I have been advised for very good reason, I think, that as a popular fiction genre, tales of the Old West should be considered off limits. It dominated story telling in print, motion pictures, and television all the way up to the mid-seventies but has steadily declined since as to now be all but non-existent. It’s easy enough to understand the demise of the Old West tale.
In the early days nearly everyone telling the stories lived in the time of the Old West. Later the story tellers were direct descendants of the people who lived in the time of the Old West. Early motion picture actor Tom Mix attended Wyatt Earp’s funeral in 1929. The young men and women of the thirties, forties, and fifties were grandsons of the men and women who made lived in the Old West. Even in my youth, my dad and grandfather would tell me stories of my great-great grandfather, who was born in 1939, served as a cook in the Civil War, was wounded by a stray bullet, and nearly died, being so sick at one point the doctors ordered a coffin to be built for him. These are the stories that fired the imagination of the people telling the tales to America and made the western such a staple for so long, the longest lasting genre by far.
While the western still hangs on getting stories told here and there, it no longer dominates the story telling world. The current generation we name as the popular demographic doesn’t identify with the tales of the Old West like mine and previous ones did. To the previous generations, these were tales that re-enforced the things are fathers, grandfathers, and great grandfathers had told us. To the current generation, they are just stories. My children’s grandfathers were born in the 1940’s. They were fascinated by tractors, cars, and planes, not horses, gunfights, and cowboys. Somewhere along the way, the story telling had to change to reflect the needs of those listening to the stories.
While the western may be dead for the younger demographic, I can assure you for the writer of this blog it is not. I still love the tales of the Old West and, as such, planned this year’s vacation to further feed that love. We went out west for five days, to South Dakota and Wyoming, places where quite literally the last days of the Old West played out in dramatic fashion. Custer and Crazy Horse battled to Custer’s death not far from this place. Buffalo Bill Cody and Calamity Jane made names for themselves in this area. The most famous town of the era, Deadwood, saw the death of the quintessential western gunfighter, Wild Bill Hickok.
Deadwood is the prototypical town of the Old West. Gold was discovered by George Custer on a scouting expedition in the Black Hills of South Dakota in 1874, but it was a gold discovery in Deadwood Gulch in the 1875 that caused the town of Deadwood to spring up nearly overnight. As always in a gold rush, people rushed to the gold like foolish moths to flames, their heads filled with dreams of striking it rich. The Treat of Laramie was signed in 1868, promising all the lands of South Dakota to the Lakota Indians, but the rush to gold made this treaty all but unenforceable. By the early part of 1876, Deadwood was a bustling mining town filled with miners, gamblers, prostitutes and businessmen. I can’t say for sure if there were batwing doors depicted in so many movies at the entrance of the No. 10 Saloon, but I can tell you that there was one thing the movies got right about the saloon. There was a shootout. Or at least a killing.
As stated previously, the absolute face of the movie-era gunfighter had to be Wild Bill Hickok. Hickok, a gambler, sometimes lawman, and someone who had no issue with finding trouble, was known to have killed six men and maybe a seventh. He was involved in multiple gunfights and one that perhaps gave rise to a myth that was really almost non-existent it the Old West, the standoff in the street.
It was popularized by writers of the time, made famous by later writers and in the movies, but the standoff in the street almost never happened. In 1867, in Jeffersonville, Nebraska, it did happen to Wild Bill just like the movies would have you believe. There was a confrontation in a saloon that caused Wild Bill to call four men out into the streets for a gunfight. At a distance of fifteen feet, the men waited while the bartender counted down. At the end of the countdown, Wild Bill Hickok drew his gun and killed three of the four men with a shot to the head, wounded the fourth while taking a bullet to the shoulder for his trouble. A gun fighting legend, as well as a gun fighting myth, was born. Or at least reinforced.
Accounts vary as the arrival of Wild Bill Hickok into Deadwood. Some have in the spring of 1876, others in July of the same year. What is known is that, by this time, Wild Bill was no longer Wild Bill. Having accidentally killed one of his deputies in a shootout in 1871, he had given up his gun fighting ways. He made his living touring with Buffalo Bill’s wild west show and gambling. When he arrived in Deadwood, it was the gamblers and their money he was chasing. He at once set up shop and managed to stay somewhat solvent in this endeavor. It would be this endeavor that would be his end in what can only be described as a strange death for a man of such courage.
On August 1st, 1876 Bill Hickok was involved in a card game with a young Jack McCall, a game in which saw Hickok take a large sum of money from McCall. At the conclusion of the game, Hickok reportedly advised McCall to not gamble any more until he could recover some of this losses. This both embarrassed and infuriated McCall.
On August 2nd, 1876 Hickok entered the No. 10 Saloon with the intent of entering a card game. He reluctantly entered the game, even though he would have to sit without his back to the wall, something he reportedly never did. While he played, a drunk Jack McCall walked up behind him and shot him in the back of the head, killing him instantly. One of the most fearless and respected gunfighters of the Old West had been killed in one of the most cowardly acts ever recorded.
Jack McCall ran from the Saloon, was captured and arrested. He was tried with a thrown together jury of gamblers, miners, and businessmen. Reports vary as to whether Jack McCall actually had a brother, but at the trial he used the vengeance of his brother’s death at the hands of Wild Bill Hickok as his defense, showing no remorse for what he had done. The ploy worked. He was acquitted by the jury of Deadwood.
Not long after the trial, in a town where nearly every single member of the town turned out for the funeral of Wild Bill Hickok, Jack McCall was advised that it might be best for his health if he left town. He took the advice and left for Wyoming. It was here that his loose mouth and boastful ways would finally see justice served to him.
He ran about Wyoming, bragging to anyone who would listen that he had killed Wild Bill Hickok. This caught the attention of certain Wyoming officials who then ruled that the trial which had acquitted him from the death of the western icon was invalid due to the fact it had occurred in Lakota territory outside of U.S. jurisdiction. McCall was arrested on 8-29-1876, tried and convicted of murder over the course of three days in early December and hanged on 3-1-1876, bringing to end one of the strangest cases ever tried even in the Old West.
In conclusion, I would have to say that I agree with the advice I was given. The evidence is too clear to not give heed. The Old West may not be entirely dead as a genre, but it’s lure has been diminished. It would have to be a well written tale to catch someone’s eye. Should you decide to write that tale, my advice to you is to read about Wild Bill Hickok and the events surrounding 1876 South Dakota. This should give you a good starting point for whatever tale you are writing.
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