The West: "With a Draw From Either Hand" ... Gunslingers of the Old West

Culture Watch

Mr. Miller has been a speaker with the Organization of American Historians (OAH) Distinguished Lectureship Series since 1999.

To this day my favorite motion picture remains the western classic Shane (1953), directed by George Stevens, with a fine cast, including Alan Ladd in the title role, as the gunfighter, who comes in the end to defend the homestead rights of the small farmers in a scenic Wyoming setting, against Jack Wilson, as played so well too by Jack Palance, dressed all in black and wearing two guns. Opposed by Shane in the climactic gunfight in the rustic-looking saloon toward the movie's close, who holstered but one revolver, which as Ladd though remarked to the young boy, the son of his friend the homesteader, much earlier in the film:"One's all you need, if you know how to use it." Ladd and Palance"square off" in the marvelously-staged scene, personifying"Good" and"Evil," in a manner and with a dialogue not easily forgotten.

What follows are the lines--first by Shane, then replies, twice by Wilson:

I've heard about you, Wilson.
What have you heard, Shane?
I've heard you're a low-down Yankee liar!
Prove it!

Shane then proceeds to prove it. Waiting momentarily for Wilson to"pull leather" first; in the next instant, Shane draws (oh! so quickly), fans the trigger on his Colt, hurling Wilson (from the force of a slug or two) into what becomes a pile of beer barrels against the wall. Thus concludes one of Hollywood's all-time truly elemental scenes, and an extremely violent one at that.

A question presents itself though; how well does the gunfight from Shane portray the reality of the Old West? The answer must depend upon each historian's (amateur's or professional's) reading of the evidence. One thing, however, is true. Art often, if not always, mirrors fact. And, there is no disputing this--the frontier West could be (and often was) a very violent place, which Richard Maxwell Brown's"Violence," in The Oxford History of the American West, ed. Clyde A. Milner II, Carol A. O'Connor, and Martha A. Sandweiss (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), pp. 393-425, demonstrates conclusively. It was a violence much in evidence between 1850 and 1920, which another scholar, as referred to by Brown, one Alan Trachtenberg characterized as"the Western Civil War of Incorporation," where the word"incorporation" represented"the conservative, consolidating authority of capital" (p. 396), a force with a compelling tendency to shape late nineteenth-century America.

As Brown makes clear too, the gunfighters were the"shock troops in the Western Civil War of Incorporation" (p. 398). The widely-known two or three hundred gunslingers of the Old West, joined by the much-less well-known (even obscure) additional thousands of gunmen, were pitted against one another.

The" conservative incorporation gunfighters" numbered among them James Butler"Wild Bill" Hickok of Kansas, Wyatt Earp of both Kansas and Arizona, Frank Canton of Wyoming and Oklahoma, and Walter J. Crow of California. Usually Republican in politics, they were opposed by"the dissident resister gunfighters (usually Democratic), some of whom, like Jesse James and Billy the Kid, were mythologized as popular heroes--as"'social bandits'," defined"by the British historian E. J. Hobsbawm", as"notable lawbreaker[s] widely supported, paradoxically, by the law-abiding members of society" (p. 399). Brown adds to that a perceptive aside:

Skilled gunhandlers, these social bandits often robbed banks and railroads whose steep charges were deeply resented by peaceable western farmers, ranchers, and townspeople in the post-1865 period when economic conditions caused severe hardship for those of small means. These western social bandits not only were outlaws but also were resister gunfighters in the Western Civil War of Incorporation (p. 399).

The most popular of the resister gunslingers might well be Jesse James (1847-1882), who with his brother Frank, terrorized the Midwest. Evidently weary of such hazardous adventures as those of holding up banks and trains, Jesse attempted a retirement. It did not last long, however, before he was shot to death by a former gang member, Robert Ford.

The story is told well in a song"The Legend of Jesse James," which some unknown balladeer came out with the very year of the shooting (1882). The two opening lines"set the stage":"It was on a Wednesday night, the moon was shining bright, They robbed the Danville train." But, the chorus really tells the tale:

Jesse had a wife to mourn for his life,
The children they were brave.
'Twas a dirty little coward that shot Mister Howard,
And laid poor Jesse in his grave.'

