The Myth of Guns and the Wild West


First published on April 10, 2017.

Ordinance No.9:
To Provide against Carrying of Deadly Weapons” (effective April 19, 1881).
Section 1. “It is hereby declared to be unlawful for any person to carry deadly weapons, concealed or otherwise [except the same be carried openly in sight, and in the hand] within the limits of the City of Tombstone.
Section 2: This prohibition does not extend to persons immediately leaving or entering the city, who, with good faith, and within reasonable time are proceeding to deposit, or take from the place of deposit such deadly weapon.
Section 3: All fire-arms of every description, and bowie knives and dirks, are included within the prohibition of this ordinance.”

One of my moments of exasperation with conservatives is the fact that they have this much beloved myth that allows for the American Frontier and Wild West to be this rootin’ tootin’ fast draw, shoot ’em up paradise where everyone wore a sidearm.  There was a gunfight on every corner, and a man was a man because he wore a gun.  It is this myth conservatives use to justify their increasingly deadly love-affair with guns.

It is a tragic myth, that is leading to people being killed, needlessly.  Contrary to popular opinion, there were very few actual shoot-outs in the history of the Wild West.  The most famous was about guns. It was about lawmen trying to disarm bad men. If these bad men had not been violating the law, the shoot-out would not have happened at that time.

There is just one little problem here.

The myth of guns in the Wild West is not true.  The most famous moment in the history of the Wild West – the Gunfight at the OK Corral was about a group of men, outlaws, who were illegally carrying guns in town in violation of City Ordinance #9.  Virgil Earp, as the chief of police, was tasked with disarming them.

The average person living on the American Frontier or the Wild West did not own a hand-gun.  They would have had a shot-gun and a rifle, but many did not own hand-guns.  They weren’t necessary.  Crime was not near the factor that it is now.  People took care of their own.  No matter how violent the Cowboys were, they still treated women with respect (even hurdy-gurdy saloon girls).

People didn’t go around shooting one another.  Sure, there were several infamous “wars” but they were more range wars than OK Corrals.  For the record, Wyatt Earp was involved in one, maybe two other shootings.  One was in Dodge City.  The other was in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, a few years after the OK Corral.  It was in the winter.  Eventually the shoot-out, which was between snowbanks, evolved into a snowball battle.  Once the combatants ran out of ammunition, they repaired to a nearby saloon, where a good time was had by all.

That was the norm, rather than the exception.  The only reason the OK Corral even happened was because of the state of insurrection and the extreme organized crime that existed in Cochise County at the time.  To use the example of the west, and guns as a reason for well-meaning idiots to go around “packing heat” is simply intellectually dishonest from a historic point of view.

You just did not wear a side-arm in town.  On the trail was another story.  One should also take note that the average drover (not a cowboy – which was a derogatory term until Hollywood invented the cowboy) had a 65% chance of being African American.  They were the better drovers because many were former Buffalo Soldiers, and were much in demand.  White drovers had a very good chance of being either gay or bi-sexual.  They could also not hit the broad-side of a bar, even with a shot-gun.

On the trail, even Endicott Peabody, the young Episcopalian divinity student who “built” the first Protestant church in the Arizona Territory, St. Paul’s Episcopal, was heavily armed when he traveled outside of Tombstone.  You also did not travel alone.  There were too many outlaws and Apache.

When you lived in certain frontier regions, you wore a side-arm.  You kept a rifle, and a shot-gun.  It wasn’t because of two-legged critters, either.

The best way to explain why the average person in the Wild West used a gun is to explain why anyone who goes hiking in some of the rougher areas of Lincoln County, today without one, is crazy:  mountain lions, bears, rattle-snakes – oh my!  It’s just plain dangerous.

I have a friend, a life long resident of the area, who told me anyone who hiked and did not carry at least a shot-gun, and wear a side-arm was out of their mind.  Even today, the mountains around here, the canyons, and ranches are quite dangerous.  Real ranchers, who live out in the canyons and real life wild west ranches, today, wear side-arms.  For the same reason.

