11 Things You’ve Always Thought About the Wild West That Are Totally Wrong

Most myths about the American West originated on the silver screen. Hollywood renditions of cowboys, Indians, gunfights, and outlaws paint a romanticized version of what people believe Old West life was like because the idea of a gritty frontiersman who maintained law and order with his peacemaker was the stuff of box office gold.

The truth is that Hollywood lied to you. In reality, life in the Old West played out far differently than the stereotypical settings seen in many classic Spaghetti Westerns. In fact, the clean-cut cowboys portrayed by actors such as John Wayne are a far cry from what cowboys were truly like or how they really lived.

While it’s true that life in America’s Old West was rugged and harsh, made so by the untamed terrain and lack of amenities, Hollywood’s portrayals of mass murders, daily gunfights, gallant cowboys, and raging Natives is merely an exaggerated version of what dangerous accounts historic American westerners really experienced in their daily lives on the frontier.

Before watching another Clint Eastwood film filled with Wild West anachronisms, it’s time to shoot down the Old West misconceptions the silver screen has conveyed and learn some crazy, true Wild West facts. Check out these things you’ve always thought about the Wild West that are totally wrong.

The Wild West Wasn’t That Wild

The Wild West Wasn’t That Wild
Photo: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

When picturing the Wild West, one may imagine gun-slinging bandits, Native American ambushes, and sharp shooting cowboys running rampant throughout the towns. In reality, most towns were pretty peaceful. In fact, some historians even contend that the Wild West “was a far more civilized, more peaceful and safer place than American society today.”

Even though there weren’t local “governments” per se, there existed private organizations and clubs that helped adjudicate matters of property, theft, and crime, keeping things pretty orderly.

Most Cowboys Didn’t Wear Cowboy Hats

Most Cowboys Didn’t Wear Cowboy Hats
Photo: United Artists

Contrary to what many believe, the Stetson cowboy hat was not a popular choice for many early frontiersmen of the Old West. The image of cowboys always wearing ten-gallon hats was basically a movie gimmick. In fact, the most popular and practical cowboy headwear choices were the bowler and the derby because they were less likely to fly off when you were riding horses at speed.

Also, it would’ve been pretty unsafe to wear a massive, white hat when you were really in the middle of a gun-battle, seeing as it would’ve made a perfect massive, white target for your enemies. It sure does look good, though.

The OK Corral Gunfight Didn’t Take Place In The OK Corral

The OK Corral Gunfight Didn’t Take Place In The OK Corral
Photo: James G. Howes / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons

The OK Corral gunfight is probably the most famous shootout in Wild West history. However, the truth behind the infamous fight is that it didn’t take place in the OK Corral at all and was instead carried out in the definitely-less-glamorous vacant lot behind it. The entire fight lasted only a mere 30 seconds.However, those 30 seconds were enough for numerous deaths and wounds to be inflicted.

Playing Cards Was Not Just A Pastime

Playing Cards Was Not Just A Pastime
Photo: Sinister Cinema

Obviously, card playing can quickly become a matter of life and death in lots of western movies. However, in the Old West, not every Tom, Dick, or Harry would’ve been involved in big-time card games because gambling card games were an even bigger deal than they are portrayed as being. In fact, they were considered a serious profession with the best players being initiated as professional sportsmen.

In addition, numerous gambling halls, brothels, and saloons were dedicated to hosting competitive card games and professional competitions rather than happenstance throw downs between OG sharks and table newbies.

There Might’ve Been More Wild Camels Than Horses

There Might've Been More Wild Camels Than Horses
Photo: Dev Paul / Wikimedia Comments / CC BY-SA 4.0

In 1855, the Southern US was home to hundreds of feral camels. Originally, 75 beasts were bought from Egypt to be used for army surveys. They were stationed in central Texas to be used as beasts of burden for army encampments there, which they were… for a while.

However, several camels managed to escape and began roaming and breeding freely in the wild. The legendary “Red Ghost” of Arizona was one of these feral camels.

Not All Cowboys Were White Men

Not All Cowboys Were White Men
Photo: Tony Oliver / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

In classic western films, cowboys are overwhelmingly white. However, the Wild West actually had its fair share of multicultural ethnicities. In fact, the Lone Ranger’s character is rumored to have been inspired by a black U.S. Marshal named Bass Reeves. In addition, the first known group of western cowboys were actually Mexican ranchers called Vaqueros and Spanish gentlemen called Caballeros. Both were skilled in cattle driving and horse riding traditions.

Moreover, not all outlaws that ruled the West were even men. Some ladies occupied the significant role of being an outlaw. These frightful women committed various highly punishable crimes such as robberies, firearm assaults, and murders.

Native Americans And Settlers Weren’t Constantly Fighting

Native Americans And Settlers Weren’t Constantly Fighting
Photo: Paramount Pictures

While there were certainly some occurrences of fighting between Native Americans and western settlers over territory, the cinema would lead people to believe that “cowboys” and “Indians” were constantly at war with each other.

In truth, there are as many instances of tolerance and cohabitation as there are of animosity between cowboys and the Native American population. Native Americans actually made good business with the settlers, often trading goods and providing guiding services.

Not Everyone Carried A Gun

Not Everyone Carried A Gun
Photo: United Artists

It was true that many ranchers and early settlers owned a gun or rifle, but not everyone in the Old West carried a firearm around wherever they went. Gun laws were strict in western towns, and people were often prohibited from carrying a piece within the city limits.

By law, carrying a gun was unlawful and punishable in Tombstone.

Prostitutes Didn’t Live In Poverty

Prostitutes Didn't Live In Poverty
Photo: HBO

While the life of a prostitute was not always an easy or honorable one for women in the Old West, it earned them extremely high wages, special freedoms, and comfortable living arrangements. Madams of brothels were some of the freest, most educated, and wealthiest women in that era.

They also took good care of their working girls, even hiring police officers to protect them.

Bank Robberies Weren’t That Common

Bank Robberies Weren’t That Common
Photo: Donald Scott Lee / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

In the movies, audiences often see a posse of Wild West bandits rushing into a bank with their guns drawn while loading sacks of money, eventually fleeing the scene on horseback. However, in real life, bank robberies in the Old West weren’t that common, with an estimate of only three or four robberies across 15 states within a 40-year timespan.

The Pony Express Wasn’t Successful

The Pony Express Wasn't Successful
Photo: US National Archives & Records Administration / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

It’s a romantic image: a rider atop a horse, galloping full speed to deliver mail to the far-flung outposts of the American West. While the Pony Express captured the popular imagination, it wasn’t a huge success. In fact, the company only operated for 19 months from 1860-1861.

During that time, men were tasked with shuttling messages as fast as possible along a 2,000 mile route. The small, lightweight riders switched horses every 10-15 miles, and changed riders every 75-100 miles. It was a speedy method, but a costly one – the company lost an estimated $200,00 over its brief operating time, a staggering sum for the era.

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