The history of America is a history of frontiers. Beginning in the early 17th century, what were then the English colonies of North America undertook a steady westward expansion that would eventually create the 50 United States of America as we know them today.
Westward expansion went into high gear with the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, in which the United States acquired some 828,000 square miles of what is today primarily the Midwest states from France.
Of course, France only controlled a tiny fraction of the territory purchased. Most of the lands, at the time, were still controlled by the Native Americans who lived there—what the United States was actually buying were nominal rights to obtain the lands from their current inhabitants, whether via treaty or conquest.
Following the Louisiana Purchase, President Thomas Jefferson greatly encouraged continued westward expansion, both through philosophy—it was during this time that the idea of “Manifest Destiny” was first put forward—and policy. This unstoppable westward march of “progress”, especially combined with factors like the California gold rush of 1849, gave rise to the mythic period that we usually refer to as the Wild West today.
Pinning down the beginning of the Wild West is difficult, and it varies a bit from place to place. The romance of this time period has been played up in media since contemporaneous accounts, giving rise to the genre of fiction and film known as the Western, a genre rooted as much in myth-building as in history.
But for most people, the Wild West runs from the middle of the 19th century—that aforementioned California gold rush is as good a starting point as any—until the early 1920s. The Wild West is more than a historical period, though, it’s also a place, and a set of ideals.
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The place is the American frontier. By 1912, what would eventually become the continental United States had all come under the control, at least nominally, of the U.S. government in the form of states or territories. However, the western states and territories remained “wilder” and more “untamed” than their eastern cousins, with plenty of land available to white settlers at virtually no charge.
The mythic West was seen as a land of freedom and opportunity, but also one of danger. From gold rushes to bandits, card sharps to gunslingers, the mythic American West was a land of extremes. A place to make a fortune or lose it, all in a day.
Because of the popularity of the Wild West as a place of tall tales and few clear records, even in its own time, it has become difficult, over the years, to separate the facts of the American West from the myth. But these eight facts about the Wild West prove that sometimes, truth really is stranger than fiction...
1. There was a group of feral camels in Texas.
When you think about the dangers people faced on the American frontier, one that probably doesn’t come to mind is feral camels. Yet that’s exactly what roamed the plains of Texas for a time after the dissolution of the short-lived U.S. Camel Corps, which was established in Camp Verde, Texas in 1856. When the Civil War broke out just five years later, the corps was disbanded and some of the camels escaped into the countryside, where they and their descendants lived wild until at least 1941, when the last known sighting of a feral camel in Texas was reported.
2. Bloody business wasn’t just limited to gunfights.
While the Wild West is infamous for its violence, we tend to think of it in terms of gunfights or shootouts, like the infamous O.K. Corral. Yet the frontier had its share of serial killers, too, who used the isolation of the West to carry out their bloody deeds. Perhaps the most famous are the so-called “Bloody Benders,” a family of serial killers who could have come straight out of the Texas Chain Saw Massacre and who operated an inn and general store near Cherryvale, Kansas. Less well known are killers like Charles Kennedy, who may have slain more than 14 people—possibly including his own son—in his home in New Mexico before he was, himself, killed by a vigilante mob.
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3. The strange case of Elmer McCurdy’s corpse.
Elmer McCurdy wasn’t very lucky in life, or in death. The outlaw robbed a train in 1911, but only made off with $46. When he was shot down by the law, his corpse remained unclaimed, and was sold to a traveling carnival as a sideshow attraction. From there, McCurdy’s remains made the rounds of wax museums and haunted houses before being discovered 66 years later in an amusement park in Long Beach, where the reality of the figure was inadvertently discovered during the filming of an episode of The Six Million Dollar Man.
4. Will the real Jesse James please stand up?
Jesse James is one of the most legendary names of the Wild West—and that was true during his lifetime, as well. After his murder, he was interred in an unmarked grave in the front yard of his own farm in Kearney, Missouri to thwart graverobbers before being moved to the town cemetery. There’s only one hang-up: there’s another grave bearing the name Jesse James, in Granbury, Texas. The man buried there was named J. Frank Dalton, though he claimed, at the age of 101, to be the “real” Jesse James, and a court allowed him to legally adopt the name and have it placed on his headstone.
5. One of the best poker players in the West may have been a woman.
Alice Ivers became known as “Poker Alice” due to her skill with cards. Born in England, Ivers’s family moved to America in 1865, and Alice became notorious out West for her domination of the poker table. Renowned for her expertise at counting cards—and for smoking big cigars and wearing fancy clothes—“Poker Alice” even had a popular catchphrase that ran something like, “Praise the Lord and place your bets; I’ll take your money with no regrets.”
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7. The town of Delamar, Nevada was called the “Widowmaker.”
There were a lot of ways to die in the Wild West. It may sound like the tagline on a movie poster, but it’s also true. There were outlaws and diseases and conflicts with indigenous peoples and more than a few wars; there were also harsh working conditions, like those in the mines around Monkey Wrench Gulch in Nevada. It didn’t help that a mill set up near the mine exposed the townspeople of Delamar to deadly amounts of silicon dust. In fact, at one time the town—whose total population only numbered around 1,500—is estimated to have been home to more than 400 widows, earning its name as the “Widowmaker”.
7. Just 21 years of life could make you infamous for centuries.
Born Henry McCarty, the outlaw better known as William H. Bonney or Billy the Kid was one of the most notorious figures of the Wild West, though he died at the tender age of 21, shot down by Sheriff Pat Garrett. So great was Billy the Kid’s fame, even in his own time, that the first biography of his life was published within three weeks of his death.
8. About 1 in every 3 cowboys was black.
There is nothing more emblematic of the West than the cowboy—riding the range on his horse, with his cowboy hat and chaps. However, despite what countless Hollywood films have depicted, anywhere from a quarter to a third of all the workers in the cattle industry in the Wild West were black. These workers were often former slaves or the children of former slaves, who, after the Civil War, put their skills handling cattle to work in an industry that was more likely to pay them equitably than most others at the time.
Featured photo: Wikimedia Commons