One of the great myths of the Wild West is criminal activity.  The reason we know so much about the criminal activity of the Wild West is because there was so little of it.   Life in the Wild West was generally boring.  It was far more “civilized” than life is today.  People had manners.  For the most part, they treated one another decently.  Most adults were living in the Wild West out of choice.  There were rules.  One did not ask about a person’s past.  It was none of their business.  You gave a person a chance and a break, but only to a point.  People were in it “together”.  They welcomed the advance of government, of civilizing influences, and law and order.

Along with the “gun” myth of the Wild West, is the “libertarian” myth.  The only reason people were self-reliant is because they had no choice.  When civilization advanced, they embraced it.  The only real “libertarians” of the West were some of the frontier’s men and mountain men.  Even Kit Carson was all for law and order, rules and civilizing government.

We hear about “good girl” stories of the West.  The average “hurdy-gurdy” who worked in the saloons had a better chance of getting married, and having a fairly normal and happy life than the church-going school teacher.  In fact, one of the highest suicide rates was for single women who were school teachers.  Their lives were bleak, lonely, and miserable.  One of the reasons we have teacher’s unions today, is a result of the way teachers were treated, up until and through around 1925 or so.

People of the Wild West were not all that frequent church-goers. They were no more patriotic than they were in the East.  They were men and women trying to survive.  As a whole, they were probably cleaner than their citified counterparts.  Their water was (with the exceptions of mining camps, etc) cleaner than that in the cities.  Their doctors were far superior.  They had excellent medical care, or none at all.  During the Earp era in Tombstone, there were five hospitals.  When a patient was discovered to have smallpox, every single man, woman, and child in the town was vaccinated, the Earps included.  There were no exceptions.  Patient Zero was quickly isolated and his clothing and bedding were burned. He survived.

When arguing for a well-armed citizenry, of which I agree, do not use the example of the Wild West to legitimize wearing guns everywhere.  They did not. In the cowtowns of the west, if you wore a side arm in town, you either surrendered it, left town, or were arrested.  There were no exceptions.  Once you left town, you could have your gun.  There were no exceptions.  Within municipalities, only the cops were armed, and they were not all that heavily armed.

Gun control began in the Wild West.  Don’t make the mistake of using modern sensibilities to make a mockery out of history through ignorance of the actual provable facts.  The Wild West was far from libertarian.  It was far from religious.  It was about men and women trying to make a better life for themselves.

Oh – and when in town, men did not wear cowboy hats.  They wore bowlers.  That was the hat that won the west, not the cowboy hat – another Hollywood myth.  They did, though almost always wear boots.

The show-down between the Earps and the Cowboys would have happened, one way or another.  There were many reasons, primarily law and order.  The Earps represented the the interests of the mining community, Wells Fargo, the local Republican party, the Feds, and the law-abiding citizens of the community as a whole.  The Cowboys were a loose confederation of upward of at least 200 outlaws.  (I have the names of at least 145 of them).  Their deprivations were so extensive, the US was on the cusp of a border with with Mexico.  Their activities almost mirrored the activities along the border today, only they were terrorizing the citizenry of Mexico.  The local Democratic establishment was so corrupt that they participated in one of the most fraudulent elections in this country’s history.  The Democratic sheriff, John Behan, was a pawn of the outlaws, who were involved in numerous stage robberies.  Over a 10 year period, upward of a trillion dollars (FY 2005 numbers) worth of silver or out of the mines of Tombstone.  The allure of easy money was one of the reason for the criminal activity.

It is my theory that the fight between the Earps and the Clanton/McLaury faction was inevitable, on some level.  I am convinced (via a letter from Stuart Lake to a colleague) that Celia Ann Blaylock Earp (Mattie) was having an affair with Frank McLaury.  I would not be surprised if we were to one day discover that Mattie was planning to run away with McLaury.  Farnk and Tom McLaury had “cashed out” and were on their way back home to upstate New York.  One reasons they were in Tombstone was for a last “hurrah” before leaving for the States.