The Wild, Wild West


There were, broadly speaking, two ways of making money in the Wild West. One, as has been suggested, demanded hard, hard work of farmer, cowhand, railroader, or miner. But as always seems to be the case in this bad old world, there were some few men who did not care for hard work. Either they had tried it personally, for a day or two, and found it repugnant, or they had conceived a distaste for it by watching others try it, or perhaps they had simply heard about others who had tried it and so come to a bad end. In any case, these men determined never to work but to rely, rather, on their wits.

Now how could a quick-witted man get rich out on the bare, bleak plains? Clearly the first step was to head for those outposts of civilization, however malodorous to a discriminating rogue, where a little heap of wealth had been piled up through the labor of others. This meant the cowtowns, the mining camps, and the slowly shifting railroad settlements. Here he could gamble with the chumps: few professional gamblers starve. Here he could trade on women of easy virtue, or no virtue whatever, who were in even greater demand west of the Mississippi than east of it. Here he could buy a share of a dance hall or saloon: either enterprise was gilt-edged. Before long he would have found, as others have before and since, that these careers lead straight into politics. He might have concluded that it was cheaper to stand for office himself than to pay tribute to some stupider, lazier politician. So were marshals and sheriffs born.

But what of the dull-witted man who didn’t choose to work? He had behind him a life of violence bred by the Civil War; often his thick skull held no learning whatever save how to ride, shoot, kill, burn, rob, rape, and run. With the end of the war he doffed his blue blouse—or, more often, his gray—and headed west toward a short, gory life of bank heists and train robberies. So were outlaws born.

For the man who was preternaturally active and had no objection to a day in the outdoors, there was a third, coarsening, semi-legal path to quick dollars: he could slaughter bison. Only the Indians would object, and who cared a hoot for the Indians? A treaty of 1867 guaranteed that no white man would hunt buffalo south of the Arkansas River; by 1870, when the army officer commanding at Fort Dodge was asked what he would do if this promise were broken, he laughed and said, “Boys, if I were hunting buffalo I would go where buffalo are"; in 1871 the massacre began in earnest. One hunter bagged 5,855 in two months. It has been estimated that 4,373,730 bison were killed in the three years 1872-74. To shoot the placid beasts was no easier than shooting fish in a barrel, but it was certainly no more difficult. And splendid practice, as safe as on a target range, for the marksman who might later choose to pot riskier game—a stagecoach driver or the leader of a posse. So were killers trained.

For the purposes of American myth, it remained only to make over all these sheriffs, outlaws, killers, and assorted villains into heroes. Considering the material on hand to work with, this transfiguration is on the order of a major miracle. It was brought about in two ways. First, whilst the assorted plug-uglies were still alive, hosannas were raised in their honor (a) by the “National Police Gazette,” a lively weekly edited from 1877 to T922 by Richard K. Fox and commanding a circulation that reached into every selfrespecting barbershop, billiard parlor, barroom, and bagnio throughout the Republic ; and (b) by each impressionable journalist, from the more genteel eastern magazines, who had wangled enough expense money out of his publisher to waft him west of Wichita. Fox required no authentication and desired none ; his staff writers simply pitched their stuff out by the forkful, to be engorged by yokels from Fifth Avenue to Homer’s Corners. The aforesaid round-eyed journalists, on the other hand, got their stuff straight from the gun fighters themselves, so naturally it was deemed wholly reliable.

Second, after the assorted plug-uglies had been gathered to their everlasting sleep, the latter-day chroniclers crept eagerly in. They (or at least a few of them) would be careful and scholarly; they would write nothing that was not verified either by a contemporary newspaper account or by an oldtimer who knew whereof he spoke from personal knowledge. Thus, whatever they printed would be the truth, the whole truth, &c.

One flaw in this admirable approach was that the contemporary newspaper accounts are not reliable. How could they be, when the newspapers themselves were flaring examples of the sort of personal journalism in which bias as to local politics and personalities customarily displaced respect for facts? Any halfway independent and intelligent reporter for the newspapers of the Wild West knew that, when he wrote about the gunmen of his community, he was describing an interconnected underworld, a brotherhood that embraced outlaw, politician, and sheriff quite as amicably as does the brotherhood of gangster and corrupt official in the cities of our own time. Such an insight normally flavored his copy.