Court battle with Texas. In each case, the U.S. government apportioned members of the tribe that owned the land to be allotted their own quarter-section (160-acre) land parcel. Settlers received the remaining lands, for which the tribes were paid millions of dollars.
After the epochal Run of ’89 that settled the Unassigned Lands in the center of old Indian Territory came the September 22, 1891 land run immediately to the east in the Absentee Shawnee, Iowa, Potawatomi, and Sac and Fox country. Over 20,000 pioneers raced for land, but only 6,000 succeeded in securing it. These included William H. Twine, future African-American publisher as well as political and legal chieftain in Muskogee. Perhaps as many as a thousand blacks, including many residents of the all-black Oklahoma Territory town of Langston founded the previous year from land opened in the first run, sought claims in the 1891 event. It opened present-day Lincoln and Pottawatomie counties and portions of present-day Cleveland, Logan, Oklahoma, and Payne counties.
Just seven months later, on April 19, 1892, 25,000 Boomers thundered over the 3.5 million acres of surplus Cheyenne and Arapaho country in the Great Plains of western Oklahoma. This sprawling charge encompassed an area larger than Connecticut and Rhode Island combined. It remains as unique as it is forgotten. The participants included a hot air balloon and a six-horse team pulling a house. The well-known Kiowa warrior chief Big Tree, by now a Christian and leading advocate of peace between the Natives and whites, witnessed “as many (people) as the blades of grass on the Washita in the spring.”
Government officials reeled when no one claimed nearly three million acres of this land. A long and devastating drought, absence of railroads or any other roads, harassment by cattlemen who wanted the range, lack of building materials, scarce food, poor water, the barrenness of the land for crop growing, and worry about the fierce — and sometimes still-threatening — Cheyenne all contributed to this rejection of free property.
“About the only sure crop was the rattlesnake” went the saying. By the end of the decade, however, rugged pioneers of German, Irish, Scottish, Russian, English, African, and other stock had braved all challenges, often to the point of death, and carved their mostly forgotten names high in the annals of Oklahoma and American history to settle the area.
Cherokee Outlet Run
The greatest land run in history shook the earth across northern Oklahoma the following year, on September 16, 1893. One hundred thousand pioneers poured into the vast Cherokee Outlet, which stretched from the main Cherokee country in northeastern Indian Territory to No Man’s Land, the present-day Oklahoma Panhandle. Reserved as grazing and hunting lands for the tribe as part of their Indian removal package, the Outlet encompassed not only the sprawling lands the Cherokee leased to white cattlemen but also the small tribal enclaves of the Pawnee and Tonkawa, the latter numbering around 70 members.
Two factors generated drama in the Cherokee Run of a magnitude not found in other Oklahoma land openings. One was its sheer size, double the participants of the next largest, the Run of ’89. The other was the tense context in which it occurred. Historian Alvin O. Turner well described how years of drought across the South and Midwest, inadequate agricultural prices, and a national depression — the Panic of 1893 — brought thousands of desperate Boomers to the region, many of them financially destitute and many others close to starvation.
As the date of the run neared, the federal government required them to wait in line, often for days, in scalding heat just to register for the right to participate. Boomers, suffering from thirst, hunger, and sunstroke, fell ill, and some died in these lines. Twenty thousand still waited when federal officials closed down the registration booths.
Many Boomers endured mistreatment and even violence at the hands of soldiers and deputies tasked with controlling the enormous throng. Others suffered injuries and a few were killed when a chain reaction of stampedes broke out just prior to the start of the run. According to Turner, “Countless individuals were injured in the frantic (Cherokee Outlet) races following the starting guns or when mobs fought to board the trains or individuals jumped from the trains as they neared town sites.”
The great majority of the participants behaved well, and many displayed generosity and assistance toward one another. Enough did not, however, that the threat and sometimes the reality of violence hung over the entire proceedings like a dark cloud. As towns such as Ponca City and Blackwell sprang from the Oklahoma prairie within hours, cheating Sooners snatched many of the best claims, and most of those daring Boomers who made the Cherokee Outlet Run did not even get land. For those who did, the challenges had only begun, as Turner recounted:
The chaotic process of settlement continued to affect the region’s development long after the land run. Towns were over-built farmers went broke on land unsuitable for farming…. Many claims were abandoned by the end of the year. There were, of course, success stories just as there had been instances of neighborly actions, generosity, even gallantry during the run. Yet even those who managed to secure good land soon learned that farmers’ opportunities were limited. The new towns, dependent on the farmers’ business, faltered in a changing American economy where the growth of industrialization had redefined the meaning of opportunity.
The Last Run
The final land run opened the Kickapoo country on May 23, 1895. This tiny tribe — fewer than 300 members, possessing around 200,000 acres — did not desire to be assimilated into white American culture. Their refusal to negotiate a treaty with the U.S. government on allotment delayed the process for years. The Kickapoos could forestall the inevitable no longer than May 23, 1895, however, when 10,000 more Boomers and Sooners charged into the area to claim a homestead or town lot. Wellston and McLoud are among the present-day towns that emerged from this run.
Once again, only a minority of the runners, which included numerous independent females as did previous runs, succeeded. More than ever before, though, due in part to a lack of race officials, Sooners foiled the Boomers. Perhaps as many as half the land seekers snuck in early, although scores were arrested and fined $1,000 apiece, an enormous sum in that day. Still, “Soonerism” had taken a large enough toll on the available land, triggered enough lawsuits, and generated such a wealth of anger and even violence that the government terminated land runs as a means of releasing the remainder of surplus Indian lands. The lottery and the auction would serve as the methods for future openings.
One other piece of Oklahoma Territory, the long-contested plains country in the far southwest corner, Greer County, came into the present-day Oklahoma fold in 1896. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the southern stream of Red River was its main course through the region — and thus was the original boundary of the Louisiana Purchase and now, Oklahoma Territory. This delivered the 1.5 million acres between it and the northern stream from Texas, which had claimed and partially settled it, to Oklahoma. Present-day towns such as Altus, Frederick, Hobart, Mangum, and Hollis would have been located in Texas had the verdict gone the other way.
Around 3.5 million acres of Comanche, Kiowa, Apache, Wichita, and Caddo tribal land in southern Oklahoma Territory, along with nearly two million acres of Osage, Ponca, Kaw, and Otoe-Missouri tribal land comprising the northeast portion of the territory, remained unallotted to individual tribal members and unapportioned to American settlers at the dawn of the 20th century. Congress remedied this with more great land openings — through lottery.
In 1901 came the Wichita and Caddo lands around present-day Caddo County and the Kiowa-Comanche-Apache (K-C-A) lands around present-day Comanche and Kiowa counties. Over 135,000 prospective homesteaders and town citizens registered for property tracts, hoping to hear their names called among the listings of 13,000 lots pulled from large boxes. Following the awarding of these lots, sales of town lots in the new county seats of Anadarko (Caddo), Lawton (Comanche), and Hobart (Kiowa) commenced. Nearly $750,000 from these sales financed construction and improvement of roads, bridges, and courthouses in these counties.
At least two legendary Oklahomans — future U.S. Senator and anti-New Dealer Thomas P. Gore and famed lawman Heck Thomas — put down stakes as thousands of people raised the new town of Lawton up from the southwest Oklahoma plains on the day of its birth, August 6, 1901. The two men developed a close friendship. Though he was blind, Gore’s recollection of the signal experience, when he and Thomas at first lived in tents on the heretofore wild and dangerous prairie, provides an enduring window for future generations into pioneer Oklahoma:
I located at Lawton before there was any Law-ton. There were only two little shacks on the town-site when I located my tent on the Eastern Boundary which was then called ‘Goo-goo’ avenue. The blue grass was waist high on most of the town-site, particularly where there were “hog-wallers.” The hard mesquite occupied part of the town-site.
In 1904, much smaller portions of Ponca, Otoe, and Missouri lands were allotted to individual tribal members. Settlers purchased the remaining 51,000 acres. Osage and Kaw Indians received individual allotments of their tribal lands in 1906, with none left for settlers. At the end of 1906, the federal government auctioned off 480,000 acres of K-C-A range along Red River through a sealed bid. This “Big Pasture” ranching country had served as a hunting and grazing reserve for these tribes since the 1901 allotment and sale of their remaining southwest Oklahoma lands.
