Incredible Facts About the Wild West
What was it like to live in the Wild West? By 1865, over 30,000 miles of train tracks crisscrossed the United States. With the Civil War over — and many people unshackled from slavery — millions of Americans explored the West, looking to find a new home and riches.
The idea of Manifest Destiny emboldened others. One 19th-century historian famously described the new frontier as "the meeting point between savagery and civilization." It wasn't an exaggeration. Scores of buffalo were killed for their hides and to starve Native Americans. New towns popped up along cattle routes, and some were terrorized by ruthless cowboys, so they had to form their own rule of law.
This era was unlike any other time in American history. These are the most incredible facts about the Wild West. If you want a more hands-on experience, we have recommendations of places to visit, too.
The First Quickdraw Gunfight Occurred in Springfield, Missouri.
It was between the famous gunslinger "Wild" Bill Hickok and a man named Davis Tutt. The two had had a money dispute over gambling winnings. Tutt underwrote other gamblers in an attempt to clean Hickok out and run him out of town. But Hickok won, and Tutt demanded $40 from Hickok over a previous deal about a horse.
According to Tom Clavin's "Wild Bill: The True Story of the American Frontier's First Gunfighter," Hickok gave Tutt the $40 then and there, but Tutt then demanded another $25. When Hickok wouldn't budge, Tutt grabbed Hickock's pocket watch from the table.
The following day, Tutt brandished it about the town square of Springfield, Missouri, on the morning of July 21,1865 (the would-be-city was about 31 years old at this point). Hickok had tried to reason with Tutt, but he man refused.
Just before 6 p.m., Hickok warned Tutt not to wander across the square with that watch. Tutt reached for his gun, Hickok, reached for his. The two paused, then drew, with Hickok finishing the fight by sending a bullet through Tutt's heart.
It was the first quickdraw fight ever recorded. Word about it spread, and two years later the above illustration accompanied an article in Harper's New Monthly Magazine.
Millions of Bison Were Slaughtered.
Millions of bison — with estimates ranging from 10 to 30 million — roamed America in the early 1800s. By the early 1900s, there were less than 1,000.
The American buffalo were ruthlessly slaughtered. Most of them were shot by people commissioned by United States Army or the Army itself. The American buffalo was a primary source of food and hide for Native Americans, and the United States wanted to wipe them out, beginning in 1830.
"Kill every buffalo you can! Every buffalo dead is an Indian gone," one colonel said during a hunting expedition. "Buffalo" Bill Cody himself is attributed with killing 4,000 bison in two years.
In 1889, they reached their lowest level with only 256 buffalo in captivity. Today, the bison population has increased to 150,000-200,000.
If you want to see bison in the wild, check out Yellowstone National Park.
Cowboys Didn't Wear 10-Gallon Hats.
Hats were a necessity for most outside activities in the Old West, but they weren't wearing those oversized headpieces called 10-gallon hat. Those were made popular in the 1920s, via Hollywood depictions of cowboys.
Instead, cowboys — and ranchers, farmers and people of most other professions — wore a flat-brimmed Stetson called the "Boss of the Plains." John Stetson himself noticed that the hats being worn in the plains were unsuitable for the weather. Hats made of straw, silk, fur and wool were too hot in the summer or absorbed or captured rain during the spring.
The Boss was lightweight, waterproof and durable. The inside was insulated enough that it could be used as a bucket of water for a horse, while the brim shed water and was wide enough to protect the neck and eyes from the sun.
They retailed for $4.50 and were made with nutria fur. That's about $74 in today's purchasing power.
The photo above was taken in 1883 of the Dodge City Peace Commission. Some of them are wearing Boss hats.
You Could See Famous Gunmen Perform for Shows.
Imagine going to a stage play in New York City to see Buffalo Bill Cody and Wild Bill Hickok tell tall tales around a campfire. That's exactly what happened. Cody came up with a traveling show called Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, and he had several different cast members. The most famous of all was Hickok.
There weren't just stage shows, either. There were staged buffalo hunts and recreations of famous events, like a stagecoach robbery.
Cody also had a parade in 1902, and you can see the video at the Library of Congress.
