The Wild West is a legendary part of American history, but what was really going on on the frontier?
Let’s just say it wasn’t much like Hollywood portrayed it. Here are a few things about the “Wild West” that we tend to forget.
It Only Lasted About 30 Years
From the shadow cast by the Wild West over American history you would think it lasted a century.
In fact, the era started at the end of the Civil War in 1865, and is generally seen as ending in about 1900 when most of the land was settled and Los Angeles and Seattle were thriving metropolises.
Oh, and that legendary icon, the Pony Express? It ran for a grand total of eighteen months from April 1860 to October 1861.
So many people lived through the entire period.
A Lot of Cowboys Weren’t White
Hollywood shows us entire posses of white cowboys, but linguistics and history tell a different story.
Words such as “rodeo,” “palomino” and “lariat” tell part of the story. “Grulla,” a word for a horse color, even keeps its gendered ending…mares are grulla and male horses are grullo. The first language of many cowboys was Spanish, and Spanish speckles the jargon of the modern west. Estimates say about a third were Mexican.
Oh, and between 20 and 25% of cowboys were…Black. Freed slaves who had skills at handling horses and stock, which wasn’t common, went west in search of work and respect.
And they may have got it in one specific linguistic area. A “cowboy” was originally a Black cowhand…yet became the word used with pride, along with its gendered companion “cowgirl.” (Cowhand has come back in favor as a gender neutral term).
Oh, and when I went to a rodeo in Wyoming, the commentator and a large proportion of the competitors were Native American.
The image of the West has literally been whitewashed.
(Black and Mexican cowboys certainly faced a lot of racism, but it was not as bad as elsewhere).
A Good Number Were Also Gay
We don’t know exactly how many cowboys were interested in other men, and many of the all-male households formed in the absence of women were likely platonic.
But the male dominated society was a place where gay men could in fact thrive, and one where bisexual and bicurious men would be more likely to jump the line to intimacy with other men.
Homosexual behavior was apparently not considered a particular problem out west, so it’s entirely probable that gay men who could develop the skills would flee there where they could live a little more openly.
Women Were Really, Really Important
Yes, the west was for a short time dominated by men, especially mining camps and similar.
But they needed women. Matchmaking was important and “mail-order brides” really were a thing.
But so were mail-order bridegrooms.
Women would go out west to catch a husband, but there ended up being more to it.
In the quest to settle the west, the western states wanted to attract women. Well, white women anyway. White women were attracted by the fact that they could own land and by the possibility of independence. Women rode the range and did ranch work, women engaged in criminal activity. Stagecoach Mary was the first African-American star route mail carrier, and had a great reputation.
In 1869 Wyoming, which had six adult men for every adult woman, went a step further to attract female settlers. They had already passed an equal pay law for teachers and guaranteed married women property rights.
So they then took a step no other state had taken: They gave white women the vote.
(Black women didn’t get the vote until 1920 and Native American women until 1924).
Women ended up taking all kinds of public positions, and Esther Hobart Morris was the first woman Justice of the Peace.
At One Point, there were Camels in Texas
In 1856, the U.S. Camel Corps was established at Camp Verde, Texas. The experiment was actually considered a success, but was abandoned during the Civil War.
Most of the camels were sold after the war, generally to circuses, but a few escaped into the wild where they caused all kinds of stories and, no doubt, some checking of bottles.
The last reported sighting was in 1941…the herd was too small to be viable.
The Shootout at the O.K. Corral Wasn’t at the O.K. Corral
And finally, that famous shootout at Tombstone (Which is worth a brief visit, but not an extended one, it’s a very sticky tourist trap) didn’t take place at the O.K. Corral.
It took place behind the corral on the street. And lasted all of 30 seconds.
The reenactments Tombstone does now last a bit longer.
(Oh, and if you do go there, at least before the pandemic you could stay in the town brothel…)
So, a few things about the old West, of which the key point is: It was far more diverse than most of us think.
But also there were camels in Texas.