Thursday, February 7, 2013

Old West - Interesting Facts - Part Three

 Myths and trivia of the Old West seems to linger long and hard.

One huge myth about the Old West has to do with how many murders did those old Western towns see in a year?

If say we take the bloodiest, gun-slingingest of the famous cattle towns with the cowboys doing quick-draws at high noon every other day, would it be a hundred? Two hundred? More?

Just last month in Chicago, this year 2013, that city saw over 40 murders in one month. So how many did those supposedly "violent" Old West towns see?

How about 5. Yup, just five. The average is five in one year. That was the most murders any Old West town saw in any one year. That's where myth is defeated by fact.

Fact is, most towns averaged about 1.5 murders a year, and not all of those were shooting.

You are much more likely to be murdered in Chicago today in 2013 than you were back in Tombstone in 1881, the year of the famous gunfight at the OK Corral.

How many dead at the most famous gunfight in the Old West, thanks to Hollywood, three. That town's most violent year ever.

As for the traditional Western gunfight as depicted in movies, the inaccuracy of those using handguns at the time are legendary. And yes, as for those who would use a quick-draw - good luck with that one.

It was simply extremely unlikely that the "average" man using a gun would be able to hit an assailant on the first shot using a quick draw from any real distance other than up close where you can draw and shove your pistol into someone's chest like say Luke Short did in one of his shootouts. 

Though, as it still is today, almost all attercations with firearms take place within 3 to 7 feet of each other, there are all sorts of stories of two guys shooting at each other across a poker table and neither hitting the other - and emptying their guns while firing at each other.

The closest history got to high-noon show downs was "dueling" where two men just stood across from one another with their guns out, aimed and fired until one or the other got lucky and someone was hit or dead.

And yes, we can all forget about "fanning" a pistol. Like the low slung holster, it was a Hollywood invention. Rapidly cocking a single-action revolver between rounds by fanning your single-action and you'd be lucky to hit anything close to what you were aiming to hit. It just wasn't done.

So why do people believe that the Old West was so violent? Hollywood and television mostly. If you've seen Young Guns on cable, you probably know the guy was gunning somebody down every ten minutes!

In reality, according to researchers, Billy The Kid's lifetime kill count was four.

In the Old West, it was nothing out of the ordinary for a criminal to inflate his murder stats for the same reason a guy in prison might want to appear tougher than he really is: survival.

Almost none of the so-called gunfighters of the Old West killed the numbers of men that they are purported as having done. Sure, there are a few exceptions to that rule, such as John Wesly Hardin or Kiler Jim Miller.

On the overall, men who lived in saloons and gambling parlors and on the either side of crime talked up their violent lawless natures in order to be intimidating to those who they may cheat or rob or steal from.

The Old West, with little or no government, was a generally peaceful place, and not the violent frontier often depicted in movies.

The frontier West was not the violent "Wild West" depicted by the press and history teachers who don’t know history.

Before 1900, there were no successful bank robberies in any of the major towns in Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, the Dakotas, Kansas, Nebraska, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, or New Mexico, and only a pair of robberies in California and Arizona.

They were relatively very few bank robberies at all in the entire period from 1859 through 1900 in all the frontier West.

In the Old West, even with No Carry Laws like the local Gun-Control laws instituted by the Earps in Tombstone, most people in the Old West carried concealed weapons.

Fact is, in the Old West, criminals not wanting to get hurt doing their criminal acts were not as likely to pick on a  prey that appears willing to fight back. And yes, most were armed because they were definitely willing to fight back.

There is no evidence anyone was ever killed in a frontier shoot-out at "High Noon." And no, not even the Dave Tutt ambush by Wild Bill Hickok was at High Noon.

Billy the Kid was a pyschopathic murderer, but he didn't kill 21 people by the time he was 21 years old, as the legend says. Authorities can account for three men he killed for sure, and no more than a total of six or seven.

Wild Bill Hickok claimed to have killed six Kansas outlaws and secessionists in the incident that first made him famous. But he lied. He killed just three—all unarmed.

Bill Cody's reputation as a gunslinger was mostly from his own fiction.

He freely admitted that he fabricated all the excessive shooting in those dime novels. But he was a good shot and is said to have proved it repeatedly at the bison-killing contests where he earned the nickname Buffalo Bill.