If you want to see some Buffalo Bill history in person, visit the Buffalo Bill Museum and Grave in Golden, Colorado.
The Stage Plays Were Poorly Done.
While fancy gunplay and dramatic recreations of well-known events were probably fun for everyone, the indoor stage plays that Cody invented were awful. But it was a good kind of awful, like watching a terrible movie that's so bad it gets good.
Cody and his fellow players were not thespians, nor did they have a good writer. These stage plays would involve Cody and others, like Hickok, sitting around a fire, telling stories and cracking jokes. But the acting was so bad that the audience would laugh for all the wrong reasons.
During one play, Hickok was angry enough — or perhaps drunk enough, or both — to whip out his pistol and blast out a stage light in front of a live audience.
Elmer McCurdy’s Corpse Had More Fun Than He Did.
Elmer McCurdy was 31 years old when he was shot dead, killed by police after robbing a train in Oklahoma in 1911. It was the last of a series of botched robberies that McCurdy had attempted during his short life. McCurdy and his pals mistakenly robbed a passenger train of just $46, misidentifying it as a Katy Train carrying thousands.
After McCurdy was killed, the sheriff apparently sold his body to a carnival owner, who mummified it. If this sounds macabre, well, that's because it is. But it also was something carnivals used to do back in the 1920s and 1930s. The carnival owner used McCurdy's dead body as part of a traveling sideshow, displaying him as "The Outlaw Who Would Never Be Captured Alive" and later as an example of a dope fiend.
Poor McCurdy ended up in a warehouse where the body stayed until 1968. Over time, people forgot it was old McCurdy, and assumed it was a prop. It, along with other wax figures, were sold to the Hollywood Wax Museum, but the corpse was later sold off to an amusement park in California, where it ended up as part of a funhouse exhibit.
In 1976, the production crew for "The Six Million Dollar Man" was filming in that amusement park, and McCurdy was discovered. One of the crew moved the body, and McCurdy's arm popped off. By that time, it was covered in wax and paint.
He was returned to Guthrie, Oklahoma, in 1977 and buried, 66 years after his death.
Want to learn more about creepy old carnivals and sideshows? Visit the International Independent Showmen's Museum in Riverview, Florida.
Gun Control Was Stricter Back Then.
When you envision the Old West, you might think that everyone in a saloon had a six-shooter on their hip and an 1873 Winchester under their hotel pillow. That's not true, at least not in many fledgling towns on the new frontier.
Many towns, like Deadwood, Dodge City, Abilene and Tombstone, had laws prohibiting carrying guns in town. You had to check your guns at the local sheriff, who'd give you a token in exchange. Like a coat check, but for guns.
Exceptions were made for residents, who could keep their guns in their home.
Dead Outlaws Were Propped Up and Photographed.
The exploits of gangs and notorious outlaws were chronicled in papers throughout the country (and embellished in contemporary books). When they went down in a blaze of glory, townspeople wanted proof, and the authorities wanted to show any would-be lawbreaker who came to town the fate that awaited them.
With the invention of photography during the first quarter of the 19th century, now there was a way to do both. The corpses of dead outlaws would be displayed — sometimes entire gangs pushed together, sometimes a duo stood up and propped together — for one final photograph before being tossed six feet under.
The First Armed Bank Robbery Occurred in Massachusetts.
It wasn't the Wild West where the first bank robbery happened. The first bank robbery occurred in 1831, roughly 30 years before the Wild West era. But that robbery was done with forged keys, and the robbers didn't use gun.
The first stick-'em-up, non-war-related bank robbery occurred in 1863, in Malden, Massachusetts.
The deadly event occurred at noon, when a man, Edward Green, the town's 32-year-old postmaster, walked into Malden Bank to get change. Green was a drunk and was heavily in debt. When he entered the bank on Dec. 15, he thought he saw a way out.
Only one person was working at the time, a 17-year-old boy and son of the bank's president. Green walked out, walked home, grabbed his gun and shot the boy in the head. He walked out once again, this time with $5,000 in cash — over $105,000 today.
But Green arose suspicions when people noticed that the once in-debt postmaster could now pay his dues. Reportedly, he confessed to the murder just a month later, and was hanged in 1866.
