The media portrayal of the wild west is filled with gunfights in the middle of the street, bank robberies, and vigilantes. In fact, it is very difficult to find a media portrayal that doesn’t use the wild west as a backdrop for some struggle of good vs. evil and of criminals vs. lawmen.
But how accurate is this portrayal? Have Western movies been lying to us?
Learn more about just how wild the wild west was and the accuracy of its portrayal in movies on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
When motion pictures started in the early 20th century, one of the first genres to find popularity with the public was the Western. There were common themes in most Westerns of outlaws and lawmen. There were depictions of cowboys and Indians.
Scores were settled in the middle of a street by two men staring each other down to see who was the faster draw.
These are just a few of the tropes which exist in many Westerns and are some of the ideas which have been propagated about life in the Old West.
So, let’s start by defining exactly what we’re talking about when we say the Old West or the Wild West.
There is no set definition of the term, but roughly we’re talking about the period from 1850 to 1900 in the region west of the Mississippi River. Some people might put the start date around 1860, and some may put the end date around 1890 or even 1910.
Most of the area we’re talking about for most of this period were federal territories or had recently just achieved statehood. These areas had low populations and low population densities.
So with that, we can start with the institution which has a central role in most stories of the Wild West, the saloon.
The word saloon is an Americanized version of the word salon. The American use of the word came into being around the 1840s.
To be sure, there were a lot of saloons in most cities that sprang up in the West. If anything, this is one of the few facts about the West which is downplayed in movies.
Most movies will only focus on one saloon in a town where the action takes place because it makes the story easier to tell. In reality, there might have been many dozens of saloons in even relatively small communities.
The first saloon in the west was believed to have been opened in Brown’s Hole, Wyoming, in 1822. It was built to serve fur trappers.
In 1880, Leavenworth, Kansas, had 150 saloons.
Saloon would often have been associated with a particular brewery, many of which owned the saloons their beer was served in. This was particularly true in the later part of the 19th century.
Saloons would often have clientele that was served by specific ethnic groups. These would have been more akin to social clubs. Irish, Germans, Jews, Greeks, Italians, and other groups may have had their own saloons which catered to their tastes.
Saloons would provide entertainment to bring in customers, and this usually involved gambling, but it could also mean dancing shows or even brothels or opium dens. One popular way of getting customers in was providing free lunches, which is where the term “there’s no such thing as a free lunch” originated.
One thing which is almost totally not true is the batwing style of swinging saloon doors. Streets weren’t paved back then, which would have meant dust and dirt from the street coming inside if there were doors like that. Not to mention what it would be like in the winter if you had no door on your establishment.
Those types of doors were used internally to separate the kitchen from the main floor of a saloon, not externally.
Saloons also usually didn’t have large windows with a lot of frontage on the street. They tended to be long and narrow because minimizing your street frontage was cheaper.
Let’s next talk about cowboys. I’ll probably do an entire episode on cowboys in the future, but suffice it to say that cowboys played an important role in the West.
A cowboy was nothing more than a ranch hand whose job was to protect a herd of cattle. The biggest thing they had to protect the herd from was wild animals. Only rarely did they have to worry about thieves and cattle rustlers.
Cowboys spent the vast majority of their time out in the field. They would stay out with the cattle for weeks at a time and then get to go into town for a few days when they got paid.
To that extent, a cowboy in the Old West was more like a modern worker on an oil rig or someone working at a remote mine in Western Australia or Northern Canada.
One thing that is a myth has to do with cowboy hats. Cowboys most certainly wore hats.
What we call cowboy hats today are also known as a Stetson or a ten-gallon hat, was introduced in the 1920s. These hats have a wide brim that is curved upwards on each side and indentations in the crown of the hat on top.
The hat which most cowboys wore was known as the “boss of the plains.” The ‘boss of the plains’ was introduced in 1865 by the Stetson company. It was different from a modern cowboy hat in that the brim was straight and round, and the crown was usually smooth.
The modern cowboy hat developed from the boss of the plains hat as people began putting indentations in the crown of the hat and bending the brim upward for stylish choices.
Bowler hats were also popular during the period.
Many people might find it shocking that cowboys didn’t wear cowboy hats, but if you go do a search for photos of cowboys, or anyone, from the 19th century, you will not find cowboy hats.
What about gunfights? Every Western movie has some sort of gunfight. The most stereotypical type of fight involves two cowboys staring each other down in the middle of the street to see who was the fastest draw.