But he didn't kill many Indians, and when he was old, his estranged wife revealed that he had been wounded in combat with Indians only once, not 137 times as he claimed.

In 1880, wide-open towns like Virginia City, Nevada, Leadville, Colorado, and Dallas, Texas had no homicides. By comparison, Cincinnati, Ohio, had 17 homicides that year.

From 1870 to 1885, the five Kansas railheads of Abilene, Caldwell, Dodge City, Ellsworth and Wichita had a total of 45 homicides, or an average of three per year - a lower homicide rate than New York City, Baltimore and Boston for those same years.

Sixteen of those 45 homicides were committed by duly authorized peace officers, and only two towns  Ellsworth in 1873 and Dodge City in 1876 ever had as many as five killings in any one year.  

Before the advent of vigilante committees, banditry was a major issue in California after 1849.

As thousands of young men detached from family or community moved into a land with few law enforcement mechanisms. San Francisco solved the problem with informal citizens' vigilance committees that gave drumhead trials and death sentences to well-known offenders.

 The California Gold Rush of 1849 wasn’t America’s first gold rush. Fact is that it wasn’t even the second.

When young Conrad Reed found a large yellow rock in his father’s field in Cabarrus County, North Carolina, in 1799, he had no idea what it was. Neither did his father, John Reed.  

The family reportedly used it as a doorstop for several years, until a visiting jeweler recognized it as a 17-pound gold nugget. The rush was on.  

Eventually, Congress built the Charlotte Mint to cope with the sheer volume of gold dug up in North Carolina.  

In 1828 gold was discovered in Georgia, leading to the nation’s second gold rush.  

The first gold strike West of the Mississippi River was made by Jose Ortiz in 1832 south of Santa Fe, New Mexico, in what would quickly become the boom town of Delores.  

Finally, in January of 1848, James Marshall struck it rich at Sutter’s Mill in California, and tens of thousands of Forty-Niners moved west to seek their fortunes.  

Phoebe Ann Mozee (Moses in some accounts), born on August 13, 1860 in Paterson Township, Ohio, was later known as the great Annie Oakley, expert rifle and shotgun markswoman.

In 1880, Judge Roy Bean found $40.00 and a six-gun on a deceased cowboy. Judge Roy charged the corpse with carrying a concealed weapon and fined him $40.00.

Bean once killed a Mexican official in a dispute over a girl in California. A friend of the Mexican official hanged Bean, but, before he died, he was cut down by the contested damsel. Ever after, Bean was unable to turn his head due to the injury.

One pivotal Civil War battle was fought in, believe it or not, New Mexico.

In a bold move designed to fill rebel coffers with Cripple Creek gold, Confederate General Henry Hopkins Sibley invaded New Mexico Territory from the south in early 1862, believing he could march right up the Rio Grande and take Colorado.

Unbeknownst to Sibley, however, the First Regiment of Volunteers in Colorado caught wind of the scheme and marched 400 miles south in just 13 days to join the Yankees at Fort Union, near Santa Fe.

Instead of a cakewalk, Sibley’s forces wound up fighting what many historians call the “Gettysburg of the West.”

After just two days of skirmishing, Union troops, who most likely relied on local ranchers as guides, outflanked the Confederates and burned their supply train. After that, it was a long slow march back to Texas for the rebels who never returned.
It is believed that Billy the Kid was born in New York City on September 17, 1859.

Established in 1827, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas is the oldest military post in continuous operation West of the Mississippi River.

The oldest human skeleton ever found in the Western Hemisphere was discovered in 1953 near Midland, Texas.

It was first believed that the skeleton, the remains of a 30-year-old woman, was 10,000 years old. However, the latest estimates are that it is much older.

Estimates of how many people lived in North America before the arrival of the European explorers vary, but are thought to be in the millions. Whether that is true or not, no one knows for certain.

It is simply a hypothesis that that was the population divided among about 240 tribal groupings speaking an estimated 300 different languages. Who knows how they come up with that?

Buffalo carcasses were strewn across the Great Plains after the mass buffalo hunts of 1870-1883. They were later bought by Eastern firms for the production of fertilizer and bone china. "Bone pickers” earned eight dollars a ton for the bones.

Around 1541, the present state of Texas was called Tejas, a Spanish version of the Caddo word meaning "allies."

