Carolyn E. Cook
Cowboys: Truths and Myths, Part 2
Tom Mix, actor
One day, after Buffalo Billy had been a few months Pony Riding, a party of Indians ambushed him near Horse Creek. He, however, as did his horse, dashed through them and went on like the wind. . .
From Adventures of Buffalo Bill from Boyhood to Manhood: Deeds of Daring, Scenes of Thrilling, Peril, and Romantic Incidents In The Early Life of W. F. Cody, the Monarch of Bordermen, by Colonel Prentiss Ingraham, published 1882.
Dime novels about the West, such as this one, were first published in the 1860’s. The early stories focused on the conflict between pioneers and Native Americans and were written to be heart-stopping and lurid. But that conflict ended by around 1880, as the Army rounded up tribes and renegades and sent them to reservations. Then dime novel writers had to switch to a different arrangement of good guys and bad guys, so they went with conflicts between law-abiding cowboys and outlaws.
Otherwise, little in the formula changed. Stories remained heart-stopping, always detailing the amazing adventures of a gallant hero and presenting a moral at the end. The good guy never failed to win the day, soundly beat the bad guy every time. These tales were the beginnings of the cowboy/Western hero myths.
In 1902, Owen Wister published The Virginian, depicting a main character who was stalwart, laconic, and deeply moral. The next year brought The Great Train Robbery, the first film with an actual narrative. It was crammed with action, horseback chases, and a fiery, shootout ending.
Cowboy movies were off and running. William S. Hart starred in twenty of these, beginning in 1915. William F. Cody acted as himself in The Adventures of Buffalo Bill in 1917 and the real Wyatt Earp was himself in The Half-Breed, 1919. People adored cowboy flicks and couldn’t get enough of them.
Lurking behind the creation of every movie, there were those pesky concepts of Truth and Accuracy. But directors and writers considered such things just wouldn’t deliver a story rollicking enough to satisfy audiences. Concocted myths worked better. Therefore, we’ve been given rather skewed ideas about Western people and their lives.
Here are just a few of the myths we tend to believe.
1. Outlaws rode from town to town, shooting and marauding and robbing banks.
Truth --- In the forty years from 1865 to 1905, there were only about eight, documented bank robberies. The main reason, banks were actually very difficult targets. Towns were small and the local businesses, shops, saloons, the bank, and the sheriff office, were located in a close grouping. Gunshots, shouting, and disruptions could easily be heard by the sheriff and he’d dash into the trouble. Besides, banks were built with very sturdy back walls and other buildings came tight on either side. Purposely, the only place to enter and exit was the front door. If an outlaw gang managed to get inside and grab loot, they’d have to face the sheriff and likely others, just outside the door. Not a good plan for thieves. The typical robberies happened to trains and stagecoaches because they were in isolated locations, easy to get into, and easy to escape from.
2. Everyone carried a gun.
Truth --- Local firearm laws were very strict. Many towns, such as Dodge City and Abilene, prohibited carrying any type of gun within the city limits, or in particular areas, for instance, the saloon districts. Large signs were posted, explaining that all firearms had to be surrendered at the sheriff office, to be retrieved upon leaving the troublesome district or the town altogether.
3. Every man wore a Stetson, often with a high crown, extremely wide brim that curled upward, and a fancy hatband. (see photo of Tom Mix above)
Truth --- Men wore all manner of hats, generally whatever they could afford. Derbies and bowlers were popular, especially for portrait photographs. Of the actual Stetsons on the prairie, those had low crowns and brims that were flat, similar to what Amish men wear. Hats had no dips in the crowns and no curling brims. Those fashions were an early 20th century invention. No cowboy with common sense would have worn a hat with a tall, pointed crown and a brim as wide as his shoulders. A hat of those dimensions would have blown clean away when a cowboy’s horse took off at a gallop. And even more important, that hat would have made a fellow very easy to spot by a desperado who wanted some target practice.
4. The West was an excessively violent place.
Truth --- The West was not nearly as violent as depicted in films and fiction. While there were the truly notorious towns, Dodge City, Wichita, Deadwood, records across the West indicate that, from 1870 to 1885, very few shoot-out duels occurred and just forty-five individual murders were counted. Even at the famous Gunfight at the OK Corral, only three were killed. The main violence came from drunken brawls in saloons and shootings over poker games.
The unadorned fact is that more people died from starvation, snakebites, attacks by wild animals, freezing in blizzards, falling from horses, and diseases of all sorts. And most people were hard-working, peaceful, and honest.
But that doesn’t make for a good story. It could even be --- boring.
So never mind about truth and accuracy. Hollywood and writers of fiction perpetuated the myths and you’ll see them in each new Western that hits the screen. Excitement sells and thus, we have the gunfights, bank robberies, murders, and mayhem.
And the biggest truth is, we love watching and reading about that stuff.
William S. Hart, actor