Dispelling Some Popular Myths About the Old West

In the public imagination, the American frontier era is usually considered the most romantic of our native historical periods — hence all the myths about the Old West. Here are a few truths to savor.

From the virtuous outlaw to the corrupt lawman and craven townsman, myths about the Old West abound in American culture. We see them every time we tune in to a western movie on TV, or pick up a Zane Grey novel.

But like most myths, they’re about as realistic as a horse with a kick stand. In this article, we’ll take a look at a few of the most popular myths about the Old West, and tell you what was really happening way back then.

Myth 1: Everyone in the Old West carried guns.

Of the three myths about the Old West that we’ll present here, this is the one that comes closest to being true. Guns were much more ubiquitous on the American frontier than they are today, but not everyone carried them. People who worked outside often did, mostly to protect themselves from animals and snakes.

Often, people who lived and worked in towns had no need or desire for guns. In fact, law enforcement officers in western towns often called for gun control, and they practiced it where they could. Teddy Roosevelt once recalled that the Dakota cattle town where he once owned a ranch didn’t allow “shooting in the streets.”

Even cowboy publications often deplored the practice of carrying guns. Here’s a datum that ought to help put this myth about the Old West to rest. In 1882, a Texas cattle association even banned six-shooters from the cowboy’s tool kit. You’re not likely to see that factoid in a Hollywood movie anytime soon.

Myth 2: Outlaws like Jesse James and Billy the Kid were mostly victims of circumstance.

Not hardly. They were dangerous thugs. Despite the various movies (and books) to the contrary, Old West outlaws were criminals. Billy the Kid and Jesse James murdered with impunity whenever they felt it was necessary, and were hardly “Robin Hoods” when it came to their thievery. They stole for their own benefit.

This is probably the most egregious myth about the Old West, and frankly it’s hard to fathom. You can probably chalk it up to our tendency to romanticize rebels, although there’s nothing romantic about murderers and thieves — then or now.

Myth 3: Indians and settlers were constantly slaughtering each other.

Not so. While Indians and settlers sometimes did horrible things to each other, the depredations were anything but constant. In his book The Wild Frontier, William Osborn counted just over 500 recorded atrocities on the frontier between 1606 and 1874, the last year the Indians ranged-free, or off of reservations.

That sounds like a lot, but it’s less than two a year, in a territory comprising several million square miles. And half the atrocities were between native groups, not Indians and settlers. While this doesn’t lessen their horror, it does demonstrate we should take our myths about the Old West with a grain of salt.