The wild and lawless period in the West lasted for about 70 years, with the first shooting incident by a person who could be considered a professional gunman taking place in Texas in 1854.
The gunfighter era was an outgrowth of the Civil War. With many men without opportunities for jobs, their homes and lands in ruins, family members killed or missing, and few skills, with the exception of gun handling, they headed westward in search of new lives. And then, the question of what to do once they got there. Some hunted for gold; some, who had the means, started businesses, others became cowboys, and those with sharp gun handling skills became gunfighters.
The American West
Living in the American West was not easy at that time. There were no laws, no courts, and little or no government, and because of this, it easily lured numerous criminals, some of who were escaping punishment for other crimes, some who wanted to take advantage of its having no laws, and probably a few who wanted to start over.
Some settlements were quickly known for violence and for attracting the seedier elements of society, such as Las Vegas, New Mexico; El Paso, Texas; the mining camps of across the West; and the cowtowns of Kansas. In these places, saloons, dance houses, and brothels, easily outnumbered legitimate other businesses, and in many cases, the towns were under the control of less than decent citizens.
However, honest people were also moving to the west and over time, they determined to rid their towns and areas of the lawlessness. This often led them to employ men who were known to be expert in the use of firearms. In other cases, before the establishment of “official” organizational law, communities turned to Vigilantism.
There was a fine line in the Old West as to the skills and nerve required to be a gunfighter, a lawman, or an outlaw, and, those lines often became tangled with some men playing each role at different times in their lives. Just a few of these men included Tom Horn, Burton Alford, J.J. Webb, and Henry Newton Brown.
Lawmen in the Old West
Unlike the old movies, where the outlaw was always a grizzled, mean, and murdering road agent and the lawman was a calm, steely-eyed, honest man, the reality was that the two types were often very much the same. This was not always the case; however, some were known to have been good men, such as Bat Masterson, Heck Thomas, and Bill Tilghman. But, even a young Bill Tilghman was once charged with stealing when he was a young man and so was Wyatt Earp. What the lawmen and the outlaws had in common, besides their gun handling skills, was their willingness to risk their lives to enforce the law or to commit a crime.
There were various types of lawmen in the Old West. He might have been a U.S. Marshal, appointed by the Attorney General; a Sheriff elected to office by the county residents, a Marshal appointed by the City Council, or a deputy, constable, ranger, or peace officer hired by a superior officer or authority. Many lawmen received no pay other than a percentage of any money that those they arrested might be fined, or the collection of bounties on the heads of wanted men. This often led them to have second jobs or sometimes, to use their badges in establishing protection rackets or other crimes. Of those who did make a salary, it was often very low, and their duties often included tasks that many felt were beneath them, such as keeping the streets clean, and other city duties; or in the case of U.S. Marshals — being responsible for taking the national census and distributing Presidential proclamations. Often their work would consist of weeks of boring tasks, punctuated by moments of high drama and sometimes deadly confrontation.
For these reasons and more, very few of even the most famous lawmen actually spent very many years wearing a badge, including Wild Bill Hickok, who only served a few short years in various roles, and Wyatt Earp, who worked in a few Kansas cowtowns, before being temporarily deputized by his brother Virgil in time for the O.K. Corral gunfight.
In the American West, 1881 was an eventful year for lawmen and outlaws. Billy the Kid, charged with more than 21 murders in a brief lifetime of crime, is finally brought to justice by Sheriff Pat Garrett, who trails The Kid for more than six months before killing him with a single shot at Fort Sumner, New Mexico. That same year Deputy Marshal Wyatt Earp and his brothers gunned down the Clantons in a showdown at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona.
And, just a year later, in 1882, another notorious outlaw, Jesse James, who was a veteran of Quantrill’s Raiders during the Civil War, was shot in the back by Robert Ford, a kinsman who hoped to collect the $5,000 reward. James’ death ended the career of an outlaw gang that terrorized the Wild West for more than a decade.
More than a decade later, in 1893, historian Frederick Jackson Turner declared that “the frontier was closed” in an address in Chicago, the site of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. He was right, and the era of the Old West was near its ending; However, crime would remain as it does today, and the need for lawmen (and women) continues.
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