We’ve all seen movies that depict the Old West. Clint Eastwood, John Wayne and Roy Rogers and his trusty mount, Trigger have all taught us about cattle rustlers, cowboys and One Eyed Jacks. But what if Trigger had been a camel?
In the 1830s a U.S. Army Lieutenant George Crosman had a brilliant idea; why not use camels to help transport supplies to the West? They can carry heavy loads long distances and don’t need as much water as horses or mules.
Unfortunately, the War Department did not take him seriously. The idea was shelved until Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, the future President of the Confederacy, heard about it and thought it was worthy of attention. He petitioned the Senate several times but had no luck.
When Davis became Secretary of War, he suddenly had the President’s ear and proposed the matter again. In 1855 Congress appropriated $30,000 to procure 33 camels and a camel expert from Egypt. When the camels arrived, Davis got to work having the camels tested. In every instance, the camels carried more weight more quickly than horses or mules.
Davis was so delighted he ordered more camels. For several years camels aided the Army in helping to open up the West.
With the advent of the Civil War, the camel experiment came to a close. Most of the camels were sold to ranchers and prospectors or just let loose on the desert. With the camels doing what camels do, there were soon more camels wandering around the Southwest. The last of the original Army camels died in 1934, but camel sightings continued for over 20 more years. Who knows? Maybe they’re still out there.
Dodge City was a stopover for cattle herders who had been on the road for months.
The movies’ good and bad guys always had their six-shooter at their side just in case danger reeled its ugly head. Whether it was to save a damsel in distress or fight rustlers the guy in the white hat always got his man – unless he was in Dodge City.
Dodge City was a stopover for cattle herders who had been on the road for months. Dodge was a welcome respite from the dusty trails and, boys being boys, a place to let off steam. The more they drank, the rowdier they became. It was time for a down to business sheriff. Enter Wyatt Earp.
One of the first laws created in Dodge was to make carrying a gun a punishable offense. Cowboys were required to turn in their firearms and not retrieve them until they were on their way out of town. Other western towns followed suit. Soon carrying a firearm in town became the second highest cause of arrest. Wyatt didn’t play around.
Hollywood vs Reality
There was one incident that did stand out. In 1879 Wyatt Earp was in Tombstone with his older brothers, Virgil and Morgan. Virgil was a marshal at the time, so Wyatt decided to stay and work with him. In 1881 they were looking for a group of cowboys who had robbed a stagecoach. A local rancher, Ike Clanton agreed to help. Clanton then turned on Earp and started harassing the Earp family, making threats and generally being a jerk, escalating the bad feelings. This went on for months.
On October 26, 1881, everything exploded. The movies tell us that Wyatt, Virgil, Morgan and Doc Holliday faced off against Ike and Billy Clanton along with Tom and Frank McLaury and William “Curly Bill” Brocius in the middle of Main Street in front of the O.K. Corral. Wrong.
The gunfight took place in an alley around the corner from the Corral where the Clantons and McLaurys were loading their guns. The Earps, acting in their capacity of lawmen, went to disarm the men, but when Virgil asked for the guns Billy Clanton fired. Wyatt, an expert marksman, shot at the same time, but neither of the men hit anyone. It then became a free for all. Ike Clanton, who was unarmed, and Curley Bill ran away, and Tom McLaury hid behind his horse.
The entire gunfight lasted less than two minutes. In the end, Frank and Tom McLaury and Billy Clanton were killed. Holliday, Virgil, and Morgan were wounded, Wyatt was unharmed.
But that wasn’t the end. What Hollywood doesn’t tell us is that the Earps were arrested for murder at the behest of Ike Clanton. There was a lengthy trial, the townspeople turned against him and most believed that Wyatt shot first.
When the Earps were acquitted, Ike Clanton took matters into his own hands. An attempt was made on Virgil’s life causing him to lose an arm, and Morgan was shot in cold blood while enjoying a game of billiards. Wyatt set out to kill everyone he suspected of the shootings. After he had succeeded in his quest for revenge, he left Tombstone to avoid the law he had once sworn to uphold. His days as a law enforcement officer were over.
Wild Bill got his nickname because of his large nose.
Everyone knows about the outlaws of the Wild West; Jesse and Frank James, the Younger brothers, Wild Bill Hickok. Most of them were egomaniacs.
Not many people know that Wild Bill got his nickname because of his large nose. James Butler Hickok became Duck Bill. It said his actions in the Civil War caused the unflattering nickname to be replaced with the manlier “Wild Bill”.
Jesse James thought so much of himself that he promoted himself with press releases he left when committing a robbery.
Of all of the outlaw egomaniacs, Billy the Kid had to be the worst. He constantly exaggerated the number of men he had supposedly killed. The legend of Billy the Kid killing over twenty men during his lifetime was most likely not true. In fact, it was probably about four or five.
Prostitution wasn’t that different in the Old West than it is now
Any time large groups of unattached men have a place to gather there will be prostitutes available. The movies show us kindhearted Madams that treat their girls like sisters or daughters.
In fact, prostitution wasn’t that different in the Old West than it is now. Exploited by their Madams, shamed by newspapers and citizens of the town, life wasn’t all that great. A large percentage of prostitutes in the Old West became addicted to laudanum, a powerful mixture containing morphine and opium. It was a common painkiller used by all walks of life and was easily purchased over the counter.
Anne Butler, the author of Daughters of Joy, Sisters of Misery, tells us that addiction, violence, and suicide were common in the lives of prostitutes. Often the girls were forced to compete for food just to stay alive. The world’s oldest profession was a life trapped in a bottomless pit of degradation in the West.
European settlers brought disease in America to which the Indians had no immunities, possibly up to 90% of the Native population was killed.
History and the Movies show Native Americans as isolated tribes here and there with large amounts of land between them filled with bison. At one time there were millions of native inhabitants on the North American continent.
As Europeans began to trickle in, they brought disease to which the Indians had no immunities, possibly up to 90% of the Native population was killed.
However, enough remained to be able to establish trade routes leading to shared knowledge causing improvements in agriculture, tools, and architecture.
The Natives were on their way to establishing advanced civilizations when the influx of European settlers bringing weapons, disease and the desire to conquer put a stop to everything.
There are still people gainfully employed as cowboys
What would the Old West be without cowboys? Cowboys on ranches, cowboys herding cattle, cowboys in the saloons. Cowboys were everywhere.
There are still people gainfully employed as cowboys. Fortunately, they don’t drive herds of cattle from Montana to Texas anymore.
But unlike in the movies, they never wore white Corinthian leather fringed jackets with matching chaps and wide-brimmed white hat. They rarely carried pearl-handled six-shooters or wore ornately carved boots with shiny silver spurs.
Cowboys carried plain old guns, usually dressed in cotton shirts and blue jeans – commonly called dungarees. A hat and a kerchief were also must-haves.
When we look back at the real Old West, we see many ways Hollywood has influenced our beliefs and understanding about that historical time period.