Fascinating Facts About The Old West

Posted by Editorial Staff in History On 7th January 2017

American’s love the old west. Gunfights. Stage Coach robberies. Cowboys and Indians. Hearty pioneers were heading west. Gold Rush fever. Outlaws. Poker games and saloon brawls. Life in the old West can almost seem romantic at times, and there are plenty of gritty Western films that fully perpetuate this notion. No matter what your vision of the old west may be, it’s likely that the reality of nineteenth-century western life is not nearly what you may have envisioned. Here are some strange facts about the Wild, Wild West that you probably didn’t know!

#1 Multiculturalism

The classic Hollywood picture of the West involves white, all-American tough guys teaming up with or fighting other American white guys or Indians. Sure, you'll get a few black people in there, maybe a handful of Mexicans and the odd Irishman for ‘comic' effect, but it was predominantly true-blooded Americans who were pictured taming the wild west.

#2 There Were Many Nationalities

However, there was much more diversity than Hollywood led us to believe. Like late 19th century New York, the Wild West was a hotbed of multiculturalism, with people of all nationalities vying for some room. Rock Springs in Wyoming counted as many as 56 nationalities in a population of under 10,000. Slovakians, Finns, Norwegians, Germans, Ottomans, Swedes and Chinese all poured into the South and Midwest; an influx that only increased with the Californian Gold Rush. The image of the old West as a bedrock of American values is a Hollywood holdover from a time when casting non-American voices and faces was pretty much a no go.

#3 Camels

At no point in his cinematic career did John Wayne ride a camel. But guess what? If he had, it would've been totally legit. See, the Southwest United States used to home to hundreds of feral camels. thanks to the government. In 1855 congress assigned $30,000 for the buying and shipping of camels from Egypt. The idea was that a bunch of grumpy dromedaries would fare better in the scorching Southwest than horses, making long survey missions easy. The camels began to multiply fro the original 66 to over 1,000.

#4 The Civil War Broke Out

In the chaos that followed, a number of camels managed to escape into the wild where they did what any other wild animal does and bred like crazy. For nearly 100 years, feral camels were a part of Texas' wildlife, with the last sighting reported in 1941. Some that didn't escape were sold for meat or to the circus. In your grandparents' lifetime, the United States was home to wild camels.

#5 Gun Control

If Western television shows from the 1960s or old movies taught us anything, it's that everyone in the Old West carried a gun. After all, if you're visiting somewhere like Deadwood or Dodge City, you better be ready for trouble. Everybody needed to own a firearm to keep themselves safe and their property out of the hands of thieves.

#6 Guns Were Actually Illegal In Most Of The West

When the local government was formed in Dodge, the first law passed was to prohibit the carrying of firearms. The gunfight at the OK Corral kicked off because Wyatt Earp was trying to enforce that law. Nor was Dodge a one-off, Wichita, and Tombstone both enacted similar laws, and enforced them hard. According to historians, the second most common cause of arrest in the Old West was illegally carrying a firearm, meaning sheriffs weren't messing around when it came to gun control.

#7 Native American Culture

Before the Europeans came to do some farming, we're told America was a great big empty land. Sure, there was an indigenous culture, but it mostly amounted to a handful of isolated tribes tripping on peace pipes and the continent was basically a blank canvas.

#8 There Were Millions Of Natives

Far from being just a bunch of ragtag tribes, Native Americans may have numbered as many as 100 million when Columbus first missed India by a few thousand miles. Although a devastating plague wiped out about 90% of the population before the pilgrims arrived, at least a million still remained. And they were damn sophisticated. Native culture was all about extensive agriculture, opening up new trade routes across the continent and building America's first city. Then we showed up, and any chance of recovering from that super-plague was swept away on a tide of smallpox, STD's and genocide.

#9 Violence

If the movies have taught us anything it's that the wild west was a very violent place to live. Shootouts, bank robberies, highly-choreographed bar brawls, it was one hell of a vicious place. Except that's all fiction for the most part to make a good Hollywood script.