[Howard being an alias, assumed by Jesse in 1882]

With the foregoing in mind, the reader can most certainly understand how Shane and Wilson could (and should) be placed within the context of the Western Civil War of Incorporation. Shane epitomizes the resister gunfighter, defending (and successfully in his case) the small homesteaders, pitted against Wilson, the epitome of a gunslinger on the side of those who won out in the end--the forces for consolidation, such as Ryker, the big rancher in Shane, who was attempting to"drive out" the homesteaders, whom he considered to be"squatters' on his (Ryker's) sprawling domain.

The Virginian (1902), a novel by Owen Wister, the plot and action, as with the film Shane, also set in Wyoming, replicates life in the Old West as well. The"walkdown" (where two gunfighters approach each other on some dusty street of a western town), as related in The Virginian, perhaps better than in any other work of fiction (in any medium), almost certainly"mirrored" an actual event. The killing of Trampas, the arch villain, by"the Virginian" in the novel, was apparently"drawn from life"--that is, a re-creation of a real shoot-out between"Wild Bill" Hickok (1837-1876), the"Prince of the Pistoleers," and Dave Tutt at Springfield, Missouri, in 1865.

Speaking of"Wild Bill," who, as marshal at Hays City in the 1860s, then next at Abilene, Kansas, by 1871, we find an example"par excellence" of the gunfighter. Unassuming, usually a highly pragmatic man, until he began to capitalize on his already legendary status toward the end of his life, Hickok became a truly heroic figure, the"stuff" from which legends will always be made.

No less an icon of the Old West than George Armstrong Custer has left a brief, yet useful description, of"Wild Bill," both as to the latter's personal appearance and as to his attributes of character. Dating from 1874, this account of Hickok by a friend deserves our attention. Near the beginning of Custer's sketch, he stated about"Wild Bill":"He was a Plainsman in every sense of the word, yet unlike any other of his class." Following immediately upon that comment came a description of Hickok--that he was six foot"one in height, . . . [with] broad shoulders, well-formed chest and limbs, and a face strikingly handsome;" to which Custer added,"Wild Bill always looked a person"straight in the face when in conversation." His hair, that of a"perfect blonde," hung in long,"uncut ringlets" down"his powerfully formed shoulders," the physique of the man enhanced by clothes of"immaculate neatness . . . with the extravagant taste and style of the frontiersman," and in Hickok's case,"then as now the most famous scout on the Plains."

No wonder then, since, as Custer continued,"Wild Bill" had long exhibited great courage, had exceptional"skill in the use of the rifle and pistol," yet remained"entirely free from all bluster or bravado," he was not to be trifled with. In fact, many a man, even"his comrades," when they had persisted in"personal quarrels and disturbances" for too long, usually desisted, when Hickok would suggest things"had gone far enough," to which was often appended by him"the ominous warning" to the"quarreler" or some miscreant,"settle it with me."

Knowing Hickok at such times meant"business," few men were foolhardy enough to challenge him. For, as Custer himself went on to relate:"I have a personal knowledge of at least half a dozen men whom he has at various times killed, one of these being at the time a member of my command. Others have been severely wounded, yet he always escapes unhurt." Moreover, in the Old West,"every man openly carries . . . [both] knife and revolver, often two of the latter," to which Custer added, no doubt to dramatize his point:"Wild Bill always carried two handsome ivory-handled revolvers of large size; he was never seen without them."

And, as everyone knew, Hickok, while never"spoiling for a fight," never hesitated, if"pushed too far." As Custer made clear too in his account, a"quarrel" led not"to a blow, but from a word to the revolver" with"no law recognized beyond the frontier but that of 'might makes right'." When a death resulted,"no coroner's jury [was] impaneled." Instead,"a meeting of citizens [took] place" with"the unfailing verdict of 'justifiable,' 'self-defense' . . . pronounced." With this additional observation from Custer:"there is not a single instance in which the verdict of twelve fair-minded men would not be pronounced in his ["Wild Bill's] favor."

