Beginning with The Great Train Robbery in 1903, the Western has been one of Hollywood’s most definitive genres. These so-called “oaters” (cheaply-made films as common as oats for horses) would soon become the predominant staple for movie audiences over the next five decades.
At its core, Westerns usually depict life on the frontier during the latter half of the 19th century and feature the quintessential American icon: the cowboy. However, the narrative is based on several highly romanticized myths, blending fact and fiction from the Wild, Wild West.
10. Shoot Outs
Two steely-eyed gunslingers. A duel at high noon under a hot sun. While this hair-raising scenario makes for compelling edge-of-your-seat drama, this type of showdown rarely took place because most cowboys were not skilled marksmen.
Top hired hands on a cattle drive were more likely to earn a fistful of silver dollars with their command of the lariat, not a six-shooter. Besides, possessing firearms carried severe consequences.
Those entering Dodge City, Kansas in the 1870s were greeted with a large sign that read: “The carrying of Firearms Strictly Prohibited.” Similar declarations, stating “Leave Your Revolvers At Police Headquarters, and Get a Check” could be found in Wichita. According to historian Adam Winkler, “places like Tombstone, Deadwood, and Dodge had the most restrictive gun control laws in the nation.”
9. Hostile Natives
Settlers in the Old West faced a wide range of hardships. But attacks from Native Americans paled compared to other struggles such as starvation, disease, and dehydration.
Records show that between 1840 and 1860, 362 migrants were killed in clashes with Native Americans. A total of nearly 30,000 men and women died from all causes during the same 20-year span, making Indian-related attacks less than one percent of all fatalities.
Additionally, archives from National Oregon/California Trail Center suggest that tribes welcomed the arrival of newcomers as an opportunity for trading. Freshwater served as an invaluable commodity, and Native American buffalo robes and moccasins were regularly swapped for knives and clothes.
8. The Cowboy Hat
As the preferred headwear of former presidents, country music crooners, and one of the members of the Village People, the cowboy hat is easily the most recognizable symbol of the Western genre. Even space billionaire Jeff Bezos clumsily sported the ubiquitous headwear after recently splashing down on Earth. In reality, cowpunchers wore a wide range of coverings, including the military kepi, derby, and bowler hat.
In 1865, John B. Stetson introduced the “Boss of the Plains” — the first wide-brimmed hat marketed to outdoorsmen. Stetson made the expensive garment from animal fur, which featured a smooth, elegant design with a rounded crown. Over time, the more familiar version of the ‘Stetson’ evolved to better suit the needs of cowboys, such as curved sides to stay out of the way of a rope.
Those heeding the call to ‘Go West’ often spent weeks or months without bathing. As a result, trekking across the rugged North American landscape left them covered in dirt and reeking of foul body odor.
To be fair, Hollywood’s major studios have always understood the value of star power and sex appeal. That said, a clean-shaven Gary Cooper or Roy Rogers type is also going to sell more tickets at the box office than someone covered in fleas and looking like the “Unabomber.”
Ironically, American’s first people are often portrayed as filthy “savages” — despite having much higher standards of personal hygiene. They also benefited from centuries-old knowledge of the region, allowing them to cleanse themselves regularly in rivers, streams, and lakes.
6. Billy the Kid
To date, there have been approximately 50 different movies about the notorious outlaw Billy the Kid. Although these films vary thematically from sentimental to sexually exploitative, they typically share a common thread of historical inaccuracies. With the possible exception of “Bigfoot”, no other man or creature has benefited from exaggerated tall tales as much as “The Kid.”
Born Henry McCarty in 1859 to Irish immigrants in New York City, the future renegade later adopted the pseudonym William Bonney, hence “Billy the Kid.” He eventually drifted to New Mexico Territory, where he committed various petty crimes and later joined a group of cattle rustlers. He later took part in the Lincoln County War of 1878 as a “regulator” (hired gun), slinging lead in a feud that involved two rival business factions with deep Irish roots.
Contrary to popular belief, McCarty never robbed a bank or a train. However, the most pervasive myth about McCarty involves his reputation as a prolific gunfighter. He’s known to have killed four men (including two in self-defense), but details regarding other alleged murders have proven sketchy at best and occurred in skirmishes with numerous guns a-blazing.
Still, those looking to walk in his footsteps can visit the Lincoln County Courthouse in southern New Mexico, where the 21-year-old escaped from jail in a fiery shootout in 1881 (the bullet holes are in the wall). He was then shot dead three months later by Sheriff Pat Garrett.
