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Surprising ways the American Wild West was different from the way it has been portrayed

Ian Harvey

The Wild West evokes images of Clint Eastwood and Western movies. A place where men were tough and rough; a place of gunfights and massacres.

But was the West truly like this? Read below and find out some strange but true facts about life in the Wild West.

9. Some of the famous outlaws were girly and vain

Jesse James portrait

Jesse James portrait

Outlaws were famous back in the Wild West for their toughness and deep, manly voices. Some were a little vain, such as Jesse James, who left self-aggrandising notes detailing his accomplishments at his crime scenes. Billy the Kid boasted and inflated his achievements – he killed only four people in his career but encouraged the rumors that he had killed twenty. Wild Bill, who looked tough, actually had a lisp and got fired for talking like a girl. The “Bill” part of his name actually referred to the size of his nose.

8.Camels were imported to use in the hot southwest

Drawing of loading a camel

Drawing of loading a camel

Even though none of the movies have ever depicted cowboys riding camels, they may have done so in the Old West. For a time the southwestern United States was home to feral camels thanks to the US military and government.

In 1855, Congress paid $30,000 to import camels all the way from Egypt. It was an army experiment to breed them and use them in the baking hot areas of the southwest, where horses and mules struggled with arid conditions. Even though the experimental use of camels as pack animals for traveling through areas of little water availability worked, the idea was eventually abandoned and the camels were set loose. The feral camels bred in the wild and were spotted until 1941 living in inhospitable areas of Texas.

7.Carrying firearms was banned in the Old West when government formed

A cartoon caricature of Wyatt Earp after the Sharkey-Fitzimmons fight. The public was outraged by Earp’s decision as referee and newspapers pilloried him for many weeks afterward.

A cartoon caricature of Wyatt Earp after the Sharkey-Fitzimmons fight. The public was outraged by Earp’s decision as referee and newspapers pilloried him for many weeks afterward.

It seems that once a local and national government of the Wild West formed, gun control was on top of their list. Dodge was one of these places and the famous battle at OK Corral was about Wyatt Earp trying to enforce that law. Wichita and Tombstone also had similar laws and weren’t shy about enforcing them. The second most common reason for being arrested back in the true Wild West was illegal possession of a firearm.

6.Cowboys were tough and grubby and played hard

The cowboy, the quintessential symbol of the American frontier, circa 1887

The cowboy, the quintessential symbol of the American frontier, circa 1887

Cowboys, we are led to believe, were rugged, gun-slinging tough men. They would have been tough, for sure, but life in the Old West required this of everybody.

Cowboys were often illiterate and worked dirty, difficult jobs. They got drunk on their days off, started fights, and often ended up in jail for long stretches of time. They wouldn’t have decked themselves out in fashionable gear like cowboys in the movies–their clothes had to be practical and were often worn into rags.

5.Frontier prostitution was a life of poverty and lost hope

Unlike the depiction in Western films of prostitutes as misunderstood and misled girls with hearts of gold, the true experience of prostitution in the Wild West was one of trauma and degradation. As an added cruelty, local newspapers had a habit of naming and shaming the women. Suicide and addictions were high among frontier prostitutes. Brothels themselves were nearly impossible to escape as the owners made sure that the girls competed with each other and ate very little. They were places where women with no other choices ended up.

4.Multicultural population in the South and Midwest of nearly 56 nationalities

Hollywood and its cowboy movies often had only white tough guys forming posses or farming the land.

Rarely do they ever suggest the ethnic diversity that was actually present in the Wild West, which was populated by people from around the world.

Settlers crossing the Great Plains by F.O.C. Darley & engraved by H.B. Hall.

Settlers crossing the Great Plains by F.O.C. Darley & engraved by H.B. Hall.

In Wyoming alone, with a population of 10,000 people, there were 56 nationalities including Germans, Swedes, Chinese, Slovakians, Finns, Ottomans, and Norwegians. Irish, Russians, and Italians poured into the country as well.

3.100 million Native Americans lived in America before Europeans arrived

Before the Europeans invaded America to colonize it, there was an estimated 100 million Native Americans of various tribes filling the land. Movies, however, imply that there was only a tiny handful eking out lives in this great empty land. It is thought that 90% of native people were wiped out by diseases that the Europeans brought with them.

The Treaty of Penn with the Indians

The Treaty of Penn with the Indians

The native cultures either farmed or were nomadic, depending on their own individual cultures, and were a sophisticated people who had extensive trade routes. After the original plagues that decimated them, they were further reduced by genocide and smallpox, Listverse reported.

2.The gunfight at OK Corral lasted 30 seconds at the most

Marais des Cygnes massacre

Marais des Cygnes massacre

Rather interestingly, this battle didn’t even happen at the corral at all, but in a back alley nearby. The body count was only three and the incident lasted a whole 30 seconds. Most of that time was taken up by the participants running away–being shot at was no laughing matter. Wyatt and Holliday were actually arrested for murder after all the smoke cleared. Evidence came to light that one of the dead men was unarmed and it was possible that Wyatt fired first. He lost his position as sheriff.

However, the charges were dropped in the end and it appears that the pair were lucky, as many people wanted them convicted. It wasn’t until later that the story we know in movies came out.

1.The frontier had less fighting and bank robberies than the movies led us to believe

A dime novel featuring Jesse James from 1901.

A dime novel featuring Jesse James from 1901.

It seems that a day in the Wild West was not all about bar-room brawls and shootouts. Bank robberies were rare too. Out in the lawless west, people cooperated more as they relied on each other for comfort and survival.

Read another story from us: Colt Peacemaker was the most popular gun in the Wild West

An estimate for bank robberies in the time of the frontier is that there might have been a dozen of them in total. Homicide rates were very low, even in such places such as Tombstone, with the highest recorded being five in one year.