Thursday, September 15, 2011

How Wild Was the Old West?

Meg Mims
Copyright © 2011 Meg Mims

What does the ‘Wild West’ really mean? Was it all that wild? Were the territories overrun with savage Indian tribes, ruthless bandits, trigger-happy gunslingers and horse thieves? Or did the turn of the century dime novels, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West shows and Hollywood films blow the truth out of proportion?

I’m no expert. I’ve researched through a lot of books, written in the 1800s and 1900s, but never found the topic addressed in depth. Oh, shoot, I found plenty of dirt on notorious outlaws such as Billy the Kid, gunned down in 1881 by Sheriff Pat Garrett. About the O.K. Corral showdown between the Earp brothers, Doc Holliday and the Clantons in Tombstone. About Jesse James (married to Zee Mims, in fact) who was shot in 1882—in the back by the “coward” Robert Ford. About the Younger gang, about gamblers Bat Masterson, Ben Thompson, Wild Bill Hickock, Butch Cassidy and his Wild Bunch gang who left for South America after the turn of the century.

Were small towns and settlements peaceful for the most part, despite the reputations of wild towns like Corinne, Utah, Tombstone, Arizona, Dodge City, Kansas, Abilene, Texas and Deadwood, South Dakota? Did outlaws only become heroes due to economics, with the railroad barons and politicians shoving down the common farmers and working poor? Or perhaps, since most men (and many women, even children) learned how to handle guns, rifles and knives at an early age, they really weren’t that incompetent in protecting themselves? Meat didn’t come wrapped in plastic at the local general store, after all. To survive, you had to kill for food whether it was butchering hogs, cattle, chickens, turkeys, or whatever came within range. Maybe the loneliness of living far from other settlers on the prairie, or in hills and mountain valleys, gave people an extra thirst for stories that stretched truth beyond the usual tall tales of folklore.

Women’s roles in society were also quite different over 100 years ago. Girls were married off young, usually leaving their father’s house for their husband’s domain, and if they worked first they taught school, sewed or served at hotels. “Decent” women (not prostitutes) were banned from saloons or gambling parlors, and escorted after dark—or else risked entering the “fair game” category. And widows had limited protection of their dead husband’s name up to a point, and usually remarried—rather than end up taking in laundry, unless they inherited money.

Was all that wildness confined to the post-Civil War years? No. Native Americans didn’t appreciate the government allowing white settlers to take over their lands, with or without negotiations, or being herded onto reservations. Hard-working cowboys spent their pay in cattle towns before and after the War on whiskey, women and a bit of wild fun before slinking meekly back to their outfits. Digging up records of murder rates isn’t easy, especially considering the territories stretched over territories that now make up several states. Given the propensity of wood over stone in buildings, fire often destroyed documents. Criminals walked the streets, as in every society.

Whatever the case, the Old West certainly had violence, murders, even easy access to drugs—just like now.

Judge Isaac C. Parker

Although he is reclusive and rarely talks about his work, Portis has said that Rooster Cogburn was actually a composite of men.  Growing up in Arkansas and later studying at the University of Arkansas, he heard many stories about the deputy marshals that worked from Fort Smith under "Hanging Judge" Isaac C. Parker to bring law and order to the Indian Territory of Oklahoma, which had been overrun by outlaws during the years following the Civil War.

Appointed U.S. District Judge for the Western District of Arkansas by President Ulysses S. Grant, Parker actually opposed the death penalty but became known as the "hanging judge" of Fort Smith because he sent more men to their deaths on the gallows than any other federal judge in U.S. history. The law he was required to follow offered no other penalty than death for many of the crimes that were prosecuted in his court. His courtroom, restored gallows and the infamous "Hell on the Border" jail are preserved today at Fort Smith National Historic Site.


Meg is giving away a free book!
All those who leave a comment this week will be entered to win a free pdf of Double Crossing! It's earned many 5-star reviews, so make sure you enter. Leave more than one comment, double your chances for the win-win! Drawing will be held September 17th at 10pm Pacific Time. Be sure to include your email address with your comment or we'll have to pick another winner. Enjoy and thanks for stopping by!


  1. Meg, I've only read a few things about Parker but had never read this explanation
    >>The law he was required to follow offered no other penalty than death for many of the crimes that were prosecuted in his court.<<

    A fascinating fact that contributes greatly to my understanding of how a man who was opposed to the death penalty became known as the Hanging Judge.


