View Other Topics

20 Myths About The Wild West We’ve All Been Confusing As Facts

May 4, 2021

Image: Pearl Hart, female bandit - wikimediacommons
It’s such a central part of the American story that most of us probably think we know rather a lot about the Old West according to But how much of our knowledge is actually based on facts as opposed to myths spun by movies, TV shows and dime novels? Read on to learn about 20 things we thought we knew about the Old West that are just not true. You might be quite surprised!
20. The U.S. invented cowboys
Cowboys are such a central part of the whole mythology of the Wild West that they’ve just got to be a U.S. invention, right? Totally wrong! The original cowboys – whom we should properly call vaqueros – long pre-date the cowboys of the American West. And they started riding the range south of the border in Mexico.
These Mexican cowboys date back to not long after Spain’s arrival in Central America in the 16th century, according to The Spanish started to build ranches and they brought horses over so that the hands could tend large cattle herds grazing over many acres. Even back then, the vaqueros built a reputation for their outstanding horsemanship and rope skills. From the 18th century ranching then spread north into modern-day Texas, Arizona and New Mexico.
19. Sitting Bull led his men into battle at Little Bighorn
The 1876 Battle of Little Big Horn is the most famous of the engagements fought between Native Americans and the U.S. Army in the second half of the 19th century. And it’s known as a conflict between two determined leaders. They were General George Custer of the 7th Cavalry and Chief Sitting Bull of the Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux who led the Native Americans at Little Bighorn.
For his part, Sitting Bull was the leader of the united Sioux and Cheyenne tribes who fought and killed Custer. But he wasn’t the military leader on the day of the Little Bighorn action. He was at the scene, but notes that he stayed behind in the settlement that Custer had planned to attack. The man credited as the principal leader in the field who defeated the 7th Cavalry was actually Crazy Horse – an Oglala Lakota Sioux.
18. Everybody wore Stetson cowboy hats
Most cowboys emphatically did not wear the wide-brimmed Stetson hat popularized by Hollywood. For one thing, they are totally impractical! As they rode across the plains, the cowboys’ Stetsons would’ve been blown away by the wind. And according to Ripley’s, it wasn’t widely worn until the late 19th century – after the cowboys’ heyday.
In fact, Wild West men found an entirely different headgear solution. Many actually wore a kind of bowler hat or derby. With their relatively narrow brims, those hats were much less inclined to blow off in the breeze. Just take a look at old photos from the Wild West days. You’ll see a wide variety of headgear – but very few classic Stetsons.
17. Bank robberies were rampant
If you take your history from dime novels and movies, you could easily believe that the bad guys were robbing banks practically every day of the week. But this is another stereotype of the Wild West that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. And it’s hardly surprising if you think about it. If banks were being robbed so often, they’d soon go out of business altogether, right?
According to a 1992 paper written by Lynne Pierson and Larry Schweikart, bank robberies at gunpoint were actually a pretty rare event. The authors reviewed records from the 15 states most associated with the Wild West over a 41-year period from 1859. And they could only definitely identify a handful of bank robberies. Astonishingly, they found fewer than ten!
16. Native Americans wasted nothing from the buffalo they killed
It’s certainly true that the Plains Indians did use pretty much all of the buffaloes they hunted and killed. There was the meat – obviously good to eat. The hides made splendid clothing and blankets, while the bones and horns could be carved into all manner of useful items from knives to combs. The fat, meanwhile, was turned into lubricants and cosmetics.
Yet there was one method of hunting that could be spectacularly wasteful. This was when Native Americans would drive buffalo towards a cliff edge until they toppled over to their deaths. And sometimes this could exterminate an entire herd. The resulting carnage killed far too many animals for the needs of the hunters – resulting on occasion in spectacular waste. It’s worth remembering, though, that it was white hunters who drove the bison to near-extinction by the end of the 19th century.
15. The Gunfight at the OK Corral topped all others
The 1881 Gunfight at the OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona territory, was the Wild West’s bloodiest encounter between the bad guys and the forces of law and order. But the truth is that only three men died with a further three wounded as a result of the 30-second gun battle that erupted at ranges as short as 10 feet.
Three dead and an equal number wounded is a shocking casualty list, but other Wild West shootouts were even worse. One such was the Gunfight at Hide Park in Newton, Kansas, which came a decade earlier than the OK Corral. This sprawling and anarchic battle saw five men killed and several others wounded. Or then there was the 1892 shootout when the Dalton Gang tried to rob two banks in Coffeyville, Kansas. The townsfolk shot dead four of the group while four of Coffeyville citizens also died.
14. All cowboys were white
Watching Hollywood movies and TV shows from the 20th century, you could be forgiven for thinking that all cowboys were white men. Though like so many myths about the Old West, this was also totally untrue. After all, people who did not have white skin were perfectly capable of riding horses, herding cattle and eating baked beans around a camp fire. points out that some 25 percent of cowboys were actually black. Texas ranches in particular had many African-American hands. After the Civil War, there was a shortage of white cowboys in the state. Former slaves had now been emancipated, and they had the requisite skills to take the vacant jobs as free men.
