We all know of the Wild West. Or do we? There are so many misconceptions and myths surrounding it, and so many of these are repeated in cowboy fiction and Western movies alike. So, here are some common misconceptions about the cowboys, Native Americans, and the Wild West courtesy of Jon Mixon on Quora and other sources.
Everyone wanted to be a cowboy
Cowboy was not a desirable job. The individuals that you see in films would be insulted in real life if they were called “cowboys”, as they were actually partial to the higher status sobriquet of “ranch hand”. Cowboy was essentially the convenience store worker of the Old West – an entry-level job that most people tried to move away from when they gained some money and experience.
Anybody working as a cowboy probably didn’t even own their own saddle or gun. You hired on and the Ranch Owner loaned you a saddle and you picked a horse out of the Ramuda to ride when needed. You built fences where they were needed around the grounds. That was pretty much it.
Also, despite what you often see in movies a full quarter of cowboys were black. And cowboys were short – not just by today’s standards, but also by 19th century standards. The smaller the rider, the better condition your horse would be in.
Any family that felt it had any sort of status and respectability would have sooner invited a rattlesnake into their house than a cowboy. That wealthy people from St Louis would come to visit the cowboy artist Charles Russell in Montana is explained by the fact that Russell was from a prominent wealthy family in St Louis, so there was an element of “slumming” and the novelty of visiting Russell’s artist studio. Another factor was that Russell was in Montana as the frontier closed and cowboys, Indians and mountain men became almost mythical romantic figures.
My house is my castle
Many people either rented rooms, lived in canvas tents, or accepted room and board from their employer. The wooden homes shown in Westerns are mostly nonsense; and even sod homes were something beyond the means of the average person. To put things in perspective, people sleeping in sod houses often had to sweep the floor every morning to get rid of snakes.
The “Wild” West wasn’t wild for very long. The West shown in films only existed from 1866 following the Civil War until the mid-1890s, so roughly 25–30 years. Following that time, the railroads, and eventually real roads, made the need to drive cattle to market unnecessary, resulting in a large number of cowboys finding themselves unemployed. Even the Indian Wars (the euphemism for the ethnic cleansings of Native Americans) were finished by 1890 following the massacre at Wounded Knee, South Dakota. By the turn of the century, the West was no longer “wild” and had in fact been “tamed” for more than a decade.
The Old West
Another common myth is that certain areas and people represented “The Old West.” Dodge City is the state of Kansas on the Great Plains; it’s not in the West. Jesse James, his brother Frank and their various associates like the Youngers, never went farther west than Central Kansas. They were Midwestern outlaws, who had nothing to do with what is known as the “Old West”.
The streets of Western towns had horse manure strewn across them, as well as poor drainage. There were insects of all kinds, as well as vermin like mice and rats. The opening to a saloon was going to be a solid door, not some swinging contrivances that wouldn’t keep out pests and smells.
Fetch my gun!
Cowboys and ranch hands were not gunfighters. Even if a number of cowboys saw combat during the Civil War and the various Indian Wars, they were no more likely to shoot random people (or anyone) than people are today. The middle-of-the-street showdowns in Western films were, in reality, often fistfights, with the occasional knifing or shooting if or when things got too out of hand. Cowboys were working-class people and not killers… unless taking part in a horsethief lynching.
Speaking of lynchings, another common myth is that hangings always broke necks. As many as 25% of the people who were hanged, strangled to death slowly while an audience watched. In the movies, a trapdoor opens and the condemned falls through to his death. However, most executioners (assuming that the town bothered to hire one) were mediocre at their job, and would often either misjudge the setting of the noose, the drop, or the weights involved, which could even lead to a decapitation. Most hangings required “hangers-on” – people who would hang on your legs in order to shorten the ordeal for you.
The only place that hangings weren’t gruesome affairs is in films about the Old West.
Where’s my hat?
Cowboys did not wear the traditional (nowadays, anyway) hat with an RCA or, Cattleman’s, or whatever crown. Many wore derbies. Look at this photo of the James Gang—not one wearing a typical “cowboy hat”:
If anyone wants to find out more about the real Wild West, the West Texas A&M University has the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum on campus in Canyon, TX. They do a great job of providing evidence that kind of eliminates our romanticized version of the West and the Cowboy. It is an impressive museum even without that section, with plenty of fascinating geology and fossil records. So if you ever find yourself on I-40 & I-27, take time to visit!
The thing about snakes … We visited an ancient site which had been lived by indiginous American people over 1000 years before. None of the houses had doors. They had ladders and a hole in the roof. Apparently that was their way of keeping the snakes out. 🙂
Oh, wow! That’s an ingenious solution to the problem!
Interesting Nicholas. I live in a cow town famous for many things – in Kansas and I’ve been to Dodge more times than I can count – but not now with the Covid-19 they have in abundance. Yes, the old west was really the mid-west, however legends, both real and “added to” exist still today. Movies feature gallon hats and swinging saloon doors and that is pure television. I was a saloon girl/cow town girl for re-enactments for many years. The rich actual history is embedded within me. What interested you in the cow town days of yore?
Well, several of my author friends specialize in Western romance. I thought this would give them a nice list of untrue cliches to avoid.
But, in truth, I am one of countless boys who grew up playing cowboys and Indians. It’s interesting to see how far reality was from our make-belief worlds 🙂