Good and Bad
Repeating a recurrent theme of American history, these memorable events spawned opportunity and thrilling history, as well as injustice, loss, and sorrow. Dust clouds billowed and the earth shook when thousands of horses, mules, wagons, and other vehicles thundered across the prairie toward new homesteads and the building of an American state during the K-C-A opening. Yet Christian missionaries who had labored among the Comanche, Kiowa, and Apache on those enormous reservations, “lamented the high crime rates, drunkenness, unsanitary conditions, and diseases” strewn in these pioneers’ wake, according to historian Benjamin R. Kracht.
Numerous white voices joined the Indians in opposing the K-C-A opening. They included Indian Agent James Randlett, Fort Sill Cavalry Commander Hugh Scott (namesake of Lawton’s Mount Scott), Texas cattlemen who grazed herds there, and Baptist, Presbyterian, Mennonite, Roman Catholic, and Methodist Episcopal, South missionaries.
Kiowa Chief and Christian convert Lone Wolf (the younger adopted son of famed warrior and chief Lone Wolf, the elder) mounted a brilliant, years-long legal battle with the federal government over the K-C-A opening that roared all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. That body ruled against the Kiowas, citing the Fifth Amendment of the Bill of Rights for their remarkable admission that “the power exists to abrogate the provisions of an Indian treaty.”
Indeed, controversy attended the entirety of the U.S. government’s dealings with the Indian tribes of America from the 1600s onward, often with justification. Some Oklahoma schools have removed land run celebrations and even activities from their curriculum. Modern Americans, however, while studying the lessons of the past in an objective, clear-eyed manner, would do well to ponder the consequences had brutal tribes such as the Comanche — feared and loathed not just by white and black Americans, but by other Native tribes whose members they raped, tortured, murdered, and enslaved — won control of Oklahoma and other states from Western and Christian civilization.
As alluded to earlier, among the innumerable beneficiaries of Oklahoma Territory land openings were thousands of African-American pioneers. In an era of national segregation, discrimination, and racism against blacks, the Oklahoma country offered unparalleled opportunities for this struggling race. Courageous black visionaries and elected office holders such as Edward P. McCabe, Green I. Currin, and Albert Hamlin spearheaded the founding of numerous all-black towns in the Twin Territories, as well as their own state-supported Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University. Now Langston University, the school remains the westernmost historically black college in America. Perhaps best of all, according to historian Jimmie Franklin, sourcing the U.S. Bureau of the Census regarding the 1910 census, blacks owned more than 1.5 million acres of land in future Oklahoma by 1905, much of it in Oklahoma Territory.
The land runs, lotteries, and auctions that opened Oklahoma Territory launched a new chapter of drama for its pioneers. The farmers took hold of plains and prairie land, much of which was bereft of basic natural resources their counterparts possessed nearly anywhere else in America. These included water for people, stock, and crops trees for materials for homes, outbuildings, and implements and foliage of all sorts for wind, dust, and water breaks. By the end of the 1890s, nearly half the farmers in western Oklahoma who did still own their land — many of them striving to follow better agrarian practices — had mortgaged it.
Despite these and innumerable other challenges and heartbreaks, however, between 1900 and 1910, over a million white, black, Indian, Hispanic, and Asian residents birthed, in the words of one of Oklahoma’s Founding Fathers, “not just a new state, but a new kind of state.” During the same period, one of the greatest oil booms in history gushed forth from the land loved by so many of those people.
The American population mushroomed during this decade due to increased immigration and high domestic birthrates. The nation’s vast frontier was mostly secured by the dawn of the new century, despite the fact that much of the South was still stymied by the devastation of the War Between the States and its aftermath. Thus, the sweeping tracts of free land, moderate climate, and opportunity to build new families and a new state alike gleamed like a beacon of last chance-hope and paradise to people across the United States and even other nations.
Perhaps the dean of Oklahoma historians, Edward Everett Dale, who himself pioneered “Old Greer County” in future southwest Oklahoma with his family as a teenager, pronounced the most fitting benediction for this remarkable time and place, when men, women, and children thundered across the American landscape in pursuit of all which that iconic vision dangled before them:
The pioneers who came to the West (sought) for that most precious of all human material possessions, a home. Largely speaking, this home seeker is the forgotten man in the annals of the American West…. Yet he was by far the most important factor in the conquest and development of our American empire.
His way of life has vanished and is largely forgotten by all but a comparatively few people. It is, however, a part of our social history and as such should be preserved and cherished. It was the pioneer settlers who won the West when the wooing was difficult and sometimes dangerous, and most of them now sleep in its soil.
John J. Dwyer is author of The War Between the States: America’s Uncivil War and the upcoming The Oklahomans: The Story of Oklahoma and Its People.
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The Cold War Frontier
Pete Bondurant. American Tabloid’s terrifying badass.
It may surprise some of you that James Ellroy’s American Tabloid is one of my all-time favorite novels. After all, it’s not a frontier tale… except, it kinda is.
For starters, the era it covers — the late 1950s up to November 22, 1963 — was an era obsessed with the frontier. Every kid of the era had a coonskin cap and knew the words to Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier by heart. America understood itself through the mythology of the Western. Not for nothing did John F. Kennedy evoke a “New Frontier” in his 1960 speech accepting the Democratic Party nomination as its candidate for the presidency:
“For I stand tonight facing west on what was once the last frontier.
“From the lands that stretch three thousand miles behind me, the pioneers of old gave up their safety, their comfort and sometimes their lives to build a new world here in the West. They were not the captives of their own doubts, the prisoners of their own price tags. Their motto was not ‘every man for himself’ — but ‘all for the common cause.’ They were determined to make that new world strong and free, to overcome its hazards and its hardships, to conquer the enemies that threatened from without and within.
“Today some would say that those struggles are all over — that all the horizons have been explored — that all the battles have been won — that there is no longer an American frontier.
“But I trust that no one in this vast assemblage will agree with those sentiments. For the problems are not all solved and the battles are not all won–and we stand today on the edge of a New Frontier — the frontier of the 1960’s–a frontier of unknown opportunities and perils — a frontier of unfulfilled hopes and threats.”
Ellroy peels the paint off the New Frontier (and Camelot), knowing that it was the same as the old frontier — and had a weird, wild, dark side.
Any explorer of borderlands history knows in his bones the truth contained in Ellroy’s legendary and oft-quoted opening to AT:
America was never innocent. We popped our cherry on the boat over and looked back with no regrets. You can’t ascribe our fall from grace to any single event or set of circumstances. You can’t lose what you lacked at conception.
Mass-market nostalgia gets you hopped up for a past that never existed. Hagiography sanctifies shuck-and-jive politicians and reinvents their expedient gestures as moments of great moral weight. Our continuing narrative line is blurred past truth and hindsight. Only a reckless verisimilitude can set that line straight.
The real Trinity of Camelot was Look Good, Kick Ass, Get Laid. Jack Kennedy was the mythological front man for a particularly juicy slice of our history. He called a slick line and wore a world-class haircut. He was Bill Clinton minus pervasive media scrutiny and a few rolls of flab.
Jack got whacked at the optimum moment to assure his sainthood. Lies continue to swirl around his eternal flame. It’s time to dislodge his urn and cast light on a few men who attended his ascent and facilitated his fall.
They were rogue cops and shakedown artists. They were wiretappers and soldiers of fortune and faggot lounge entertainers. Had one second of their lives deviated off course, American History would not exist as we know it.
It’s time to demythologize an era and build a new myth from the gutter to the stars. It’s time to embrace bad men and the price they paid to secretly define their time.
Here’s to them.
Ellroy’s beat is urban — the dazzling dark sunshine of LA and Cuban-exile-Miami, nightclubs and diners, precinct stations — but some of his rough men could have easily ridden in a previous era with John Joel Glanton’s gang of scalphunters in Northern Mexico (AT’s bagman and CIA asset Pete Bondurant actually goes on scalping raids in Cuba). Las Vegas, Nevada, c. 1958 isn’t really much different from Tombstone, Arizona, c. 1881.
And Miami was — and would remain through its Cocaine Cowboys era — a frontier boom town on steroids.
Counter-revolutionary agent Hans Tanner. 1960s gunslinger and racing enthusiast. There’s a dark tale there.
