John Wayne would like you to believe that the American West in the latter half of the nineteenth century was a time of great danger and excitement. John Wayne’s West had definitive heroes and villains and there were always thrills around the next corner. When ne’er-do-wells robbed banks, the stern, but kind-hearted sheriff took them down in an hour-long shootout. When sympathetic figures like Billy the Kid robbed banks, they escaped to Mexico after avoiding capture at the hands of corrupt lawmen. Of course, John Wayne’s West had cowboys and Indians, with the two in a perpetual battle on some desert battlefield. Sometimes the noble cowboys fought off soulless Indians. Other times, Indians were the good guys, doing their best to hold back the cruel tide that was Anglo expansion. Throughout the 20th century American popular culture has promoted this idea of John Wayne’s West, with its endless perils and magnificence.

In reality, John Wayne’s West exists primarily in the minds of movie producers, studio executives, and creative novelists. The American West in the latter half of the nineteenth century was no more violent than the American East and the line between who was a hero and who was a villain was rarely as absolute as John Wayne would like you to believe. Here are the top six biggest misconceptions about the Old West.

Myth # 6 American Indians were bloodthirsty savages

Most people’s view of American Indians is based on the era in which they grew up. For those raised on the serials and movies of the 1950s and before, Indians were amoral, ruthless barbarians with few redeeming characteristics. With little motivation other than personal gratification and bloodlust, Indians terrorized the white inhabitants of the West. In the 1956 movie The Searchers, for example, John Wayne tirelessly tracks down his niece who had been ruthlessly kidnapped and raped by Comanches. After traveling for five years, Wayne finally finds the young girl and kills the Comanche chief who had enslaved her. Freed from her bonds, the girl quickly shakes off the Indian language and habits she had acquired over the past five years, returns to “civilization,” and lives happily ever after.

The Searchers is loosely based on a true story—one that is much more complicated than what is portrayed in the movie. In real life, Comanches attacked a group of Anglos who had built a farm on their traditional hunting grounds. The Comanches killed and mutilated all males among the group, raped and then killed the older women among the group, and took two small girls to become a part of their tribe. One of the girls escaped from the Comanches shortly thereafter. The other, Cynthia Ann Parker, grew up with the Comanches, learned their language, forgot English, married a chief, and bore him two children. She lived among the Indians for twenty-four years until a group of Texas Rangers raided her camp and killed dozens of Comanche women and children. One Ranger had Cynthia Ann in his sights, but before he could pull the trigger he realized that he was about to shoot a white woman. After figuring out who she was and where she was from, the Rangers brought the woman to the farm of surviving relatives. For the next ten years Cynthia Ann tried to return to the Comanches who had adopted her, but was thwarted in her efforts by relatives who wanted her to once again become “civilized” and return to white society. Unfortunately white society was unwilling to accept a woman who had “turned native” and slept with Comanche men. Because of this, Cynthia Ann spent the next ten years depressed and alone. She died at the age of 47.

Myth #5 Indians were victims of ruthless whites

To people raised on pop culture in the modern era, American Indians were victims of an unrepentant white horde that would stop at nothing in their quest to steal Indian land. This was the way the 1990 film Dances with Wolves portrayed Americans. In this film a discontented Civil War soldier takes up a post adjacent to Sioux territory. After a period of what could be described as “flirting,” Costner’s character not only becomes an honorary Sioux but also rises to become one of the tribe’s leaders. When evil Americans come to take Sioux land, Costner attempts to help his new friends push them back. Alas, his struggle is for not, as the ruthless Americans are simply too racist and cruel to allow for peace with the Indians. The Sioux are forced onto reservations at the end of the film.