13. Women in the Wild West stuck to cooking and laundry
According to Wild West legends, women took only subordinate domestic roles – baking delicious apple pies and keeping their menfolk’s duds neatly laundered. It’s baloney of course. Examples of women who shattered the stereotypes are legion. Annie Oakley, for instance, was an excellent shot and made a living with this skill by touring with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.
Another who can hardly be described as a shrinking violet was Pearl Hart. Starting off with petty crime in Arizona, Hart later teamed up with one Joe Boot and hatched a plot to hold up a stagecoach in 1899. After the robbery, the two were captured but Hart contrived to escape. Apprehended again, the outlaw was sentenced to five years in jail. Though she fell pregnant after a year and was released. And how Hart managed a pregnancy while imprisoned remains a mystery to this day.
12. Native Americans were all hostile to whites
It’s undoubtedly true that many Native Americans opposed white settlers and the U.S. government by force of arms – particularly when they saw their tribal lands threatened. But there were also many indigenous people who worked with the white man. These scouts helped to guide and advise the army as it fought hostile Native Americans.
In 1866 the U.S. government agreed that the army should establish a force of Native Americans with a strength of up to 1,000 men, according to the latter’s official website. These individuals were to be both scouts and fighters. General George Crook made extensive use of them during his campaign against the Chiricahua Apaches – led by their chief Cochise. In fact, his scouts were largely from rival Apache groups: the San Carlos and White Mountain bands.
11. Billy the Kid first killed aged 12
The story goes that someone insulted 12-year-old Henry McCarty’s mother so he shot the ill-mannered fellow dead. Then he ran away to become Billy the Kid. But did it actually happen? Well, no: his first known crime came when he was 15 or 16 in 1875. Far from a brutal murder, this was actually the theft of some clothes from a laundry. He was arrested for this misdemeanor but escaped.
As far as we know, McCarty first killed a man in August 1877 at Fort Grant in Arizona when he would have been 17 or 18. His unfortunate victim was a blacksmith called Frank “Windy” Cahill. He had apparently made the mistake of calling McCarty a pimp. A brawl ensued and the blacksmith, much bigger than the teenager, wrestled him to the ground. Though the Kid pulled his gun and shot Cahill, who subsequently died the next day.
10. Wyatt Earp was an upstanding citizen
Wyatt Earp’s image is that of an upstanding lawman who fought the forces of evil during the Wild West era. His reputation was cemented by the part he played in the 1881 Gunfight at the OK Corral when he and his compadres vanquished the evil Clanton and McLaury gang and their friends. Later, two of Earp’s brothers were shot in what many believed to be revenge. Virgil was badly wounded, while Morgan was killed.
While it’s true that Earp was a lawman in 1881 – and afterwards became a deputy U.S. marshal – he had not always been on the right side of the law. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, ten years earlier he was arrested for horse stealing but absconded before trial. While living in Peoria, Illinois, he also had various legal scrapes. These centered on his involvement with brothels – something that continued when he moved on to Wichita, Kansas in 1874.
9. Jesse James was a latter-day Robin Hood
Just like Robin Hood before him, legend has it that the outlaw Jesse James robbed from the rich to give to the poor. But is this true? Or was he actually a common or garden thief who stole for his own benefit? Sadly for the romantics among us, there seems little doubt that the latter is true. That he – along with brother Frank and various others – robbed banks in the 1860s is certainly the case.
The Robin Hood reputation apparently came when James and his gang started to hold up and rob trains. It’s said that they only took the money from safes – leaving the passengers’ wallets and purses intact. But that’s not quite the same as distributing alms to the impoverished. And nothing suggests that James ever did that! Then there was the fact that the ruthless gang killed some 15 people during their crime sprees, according to The Guardian.
8. Tumbleweed is as American as apple pie
It’s an archetypal scene from dozens of Westerns: tumbleweed rolling across the barren landscape of the southwestern deserts of the U.S. This thistle, you’d assume, is as American as apple pie. So, it comes as something of a shock to learn that the strange plant is actually not a native of the U.S. – it is in fact an alien invasive species.
Tumbleweed is known as Russian Thistle, and it comes from southeastern Russia and the west of Siberia. The Center for Invasive Research notes that it arrived in South Dakota in a consignment of flax seed in 1873. Within two decades it had spread across 16 Western states and into Canada. Now, the pesky invader is present in some 100 million acres of the western U.S.
7. All of Custer’s men died at Little Big Horn
The 1876 Battle of Little Big Horn between Native Americans and a unit of the U.S. Army is famous as Custer’s Last Stand. General George Custer was leading his men on a punitive expedition against people of the Sioux and Cheyenne tribes. But Native American warriors surrounded Custer and his men – killing everyone under the general’s command. Except what actually happened was that the majority of Custer’s 7th Cavalry regiment escaped with their lives.