  2. Interesting, isn't it? Such a reputation - probably not one he enjoyed either. Thanks for stopping by, Nancy!

  3. Hi Meg. Very nice looking site. I give a thumbs up... When you get a chance, check out my blog site at: and


  4. Great post Meg! Like you I suspect the Wild West was probably fairly wild for numerous reasons. Thanks for the info on Judge Parker...didn't know that about him. Fascinating...True Grit is one of my favorite Western movies!

  5. Thanks, Maria! I love True Grit. I think I need a re-watch but the Tigers are playing. Hub hogs the TV during baseball season. I hog it during Red Wing season, LOL. Oh well.

  6. Nice post, Meg! I enjoy reading about American history, so I know I'll enjoy Double Crossings. I'd love to receive a copy at

  7. I read a small pamphlet in the Denison TX museum that included tales of "young bucks" riding through town shooting off their pistols on Saturdya nights. Denison was not a nortoious or wild place, so maybe the west really was wild. Denison was renowned for the "best" public school west of the Mississippi, and civic officials from all over the country cane to look at the school. So, I wouldn think Denison was fairly civilized for the period.

  8. A most fascinating post. I am reading an intriguing book (old and looks self-published) about the beginnings of the town of Florrisant Colorado. The wild west here is one of people trying to survive and thrive in a mountain enviroment during the 1859 onward Pikes Peak or Bust Gold Rush. Like your wonderful post says, the wild west and its characters are just people who are trying to do the best they can in the situation they find themselves. To judge them by our standards I think is a disservice to what they accomplished.

  9. Hey Patricia, thanks for stopping by! I agree, Caroline, that whenever "young bucks" needed an outlet, wherever they were, you couldn't stop them! LOL. Civilized or not, but that's why most towns had marshals or sheriffs to keep things calm. I agree, Renaissance Women! I'm sure some parts of the west were much wilder than others. Depends, I guess, on who lived where -- and why. Deadwood and Tombstone were far different than Denison, I'm sure.

  10. I've always been fascinated by the revisionist history we're taught in school. Buffalo soldiers are a good example--heck, I found out about them from the movies, not in class! That's a travesty. And how about the fact that very few pioneers were killed by Indians or even had confrontations, at least that were documented. Most deaths were due to cholera, yet we sure hear a lot more about the Indians. Gambling was ubiquitous, but we think only men in saloons gambled, and we picture Brett Maverick at the table. We don't hear much about the minister's wife who gambled away her husband's church. Everyone--children, women, and men--gambled on horseracing. Mores were different, attitudes were different.

    But how many contemporary readers would buy into the story if you made it historically accurate? I'd really like to know the answer to that question.

    Erich, your book sounds great!

  11. I'm reading a historically accurate time travel set in Civil War times, but have to skim over the gruesome operating practices! LOL. Still, it's fascinating. And I agree with Erich and Jacquie about the buffalo soldiers--totally ignored and forgotten. Indians may have killed a few settlers at first, but for the most part tribes were targeted for extermination by the government and suffered far worse. Sand Creek is a testament to that, along with buffalo massacres that eliminated their food supply. The hides and tongues were taken for profit, the rest left to rot. "Buffalo Bill" Cody was only one sharpshooter hired until the herds were pretty much decimated.

    Gambling was very prevalent in cities, towns, etc., as well as prostitution, drugs and liquor. I touched on that with Mrs. Pinkham's elixir in Double Crossing. The fact that mothers gave cocaine drops to babies to hush them is mind-boggling.

    Which is why I prefer reading entertaining, "just a few details, ma'am" fiction. ;-)

  12. Thank you for this fascinating article, Meg. I'd like to be entered in the drawing for Double Crossing. My email address is AT

  13. You're entered, Marsha! Thanks for stopping by!

  14. Thanks, Jacquie, for having me this past week! I really enjoyed the discussion. And thanks for picking the winnter -- CONGRATS to Patricia Kiyono for winning the FREE PDF of Double Crossing! Everyone else, check my schedule of blog posts for other drawings, or just BUY the book! LOL. Print version should be out soon! Thanks for joining me here.

  15. Love your blog and will keep track of you more often.

  16. Isn't this a great blog?? I love all the posts. Jacquie always has some new and interesting info.


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