Famous Outlaws of the Wild West
The Wild West era was a period of time from the 1860s through the end of the 19th century characterized by westward expansion, settlement, and lawlessness.
As Americans pushed west and built new towns, the civil structures that characterized life in the east were slow to follow, leaving settlers to rely on their own wits and determination to establish and protect themselves.
It’s perhaps unsurprising that this era also gave rise to outsized characters whose fame continues to this day, including outlaws like Jesse James, Butch Cassidy, and Billy the Kid.
History of the American Frontier
The expansion of the American frontier started after the Louisiana Purchase, when trappers, hunters, miners, and others realized the vast potential that all of the unclaimed land offered.
As more and more people flocked out west to make their fortune and to fulfill the idea of “manifest destiny,” lawlessness descended over the arid plains of the Old West. Lawmen and outlaws who would rise to the level of near-mythical figures shot and stole their way into the American zeitgeist.
To this day, more than a century years later, many of the popular names of the time are still common knowledge.
During this time, several major events in American history took place. The Battle of the Alamo, the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, the California Gold Rush, and the Mexican-American War all occurred during the expansion of the western frontier.
The frontier spirit helped shape what the country would eventually become.
- The American West in Photographs
- The Making of the United States: Westward Expansion
- The Role of the West in the Construction of American Identity: From Frontier to Crossroads
The treatment of Native American tribes during the settlement of the Old West by both the United States government and the settlers themselves is among the darkest chapters of American history.
Due to the American populace’s push to expand westward, conflicts arose with the natives who inhabited the land, and this ultimately led to their relocation and near genocide. Bloody battles and raids took place all across the West, and these would come to be known as the American Indian Wars.
One of the most significant events to result from the rising tensions was the forcible relocation of indigenous people under the Indian Removal Act of 1830 under President Andrew Jackson.
Between 1830 and 1850, roughly 100,000 Native Americans were removed from their homes and placed on reservations. Tribes affected included the Cherokee, Seminole, Muscogee, Chickasaw, and Choctaw nations. During these relocations, the natives often had to battle with starvation, exposure, and disease.
It’s unclear exactly how many perished during that time, but estimates put the number at potentially well more than 10,000.
- The Trail of Tears
- Timeline of Native American Tribes’ Removal
- Native American Clashes With European Settlers
Despite the mythology that has developed around the Wild West through its portrayal in pop culture, gunfights weren’t actually all that common of an occurrence. The ones that did take place stand out in history for the significance of the factors that led up to them as opposed to the events themselves. Some of the most famous gunfights to take place during the Wild West era include the shootout at the O.K. Corral, the Wild Bill Hickok-Davis Tutt shootout, and the “four dead in five seconds gunfight” in El Paso.
- What Really Happened at the O.K. Corral
- The Age of Gunfights in El Paso
- Wild Bill’s Shootout
- Shootouts at High Noon
Wild Bill Hickok (1837-76)
James Butler Hickok, aka Wild Bill Hickok, was one of the most famous gunfighters to come out of the Old West. Standing at an imposing 6 feet 3 inches and carrying dual Colt revolvers, Hickok first earned notoriety for his efforts as a Union soldier and spy in the Civil War.
However, it was his time spent as the Hays City sheriff and marshal of Abilene that would cement his place in history as an American folk hero. Over the years, Hickok was involved in a number of shootouts that only helped grow his fame, including a notable duel with his former close friend, Davis Tutt. He continued to bring order to the Wild West with his weapons until 1871, when he accidentally killed his deputy, Mike Williams, in a shootout. He never took part in a gunfight again after that.
John Wesley Hardin (1853-95)
The son of a Methodist preacher, John Wesley Hardin is one of the most fascinating outlaws to come out of the Wild West. Hardin killed his first man at the age of 15, although he claimed it was in self-defense, and he spent a large portion of his life on the run from the law.
At age 18, Hardin found himself developing a friendship and almost father-son relationship with famed lawman Wild Bill Hickok. The two eventually had a falling-out, however, when Hardin’s true nature became apparent: He killed a man in a hotel for snoring too loudly. He was caught and sentenced to 24 years in prison in 1877. Upon his sentencing, Hardin claimed to have killed 42 men, though only 27 could ever be proven.
Jesse James (1847-82)
The notorious Jesse James was an outlaw whose escapades as a bank and train robber earned him a reputation that still pervades pop culture to this day. He fought as a guerrilla soldier for the Confederacy during the Civil War, waging brutal and bloody warfare against both Union soldiers and abolitionist civilians.
Following the war, he and his brother Frank started their own outlaw gang and gained both fame and even sympathy with the American public for their publicized robberies of stagecoaches, trains, and banks. He was famously gunned down in the back by fellow outlaw Robert Ford.