Wyatt Earp was indicted for horse theft in Van Buren, Arkansas on May 8, 1871. He escaped trial by jumping bail and fleeing to Kansas. Just a damn horse thieve!

Rumor has it that the tradition of spreading sawdust on the floors of bars and saloons started in Deadwood, South Dakota due to the amount of gold dust that would fall on the floor. The sawdust was used to hide the fallen gold dust and was swept up at the end of the night.

More on Deadwood. It certainly was a man's world. Deadwood in the late 1870s had 200 men for every woman.

In Deadwood, a prospector could find $20 to $25 worth of gold a day in the early days of the gold rush. He often lost it in the saloons and brothels in Deadwood.

If he managed to not lose it on the many vices available he would probably lose it buying food. Fact is that 100 pounds of flour started at $10 and went as high as $80. Fresh eggs sold for several dollars apiece.

Seth Bullock became Deadwood’s first sheriff in 1877. He and Theodore Roosevelt were good friends. Seth rode in Roosevelt’s 1905 inaugural parade, leading 50 cowboys.

A small pox epidemic hit the Black Hills in 1878.
This sounds ify, but supposedly Wyatt Earp spent the winter of 1876-77 in Deadwood. Since no claims were left, he started a business hauling winter stove wood to the residents. It was cold hard work, but in the spring he supposedly left Deadwood a lot of money.

The queen of female gamblers, “Poker Alice” Ivers was known to make up to $6,000 a night at the height of her career. She became a legend in the Black Hills and often sat in on big stakes games.

The Sundance Kid spent time in the Lawrence County jail in Deadwood in 1897 for a robbery of a bank in Belle Fourche, South Dakota. After several weeks he escaped.

A man who stood only four foot three inches tall, known as Potato Creek Johnny, aka Welshman John Perret, was the stereotype of a well-worn prospector.

His fame exploded when he found the largest gold nugget ever discovered in the Black Hills. It weighed 7 ¾ troy ounces. A replica of the nugget is on display in the Adams Museum in Deadwood. The real one is in their safe.

After serving more than twenty years in prison, Cole Younger got a job selling tombstones, worked for a while in a Wild West show with Frank James, and died quietly in 1916 in Lee’s Summit, Missouri, where he was known as an elderly churchgoer.

Wyatt Earp was neither the town marshal or the sheriff in Tombstone, Arizona at the time of the shoot-out at the O.K. Corral.

His brother Virgil was the town marshal. He had temporarily deputized Wyatt, Morgan and Doc Holliday just prior to the gunfight.

The Oregon Trail, from Independence, Missouri to Fort Vancouver, Washington measured 2,020 miles.

An estimated 350,000 emigrants took the Oregon Trail but one out of seventeen would not survive the trip. The most common cause of death was cholera.

Harry Longabaugh became known as "the Sundance Kid” because he served a jail term for horse stealing in Sundance, Wyoming.

Mike Fink was a keel boatman along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers and an expert marksman.

However, he loved his drink and was a known brawler. One of his favorite games was to shoot a mug of brew from the top of some fellow's head.

However, on one night in 1823, Fink had drank so much that it didn't matter how good were his shooting skills. This time he missed and killed the guy who was wearing the mug on his head.

In no time, the dead man's friends retaliated by killing Fink.

For whatever reasons, his legend was being told for decades along with the likes of Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill.

The oldest settlement in the United States is Acoma Pueblo. Yes it is.

It’s no revelation that Native American settlements predate European ones, but it may surprise some people that Acoma Pueblo, west of Albuquerque, New Mexico, has been continuously occupied since the 12th century.  

The Acoma still inhabit their “Sky City,” a settlement of about 4,800 people that sits atop a 365-foot high mesa.   Traditionally hunters and traders, the Acoma people now make their income from a cultural center and casino complex. That's right, Indian gambling.  

Coincidentally, the oldest state capital in the United States is Santa Fe, which recently celebrated its 400th anniversary.

The Colt Peacemaker, a .45-caliber single action revolver, was manufactured by Colt Firearms Manufacturing Company in Hartford, Connecticut in 1873.

At the time it sold for $17.00, which was about  half a month's pay for the average laborer in 1873.

On average, cowboys earned $30 to $40 per month, because of the heavy physical and emotional toll, it was unusual for a cowboy to spend more than seven years on the range.