With the exception of Costner’s adoption into the tribe—the Sioux never adopted an adult white male into their tribe during this time—Dances with Wolves was fairly accurate in its depiction of the Sioux. It takes some liberties, however, in its characterization of Americans. After the Civil War, the United States actually adopted a peaceful policy in dealing with Plains Indians. There were only a 100 thousand or so of them remaining in 1865, little threat to a nation that had just fielded an army of over a million soldiers. So in an attempt to foster peace, the U.S. assigned Quakers to deal with Plains’ tribes. You may know Quakers as those guys who make that stuff you ate for breakfast growing up, but Quakers are also known for being pacifists. Quaker agents went onto Indian lands where they tried to convince local Indians not to raid American settlements. At the same time, it was the Quakers responsibility to prevent whites from attacking Indians. Many Indians realized that the Quakers were effective in this latter duty, but were not so adept at preventing their raids on American settlements. So, the Indians raided and hid behind the Quakers’ authority when angry whites came for revenge. Eventually, cries from the frontier about the Quakers reached Washington and this peaceful system was thrown out the door in favor of a more aggressive means of dealing with Plains Indians.

Of course, American Indians got screwed over in the end, but they were not simply victims. Just like everyone else, they were the authors of their own destiny. They dealt with American expansion in the way that they thought would be best for their societies and they certainly didn’t need Kevin Costner’s help in doing so.

Myth #4 If you went West, there was a good chance that you would be attacked by an Indian.

There are two mainstays in western movies: outlaws and Indians. According to American pop culture, if you were going out West you would be fighting one of these two guys, no question. In the 1948 film How the West was Won, for example, John Wayne witnesses a group of Arapaho Indians attacking a large American camp where they murdered a number of white women and children. As we just mentioned Indians did attack white settlements, but they rarely stayed around long enough to commit mass murder. They knew that going into heavily populated areas, meant that you were going to have to deal with a lot of people with guns, so they usually raided small farms, didn’t stick around very long, and made off before a posse could form in retaliation. Now some Indians—like the Comanches in the case of Cynthia Parker—did commit massacres, but this was the exception rather than the rule.

In total, historians have recorded 7,000 American deaths due to Indian attacks in the period known as the Old West. That seems like a pretty significant number until you realize that there were 17 million Americans in the West in 1900. So out of these 17 million people, only 7,000 died at the hands of Indians. I’m not very good at math, but by my calculation there’s a better chance of Eli winning two Super Bowls than someone being attacked by an Indian in the West (February 4 note: may need to rewrite that last sentence).

Myth #3 Train Robberies happened all the time and they… were… awesome!!!

In Hollywood movies train robberies are commonplace. A three-minute Wikipedia search reveals that approximately a billion trains became victim to outlaw skullduggery in film. In most of these depictions, bandits pulled up alongside a train on a trusted steed, leapt from the horse onto a train car, and then either robbed the train’s passengers or disconnected the part of the train with the banks’ safe. The bandits then rode off into the sunset with their new loot, never to be seen again.

Outlaws robbed trains in the Old West. This is not a myth. But it didn’t happen the way movies portrayed it, it only happened for a short period of time, it happened more in the East than in the West, and train robbers rarely got away with their crime. When outlaws robbed trains in the West, they would most often board the train like any other passenger and when the train reached a designated point, they pulled out guns, demanded that passengers hand over all their valuables, and then they rode horses that their accomplices had stashed by the side of the train tracks. Outlaws would also rob trains by simply ripping up train tracks. When the train screeched to a halt, the bandits would board and go about their thieving business. There were no instances of outlaws leaping off their horses to board moving trains. It just didn’t happen.

Thing is, the era of train robberies was also relatively short—from around 1865 to 1875—and train robberies were very rarely successful. Train companies, realizing that, “hey, I don’t like to have my sh*t stolen” began to hire mercenaries to protect train shipments. Specifically, they hired the Pinkertons. The Pinkertons were a group of sharp-shooting paramilitaries who specialized in kicking ass. To repeat, that was their job: ass kicking. As ass kickers, the Pinkertons would conspicuously ride in a special car on the train in the off chance that a train robbery took place. Think of them as air marshals on a train; marshal trains, if you will (edit: “marshal trains” doesn’t sound quite right). If someone attempted to rob a train, the Pinkertons would bust out of their special compartment SEAL-Team-Six-style and cap some mofos. If the train company didn’t have any Pinkertons on board when the train was robbed, they would simply hire the Pinkertons later to track the thieves down—which they usually did. William Pinkerton, the founder of the Pinkertons, later estimated that his men were able to track down and kill 99 percent of train robbers in the period of the Old West.