So… you can imagine my delight when I checked in on Christopher Othen’s blog and found this:
The Covid lockdown has some advantages. Despite the masks and cruising police cars it’s given me more time to work on my next book. The Men from Miami is about the American misfits, gangsters, and anti-communists who fought for Fidel Castro’s rebels in Cuba … then changed their minds and tried to overthrow him when the revolution was successful.
Expect gunrunning, mysterious disappearances, Mafia plots, failed invasions, nuclear showdowns, the assassination of President Kennedy, and a little light burglary at the Watergate.
My appreciation of that book is as unseemly as my love for AT. Not that I’m apologizing…
Othen’s blog tagline is as Ellroyvian as it gets:
Bad People. Strange Times. Good Books.
Othen has a savage appetite for tales of the misfits, gangsters, right-wing whack jobs who all too often turned the wheels of post-World War II 20th century history. Ellroy’s people.
Eleven months is a long time to wait, but it’ll give me an opportunity to pick up a couple of Othen’s other works — and maybe sneak in a re-read of American Tabloid.
The 40 Most Enduring Myths in American History
Busting some common grade school myths we still think are true.
Even the idea of "fake news" being a relatively new phenomenon is, well, fake news. Our country was founded on fake news, and our first president—well, first-ish, but we'll get to that later—had so much fake news written about him that he makes Trump look like an amateur. People are still claiming that Washington had wooden teeth. He actually had dentures made out of metal and ivory, and you can see the things on display at his home in Mount Vernon. But nope, the myth about his wooden teeth continues to endure two centuries later. So read on to take closer look at a few of the most enduring American myths and half-truths. And while you're boning up on all things U.S. of A., don't miss the 23 Freedoms Americans Totally Take for Granted.
According to legend, when George Washington was just six years old, he chopped down his dad's cherry tree with a hatchet. When his dad confronted him about it, George supposedly confessed to everything, claiming "I cannot tell a lie." A nice tale, if only it was true. Turns out, the story first appeared in an 1806 autobiography of Washington, whose writer admitted that he was just trying to show how our most beloved president's "unparalleled rise and elevation were due to his Great Virtues." And if you want to have your worst assumptions about your elected officials confirmed, here are 9 Times Politicians Totally Lost It and Things Got Physical.
Every fan of America's pastime knows it was born in Cooperstown, New York. But that history is an invention, cooked up in 1907 by a committee charged with figuring out the origins of baseball. They gave the credit to Abner Doubleday, a Civil War hero who allegedly invented the game in Cooperstown in 1839. The truth is, Doubleday wasn't even a fan of the sport, much less its creator. Variations on baseball have been around since the 18th century, from children's games like rounders to cricket. Baseball as we know it today was the brainchild of New Yorker Alexander Joy Cartwright, a volunteer firefighter and bank clerk who came up with the three-strike rules, the diamond-shaped infield, and all the foul lines. Want to continue flexing your newfound wisdom? Here are 30 Words That Will Make You Sound Smarter.
How this European explorer still gets all the credit, and even his own holiday, is astonishing. Let's start with the basics. You can't "discover" something that's already occupied. That's like "discovering" the leftover pizza in your friend's refrigerator. But even if you discount the Native Americans, Columbus was still 500 years too late to call himself the first European to think America was his personal Costco. Norse explorer Leif Erikson beat him to the punch, landing on these shores during the 10th century. What's more, Columbus didn't even set foot on what would become the United States. He landed on several Caribbean islands, and later Central and South America. And for more history-correcting facts, meet (or, rather, don't) the 50 Famous People Who Never Existed.
If you're looking for examples of epic Jerkdom, you can't do much better than the witch trials of Salem, Massachusetts. Between February, 1692 and May, 1693, nearly 200 people were accused of practicing "the Devil's magic," including the elderly, homeless, and a 4-year-old girl who was grilled on the stand. Most were jailed, but 19 were hanged on what would soon be known as "Gallows Hill," and a 71-year-old man was crushed with heavy stones. But nobody got burned. Nada. Not a single person ever shouted out, like a character from a Monty Python sketch, "She's a witch! Burn her!" Sorry.
Paul Revere shouting "The British are coming!" in the streets would have been the modern day equivalent of running down Times Square in New York and shouting, "The Americans are coming!" At that point, the colonies were still technically British, and not everybody was cool with the idea of a revolution. More likely, Paul Revere—and he was just one of dozens assigned to put the word out in Boston—whispered his alarm, and instead of warning of the British, he likely said, "The regulars are coming out." We have Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's patriotic poem to thank for anybody even knowing Paul Revere's name at all.
Misinterpreting jokes isn't unique to our century. Writing to his daughter from Paris in 1784, Benjamin Franklin complained to his daughter Sarah that the newly-formed United States was seriously considering the bald eagle as their national symbol. The bald eagle had a "bad moral character," Franklin wrote, and was a "rank coward" who "does not get his living honestly" because it just steals food from other birds and is "too lazy to fish for himself."
He noted that the proposed drawing looked more like a turkey, which he joked was a better idea, as a turkey is "a true original native of America" and a bird of courage who would not hesitate "to invade his farm yard with a red coat on." If only he'd remembered to include a smiley-face emoticon, nobody would have been confused.
The legendary animation pioneer, the guy who made "I'm going to Disneyland" the most common expression of celebration in the free world, didn't actually draw his most famous creation. Sure, Mickey Mouse was his idea, and he provided the voice. But everything iconic about Mickey Mouse—the pancake ears, the red shorts—are the creation of Ub Iwerks, Disney's favorite animator. The next time you see somewhere wearing a Mickey Mouse shirt, be sure to tell them, "Ah, I see you're a fan of Ub Iwerks."
Have you ever seen a photo of an actual cowboy—not actors like John Wayne or Clint Eastwood, we mean real cowboys like Butch Cassidy, Wyatt Earp, Bill Doolin, or Billy the Kid —when they're wearing cowboy hats? Probably never. Real cowboys from the American frontier, both the good guys and the bad guys, had no interest in those big, bulky Stetsons that everyone associates with them. The most popular headgear among 19th century gunslingers was a bowler, sometimes called a derby. We don't know what Billy the Kid is wearing in his most iconic photo. Maybe an almost crushed top hat?
You know how people today like to complain that you can never trust the government? Turns out that's been true since the beginning. The Continental Congress voted for independence and drafted the declaration on the 2nd of July, a revision was approved on the 4th, it was read aloud for the first time on the 8th, and the final document wasn't signed until August 2nd. John Adams, our second president, was convinced that July 2nd would become the annual holiday. "It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade with shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this continent to the other from this Time forward forever more," he wrote. You were sooooo close, Johnny boy.
Black Tuesday, October 24, 1929, is still considered the most shocking stock market crash in U.S. history. Not just because of the financial devastation, but because of the bodies that apparently rained from the sky in New York and other cities, as financially ruined investors jumped from skyscrapers. Except, well, it didn't really happen. There were only two suicides by jumping from tall buildings after the Wall Street crash, and one of them was an elderly female clerk named Hulda Borowski, who may or may not have made the leap because her stocks had plummeted.
The 37th U.S. president, a man affectionately nicknamed "Tricky Dick," did pass quite a bit of legislation during his administration that could be construed as environmentally friendly. His signature gave us the EPA and the Safe Drinking Water Act, among others. But then again, this was during a period when many U.S. rivers were on fire, and smog-filled air clogged the cities. (If you're a president in a country that's overrun with zombies, saying, "Hey, let's do something about all those zombies" is not a bold stance.)
Also, Nixon once purportedly told leaders at the Ford Motor Company that environmentalists wanted to "go back and live like a bunch of [dang] animals. They're a group of people that aren't really one [dang] bit interested in safety or clean air. What they're interested in is destroying the system."
Courtesy Kelly – University of Toronto
Never get your history for Disney movies. The essence of the Pocahontas/John Smith story is true. A young Native American girl did befriend an Englishman, and their relationship may have saved the Jamestown colony. But Pocahontas was just 12, which would make a romantic relationship with a 28 year old dude just gross, even by 17th century standards. Also, her real name wasn't Pocahontas. That was just a nickname, roughly translated as "Little Playful One" or "Little Mischief." Her more formal names—she had several—included Matoaka and Amonute.