As open range ranching and the long drives gave way to fenced in ranches in the 1880s, the glory days of the cowboy came to an end. It was then that the myths about the "free living" cowboy began to emerge.

Samuel Clemens, struck by silver fever, tried his hand at prospecting in the town of Unionville, Nevada in 1862.

Having more luck in trading mining claims than actually producing silver, he wound up leaving the area.

A short time latter Clemens, started using the pen-name Mark Twain and becomes one of the greatest writers of American Literature.

Too bad Mark Twain's books are now being banned in the United States because of "Political Correctness" over Twain's 19th Century use of the word "Nigger".

On December 21, 1876, Clay Allison shot and killed Deputy Sheriff Charles Faber at the Olympic Dance Hall in Las Animas, Colorado.

If it weren’t for Allison purposely stomping on the feet of other dancers, the law probably would never have been called.

Was he a mean one? You bet he was.

It was reported that after sitting in a dentist’s chair in Cheyenne, Wyoming, Clay Allison turned the tables on the dentist and started to forcibly pull one of the dentist’s own teeth when the doctor accidentally started drilling into the wrong molar in Clay's mouth.

He would have continued pulling the dentist's teeth, except the doc's screams brought in people from the street and Clay Allison let things be.

If you've watched as many old Westerns on television as I have, you'd probably start thinking that the infamous Dalton Gang was around for years.

Fact is that that outlaw gang only operated for only a year and five months.

They began with a train robbery in Wharton, Oklahoma on May 9, 1891 and ending at the shootout at Coffeyville, Kansas on October 5, 1892.

There seems to be some disagreement as to the origin of the term "red light district."

Some say it came from the Red Light Bordello in Dodge City, Kansas. The story is that the front door of the building was made of red glass and produced a red glow to the outside world when lit at night. The name carried over to refer to the town's brothel district.

Another explanation is that the Railroad used to stop a while at bordellos along its route, the brakemen (or signalmen) of the time used a red lantern to signal the conductor to either stop and start the trains.

It became common place for a red brakeman's lantern to be hung near the door of a bordello to signal trains -- letting them know that business can be had there.

It was in the news today that the US Post Office may discontinue Saturday mail delivery. The announcer on the radio said that Saturday mail delivery is going the way of the Pony Express. 

So I started wondering, how long was the Pony Express in operation?

Well, fact is that the Pony Express was in operation for only nineteen months from April 1860 through October 1861.

The Pony Express ran 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.

The Pony Express carried almost 35,000 pieces of mail over more than 650,000 miles during those nineteen months and lost only one mail sack.

At the start of the Pony Express, the cost to mail a letter was $5.00 per ½ ounce.  By the time the Pony Express ended, the price had dropped to $1.00 per ½ ounce.

The typical Pony Express rider was nineteen years old and made $50 per month plus room and board.

According to a newspaper ad in the Sacramento Daily Union, the pay for riders and station keepers was $50.00 per month.   This amount would equal $850.00 per month today.

So now, how many riders were Pony Express riders?

Well, if you count everyone in the Old West who said they were than the number is probably in the tens of thousands.

But in reality, only about 186 men are known to have ridden for the Pony Express during its operation of just over 18 months.

And no, Buffalo Bill Cody and Wild Bill Hickok were not Pony Express riders. 

Now as for the imagine of a rider throwing himself off one horse and onto another at breakneck speeds then taking off like a bat out of Hell, well though Pony Express riders changed horses every 10 to 15 miles - their speed was not exactly all out.

Fact is that their horses reached an average speed of 10 miles an hour. That's right, just 10 miles an hour on average.

So how fast is that on a horse? Well, obviously a horse's speed varies with their stride length, body build, and other factors. But basically, in miles per hour, horses move at their various gaits:

At a Walk, they roughly move at between 3 to 4 mph. A pleasure show horse can go as slow as 2 mph. Gaited horses, who do not trot, can do what is called a "running walk" as fast as 15 mph.

At a Trot, horses move out at roughly 8 to 10 mph. Again, a shorter striding horse could trot slower, and a horse with a long stride could move faster.

At a Lope or Canter, which are the same speed a Lope being Western and a Canter being English riding terminology, a horse is moving out at 10 to 17 mph.

At the Gallop, full out, which most think the Pony Express riders did travel at but in actuality they didn't, is run at about 30 mph.