Not content with his brief career (1873-1874) as a performer in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, Hickok desired, as all of us yearn for, to live, not act out, a role on the"stage of life." So, having married Agnes Lake Thatcher in 1876, though he considered living then in a sedentary way, soon took again to a life of adventure. The newly-found gold field of the Black Hills beckoned, where Hickok hoped to become a mine owner. Thwarted in that goal, he returned to an old habit--gambling at the poker table.

It was that pastime, which brought Hickok to a sad end. In fact, the story is told, but perhaps it is only one of legend, that he met death, because of one fatal"slip," at Deadwood, South Dakota. It had been his wont to sit, especially in a saloon, or gambling den, with his back to the wall. But, at Deadwood on that day, when he breathed his last, for some unknown reason, he took a chair with his back exposed. That carelessness cost him his life, for a disgruntled man, Jack McCall, whom Hickok had"bested" at cards the day before, approached the latter man the following day (7 August 1876), pulled a gun, with which he shot Hickok fatally in the back of the head. Interestingly enough, the famous lawman held at the time"ace's and eight's--which from that day to this has become known as the"dead man’s hand."

Thus did"Wild Bill" Hickok become larger than life, and like unto the other gunfighters of the Old West, linger on in our collective memories, never to be forgotten. Whether or not we can admire them as much, as with those readers of their often fictionalized exploits in the"dime novels," spawned by Edward Zane Carroll Judson, much better known as Ned Buntline (1823-1886), still a remark by the great actor Gary Cooper of High Noon (1952) fame, haunts me yet, from his powerful narration of a fine documentary The Real West (1961):"Law is five cartridges in the cylinder; justice is the one in the chamber." How much better could anyone ever express the ever-present tension between a potential for violence and law and order in the Old West?

Bibliographical Note: The title for this article derives from a line in"Blackie's Gunman" on the compact disc The Original Carter Family: Can the Circle Be Unbroken (New York: Sony Entertainment, 2000), band 18. For a book devoted entirely to my theme see Joseph G. Rosa, The Gunfighter: Man or Myth (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1969). For a fine sketch of Hickok, peruse Carl V. Halberg's"Wild Bill Hickok," in American National Biography, ed. John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, 24 vols. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999) 10:741-42. The best biography is Rosa's They Called Him Wild Bill: The Life and Adventures of James Butler Hickok (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1964) but supplement that book with the same author's Wild Bill Hickok: The Man and His Myth (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1996).

It may well be of interest to readers, particularly avid movie-goers, that High Noon (1952) and Shane (1953), both referred to in the text, and in the instance of the latter, treated in some detail, found places in a ranking of the best 100 motion pictures of a century by the American Film Institute. In my estimation Shane (at 69th), if not necessarily High Noon, should really have been placed higher on the list than it was. In the case of the latter film, however, it should be noted, not only was Gary Cooper's portrayal of a western sheriff masterful, but Grace Kelly, as his Quaker girlfriend, gave a stunning performance as well.

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Ernie Turla - 9/3/2002

I have the same favorites as the author: Shane and High Noon
which I both saw during my years as a teen-ager when westerns
were very popular.
The other unforgettable westerns I've seen were:
The Magnificent Seven with Yul Bryner
Vera Cruz with Burt Lancaster and Gary Cooper
Warlock with Henry Fonda and Richard Widmark
Johnny Guitar with Sterling Hayden and Joan Crawford,
Man Without a Star with Kirk Douglas and Jeanne Craine
The Professionals with Burt Lancaster and Lee Marvin
Bad Day at Black Rock with Spencer Tracy
The Nine Lives of Elfego Baca
For A Few Dollars More with Clint Eastwood
The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing with Burt Reynolds
The Sheepman with Glenn Ford and Shirley McLaine
Jubal with Glenn Ford
Support Your Local Sheriff with James Garner
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance with James Stewart
Rio Bravo with Dean Martin and John Wayne

I don't know why none of the movies of Randolph Scott
Errol Flynn, Gregory Peck, Robert Mitchum, Joel McRae,
Audie Murphy, George Montgomery, Dale Robertson and
Rory Calhoun made it in my short list. But there certainly
will be some in my long list.