Everett Historical / Shutterstock
Edison had a record number of patents—1,093, to be exact—and the vast majority of them weren't his own inventions. He was just a guy smart enough to find real inventors and steal their ideas before they could take the credit. Edison got the patent for the light bulb in 1880, but it's true father was Warren de la Rue, a British astronomer and chemist, who created the first light bulb forty years earlier.
Orson Welles fooled the world with his 1938 radio broadcast, an homage to H.G. Wells that reported on a Martian invasion as if it was a thing happening in the real world. Thousands bought into the prank. Okay, hundreds. Fine, a baker's dozen. At least one guy, a farmer, who may or may not have been coaxed into posing for a photo for Life Magazine while angrily brandishing a shotgun. The point is, Orson Welles tried to trick listeners into thinking we were under attack from extraterrestrials, and at least one guy in overalls believed him, so obviously mass hysteria!
The only proof we have that Betsy Ross had anything to do with creating the American flag came from her grandson, William Canby, who argued in 1870—a full decade-plus since the events in question—that his "gam-gam" came up with the whole idea. You'll forgive us if that sounds fishy. Betsy at least had one contribution to the flag she suggested a five-pointed star instead of a six-pointed one because it'd be easier to sew. The real creator was likely Francis Hopkinson from New Jersey, who signed the Declaration of Independence and designed many seals for U.S. government departments. When he tried to get paid for coming up with the American flag, it was denied by the Board of Admiralty, on the grounds that "he was not the only one consulted." Ouch!
Pretty much everything you know about Thanksgiving isn't true. The story we're told, time and time again, is about Pilgrims having a happy meal with Native Americans, and everybody realizing, "Hey, we're not so different from each other after all. Let's have some turkey and stuffing to celebrate." Nope. The real story involves plagues, and Pilgrims showing up because they thought the Native Americans were sick or dead, so it'd be easy to steal their food. It's probably closer to the holiday experience many people experience today, with all the screaming and tears and accusations and hurt feelings. Just add in a lot more violence to make it a little more realistic.
When we think of the first car, we think of Henry Ford's Model T, first introduced in 1908. It was a swell automobile, but not by any stretch of the imagination the "first" horseless carriage. That happened back in the 19th century, when European engineers like Carl Benz and Emile Levassor were making automobile innovations that were light years ahead of Ford. Benz patented the first automobile in 1886. Ford wasn't even the first to sell cars in the U.S. That would be Ransom E. Olds, who was selling Oldsmobiles in 1901 for the low price of $650.
Abraham Lincoln may have given us the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, but he had complicated and conflicting ideas about slavery. In an 1862 letter to a prominent newspaper editor, he shared these ambiguous emotions: "If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union." So yeah, it's fair to say that Lincoln freed the slaves. But it's also fair to note that he was totally open to a plan B.
Not even close. Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were deists, which means they believed in God but just not one with holy books and commandments written in stone. George Washington was an Episcopalian, though not a strong enough believer to summon a pastor on his deathbed. John Adams, a Unitarian, claimed that "The government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion." Also, there's that weird pyramid with a single eye on the dollar bill. I mean c'mon! What is that about?
It's one of those stories that people with bad grades love to tell. "Sure, I flunked my math test, but so did Einstein." Yeah, sorry to burst your bubble, but that's in no way true. Einstein was always brilliant, even at an early age. The story that he was terrible at math was invented by a Ripley's Believe It or Not! newspaper column in the 30s, with the click-baiting-before-click-baiting-was-a-thing title "Greatest living mathematician failed in mathematics." When a Princeton rabbi shared this story with Einstein in 1935, he just laughed and said, "I never failed in mathematics. Before I was fifteen I had mastered differential and integral calculus."
You think with the constant reminders to "Remember the Alamo" that somebody would've realized that what was being remembered maybe wasn't all that noble. The 250 or more Americans who died at the Alamo weren't fighting for freedom. Just the opposite, in fact. Texas was still technically part of Mexico after its War of Independence from Spain, but slavery was banned from Mexico in 1829, which didn't make many Texans happy. They wanted to keep their slaves, and General Santa Anna was like, "Nope." So they holed up in the Alamo in San Antonio until… you know the rest.
Where did we get the idea that feminists burn their bras? It likely started with the women's liberation protest in Atlantic City, New Jersey, during the 1968 Miss America pageant, where bras (and other "instruments of torture" like girdles and high-heel shoes) were dumped into a trash can and set ablaze. But that was the first and last time a bra was burned in the U.S. as an expression of female power.
The U.S. definitely played a huge part in defeating the Nazis in World War II. But we can't take full credit. The Nazis were largely defeated by the Soviet Union. While the U.S. lost 1.3 million lives in World War II, the Russians lost a staggering 25 million.
The problem with that sentence is the "freedom" part. It all started in 1593, when the Protestant "Separatists" emigrated to Holland from England for the chance to practice their religious preferences without interference. The only problem? Holland allowed too much religious freedom, giving free reign to Judaism and Catholicism and even atheism. It was too much for their pure Puritan hearts. So they jumped on the Mayflower and went looking for a new world.
It's a weird thing about a word like "first." It makes everything seem more significant and special. When Charles Lindbergh took his solo flight between New York and Paris in 1927, it was definitely historic. And shouldn't that be enough? Does it take anything away from Lindbergh's flight to mention that another plane did it eight years earlier, in 1919, piloted by British aviators Alcock and Brown? They'd flown nonstop from Newfoundland to Ireland in a Vickers Vimy biplane.
Between 1859 and 1900, there were an estimated 12 bank robberies in the entirety of the so-called "Wild West." And the grand total of gun-related murders in frontier towns came to about 1.5 per year. There could've been 1.5 gun-related murders in some U.S. cities today in the time it took you to read that last sentence. The infamous 1881 shootout at the OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona, in which the Earp brothers exchanged gunfire with the Clanton-McLaury gang, had a body count of exactly three.
To be fair, the words were written in the U.S. by the poet Francis Scott Key. It was originally about Fort McHenry in Baltimore, which successfully fought off the British navy in 1814. But the music—the notes we all know by heart even when we don't remember the words—was originally an old 18th century British drinking song called "To Anacreon in Heav'n," about a men's social club called the Anacreontic Society where there was a lot of booze and fiddle-playing, apparently. Some sample lyrics:
Voice, fiddle, and flute, no longer be mute,
I'll lend you my name and inspire you to boot
And besides I'll instruct you like me to intwine
The myrtle of Venus with Bacchus's vine.
Not a lot of "our flag was still there" patriotism, but if you've ever garbled the song before a baseball game, you know the spirit is the same.
During the twilight of the Gold Rush, the story goes, a miner walked into the bar at the Occidental Hotel, in Martinez, California, and asked for the strongest drink conceivable (to dull the ache of coming home empty-handed). The bartender whipped together some gin and vermouth, splashed in some olive juice, and lo, the world's most classic libation was invented.
Only, there's no way to corroborate this tall tale. In fact, popular origin stories of the martini have been credited to Randolph Martine, a judge in New York (nope: he only drank Champagne) Alessandro Martini, founder of Martini vermouth (nope: he drank his stuff straight) and 19th century mixologist Jerry Thomas (nope: his version had red vermouth). The truth is that no one can credibly identify its history. As it stands, the martini is little more than a result of the collective, centuries-honed consciousness of the American spirit of innovation. Funny, then, that the drink's most steadfast champion comes from across the Atlantic.
It turns out the myth of a myth can be a myth itself. Johnny Appleseed, the folkloric hero from the early days of our country, is a very real dude. His birth name: John Chapman. And, if you head to his hometown (Leominster, Massachusetts), you'll even find a dedicated granite marker next to his birthplace. The whole street was renamed, too—though city planners stuck with his mythical moniker: Johnny Appleseed Lane.
It's a good line. It's also an incorrect one. The actual utterance: "Houston, we've had a problem."
We're all aware of the "shot heard round the world," a phrase coined by Ralph Waldo Emerson to describe the first gunshot at the Battle of Lexington and Concord—and the spark for the Revolutionary War. As legend has it, that first musket shot marked the beginning of armed and violent conflict between the Colonies and the British. Not so. According to Ray Raphael's seminal Founding Myths, farmers had staged violent uprisings against Red Coats since 1774, an entire year prior to the Battle.
