Wild West Life and Celebrities

Tombstone, Arizona
Tombstone, Arizona

Almost everyone has seen movies and television shows or read books about the Wild West in America. The images of the cowboys riding their horses and living an independent lifestyle have not only been appealing, but it created an idea of the frontier people that made up the American spirit. This perspective became attractive around the world and led to many of the celebrity Wild West characters legendary during their time.

  • Historians have tried to be clear that the expansion in the West was not as filled with so many gun battles as are portrayed on the screen, but there was a lot of violence. Life in the West was harsh, impoverished, and very hard. The demand for cattle meant that many of the cowboys traveled with the cattle drives, the towns that were established along the way were pretty much lonely places, offering food and a lot of saloons.
  • Life in the West lacked many of the necessities that had been established in the East. Diseases were common, including scarlet fever, measles, croup, and diphtheria. Many of the children died before the age of two years old, and sometimes entire families died from drinking tainted water.
  • When the frontier of the West was announced as closed, it created a bit of an uproar and disappointment. People had identified the lifestyle of the West as something that was uniquely American. They had changed the previous European identity and taken on the experiences in the frontier as part of the character of the nation and people. The participation of people from other cultures and countries had also become an example of the diversity of America. Many towns were populated with immigrants, and Black Americans were some of the most prominent rodeo riders and cowboys.
  • The desire to keep that Wild West dream led to the creation of new celebrities. One of the first heroes of the West was William (Buffalo Bill) Cody, and he created the Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show that traveled throughout the East Coast and even to Europe. People couldn’t get enough of the dream of the Wild West and their vision of sharp card players, shootouts in the saloons, battling Native Americans, and incredible horse riding.

Buffalo Bill

  • But the public wasn’t just turning shows into folk heroes. They were also promoting some criminals of the time. One of the most famous was Jesse James, who created the Jesse James Gang. They were known for robbing trains, and banks and people seemed to view them as someone that they could relate to. The most famous female gunslinger, Belle Starr, was also a member of the gang for a time. The “Wild Bunch” included Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and they were known for their snarky humor. It’s said that they took a picture of themselves and sent it with a thank you note to one bank that they robbed.
  • There were some folk heroes on the “good side.” Wyatt Earp was a lawman of the West that was made famous by his shootout in Tombstone that is called the “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.” today. Unlike the depictions in the movies, historians believe that this shootout likely only lasted around thirty seconds. Although it’s unknown exactly when someone decided that the good guys “wore white,” in reality during this time, the good guys wore black.

Folk Heroes

Q&A:

Who was the famous female gunslinger that was a member of the Jesse James Gang?
Belle Starr

What was life like in the Wild West?
Harsh, impoverished, and very hard

Who created a traveling show about the West that went throughout the East Coast and Europe?
William (Buffalo Bill) Cody

How did people relate to life in the Wild West as part of America?
By creating an idea that the frontier people made up the American spirit

What two members of the “Wild Bunch” were known for their sense of humor?
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

What lawman was involved in the “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral?
Wyatt Earp