And realize this, some horses are not built to run fast and may only do a fast canter at their best.

Thoroughbreds, which are bred for running distance but not speed, have been clocked at over 40 mph.

Quarter horses, bred and raced for short quarter mile distances, can reach 50 mph in short bursts according to the AQHA's website.

So you might ask, why did they move so slow riding at speeds between a trot and a lope?

That answer has to do with the approximately 400 horses, Thoroughbreds, Mustangs, Pintos, and Morgans, that were purchased for the Pony Express.

Since there were approximately 165 stations along the route, and Pony Express riders changed horses every 10 to 15 miles on a trail almost 2,000 miles long, it was all about knowing exactly how much time it would take to cover the needed distance and still not burn out the available stock.

Horses were not expendable.

Besides, it is said that a good Express Rider knew how to gauge his horses.

A trot or lope was the usual, to a horse this is the easiest gait to use when covering vast miles.

Of course this also depended on the terrain and the distance between swing stations. A gallop was used when needed to get the rider out of harm's way.

One researcher found out that the qualifications for the riders were: "Wanted. Young, skinny, wiery fellows. Not over 18. Must be expert riders. Willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred."

Most of the riders were around age 19. The youngest rider, Charlie Miller also known as Broncho Charlie was only 11 years old.

The oldest was a man whose name is presently unknown, he is said to have been 45.

To give folks an idea of how important it was not to completely play out your horse, take for example what happened in June of 1876 when George Custer's command was looking for a fight.

After moving 72 miles in three days, they found their fight on the Little Bighorn.

On June 25, Custer stumbled on one of the largest Indian camps the Plains had ever seen–around 7,000 strong, made up of Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho bands.

With all sorts of self-confidence and political ambitions, he split his troops into three columns to encircle the Indians.

Yes, believe it or not, he took his tiny force and decided to encircle the largest gathering of Plains Indians on record.

While Custer may have been brave, he was not very bright. It's no wonder he failed tactics at West Point. 

Custer led roughly 200 men toward the camp because he was afraid the 7,000 Indians there would run away from his tiny force of a few hundred men.

He, counting on his two other columns to encircle the Indian warriors, instead found himself surrounded by well-armed Indians atop what is today called Custer Hill.

Most historians agree the battle was quick – about 20 minutes. Custer was found two days later, stripped naked and shot in the left temple and chest. Every one of his 210 men was killed and mutilated.

One reason this massacre took place was that Custer pushed his mounted troops, and more importantly their horses, to such a point of exhaustion that his men were completely unable to retreat if they needed to.

The movies show a charge at the Little Big Horn river by Custer's troops, but witnesses there say that the horses in his command could not have preformed a charge because they were so spent.

As for a last bit of trivia, George Armstrong Custer got his appointment to West Point even though his family was widely known to be staunch Democrats and the Ohio Congressman who made the appointment was a Republican.

It’s believed a constituent recommended Custer in order to keep him away from his daughter.

For more, click:

Old West - Interesting Facts - Part One

Old West - Interesting Facts - Part Two

And yes, that's the way it was!

Tom Correa


  1. You wrote: Sure, there are a few exceptions to that rule, such as John Wesly Hardin or Kiler Jim Miller.

    My question, was it Hardin? I always thought it was Harding. I'm not trying to be a jerk so please don't take offense, it's just that you'd know a lot more about the Old West than me and I was just wondering if I've always had his name wrong.

    1. Outlaw and killer, John Wesley Hardin was born in 1853 and was shot dead in 1895.

      There is someone in Great Britain, kind of a wild eyed looking sort, named Wesley Stace (born 22 October 1965) who is a folk/pop singer-songwriter and author who goes by the stage name John Wesley Harding.

      Stace's stage name is the same as the Bob Dylan 1967 album (and song) John Wesley Harding, for which Dylan famously misspelled the Old West outlaw John Wesley Hardin's name by adding a "g" that should not have been there.

      Thanks for visiting my blog.

  2. I find it fascinating that the California Gold Rush of 1849 wasn't America's first gold rush.
    Gold was first discovered in North Carolina in 1799 and that Congress built the Charlotte Mint to cope with the sheer volume of gold dug up in North Carolina. Thanks Tom Correa for research about this fascinating article.


Thank you for your comment.