There's a long-perpetuated myth that Walt Disney, after his 1966 death, had his body cryogenically frozen, with the intent to be revived once technology permits it. This rumor is demonstrably false. Disney was cremated, and his ashes were thrown to the wind at the Forest Lawn Memorial Lake. The first person to be posthumously frozen is James Bedford, in 1967. Bedford's body is currently under lock-and-key with the folks at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation.
Hollywood and Treasure Island knockoffs would have you believe that, by the 18th century, pirates more or less wrapped up their whole "steal stuff and kill people" shtick. But pirates operated well into the 19th century. In fact, one high profile case, that of pirate Charles Gibbs, née James D. Jeffers, didn't come to an end until 1832, when he was convicted of mutiny and murder, and hanged to death on Ellis Island. (Yes, that Ellis Island.) Of note: the prosecuting attorney happened to be the son of Alexander Hamilton.
We're taught that the United States of America, as we know it, spawned from thirteen original colonies. As it turns out, one of those colonies, Delaware, wasn't officially a colony until 1776—just before, you know, the whole revolution thing kicked off. Before then, for the majority of the 18th century, it was a colony of Great Britain. And even further back, since its incorporation, Delaware was part of the Pennsylvania colony. There you have it: America's original set was a dozen.
When the Supreme Court was founded, in 1789, six justices sat on the bench. In 1807, that swelled to seven. Thirty years later, it jumped to nine. And in the throes of the Civil War, in 1863, the bench increased to ten before dropping down to nine again at the end of the decade: one for each circuit court. In other words, the nine-justice bench we're so familiar with is not an in-blood constitutional mandate. Under the right political circumstances—one political party fully controlling the house, senate, and White House—the supreme court could grow to, theoretically, 10 or 11 or 12 or 13 or 30 or, really, as many members as a unified congressional front would allow.
In fact, in the 1930s, Franklin D. Roosevelt attempted to boost the bench to a whopping 15, but his plan was shot down in the senate.
Even the writers of Game of Thrones couldn't pull off a plot point as convenient as this perpetuated myth: that enthusiastic patriots cracked the Liberty Bell by ringing it too hard on the day we declared independence. Historians have been able to trace the first crack back to the 1750s, though, and the large one we all know today is likely just a result of regular wear-and-tear.
William Howard Taft, the 27th POTUS, was by all accounts a massive man: at the height of his width, he clocked in at more than 350 pounds. As such, a popular legend has it that Taft once got stuck inside a White House bathtub. The truth of the matter is less fun. Taft's staff special-ordered a bathtub large enough to comfortably sit four grown men—so large, in fact, that even a 350-pound behemoth couldn't possibly get stuck. The bathtub myth likely stemmed from a post-presidency leisure visit to hotel New Jersey, as reported in a 1913 article in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Purportedly, Taft caused the tub in his room to overflow, leading to leakage in the first-floor dining room.
To be fair, it was illegal to burn the flag for the majority of American history. But the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in 1989, in Texas v. Johnson, that preventing someone from burning the flag is a first amendment violation. (The Court upheld their decision in 1990's U.S. v. Eichman.) That said, in certain times and places—say, a military funeral—the practice can be considered illegal.
Our first official capital city, in 1774, was Philadelphia. But in short order, our countries leaders bounced around and convened everywhere from large cities, like Baltimore and New York City, to less-esteemed locales, like Trenton, New Jersey, and Annapolis, Maryland. (Lancaster, Pennsylvania, holds the unique claim of being "capital for a day," since the Second Continental Congress convened there for a single day on September 27, 1777.) The District of Columbia didn't become the capital as we know it—set in stone, both by decree and sheer amount of statues and landmarks—until 1819.
Let's end where we began, with our first president. Or our "kind of" first president. We all just naturally assume that George was number one.
During the American Revolution, several presidents were elected by the Continental Congress, the first being Peyton Randolph, who created the Continental Army. Thomas Mifflin, who was president between 1783 and 1784, oversaw the ratification of the Treaty of Paris. John Hancock, who became more famous for signing the Declaration of Independence, was the president between 1785 and 1786. George Washington was our first president to be elected by the people, but technically speaking, he was our 15th president.
If you want to get out of the past for a bit and re-examine some of the wilder things in our recent past that will make the history books, 20 Present Day Facts No One Could Have Predicted Five Years Ago will surely be a trip.
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Elanor Dumont (1829 &ndash 1879)
Elanor Dumont, &ldquoMadame Moustache&rdquo, was a gambler and prostitute madam on the American Western Frontier during the great California Gold Rush.
Taking advantage of the opportunity to reinvent herself on the untamed frontier, Elanor claimed to be French when she arrived in California in 1854.
It is believed that she is probably of French-Creole heritage and that her family origin is likely the city of New Orleans, Louisiana.
Regardless of real French or shall we say, nouveau French, Elanor opened a gambling hall in Nevada City and ran it like no other.
Her flagship establishment, the &ldquoVingt-et-un&rdquo on Broad, was known to be more refined. The hall provided a welcome haven for men of a certain class.
As an accomplished card dealer, she could entertain them for hours. Keeping all admirers at a distance, she&rsquod win their hard-earned cash and gold for her profit with a smile.
Known for her fairness, Madame Moustache was able to sell and rebuild gambling establishments as the local economies changed with the flow of gold through the towns.
Elanor was also excellent at marketing women at her various brothels. She would parade the women through town to promote their beauty in broad daylight.
This was an unpopular activity with the more genteel ladies of the frontier. Regardless, it was a successful campaign.
Sadly, Elanor was swindled out of her entire fortune by her love, Jack McKnight. He left her with nothing in 1872.
Bad luck followed, and after losing a poor bet with a higher loss than should could afford, Madame Moustache was found dead of an apparent suicide by morphine overdose.
The shootout at the Oriental Saloon
Aside from Dodge City, another iconic Old West town is Tombstone, Ariz. According to Smithsonian Magazine, Tombstone was founded in 1877 by Ed Schieffelin, who was prospecting in southeast Arizona's Dragoon Mountains. Soldiers told Schieffelin that "he'd find nothing there but his own tombstone." But Schieffelin found silver instead, and by 1880, a town named Tombstone was booming.
Tombstone became renowned for its lawlessness. It sported 20 saloons and at least a dozen gambling dens. It was also known for sudden violence. One example of this was a shootout which, according to the Encyclopedia of Western Gunfighters, occurred on Feb. 25, 1881, when Luke Short and Charles Storms got into an argument over a card game at the Oriental Saloon, with Short as the house dealer. Jeff Guinn notes in his book, The Last Gunfight, that the famous Bat Masterson, a Dodge City veteran who was also dealing in the saloon, broke up the fight. He walked the drunken Storms back to his hotel. However, Storms returned to the saloon where he found Short outside. He waved his gun at him. Short in response drew his own pistol and cooly killed Storms with a bullet in the heart. Short was cleared of any criminal charges. He and Masterson soon left Tombstone.
The violence at the Oriental was a mere prelude to the most famous shootout in Tombstone of them all at the O.K. Corral.
When it comes to naming the wildest towns in the Wild West, the mining town of Tombstone, Arizona Territory, looms near the top on most anyone’s list. Tombstone, when it was booming in the early 1880s, featured gambling, shootings, political factions that divided the law enforcement community and, of course, the gunfight near the O.K. Corral, in which three Earp brothers and Doc Holliday killed three uncooperative cowboys. On the other hand, the resort town of Hot Springs, Arkansas, which got its name from the geothermal springs in the area, probably would not even make such a ‘wildest’ list. Yet one could find a hot time in that old town, too. Hot Springs had gambling galore, its share of shootings, law enforcers who definitely did not see eye to eye and two shocking gunfights on the same day–the first resulting in no casualties, but the second leaving five men dead.
The Arkansas shootout that had a higher body count than the famous 1881 Tombstone fight occurred on March 16, 1899, and pitted lawmen against lawmen–the Garland County Sheriff’s Office vs. the Hot Springs Police Department. News of the Shootout on Central Avenue made the papers from New York City to California (though it became old news fast) and left the city fathers distressed. After the gunfight, lines of visitors rushed to take the next train out of town. Hot Springs depended on the tourist trade for its economic health, and a battle between local badge-wearers in the middle of Central Avenue was not exactly good for business.