Dallas Stoudenmire (1845-82)
An accomplished lawman and gunfighter, Dallas Stoudenmire made his mark with his ability to bring law and order to unruly El Paso as well as his involvement in several deadly shootouts. The “four dead in five seconds gunfight” in 1881 featured perhaps his most well-known feat: He killed three of the four men himself.
In the wake of the shootout, former marshal Bill Johnson attempted to assassinate Stoudenmire, but Johnson was too intoxicated and bungled the attempt. Stoudenmire reacted to the attempt on his life by firing on Johnson and severing his testicles with one of the bullets; Johnson bled out in less than a minute. Stoudenmire was eventually shot and killed by James Manning, a friend of those killed in the “four dead in five seconds gunfight” and orchestrator of Johnson’s assassination attempt.
Robert Clay Allison (1841-87)
Robert Clay Allison was a Confederate soldier, gunfighter, and rancher who developed a penchant for violence in the Wild West. He was involved in several knife fights and gunfights with lawmen over the years as well as a series of jailbreaks and lynchings. In 1874, Allison sat down to have dinner with Chunk Colbert, a gunman who had seven kills to his name and with whom Allison had run-ins in the past.
During the meal, Colbert drew his weapon, but Allison was quicker and shot Colbert in the head. Later on, when asked why he agreed to have dinner with Colbert at all, Allison said, “Because I didn’t want to send a man to hell on an empty stomach.”
Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp (1848-1929)
An accomplished marshal in the town of Tombstone, Wyatt Earp is best remembered for his role in the O.K. Corral shootout, in which he killed three members of the outlaw group the Cochise County Cowboys.
He was also an avid gambler who throughout his life owned numerous saloons and even a brothel. He bounced from town to town for much of his life, working as both a marshal and a sheriff, though he was by no means a strictly law-abiding citizen. He was arrested several times and even accused of murder.
Butch Cassidy (1866-1908)
Robert LeRoy Parker, more famously known as Butch Cassidy, was an American outlaw who rose to fame through his bank and train robberies in the Wild West.
He became the leader of an outlaw gang known as the “Wild Bunch” after being released from prison in 1896. He and his gang eventually drew so much attention from the authorities that he was forced to flee the country with Harry Alonzo Longabaugh (the Sundance Kid) and Longabaugh’s girlfriend.
They are believed to have died during a gunfight with the Bolivian army in 1908, though there is still much debate over what exactly happened.
Buffalo Bill (1846-1917)
William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody may not have been a lawman or outlaw, but his presence was felt throughout the Wild West regardless.
He served as a soldier during both the Civil War and the American Indian War, and he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1872. Cody didn’t receive the nickname “Buffalo Bill” until defeating fellow hunter Bill Comstock in a buffalo-hunting competition for the right to use the name. At age 23, Cody met journalist Ned Buntline, who published a somewhat fabricated story of Cody’s life in the New York Weekly newspaper.
This caused Cody’s fame to skyrocket, and he spent much of his life after that performing in Wild West shows around the world.
Annie Oakley (1860-1926)
Annie Oakley was a sharpshooter who appeared alongside Buffalo Bill in his Wild West stage shows. She learned to hunt at a young age in order to provide for her poverty-stricken family and won a shooting contest at only 15 years old.
In Buffalo Bill’s show, Oakley would often perform spectacular stunts, like shooting a cigar out of her husband’s lips, in an awe-inspiring display of her skill with weaponry.
A strong proponent of women’s self-defense, Oakley spent part of her life teaching other women how to become accomplished sharpshooters.
Doc Holliday (1851-87)
John Henry “Doc” Holliday was a gambler, gunfighter, dentist, and close personal friend of Wyatt Earp who also took part in the O.K. Corral shootout. As word of Holliday began to spread throughout the West, so did tales of his body count.
He was rumored to have killed more than a dozen men in various gunfights throughout the years, but historians today believe the number was more likely closer to between one and three. He died of tuberculosis in Colorado at age 36.
Billy the Kid (1859-81)
enry “Billy the Kid” McCarty was an Old West outlaw who was responsible for killing eight men before he turned 21. Orphaned at age 15, Billy the Kid came from humble outlaw origins, initially stealing just food and clothes.
Despite his easygoing personality, he was still a feared outlaw, having been complicit in several murders throughout his life. He was eventually shot and killed by Sheriff Pat Garrett.
Calamity Jane (1852-1903)
Martha “Calamity” Jane Cannary was a famous frontierswoman born in 1852. After her parents died when she was just 12 years old, Cannary relocated to Deadwood, where she struck up a friendship with Wild Bill Hickok.
Over the years, Cannary become well-known for her whiskey-drinking, sharpshooting, and cross-dressing. Her fame spread across the country, and she eventually wound up joining Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. S
he died at age 51 and was buried next to her old friend, Bill Hickok.
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