As he approached Little Big Horn, Custer had more than 600 men under his command. Though he divided his force into three battalions before the main engagement and they were to attack separately. Two of them retreated and joined forces on a hill top – holding out against the Native Americans despite losing 30 men. By contrast, Custer and his battalion of about 210 troops were isolated on a different crest and massacred to the last man. Most of the cavalrymen from the other two groups survived.
6. Calamity Jane had a child with Wild Bill Hickock
The idea that two of the best-known figures from the days of the Wild West had a child together has an obvious appeal. And if those two were the notorious Calamity Jane – real name Martha Cannary – and Wild Bill Hickock then the yellow press of the time would have had an absolute field day. But sadly, the two were never star-struck lovers and they definitely didn’t have any offspring.
The myth arose because a woman called Mrs. Jean Hickok McCormick made the public claim in 1941 that she was the child of Hickok and Cannary. She produced various artifacts and what she claimed was Calamity Jane’s diary to back up her assertion. But many researchers were skeptical to say the least. In 2001 Deadwood Magazine quoted historian J. Leonard Jennewein’s view that Mrs. McCormick’s tale was “a hoax from start to finish.”
5. The birth of the Gold Rush was in California in 1849
It might be the best known of all gold rushes, but the one that happened in California in 1849 actually was not the first in America. In 1799 a 12-year-old boy called Conrad Reed stumbled across a large rock with a strange yellow tint in Cabarrus County, North Carolina. He’d no idea what it was, and neither did his father John. So, according to legend, they used it as a door stop!
One day, somebody with the know-how visited the Reeds and recognized a 17-pound gold nugget when he saw one. The North Carolina Gold Rush soon got under way – half a century before the Californian one. In fact, the state was America’s largest producer of gold in the country up until the California finds.
4. Geronimo died while escaping
Geronimo was an Apache chief who defied the might of the U.S. government and its army. Many attempts to capture and resettle him by force on an approved reservation failed. But eventually, the inevitable happened. With almost a quarter of the standing military on his heels, Geronimo was left with little alternative but to surrender in 1886. And he was the last important Native American chief to do so.
Geronimo then spent the final 20 years of his life as a prisoner in various U.S. Army posts. His final billet was at Fort Sill – located in what is today Oklahoma. After 14 years here Geronimo died in 1909. Ever since, stories about the precise circumstances of his death have circulated. It’s been claimed that he died trying to escape or that he drowned. But the truth seems to be that he fell from his horse after a few drinks, according to The Olkahoman. Lying in a field in the rain overnight caused a bout of pneumonia and he passed away in the Fort Sill hospital.
3. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid died in a hail of bullets in Bolivia
Anyone who’s seen the 1969 movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid knows that the two outlaws died in a hail of bullets in Bolivia. This goes to show, though, that you can’t always trust Hollywood. The truth about how the pair died is actually far from certain. We do know that a mining company employee called Carlos Pero was robbed by two bandits described as “Yankees” in southern Bolivia in 1908.
Now, Butch and Sundance had fled from the U.S. in 1901 and disappeared from sight. So when Bolivian soldiers cornered those two American bandits a few days after Pero had been robbed, it was easy enough to assume they were the notorious duo. And the two men were indeed killed in a shootout. But no photographic evidence exists to prove who the individuals were. Sightings were reported for years afterwards and some relatives claimed they were still alive. Incredibly, it remains an unsolved mystery to this day.
2. Belle Starr was a murderous outlaw
Not long after people unknown murdered Belle Starr in 1889, The New York Times declared that the lady known as the “Bandit Queen” was “the most desperate woman that ever figured on the borders.” But did Myra Maybelle Shirley Starr really merit this reputation? In his 2015 book Belle Starr and Her Times: The Literature, the Facts, and the Legends, Glenn Shirley says not.
Shirley wrote, “[Starr] had been elevated to a seat of immortal glory as a sex-crazed hellion with the morals of an alley cat.” And, he added, she’d been accused of everything from blackmail to murder and even incest. Yet, as the writer pointed out, “All this [was] despite the lack of a contemporary account or court record to show that she ever held up a train, bank or stagecoach or killed anybody.”
1. Cowboy gunfights were common
If all the information you had about Wild West cowboys came from popular media, you’d be forgiven for thinking that they pulled out their six-shooters and blasted away on an almost daily basis. But you’d be completely wrong. Cowboys did of course have firearms, but they weren’t drawing them on each other willy nilly.
In fact, plenty of Old West cities had local laws prohibiting the carrying of guns. Many towns made notorious by the mythology of the Old West had such restrictions – including Tombstone, Deadwood and Dodge City. And according to author Phillip Meyer in a piece he wrote for Esquire magazine in 2013, “More cowboys were killed by falls and lightning than by bullets.”

Share This Blog with Friends!

  • Starz Radio
  • Blog
  • Yahoo!
  • Google Groups
  • Starz Youtube