Myth #2 Bank robberies happened all the time in the Old West

Okay, you must be thinking: “so there weren’t a lot of these fantastic train robberies, but Old West outlaws didn’t need to rob trains because they were flush with cash from robbing banks. Guys like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were everywhere cracking open safes then escaping to Mexico to spend their loot on mescal and prostitutes. This stuff must happened all the time. Outlaws robbed banks, right? …. Right?…. You’re about to tell me that this didn’t happen.”

No outlaws robbed banks, just not very many of them. Thieves robbed a grand total of twelve banks in the western United States from 1870 to 1900. Twelve. There were 5,628 bank robberies in the U.S. in 2010 alone. The city of Los Angeles had 122 in that year. Even if you account for population growth, modern banks have a much better chance of being robbed than a bank in Old West Tombstone.

What about the aforementioned Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid? Out of the twelve bank robberies in the Old West, these guys accounted for two of them. That may seem impressive, but it’s nothing when compared to today’s more intelligent and daring criminals. In 2008 alone a group known as the Scarecrow Bandits robbed 21 banks in the Dallas area. In Butch and the Kid’s day, all lawmen had to stop criminals was a six-shooter, a horse, and a maybe a telegraph line to get help from the next town. They couldn’t even deal with this, as policemen in Bolivia were able to track down and kill the pair after a robbery. When the Scarecrow Bandits were on their spree, the police had sniper rifles, automatic weapons, body armor, helicopters, and an APD system that could alert the entire state within seconds of a bank robbery.

Why were there so few bank robberies back then, then? There are a number of theories, but here’s the most accepted one: Banks in the Old West were generally built in the middle of town, usually within sight of not only the police station but pretty much every other business, as well. If you were going to rob a bank, you had to account not only for the bank employees—who unlike today’s cashiers were armed and willing to shoot to protect their money—but also the rest of the town. Back then the rest of the town consisted of people armed to the teeth that had money in the bank and wanted to keep it—there was no FDIC insurance to reimburse lost cash. If someone stole your money out of a bank, it was gone. In other words, if you want to rob a bank today you have to deal with a SWAT team. If you wanted to rob a bank in the Old West, you had to deal with a hick with a shotgun. Give me the SWAT team.

Myth #1 The West was an incredibly violent place

An average of 140 million people die in every John Wayne western (need to recheck that statistic). This leads viewers to believe that the Old West was a horrendously violent place. This simply isn’t true. On average, 70 out of every 100,000 people were murdered in the American West every year—about the same rate that people are murdered in East St. Louis or inner-city Baltimore today. That means that in the Old West there was around a 1 in 41 chance of someone being murdered if they lived their whole life in the western U.S. from the end of the Civil War to 1900. Those aren’t great odds. There was a much better chance of death by suicide, disease, or being thrown off a horse than murder.

This is not to say that the West was a peaceful place. The murder rate was still seven times that of an average generic suburban neighborhood today. That’s unpleasant, but not the violent West promised by John Wayne. If you want to find somewhere that fits that bill, head just across the Texas border to Ciudad Juarez, where over 3,000 people are murdered annually. If only Mr. Wayne were alive today, we could send him down to investigate. I’m sure his callous one-liners, cocky demeanor, and overt braggadocio would go over great with the locals.


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One Response to The Top Six Myths about the Old West

  1. Dong Ha says:

    Excellent article. It was informative and entertaining. Thanks for giving me another distraction when I should be preparing for my thesis defense.

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