Truths about the Old West

For many of us living today, Hollywood and paperback novels serve as our favored glimpse into the Old West. Marauding gunmen ride into towns with free license to terrorize the innocent. Scores of infamous gunslingers parade their reputations of being the fastest gun west of the Mississippi. The Indian, a heartless heathen never to be trusted, remains a foe to be eliminated all together by the righteous peace-loving new arrivals of pale complexion. Fact or fiction?

So, what was reality in the Old West, that time from the mid 19th century when policies of Indian Removal began until the new century in which forced assimilation was nearly complete? How was the Old West won? Volumes have been written on that broad topic, so my aim here is to simply dispel a few common myths about the Old West.

This is important in light of writing a handful of short westerns about a half Irish/half Cherokee hero of the West. While the Llano Kid character is fictional, the details in his world strive to reflect the realities and truths of the time.

On the topic of guns, most gunslingers with a reputation for killings earned that image unintentionally. The reality of defending one’s self in a heated confrontation, often tainted by a dose of whiskey, made it necessary to plug another man with lead to avoid being killed. Many skilled (or lucky) with a pistol sought to downplay their so-called reputation as a venerable gunslinger.

Cinematic depictions of the Old West employ countless scenes in which a gang of outlaws rides into town, shooting, looting, and burning. Makes for heart-pounding drama to clearly define the enemy in the ensuing story. One must remember that most of the people settling those small western towns had fought in the Civil War. Hardworking, God-fearing farmers, craftsmen, and merchants were more than familiar with a Winchester, owned one, and would use it. The few real attempts to sack a township were met with vengeful opposition and a quick trip to the grave en mass.

Were Indians always the enemy out west? Traditional western tales say so, but history says: Whoa, not exactly! With only the land, rivers, and wildlife to rely on for food and subsistence, Indian territory was paramount to survival. Yet a patchwork of native territories made it difficult to unite, perpetuating endless conflict between tribal communities with a preparedness to fight and raid.

When the white settlers began to pour in from the East, this lack of unity left individual tribes fighting on multiple fronts. White settlers complicated matters by demanding control of the land and its resources, including precious gold and timber. Most natives wished for peace and cooperation, but when it was disrupted by a breach of trust, fighting broke out. Agreements between the Anglos and the Natives were sometimes tenuous, but it is recorded fact these breaches of trust occurred on both sides.

Heroes of color are rarely celebrated in the Old West. Many a black man could ride, rope, and fight as well as his white counterpart. Some became venerable bounty hunters who could round up and bring to justice scores of wanted fugitives. Indians of various bloodlines willing to assimilate have always been agile competitors in the rodeo circuits. Others worked as competent trackers who helped locate criminals at large. Despite their contributions to the good of society, these people of color were seen as outsiders by the simple definitions of race or ethnicity, and therefore deemed not trustworthy. This condition is common to the Llano Kid as a drifting half-breed who must overcome assumed character obstacles.