Like any athletic endeavor, equestrian skills require years of practice to become proficient — especially when attempting to stay in the saddle on an animal galloping at breakneck speed. Moreover, the ability to accurately shoot a moving target on horseback would have been a daunting challenge for any rider.
Though most actors are guilty of embellishing their resumes, fudging about riding a horse is never a good idea. Just ask Johnny Depp. During the filming of the 2013 colossal flop, The Lone Ranger, the then 50-year-old Depp was nearly trampled to death after falling from his mount, a mishap that underscores the need for well-trained “wranglers” to serve as stunt doubles.
4. Custer’s Last Stand
Movie audiences have come to recognize the thunder of hoofbeats and a blaring bugle as the unmistakable sound of the cavalry arriving to save the day. Although this action is a proven crowd-pleaser, Hollywood has blatantly distorted the truth regarding George Armstrong Custer.
After rising to the rank of brevet-general in the Civil War, Custer sought to enhance his legacy by reinventing himself as a heroic Indian fighter. He eagerly embraced the role, donning a self-styled uniform replete with a buckskin jacket, red sash, and matching scarf. Had Coco Channel been alive at the time, she would have undoubtedly advised him to tone it down a notch.
In 1876, Custer launched a series of raids on Native American villages in the Montana Territory, attacks resulting in the murder of women and children. The ego-maniacal officer then made an ill-timed decision to take on a coalition of Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapahoe warriors led by Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. Big mistake.
Custer’s reckless actions would result in the annihilation of the US 7th Cavalry Regiment at the Battle of Little Big Horn. In the end, he not only got himself killed but also two of his younger brothers, a nephew, and a brother-in-law, in one of the most decisive defeats in US military history.
3. The Not-So-Wild-West
Despite the usual carnage and body count displayed in most Westerns, the actual number of fatalities is surprisingly meager. Between 1870 and 1885, a combined total of 45 people were gunned down in the major cattle towns of Dodge City, Ellsworth, Abilene, and Wichita. By comparison, someone is killed by a gun every three hours in modern-day California, and 136,000 Americans are shot every year.
The frequency of armed bank robberies presents another popular fabrication about the Wild West. Historian W. Eugene Hollon asserts that the West “was a far more civilized, more peaceful and safer place than American society today.” While the future of the Second Amendment remains uncertain, gun violence remains firmly ingrained in American culture, perpetuated by undeniably entertaining films, such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Magnificent Seven, and Rio Bravo.
Nation-building is hard work. For the United States, a steady flow of immigrants and freed slaves provided much of the requisite manpower to hammer out a burgeoning nation. This backbreaking labor included cattle drives by men from multiple racial backgrounds, most of whom looked nothing like John Wayne.
Historians estimate that as many as one in four cowboys were African-American. Additionally, much of the attire associated with the westerns are derived from traditions borrowed from Mexican vaqueros, such as lasso, bandana, rodeo, bronco, and chaps (short for Chaparro).
“Right after the Civil War, being a cowboy was one of the few jobs open to men of color who wanted to not serve as elevator operators or delivery boys or other similar occupations,” says William Loren Katz, the author of The Black West.
At the turn of the 20th century, Wild West shows frequently showcased the talents of African-Americans. For example, Bill Pickett, the son of former slaves, became one of the most famous early rodeo stars and is credited with inventing a technique to wrestle a steer to the ground, better known as “bulldogging.”
1. The Lone Cowboy
In his opus, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell illustrates how the archetypal hero’s journey is found in numerous cultures worldwide. As a hallmark of countless Westerns, the American version is presented as a WASP-y, moral, hard-working man who triumphs singlehandedly. The truth, dear readers, tells a much different story.
The success of well-supported expeditions and cattle drives proved extremely difficult under the best of circumstances. Conversely, anyone striking out alone would have had a limited capacity of food and water, making long excursions next to impossible. Furthermore, losing one’s horse (or any other beast of burden) due to exhaustion or injury would have meant almost certain death.
It’s also worth noting that the notion of taming the Wild West came to symbolize the national ethos. This mythological narrative even dictated foreign policy as an extension of “Manifest Destiny” — i.e., the God-given right to conquer all with justifiable violence. And most recently, a twice-impeached president embraced the concept, frenetically spewing lies and bluster with an “I alone can fix it” mantra. Horsefeathers.