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.
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