That made him the first man hanged for an armed bank robbery in America, too.
The First Train Robbery Happened in Indiana.
The first robbery that occurred on a moving train happened on Oct. 6, 1866, by the Reno Gang. It was one of the greatest heists in history.
The gang boarded the train and forced the messenger (who safeguarded the safe keys) to open one of the safes. They found $18,000 worth of cash along with jewelry and other goods, which they pocketed.
But the bigger safe didn't have a key. So the Reno Gang kicked it off the train, hoping to run away with it during their escape. It was too heavy, though, and the gang abandoned it where it lay.
Two years later, in 1868, six members of the Reno Gang were lynched and hanged on a tree. That site is now called Hangman Crossing, and they were buried in Seymour, Indiana. Their graves can be visited, but they're behind a small gate.
Want to Dine Like the Old West? You Probably Don't.
Probably to the surprise of no one, food in the Wild West was pretty awful. Breakfast might be the exception, with corn bread, stew, boiled eggs, fried potatoes and omelets being some good-looking food. Dinner might consist of calves' head, boiled mutton, or soused calves feet. For dessert, you could get pudding. These are typical foods of a family on the frontier in 1853.
Food cooking was simple. Think ovens, frying pans and roasting spits. And the food would have been restricted to whatever meat or veggies was available during that time of year. Cowboys typically ate canned beans, rock-hard biscuits, dried meat, dried fruit and coffee.
If you're looking for some actual, modern food with some historic attractions, check out the Buckhorn Saloon and Museum in San Antonio, Texas.
The Whiskey Was Terrible.
Strut through a saloon's doors, saddle up on a barstool, order the bartender's finest whiskey, and then proceed to gag. This stuff tastes like gasoline, but the bottle says it's been aged 10 years and comes from Kentucky. What gives?
Back then, laws against copyright were lax, if enforceable at all — and since you're in the frontier, there was no one around to care. Heck, a lot of the whiskey being sold might have been mixed with water or other spirits to increase profits. According to Serious Eats, some of the so-called-bourbons were sometimes distilled from low-grade molasses.
Nicknames for popular whiskey in that era include coffin varnish, mountain howitzer and "tangle-leg" — booze so strong your legs would get tangled while trying to leave the bar.
Cowboy Meant Criminal
In the Old West, especially in and around Arizona, "cowboy" meant criminals.
In 1881, the San Francisco Examiner wrote an editorial declaring, "Cowboys [are] the most reckless class of outlaws in that wild country ... infinitely worse than the ordinary robber."
In fact, there was a famous gang known as the Cowboys who frequented Tombstone.
Above is a photo of the Wild Bunch, Butch Cassidy's notorious gang. Clockwise, from the top left: Kid Curry, Bill McCarty, Bill (Tod) Carver, Ben Kilpatrick, and Tom O'Day.
The Famous O.K. Corral Shootout Wasn't Much of a Shootout.
Yes, three people died, and three were injured in the O.K. Corral shootout in Tombstone, Arizona. But for all its fame, the famous gunfight was little more than 30 seconds of gunfire.
On the law's side, there were three Earp brothers — Wyatt, Morgan and Virgil — and Doc Holliday. On the "bad guy" side were Ike and Billy Clanton, Tom and Frank McLaury, and Billy Claiborne, members and associates of the Cowboy gang. Only three of them were armed.
It's unknown who shot first, but the entire fight lasted just 30 seconds and 30 bullets. Virgil shot Clanton in the chest, Doc Holliday blasted Tom with a shotgun, and Wyatt killed Frank with a gut shot. Clanton and Claiborne ran away, uninjured and unarmed.
The Earps and Holliday were tried for murder, and the ensuing testimony featured people sympathetic to the cowboys (who blamed the Earps and Holliday) and those on the Earps' side (they blamed the cowboys). A judge ruled in favor of the Earps and Holliday, and they were acquitted.
There is a daily reenactment of the famous shootout every day, three times a day, in modern-day Tombstone. You can also visit Wyatt Earp's boyhood home in Pella, Iowa.
America's First Serial Killer Family Emerged.