Hot Springs, some 52 miles southwest of Little Rock, was a site well known to American Indians. The little village that sprang up around the springs in the late 1820s was known as Thermopolis, but its first real resort season was the summer of 1832. That year, U.S. President Andrew Jackson signed a special act of Congress to protect what became known as Hot Springs. Stage service from Little Rock began three years later, and in 1851 Hot Springs was incorporated as a town. The place became virtually deserted during the Civil War but experienced a postwar population boom as more and more visitors ventured there to bathe in–and also drink–the legendary waters. By the mid-1870s, the federal government had begun administration of the Hot Springs Reservation (which would be renamed Hot Springs National Park in 1921).
On January 15, 1874, an undetermined amount of money was taken when a stagecoach was robbed five miles east of Hot Springs on the road to Malvern, Ark. The robbery has been pinned on the famous James-Younger Gang, though some historians say otherwise. About eight months later, another stage robbery occurred about 10 miles east of Hot Springs, with the thieves taking some $1,000.
The same year, successful businessman Joseph ‘Diamond Jo’ Reynolds decided to take a stage from the train station at Malvern to Hot Springs, where the soothing waters would help his rheumatism. That particular stage was not held up, but the terribly bumpy ride is said to have inspired Diamond Jo to build a 22-mile connecting narrow-gauge railroad between Malvern and Hot Springs. With this more comfortable transportation, Hot Springs became one of the favorite destinations not only of one-time New Yorker Reynolds but also of many other wealthy people from across the nation. Some of these visitors wanted more than just hot thermal baths. The local people were swift to comply, and watering holes sprang up to the point where one visitor wrote home, ‘I believe there is a saloon in every other store.’ Also springing up were brothels and gaming establishments. By the late 1870s, gambling, which probably existed in Hot Springs as early as 1849, had become a local growth industry that rivaled the healing waters. The question of who would control the gambling became an issue that influenced every election for many years.
In February 1884, a gunfight occurred on Central Avenue between two gambling factions, known as the Flynns and the Dorans. Frank ‘Boss Gambler’ Flynn’s control of most of the gambling houses on Central Avenue had been challenged by Major S.A. Doran, a Confederate veteran who refused to submit to Flynn’s bullying. Each man had hired gunmen to protect his interests. Flynn’s plans to ambush Major Doran didn’t work out, but Doran’s gunmen soon went to work, opening fire on Flynn and his two brothers as they rode in a horse-drawn cab along Bath House Row. In the ambush and ensuing gun battle, three men were killed and three others, including Frank Flynn, were wounded. Within a few hours, a vigilante group called the Committee of Thirteen had formed, and these vigilantes herded many gamblers at bayonet point to the trains for hasty departures.
Gambling in the spa city had taken a hit, but before long it revived and came on stronger than ever. The ‘Liberals’ knew that gambling was good for business, so they strived to make Hot Springs a wide-open town again. ‘Conservatives,’ who thought that refreshing waters were enough to soothe a man’s soul, fought to suppress gambling and keep Hot Springs healthier and safer for citizens and visitors alike. The position of mayor was hotly contested every two years. The elected mayor got to pick his chief of police, who held a lot of power there in the 1880s and s. Gambling and prostitution either thrived or dried up depending on the politics of the mayor and police chief.
In the election for mayor in 1897, Independent candidate William L. Gordon defeated Liberal incumbent W.W. Waters. Thomas C. Toler, who had been the chief of police at the time of the Flynn-Doran gambling battle, helped Gordon get elected, so Gordon appointed him to the chief’s job again. Toler was actually a Liberal with connections in the gambling community. Unlike Mayor Gordon, Toler liked Hot Springs better when it was an open town. The two men soon argued about policies, and Gordon tried to dismiss the popular Toler. The city council members sided with the chief, so Gordon backed off.
With another election coming up in April 1899, Toler suddenly threw his support to Independent candidate C.W. Fry. Fry announced that if elected he would reappoint Tom Toler as chief of police. Trouble began to brew in a town that now had some paved streets, as well as electric trolleys, or streetcars, moving hundreds of visitors every day. The Democratic mayoral candidate, young businessman George Belding, had the support of perhaps the most powerful man in Garland County, Sheriff Robert L. Williams. Belding assured Williams that if elected mayor he would make Chief Deputy Sheriff Coffee Williams, the sheriff’s brother, chief of police. Such a development would mean control of the entire county for the Williams brothers. Until the 1899 election caused them to bump heads, Toler and Bob Williams had been warm friends.
Toler, 45, was an experienced lawman, having been hired as a deputy in the early 1870s by the first sheriff of Garland County, William Little, and then appointed chief of police in 1883. During the Flynn-Doran fight the following February, he had disarmed the combatants and herded some of them off to jail. Afterward, one of the gunmen brought in by Major Doran, Edward Howell, hung around town threatening to kill Chief Toler on sight. Toler headed over to Howell’s favorite drinking establishment, the Opera House Saloon, and shot the gunman dead. It was ruled self-defense.
Another time, Toler got the best of a Hot Springs encounter with O.K. Corral participant Wyatt Earp, at least according to the March 17, 1899, edition of the Arkansas Democrat: ‘A dozen or more years ago, [Toler] made Wyatt Earp, a notorious western killer, walk out of Hot Springs.’ Earp, the newspaper reported, was having a run of bad luck and getting mad about it. Chief Toler arrived and took Earp aside, telling him that Hot Springs welcomed visitors but didn’t want troublemakers. Earp didn’t press the issue, but the following night Toler was again summoned because Wyatt was drinking, losing and acting surly once more. At that point, Toler informed Earp he was ‘posted’ out of town, and Wyatt departed Hot Springs without further incident.
Toler, who lived with a woman referred to as Mrs. Toler in official records, was the kind of police chief the citizens of Hot Springs wanted. He and his 10-man department collected enough fines to pay the salaries of the force, but they enforced the law without any undue hardship on the tourist trade.
Toler’s second-in-command, Captain Lee Haley, was a painter by trade, but he had ventured into law enforcement and come to like it. Haley, 33, had married a local girl, and they had two children. Sergeant Thomas F. Goslee, a printer by trade, was considered a top-notch officer, fearless and totally loyal to Toler. Haley, Goslee and Toler would all be involved in the March 16 fight with members of the sheriff’s office, as would detective James E. Hart. Known by many Hot Springs residents as ‘Uncle Jim,’ the English-born Hart was in his 40s but looked considerably older. Appointed chief of police by Mayor D. Kimbell in 1887, Hart had proved too straight-laced for everyone and had accepted a demotion to remain with the department. He had a wife who was blind and three children.
The Hot Springs Police Department was supportive of its chief but no more so than the Garland County Sheriff’s Office was supportive of its sheriff, Bob Williams. Born in Kentucky on January 22, 1851, Bob had moved with his family to Texas during the Civil War. After the war, the Williams family tried farming in Arkansas’ Polk County. Bob married Martha Allen there in 1872, and the couple moved to Hot Springs in 1878. Once he had found financial success as the owner of a mercantile store, his parents joined him in Hot Springs, as did his older sister, Matilda Watt, and her family and his younger brother, J.C. Williams, who everyone called ‘Coffee.’ Bob Williams entered the sheriff’s race in 1886 and won as a Democrat. He was re-elected in 1888 and 1890 and then was voted in as mayor in 1893. He chose not to seek a second term. When he decided he wanted to be sheriff again in 1898, he ran successfully as an Independent.
Bob Williams was an outgoing individual, polite to women and friendly to most men, except those who disagreed with him too much. His brother Coffee had greater flaws. He drank too much and spent too much time hanging around the gambling clubs. Several of his business ventures had not worked out, and Bob had had to bail him out a few times. But Bob had appointed his brother chief deputy sheriff, and Coffee had handled his duties well. Bob Williams also appointed two nephews, Sam and Will Watt, as deputies. Sam showed good judgment and composure on the job, but Will was a bit unstable and more impetuous. The sheriff’s 22-year-old son, Johnny O. Williams, was managing the mercantile store in March 1899, but he had ridden on several posses headed by his father, and he loved to go out and practice target shooting with Uncle Coffee. Bob Williams’ friend Dave Young was a part-time deputy sheriff who occasionally worked in a liquor store. Last but not least of the deputies was Ed Spear, a tall, prematurely balding man who had been in his share of trouble but was now a loyal and supportive deputy, very much in Sheriff Bob Williams’ inner circle.