#10 Murder Was Highly Exaggerated

Turns out the popular image of the Old West as a place where manly men solved their differences by shooting those differences in the face simply isn't true. People were more likely to cooperate than fight, in a harsh and lawless world, it was better to side with your neighbor for mutual benefit than start shooting. Bank robberies, too, were virtually unheard of. One estimate places the number at about a dozen for the entire frontier period. Then you have the low homicide rates. The highest annual body count Tombstone ever experienced? Five. From 1870 to 1885, Dodge City and Wichita had murder rates of 0.6 per year. However you cut it, daily cowboy life was nowhere near as violent as we think. Even robberies of those stage coaches were exaggerated. The estimates for the entire period of 1880 to 1892 shows that there were literally only 17 coach robberies.

#11 Vicious Outlaws

If there's one thing the Old West was known for, it's outlaws. Billy the Kid, Wild Bill Hickok, Jesse James . . . these guys were so badass that their names still conjure images of macho men striking matches off their stubble, instead of lying egomaniacs with girly voices. Most of them were what we would consider today as schoolyard bullies.

#12 The Truth About The Villains

When Buffalo Bill started his Wild West touring plays, Wild Bill joined only to get fired for sounding like a girl. Still, that's probably how he got his moniker, killing people who trash talked his sissy lisp, right? Not exactly. The whole ‘Bill' part was a reference to his gravity-defying monster-nose; as in it stood for ‘Duck Bill'. Other outlaws suffered similar manliness-deficits: Jesse James was so vain he left press releases at the scene of robberies telling everyone how awesome he was. But the king of talking crap has to be Billy the Kid. In his lifetime, the Kid was known for killing over 20 people. In reality, it was more like four. Basically, he was the old west equivalent of that guy you always meet at parties who won't stop talking about the fights he's been in.

#13 Cowboys

Thanks to Hollywood, the cowboy is the absolute embodiment of everything frontier-related and masculine. A Stetson-rocking gunslinger with an absolute (if murky) moral code, a tough exterior, and a tougher interior, facing down the empty American wilderness with a steely gaze and rugged jaw. Only they were nothing like that in reality.

#14 Cowpunchers

The real cowboys, the job of ‘Cowpuncher' (as they called themselves) was tough, dirty working class work. Most of these guys were surly illiterates who got drunk on the weekends, gambled and had lots os sex. They started a fight and spent a month or two in jail.

#15 They Weren't Like John Wayne

None of them dressed like Clint Eastwood or John Wayne or any Hollywood cowboy. They wore practical clothes for getting mucked up in and mostly looked like homeless people. Far from being moral, they were known to be obnoxious, and most of them had a terminal case of STD.

#16 There Was A Lot Of Homosexuality

Besides their craving for wild sex, things had a tendency to get pretty Brokeback. In 1949, a study of rural sexuality concluded that there was "a fair amount of sexual contact among the older males in rural Western areas", while old poems from the frontier era are full of references to men being super-gay for one another. So Butch and Sundance's epic bromance may have just been, ya know, a standard epic romance. The lack of females in the area only exasperated the situation.

#17 Prostitutes

The women finally arrived, and they were few and far bewtween. The old westerns show us the young girl with a heart of gold looking to explore the frontier and maybe raise a family with a nice gentleman, but that's not what happened when the firts ladies arrived. They were tough, from New York City, and also very smart. They saw the need for companionship and opened the country's first brothels. Before long, the prostitutes had more money than their customers, and they invested it in the towns, creating the first western comunities.

#18 The Gunfight at the OK Corral

It's the most iconic gunfight in history, and it's mostly a lie. For starters, it didn't take place at the OK Corral, but in a nearby back alley. The only reason we associate it with the Corral is because that's a hell of a snappier title. Second, the body count was lowas in three. Third, it lasted 30 seconds, some of which were taken up by two of the participants running away like little girls. Wyatt and Holliday were arrested for murder, Earp lost his job as sheriff and evidence surfaced that not only was one of the dead men unarmed, but Holliday actually fired first.

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