The good, the bad, and us

The adulation of the Old West says more about American character than it does about American history.
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The adulation of the Old West says more about American character than it does about American history.
butchcassidy

Multi-million dollar ski homes line Butch Cassidy Drive in the tiny resort town of Telluride, Colorado. The street’s name is ironic and, if you think about it, a bit surprising. The man it was named after was neither a founder of the community nor an honorable former mayor, a civic-minded resident, nor a leading businessman. Instead, on June 26, 1889, he stole $20,000 of the town’s money, terrorized its citizens, and fled. It was, in fact, his first bank robbery, and as the plaque on the building that now sits on the bank site proudly proclaims, it was on that spot that the Butch Cassidy legend began.

Folks out East were hanging bunting for the nation’s centennial celebration when the West was still being settled. Yet ask our countrymen today to name a famous (or infamous) American lawman or outlaw from those first 100 years of our history and most would be hard-pressed. But when the nation spread west of the Mississippi, the desperados and the marshals who pursued them became legendary. More than a century later, their names still roll off our tongues: Jesse James, Butch Cassidy, Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Kid Curry, Killer Jim Miller, Billy the Kid, Wild Bill Hickok…

Somewhere among the cattle towns and mining camps of the Western territories, some place along the high plains and in the desert canyons, within the cramped saloons and wide-open spaces of the American West, we changed. Our sense of place as individuals within society shifted. Our notion of justice inverted. And brash, bold gunmen flaunting and enforcing the law were the ultimate expressions of that transformation. The West was the great equalizer (at least from the male, Anglo perspective)—a land of everyman individualism and unbridled freedom. The Western sun boiled the American ideals of equality and opportunity down to their essence: grit, guts, and determined action... plus a six-gun and a fast horse. As the saying goes, “God made man. Colonel Colt made them equal.”

Although it was simple men and women who sweated, blistered their hands, and persevered to settle the West, it was the enthralling drama of dashing outlaws and brave lawmen that came to symbolize and represent the new American spirit. Outlaws not only had the freedom of free-roaming cowboys (disengaged from greater society), they also pushed back at subjugating social forces that chafe the rest of us. The relentless press of civilization, the oppressive monotony of ordinary “do-the-right-thing” life, was overthrown as long as the outlaws could remain at-large. The lawmen who pursued outlaws were equally free, unrestrained by procedure manuals, oversight boards, or social propriety. These folk heroes were born from elemental, audacious, and life-and-death contests.

Most Wild West outlaws and lawmen never made it into history. But some, like Wyatt Earp and Charlie Siringo, unabashedly self-promoted their fame, penning embellished autobiographies. Others relayed their stories to friendly newspaper reporters and dime novel publishers for a drink at the bar. They were the original reality show celebrities; truth is stranger than fiction, after all. As they and the Old West died, Hollywood carried on the legend-making, embedding their names deep into our culture. But it was contemporary late-19th-century America that first bestowed the attention. Neither the brutal reality of their deeds nor the general absence of moral grounds for their actions dissuaded the public.

Ambiguous laws, ineffective local government, and poorly trained (often biased or bribable) judges and jurors allowed these wild Western men to become legends in their own time. Many who were clearly guilty were acquitted and others who were reasonably innocent convicted. Killing in the heat of range wars was condoned as long as your faction retained control. Self-defense was interpreted broadly. Vigilante actions and lynchings were common and seldom prosecuted. Law enforcement was often as brutal as the crime. It was not uncommon for sheriffs and marshals to also be outlaws themselves—some performed both roles simultaneously, while others alternated, switching career paths as opportunities presented themselves. The transferable skills were proficiency with a gun and the willingness to shoot people. Even Wyatt Earp was arrested and convicted and sought for numerous crimes throughout his life, including murder. Whether you wore a white hat or black hat was often a matter of who you asked and what territory you were in.

In a place and time where the ideal of the common man flowered, a clear line between good guys and bad guys was unimportant. We accept Western lawman and outlaw heroes as flawed characters—ordinary men. Like the land itself, they were rough cut, rowdy, and recalcitrant—born hard and raised tough. True Americans, many of them were rootless Civil War veterans, unmarried and violent.

Their actions represented the conundrum of modernism, of relativism. Jesse James may have killed as many as six men, but he was regarded as kind thanks to his publicity ploy of only robbing train passengers rich enough to have soft hands rather than the calloused hands of a worker. Although there is little evidence that his gang redistributed wealth to anyone but themselves, his public image was enough to prompt Teddy Roosevelt to once call Jesse James, “America’s Robin Hood.” Butch Cassidy was reported to have repaid an elderly widow the money she had in a bank he had just robbed. Such reports, as dubious as they were, earned him the title, “Robin Hood of the West.” We need our legends to be good, and the fodder of this time was ripe for interpretation.

“Legend” is a status conferred by the culture rather than made or taken by the individual. In cheering on these Western lawmen and outlaws, we hold up the values of individual liberty—they represent courage in the face of authoritarianism and dehumanizing social forces. But our Western myth is an ethic of contradictions. Just like how a parched desert canyon can channel the occasional flash flood, self-reliance and independence can flow over to extreme rebuke of all law and authority. Resolve and righteousness can become a sudden torrent of violence.

Good or bad, the brutal acts and tragic outcomes of these pioneering Westerners are not what fascinate us in the end (Butch Cassidy Drive notwithstanding). We’re enthralled by their daring to do, to take action—and to live or die with the consequences.

Dan Schultz is the author of Dead Run: The Murder of a Lawman and the Greatest Manhunt of the Modern American West (St. Martins Press, 2013).

This article is from the Legends: Outlaws and Lawmen, an American Cowboy Collector's Edition. Purchase your copy at HorseBooksEtc.com.