On the morning of March 16, 1899, a caucus of Independent Party leaders met in the City Hall office of Police Chief Toler. Mayoral candidate C.W. Fry was present, along with a dozen or more other people, including several police officers. What was said at the meeting is not known, but it stands to reason that the officers were told that if Fry was elected, then Toler would be reappointed police chief and all the policemen would be able to keep their jobs. As soon as the meeting concluded, an unidentified man phoned Bob Williams at the courthouse, telling him all about it. The angry sheriff then stormed downtown. When he arrived on Central Avenue at about 1:30 p.m., he spotted his pal Dave Young. Over lunch at the Klondike Saloon, Williams complained to Young about the disturbing meeting at City Hall. At about that time, Sergeant Tom Goslee of the Hot Springs Police Department was having a piece of pie at Corrinne Remington’s cafe. Afterward, he went to Tobe and York’s barbershop at 614 Central for a quick haircut. Goslee had left his .44-caliber service revolver in his desk, but he carried a two-shot derringer.
Williams and Young finished their meal and walked north on Central to the corner of Spring Street, where they stopped to talk some more in front of Joseph Mazzi’s saloon. Seeing Goslee come out of the barber shop across the street, the sheriff called out to him. Goslee waited for a trolley car to pass, then crossed over to the two unsmiling men. Instead of shaking Goslee’s hand, Williams gave the sergeant a piece of paper. ‘These are the people who held a caucus in the chief of police’s office this morning against Belding,’ the sheriff said. Goslee could see his own name on the list. ‘And I want to know what you mean by working against me,’ Williams demanded. Goslee calmly replied, ‘I am not unfriendly to Belding and have taken no active part in the caucus you have referred to.’ But then he saw fit to defend Police Chief Toler and even accuse Williams of being Toler’s enemy. The sheriff called Goslee ‘a liar and a coward’ and began a long tirade. When Williams seemed to move his hand toward his coat, Goslee responded by drawing his derringer. ‘I want no trouble from you, as you are the sheriff of the county,’ the sergeant said, ‘but I will defend myself if forced to.’
Dave Young stepped between the two men, gently placing a hand on each man’s shoulder. ‘Boys, boys, this will not do,’ he said. Later, he would tell an acquaintance, ‘I believe that Goslee would have killed Bob Williams had I not stepped between the two.’ As it was, the sheriff opened his coat and said, ‘As you can see, I am not armed,’ but he continued fuming at Goslee. Then the sheriff saw his son Johnny come out of the City Hall Saloon, at the intersection of Central and Prospect, and broke away to greet him. According to witnesses, Johnny Williams handed his father a short-barrel .44 revolver and then called to a friend, who passed him another revolver.
Someone shouted ‘Look out!’ and gunfire quickly followed. Witnesses were divided over who fired the first shot, but Goslee would have been a fool to start a street gunfight armed with only a two-shot derringer. In any case, the sergeant had soon emptied both barrels and was retreating under fire. One bullet barely missed his head and embedded in the doorframe of Justice W.A. Kirk’s office. Other bullets ricocheted against the brick wall of F.J. Mobb’s drugstore. Bob and Johnny Williams kept shooting until their guns were empty, but they couldn’t get their man. Goslee slipped down an alley and stumbled into the lobby of the Sumpter House, not wounded but badly shaken. Goslee remained in the little hotel until Chief Toler and another officer arrived to escort him to City Hall.
Toler notified David Cloud, Garland County prosecuting attorney, who quickly took statements from Sergeant Goslee and Sheriff Williams. Each blamed the other. Cloud believed Goslee and issued a warrant for Bob Williams’ arrest. The sheriff made bail, but the charge against him did nothing to improve his mood. Even though 14 shots had been fired, nobody had been hurt in the gunfight. Credit poor marksmanship or dumb luck. But the trouble wasn’t over, not by a long shot. Less than three hours later, their marksmanship would improve or their luck would run out–two of them would be dead and the third indicted for murder.
The city fathers were not happy that a gunfight had taken place on Hot Springs’ main street, and Toler called Goslee into his office and said that the volatile situation had to be defused before further trouble occurred. He suggested that the sergeant meet with Johnny Williams, shake his hand and maybe have a drink, while he himself would try to patch things up with Sheriff Bob Williams. Toler then called for a meeting in his home, not wanting to risk another leak from the ‘City Hall spy.’ In attendance were C.W. Fry, Sergeant Goslee, Captain Haley, Arlington Hotel owner Samuel H. Stitt, and large-property owner George M. French. The chief went over the events of the day, and they discussed their plans on how to lessen the tension between the two law enforcement departments.
When Toler called Bob Williams at his office and asked to meet for drinks at 5:30 p.m., William reluctantly agreed but said it had to be a short meeting because his daughter Florence was celebrating her 21st birthday that night. Williams then contacted his brother, Chief Deputy Sheriff Coffee Williams, at the Arkansaw Club, an elaborate gambling and sporting palace, and told him to get back to the sheriff’s office. After that, the sheriff heard from his son Johnny, who said that Goslee had called him to set up a friendly meeting. Bob Williams was suspicious. When Coffee arrived, the sheriff told him to accompany Johnny to the meeting. Coffee went to his desk and took out a revolver, which he stuck in the back of his waistband. Next, the chief deputy sheriff put on a brown suit coat, long enough to hide the gun. Coffee then walked with nephew Johnny on the east side of Central Avenue, heading north. They were soon joined by Deputy Ed Spear, and the three men stopped to talk. Back at the courthouse, Bob Williams briefed nephews Sam and Will Watt on what was going on and strapped on an old Colt revolver. They then headed outside toward Central Avenue. Before long, Dave Young joined them.
After the small meeting at Toler’s house ended, the chief of police, Captain Haley and Sergeant Goslee walked south on Central Avenue. Shortly after passing Oliver and Finney’s grocery store at 607 Central, they spotted Coffee Williams, Johnny Williams and Ed Spear walking north on the same side of the street. As the two groups neared each other, Johnny Williams stepped up and extended his hand to Goslee. The sergeant shook hands and said, ‘Johnny, I am an officer and can’t be shooting around on the streets.’ Young Williams smiled and said, ‘All right, Tom, I want everybody for my friend.’
Seeing how well things were going, Chief Toler and Captain Haley moved down the sidewalk to Lemp’s Beer Depot, where Haley’s brother-in-law, Louis Hinkle, was a bartender. Lemp’s folding doors were open wide so that customers could stand at the bar and still enjoy the fresh air. Haley leaned against one end of the bar to talk to Hinkle. Chief Deputy Sheriff Coffee Williams and Deputy Spear had also drifted up the sidewalk and were now only a few feet away from Haley.
Seeing Spear standing there, Haley addressed him, ‘Ed, I understand you have told people that if I put my head out, you’ll shoot it off.’ The accusation appeared to stun Spear for a moment. Then the deputy said, ‘Haley, anybody who said I told that is a goddamn liar.’ Hinkle took offense at Spear’s denial. ‘Don’t you make me out a liar,’ he snarled. Hinkle then put one of his powerful arms around Spear’s neck and tilted his head upward. In his other arm, the brawny bartender held an Anheuser-Busch knife with a 6-inch blade. It was no bluff. In one motion, Hinkle slashed Spear’s throat.
With his throat bleeding profusely, Spear struggled to free himself. Hinkle wasn’t ready to let go. ‘Stop, for God’s sake,’ Haley pleaded. Chief Toler and Sergeant Goslee both started toward the struggling men, intending to break them apart. Before they got there, Spear twisted partially free, just enough so that he could yank out his .45-caliber revolver and pull the trigger. The bullet hit Hinkle in the throat and exited below his ear. The bartender released Spear and staggered backward. Coffee Williams took the opportunity to pull out his revolver and shoot Hinkle in the chest.