There certainly was violence in the old west, but most of it was similar to today in that it was fueled by alcohol. It was also much less common than Western movies would have you believe. If you got drunk and shot someone, you’d most likely be arrested and hung.
The entire trope of a gunfight on main street is entirely fictional. Whatever basis in reality, it might have come from a single incident.
Bill Hickok and Davis Tutt were friends who became bitter rivals. It is believed to have started with Hickok having fathered an illegitimate child with Tutt’s sister and Tutt making moves on Hickok’s then girlfriend.
Hickok was playing cards at the Lyon House Hotel and making a fair amount of money. Tutt stood nearby, loaning players money to beat Hickok and giving them advice on how to win.
A disagreement between them began about money Hickok supposedly owed Tutt. Tutt said it was $35, and Hickok said it was only $25. Tutt took Hickok’s prized gold pocket watch as collateral until he could get paid in full.
Tutt began wearing the watch publicly to humiliate Hickok.
Things came to a head in Springfield, Missouri, on July 21, 1865, when the two met in the street. They stood about 75 yards apart from each other, which is a rather long distance.
What happened was more like an impromptu duel, except it wasn’t with dueling pistols, and it wasn’t a quickdraw. Hickok reportedly rested the gun on his other arm to steady it, and both men fired one shot almost simultaneously. Tutt missed. Hickok hit Tutt in the rib cage, and he died shortly after.
Hickok was arrested and later acquitted on self-defense grounds.
The whole quickdraw gunslinger really doesn’t make any sense. Holsters weren’t designed to take a gun out as quickly as possible. They were designed to hold a gun so it wouldn’t come out easily. If you were riding a horse, a gun could easily get jostled and come out. If anything, there would be straps to hold a gun in place.
If you wanted to draw a gun quickly, you’d probably just put it in your pocket.
The violence that did occur was usually fueled by alcohol and was done in an ambush, not in an open display in the middle of town, where there would be witnesses. When Bill Hickok was killed, he was shot while sitting at a poker table and never saw it coming. One reason why events such as the Gunfight at the OK Corral became so well known was precisely because such events were so rare.
Places like Dodge City, Kansas, had a very high murder rate and would rank amongst the highest in the world today. However, this was the exception and not the rule.
What about bank robberies? Robbing banks always seem to be a big part of Westerns.
This might be the thing that movies get the most wrong. There were almost no bank robberies in the Wild West. From 1859 to 1900, there were only eight recorded bank robberies in the entire region known as the West.
To put this into perspective, in 2021, the State of Colorado alone had 195 bank robberies.
The reason why bank robberies are considered so prevalent has to do with a very small number of high-profile robberies, especially by Butch Cassidy.
Banks were very difficult to rob. It was far more attractive to try to rob a stagecoach or a train. In the case of trains, even that was short-lived, as after the first few train robberies, trains carrying money became heavily fortified.
Another common scene in Westerns is settlers being attacked by Indians. This, too, is highly exaggerated.
To be sure, there were conflicts between European settlers and Native people in the American West. Between 1840 and 1860, there were 362 settlers and 426 Native Americans killed in conflicts with each other.
90% of these incidents took place in parts of the Applegate Trail, in what is today the state of Idaho.
While the native people of the region were not thrilled at the prospect of settlers occupying their land, for the most part, civilians and native people got along. For many native people, it was an opportunity to trade. They would provide food and furs in exchange for tools like knives and firearms.
Settlers would have been hundreds of times more likely to have died from starvation and disease than getting attacked. They were even more likely to have been killed by their own cattle than to be killed by native people.
There were cases of massacres of settlers, but these tended to be sensationalized in the media back in the East and were usually reprisals for massacres conducted on the native people, usually by soldiers.
Events such as the Massacre at Wounded Knee and the late 19th-century Indian wars will all be subjects of future episodes.
So, how did our views of the wild west become so skewed?
It started in the 19th century. The West, especially after the passage of the Homestead Act, drew the attention of millions of people who lived in the East.
Writers would travel to the West to share stories to captivate people about what was happening and to encourage migrations.
Small, isolated incidents would be exaggerated to sensationalize the story and to sell books and newspapers.
When movies started, they used many of the legends about the West as the basis for their films because they made for good stories.
Over time, the depiction of the West in movies became what most people thought the West was like in reality.
Most of the famous events of the era became famous because they were outliers, not because they were the norm.
The greatest threats to people were disease and nature, not bandits.
So, the Wild West did have a wild element, but it wasn’t really as wild as it is often made out to be.
The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.
The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.
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