The Wild West is known mostly for its gunslingers and outlaws, but serial killers played a part, too.
The Bender Family, aka the Bloody Benders, were a family of German immigrants who lived in Labette County, Kansas, for just one year, from 1871 to 1872. The family cabin had a well and a barn with a corral, and they divided the cabin into a general store and a small lodging home for travelers.
By contemporary accounts, the people were mean, strange, or off-putting. In total, four Benders lived on the property: John Bender Sr. and his wife, Elvira, along with their son John Jr., and his girlfriend, Kate, who may have been his sister.
The family is believed to have killed at least 11 people, and their remains were buried in the orchard. As people began to question the disappearances and close in on the Benders, the family vanished.
Dodge City Was Extremely Violent.
While the Wild West was not as violent as movies and TV shows would have you believe, it wasn't some kind of lawless paradise. Dodge City, in Kansas, is the most notoriously violent town from that area.
Dodge City had an annual recorded murder rate of 0.165, or 165 adults killed per 100,000 people. That also means that a person living in Dodge City from 1876 to 1885 had a 1 in 61 chance of being murdered.
In 2020, the most violent city in the world, Los Cobos, Mexico, had a murder rate of 138 people killed per 100,000 people.
Camels in Texas? Yep.
For a brief period of time, you may have come across a wild camel or two while braving the plains of Texas. In 1855, the U.S. government allocated $30,000 to buy and import camels.
Jefferson Davis, then the secretary of war, believed that camels would be essential in transporting goods westward (the transcontinental railroad was nowhere near complete in 1855). So the government imported 75 camels and stationed them in Campe Verde, located in central Texas, and used them in supply trips to San Antonio.
But the mule lobby (Big Mule) lobbied against implementing the hunch-backed beasts into the army, and when the Civil War kicked off, the camel experiment was finished. After Texas seceded, the Confederate army seized Camp Verde and sent the camels packing into the wild.
Mining Towns Were More Expensive Than Living in Silicon Valley Today.
The California Gold Rush caused a mad dash to the hills, with mining camps and towns springing up around them. That meant a huge increase in demand for goods, which spiked prices — and led to egregious price gouging. It was more expensive to live in certain towns then than it is to live in Silicon Valley today.
Here's how much you'd expect to spend in 1851 in Californian mining towns:
- A single egg could cost as much as $3, the equivalent of $105 today.
- A pound of butter could cost $20, or about $700 today.
- Gold pans that once sold for $0.20 two years ago now went for $8, or $280 today.
- Shovels sold for $36, a whopping $1,259 today.
And keep in mind that most miners only found $10 to $15 in gold each day.
Black Bart Robbed With Style.
There were a number of famous outlaws in the Wild West, and many of them were murderous lowlives. One man, Charles Boles, stands out from the rest. Boles was a very successful (for a while) stagecoach robber who robbed 28 stagecoaches — all owned by Wells Fargo — between 1875 and 1883. He usually did this by wearing a flour sack (with holes cut for eyes), wearing a black derby hat, and holding a gun.
Known to dress and speak well, Boles, who gave himself the alias "Black Bart," would demand the driver to drop their lockbox while standing in the middle of the road. Once he ambushed a stagecoach and told his hidden crew to let loose a hail of gunfire if the stage driver shot. Seeing barrels pointing out from the bushes, the driver laid the box down, letting Boles abscond with the valuables.
The "men" stayed behind. They were nothing more than sticks.
But the greatest thing of all were his poems which he left behind for law enforcement to find. His most famous: "I've labored long and hard for bread/For honor, and for riches/But on my corns too long you've tread/You fine-haired sons of *******."
Boles was eventually caught, served six years in prison, then vanished.
The Deadliest Outlaw Was John Wesley Hardin.
John Wesley Hardin was a man from Bonham, Texas, who started his life of gunfighting and murder early. At the age of 14, he stabbed a fellow student, nearly killing him. At 15, he gunned down his uncle's slave, then killed the three soldiers who pursued him.
Hardin claimed to have killed 44 men in his autobiography, but it's full of tall tales and many of his claims are impossible to be corroborated. That's to be expected. But what's surprising is that Hardin is believed to have killed at least half that number, and possibly up to 30 men.