Meanwhile there was more shooting going on. While running on the sidewalk toward the fray, Goslee went down. Johnny Williams had shot him twice, one bullet striking the sergeant just below the right knee and the other hitting him in the right groin, severing the femoral artery. The sergeant struggled up onto his left elbow and fired back at Johnny Williams, who was some 35 or 40 feet away. The shot struck the sheriff’s son in the head. Young Williams crumpled to the sidewalk near the entrance to the Klondike Saloon. He was mortally wounded, but Goslee wouldn’t make it either. A shot from Coffee Williams finished off the sergeant.
Tom Toler quickly got into the act, firing at Coffee Williams, who backed into the street and took refuge behind a parked express wagon. Coffee fired back at the chief of police from behind the wagon, but Toler’s attention was soon diverted by a shot fired at him by the game Ed Spear, who was not letting his throat wound knock him out of the fight. Toler sent a couple of bullets Spear’s way, one of which grazed Spear’s right shoulder. With Spear and Coffee Williams shooting at him from both sides and the merchants’ doors all locked behind him, Toler felt trapped. He ran north on the sidewalk, trying to get a clear shot at Coffee, but the deputy chief moved from the back of the express wagon to the front and began firing his two six-shooters over the seat. Two bullets struck Toler at virtually the same time–the one that got him in the back of the head probably delivered by Coffee Williams, the one that got him in the chest probably unleashed by Spear. Either shot would have been fatal.
But what of Captain Haley, whose comment to Spear seemingly opened the door for all the violence that followed? Witnesses later reported that when the first shot was fired by Spear, Haley had stood stunned for a few seconds and then had turned and run across Central Avenue, eventually finding refuge in Tobe and York’s barbershop. ‘A shot was fired and blood flew in my face and eyes and I retreated into the street blinded,’ Haley later testified. Strangely, neither Spear nor Coffee Williams had appeared concerned that the police captain was behind them on the west side of the street. Indeed, Haley never returned to the conflict. He had fled, much as Ike Clanton had done during the October 1881 Tombstone fight.
After Toler went down, the shooting stopped. Hinkle and Goslee were already dead, Johnny Williams was dying on the sidewalk, and Haley was in hiding. Spear managed to stumble into the Klondike Saloon. ‘Boys, I am badly wounded,’ he gasped. ‘For God’s sake send for a doctor to help me.’
He then collapsed on the saloon floor, but, amazingly enough, it would not be his last gasp or last collapse. Coffee Williams stepped out from behind the express wagon and found himself standing alone in the street. He rushed over to his nephew, Johnny Williams, and called out for a doctor. But Coffee wasn’t sure it was really safe on the street. Still clutching his two six-shooters, he backed through the doorway of the Klondike.
Citizens were slow in opening their doors and coming out to check on the damage. Only a few brave souls had done so by the time Sheriff Bob Williams arrived on the scene with deputies Sam and Will Watt and part-time deputy Dave Young. The sheriff first saw the bodies of Hinkle, Goslee and Toler, but his first cry of anguish didn’t come until he recognized that the fourth fallen man was his son, Johnny. Turning to his brother, the sheriff said: ‘My God, Coffee, did you do this? Is Johnny dead?’ Coffee was ready with an answer: ‘Yes, Johnny is dead, and I killed the son-of-a-bitch who killed him.’ At that point, the sheriff probably figured that the police had tried to ambush his men, not knowing that it was a spur-of-the-moment knifing by bartender Hinkle that had led to all the rest. Will Joyce, a friend of the sheriff’s, later testified that he saw Bob Williams cursing and stalking up and down with a revolver in each hand. Joyce helped carry Johnny into the Klondike Saloon while the young man’s father continued to rage. Resident C.H. Weaver, who had considered running for mayor, tried to calm the sheriff, but Bob Williams stuck both revolvers in Weaver’s face and cursed him. Weaver walked away, badly shaken but unharmed.
Detective Jim Hart would not be so lucky. He had been over at the Diamond Jo Railroad Depot trying to keep riffraff and con men out of town when someone rode up to him and announced that there was ‘big trouble over on Central Avenue.’ Hart hurried to the shocking scene, where he didn’t even bother taking his revolver out, according to the later testimony of four people, including Mrs. Toler. That didn’t mean anything to Bob Williams. The sheriff walked up to Hart, grabbed the lapel of his coat with his left hand and said, ‘Here is another of those sons-of-bitches!’ Cocking the revolver in his right hand, Williams fired point-blank into Hart’s face. The hapless detective fell, his face blackened from the muzzle blast and his scalp blown off. That did not stop Deputy Will Watt from reaching over the shoulder of his uncle-sheriff and firing two more bullets into Hart. People who had come out of stores and homes fled back inside again. But not Mrs. Toler, who stood with her hands on her hips, staring directly at Bob Williams. She later said that the sheriff told her, ‘Yes, we got Toler, and I wish we had you where we’ve got him.’ After he said it, she went home without a word-not to weep but to get a loaded gun that her late husband kept in a bureau drawer. She wrapped the gun in her shawl and went back to Central Avenue, intent on ‘killing Bob Williams,’ but by then the sheriff was gone.
Johnny Williams had not yet died, so Bob Williams had ordered some men to take his son home. The little birthday party for the sheriff’s daughter, Florence, was off. Instead the Williamses made Johnny as comfortable as possible and stayed with him until he died at 9:30 that night. Back on Central Avenue, the other fallen men lay unattended. Members of the sheriff’s office were still acting as if the conflict would resume. Dave Young, who had been unarmed and had not taken part in the street fight, borrowed a doublebarreled shotgun from one of the saloons. Coffee Williams, who had emptied two revolvers in the fight, tried to get more ammunition from Babcock’s hardware store. ‘They would not give me any,’ he said later. Nephew Will Watt then found him some cartridges. These preparations were not necessary, however. The Hot Springs Police Department had been defeated, and the carnage was over. Amazingly, though five men had been shot down in the Shootout on Central Avenue, the only bystander wounded was a young man named Alan Carter, who took a stray bullet while watching the action.
Storeowners called City Hall to complain about the dead bodies on the sidewalk. Finally, Constable Sam Tate and his deputy, Jack Archer, brought the bodies of Hinkle, Goslee, Toler and Hart by freight wagon to the Gross Funeral Home. Tate stood in the rear of the wagon, with arms crossed and displaying two drawn revolvers.
Mayor W.L. Gordon called an emergency meeting at City Hall and appointed L.D. Beldin to replace the fallen Tom Toler as chief of police. Next, Gordon and Beldin selected 150 men to carry out armed patrols to prevent any unlawful acts. They could not, however, stop visitors from departing town in droves. ‘The tragedy at Hot Springs resulting in the killing of five men and the probable fatal wounding of a sixth is one of the most deplorable affairs of this kind that has ever occurred in the state of Arkansas,’ the Arkansas Gazette stated. The Arkansas Democrat compared the street fight to those that had occurred earlier on the Western frontier: ‘That was a terrible affair at Hot Springs. Five men killed and another wounded in a street duel is a record seldom attained by the wild, reckless elements in new western towns. It is needless to say the whole state was shocked by the news of the tragedy.’
Hearings were held at City Hall the next day. Governor Dan Jones attended at the request of a number of businessmen. Coroner E.A. Shippey presided over the inquest. The jury quickly concluded that Sam Watt and Dave Young had not taken an active part in the gunplay. R.L. (‘Bob’) Williams, Coffee Williams, Will Watt and the wounded Ed Spear were charged with ‘unjustifiable homicide’ and were remanded to the county jail. All made bail.
A series of courtroom trials began, but all came to naught. Spear claimed that he acted in self-defense after Hinkle attacked him with a knife. Coffee Williams claimed that he had shot Hinkle to help a fellow deputy in need, and that he had fired at Goslee and Toler only because they were shooting at him. The trials of Sheriff Williams and Will Watt ended in hung juries. Although several witnesses testified that Williams and Watt had shot down detective Hart, several other people came forth to say that Hart had first drawn his gun on Williams. Neither the sheriff nor his brother nor his nephew nor Ed Spear would have to serve a single day in prison. Hart’s blind widow later filed a civil suit for $20,000 against Sheriff Williams, but Will Watt testified that he had killed Hart to save his uncle’s life, and the jury found for the defendant. Understandably, Hot Springs would take some time to recover from its Tombstonelike gunfight. For one thing, the relations between the Garland County Sheriff’s Office and the Hot Springs Police Department remained strained well into the 20th century.
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