CHARLOTTE: The Old West of American history was a period that has been romanticized in books and movies. Technically, the Wild West timeline spanned slightly more than 100 years. The period we see in pop culture focuses around 1912 when the last of the continental United States were admitted to the union.
In fact, the tendency is to think of lawman and gambler Wyatt Earp of OK Corral fame as being a larger than life personality. True, but given that he died in 1929 in Los Angeles somehow brings the brevity of the period into perspective.
The Old American West
Old West territory was considered to be any land west of the Mississippi River as well as the land acquired during the 1803 Louisiana Purchase.
With that in mind, today’s trivia debunks some of the myths surrounding the American West of the mid to end of the 19th century.
Cowboys and Indians?
Many early western films dealt with the subject of settlers and their wagon trains being attacked by hostile Indians. In fact, the common phrase “circle the wagons” comes from those movies and refers to taking a defensive position.
While there were conflicts between pioneers and Native Americans, most fighting was between the Indians and the U.S. cavalry. Popular culture would have us believe that literally thousands of settlers and native warriors were slaughtered during that era.
Unbelievably, the actual number of pilgrims that perished in Indian clashes while heading west through Nebraska was less than 500. According to Answers.com:
“A likely total of 100,000-500,000 Native Americans in the U.S. have died since 1776. The high end would be around a million. Native Americans are the have the highest mortality rate of any U.S. minority because of U.S. action and policy.”
Truthfully, settlers were probably more interested in trading with native tribes as well as hiring them as guides. The indigenous people were familiar with the land. The early settlers were not so foolish as to eliminate the very people who could make the way west less formidable.
The Wagon Circle
Of particular interest is the misconception of quickly arranging wagons into a circle for defensive purposed during raids.
While covered wagons did circle up at night as a defense against any intruder, not just Indians, the so-called “wagon trains” were typically large and spread out several miles apart. One reason for this was to avoid getting stuck in the tracks of other wagons, while another was to minimize dust and dirt kicked up by the lead buckboards.
To circle the Conestogas rapidly would have been virtually impossible because the idea of a small “wagon train” traveling in a straight line is more myth than reality.
Bank Robbers and Outlaws
Thanks to legendary characters the likes of Billy “the Kid”, Butch Cassidy, Sundance, Jesse James and other familiar outlaws, the idea that daring daylight bank robberies were commonplace has become part of Old West lore.
According to research from 15 states over that 50-year span, there were only eight documented bank heists.
Western towns of the day were built more or less in a manner similar to a shopping mall today. Therefore, hotels, restaurants, saloons, banks and even the jail were constructed in very close proximity to each other. For convenience, these facilities were usually located in the center of town.
This making the prospect of a daylight bank robbery much more difficult to pull off since the sheriff’s office is only a couple of buildings away.
Cowboys before Pilgrims?
Once again the popularity of adult westerns on television during the 50s and 60s combined with “spaghetti westerns” and other motion picture idealizations has led many of us to believe that cowboys are a distinctly American creation.
Believe it or not, cowboys, as we know them, existed at least two decades before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock!
Known as vaqueros, the first cowboys were Mexican cattlemen who coined such familiar words as `”Bronco”, “Lariat” and even “stampede.”
As American pioneers moved west, they adopted most of the daily knowledge of the vaqueros because of their familiarity with the land and wildlife of the region.
Initially, as settlers were adopting vaquero culture, about a third of the cowboys were Mexican. Another 25% were blacks released from slavery.
In many cases, Native Americans, who also had cultural knowledge of the land, greatly assisted with cattle drives.
One very interesting bit of linguistic trivia is that the word “vaqueros” was later anglicized to become “buckaroos.”
Bury me in my hat and boots
Everyone knows that cowboy boots and hats go hand in hand. Unfortunately, the Stetson, or cowboy hat we think of today, was not the most popular headgear in the Old West.
If you look at most portraits of that era, the bowler was most men’s preference. It was seen as both stylish and socially acceptable.
The first Stetson was probably a modified sombrero that looked more like modern-day Amish hats. Those hats were originally nicknamed “the Boss of the Plains.”
Saving perhaps the best for last is the myth about six-shooters.
Despite the popular conception, gun control advocates of today might appreciate the standards of the early 20th century. True, at the outset, there was gun violence thanks in large part to non-standardized laws regarding firearms.
However, as civilization move westward and towns grew, so too, did the need for better gun control. By 1878, signs were popping up everywhere, including Dodge City, demanding that weapons be turned in upon entering town.
The Adams revolver of the day would actually burn a gunman’s hand upon firing. By the way, effective range was a mere 50 feet.
Shotguns and rifles had more power, accuracy, and range, but, then again, who would go into a gunfight sporting a rifle?
OK, maybe Steve McQueen.
Remember, if your Western bubble is burst, that’s why Myth Trivia is here.
About the Author:
Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award-winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.
Taylor is the founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
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Lead Image: Old West Wallpaper. https://wallpapercave.com/old-west-wallpaper