Hardin's biography reads like he went from one murder to the next, which is somewhat accurate. While in Abilene, Kansas, he crossed paths with Wild Bill Hickok, who was serving as marshal at the time. For whatever reason, the two got along well enough. Either Hickok didn't know Hardin was wanted for murder in Texas, or he just didn't care.
That changed when Hardin went to get some sleep on Aug. 6, 1871, but became agitated that the man in the neighboring hotel room wouldn't stop snoring. Hardin, who was drunk, fired into the next room. It's unclear whether or not he meant to kill the man, but the snoring stranger took one last gasp as the bullet pierced his heart. People would say that Hardin was "so mean, he once shot a man for snoring too loud."
Hardin ran from town and Hickok, and managed to evade capture until 1875, where Hardin was tried and convicted for the killing of a popular sheriff in Comanche, Texas. He was 21. Sentenced to 25 years, Hardin only served 17 years and was somehow pardoned after he was released in 1894.
One year later, he was killed. A man he had an argument with earlier in the day shot him in the back of the head while Hardin was playing dice. Then he shot him a few more times just to be sure.
You can see some of Hardin's personal artifacts at the Comanche County Museum.
This Is Why It's Called Dead Man's Hand.
In poker, a poker hand consisting of two aces and eights is called a "dead man's hand." That's because those were the cards Wild Bill Hickok was holding when Jack McCall shot him in the back of the head in the town of Deadwood.
According to legend, both pairs were black suited, with spade aces and club eights.
McCall was hanged for his crimes. As you can see, the trial was widely publicized.
The chair that Hickok was murdered in can be seen at Saloon No. 10 in modern Deadwood.
Women Were Welcome in Saloons.
In the 1800s, women drinking in bars alongside men was extremely uncommon east of the Missouri River. But when you headed out west, further away from Puritan values, you'd find women mingling with the men.
Some of these women would have been prostitutes, or "painted ladies" who might hang around dingy bars, looking for a john. Others would have been dance hall women, who were entertainers and hostesses. They would lighten the mod, sing, dance, and chat with the male patrons — and get them to drop some more coin at the bar.
According to Legends of America, saloon girls could earn $10 per week ($205 in 1870) and earn a commission from the drinks they sold.
Poker Alice Made Her Fortune Playing Cards.
While gambling was a male-dominated profession, women could gamble if the establishment allowed it. One such woman was Alice Ivers Tubbs, better known as "Poker Alice."
Alice was an English immigrant who studied under her first husband, learning how to gamble and play poker at various saloons. Educated, well-dressed, beautiful and with a penchant for smoking cigars, Alice must have stood out at the poker tables. She also carried a .38 revolver, and shot a miner in the arm after he threatened her future husband.
Alice was born in 1851 and later in life, she opened her own saloon during Prohibition. She shot and killed a rampaging soldier who was destroying her saloon and was acquitted for acting in self-defense.
Alice claimed to have won $250,000 in gambling, and died at the age of 79 in Rapid City, South Dakota.
Grab a modern biography about Poker Alice for your Old West travels, or stay in Poker Alice's house in Sturgis, South Dakota. It's on Airbnb!
Many Brands from the Old West Are Still Around.
If you were transported to the Old West — and you were planted somewhere with a decent general store — you'd find some familiar brands. Like:
- Quaker Oats
- Royal Baking Powder
- Baker's Chocolate
- Arm & Hammer
- Fleischmann's Yeast
- Pillsbury Flour
Calamity Jane Was Buried Next to Wild Bill Hickok, Possibly As Joke.
Calamity Jane was a colorful Old West character who made up tons of stories about herself, and who may or may not have fought in skirmishes with Native Americans.
We do know that Jane met Hickok on a wagon train heading to Deadwood. Once there, she became his acquaintance. Whether or not Hickok liked Jane is debated. Some said that Wild Bill "had absolutely no use for Jane" and decided to bury her body next to the deceased gunslinger as a practical joke.
Others say it was her dying wish, or possibly a move on the part of local business owners who knew the duo would serve as an attraction, bringing in more business.
They're buried in Mount Moriah Cemetery in Deadwood.