If there’s one thing the Wild West was good at, it was making legends out of people. Here are 10 of them.
1. Wild Bill Hickok
Professional gambler and notorious gunslinger, Wild Bill Hickok epitomized the essence of the Wild West. Like we talked in-depth before, his gunfight with David Tutt pretty much gave birth to the one-on-one quickdraw duel we often see in western movies which, actually, was a rare occurrence in the West. According to legend, he was holding pairs of aces and eights while playing poker when he was shot in the back – this came to be known as the Dead Man’s Hand.
2. Wyatt Earp
Wyatt Earp might be the most famous figure of the Old West. He’s certainly the most famous lawman. He’s known primarily for the gunfight at the O.K. Corral (we covered here) where Earp, his brothers and Doc Holliday took on a gang known as the Cowboys. Later on the gang would take revenge by killing his brother Morgan and maiming his other brother Virgil. This prompted Wyatt to embark on a vendetta ride to track down and kill those responsible.
3. Seth Bullock
Known to us primarily thanks to the show “Deadwood”, Seth Bullock is remembered as the tough, dangerous and uncompromising sheriff of the infamous town of Deadwood. Since that show ended way too soon, here’s some stuff that happened after – Bullock built the first hotel in Deadwood (which is still standing and operation today) and he became good friends with Teddy Roosevelt who appointed Bullock U.S. Marshal for South Dakota.
4. Billy the Kid
Although Billy the Kid was, without a doubt, an outlaw and a killer, his legend has certainly been embellished over the years. Although he bragged about killing 21 men, modern estimates only account for eight or so. His participation in the Lincoln County War turned Billy into an infamous western figure, but his death at the tender age of 21 at the hands of famed lawman Pat Garrett certainly helped.
5. Buffalo Bill
Not every famous icon of the Old West earned their fame with the help of a gun. Buffalo Bill Cody knew how to exploit the popular image of the western gunslinger and put on a stage show that enthralled audiences craving for a piece of the Wild West (but without all the actual danger and violence that came along). In return, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show toured throughout the entire country and then moved on to Europe. Featuring icons like Wild Bill Hickok, Annie Oakley, Calamity Jane and Chief Sitting Bull, Bill’s show helped solidify the image of the western frontiersman in the mind of the public.
6. Annie Oakley
Like we just said above, Annie Oakley was one of the main attractions of Buffalo Bill’s show. She was renowned for her sharpshooting abilities. She would astound audiences with feats like hitting a playing card edge-on from a distance of 30 paces or shooting cigarettes out of her husband’s mouth. Speaking of her husband, Frank Butler, he was also a sharpshooter who performed in variety shows. Part of his act involved challenging audience members to a sharpshooting contest and he was undefeated until he met a young Annie Oakley. It was love at first shot.
The violent and bloody encounters between frontiersmen and Native American tribes are an unpleasant, but significant part of the history of the Wild West. The most notorious tribe of all was, arguably, the Apache, led by Geronimo. Geronimo’s long-lasting fame came after he surrendered and became a prisoner of war and started making appearances at fairs. He even told his story for a book about his life.
8. Davy Crockett
You don’t think of Old West frontiersmen of being much of a trendsetter, but Davy Crockett’s look with the coonskin cap is still instantly recognizable to this day. One of the greatest folk heroes to come out of the Wild West, Crockett’s legend grew due to his exploits being regularly featured in plays and almanacs.
9. Jesse James
Probably the most famous outlaw in the history of the Wild West, Jesse James was a criminal who robbed banks, trains and coaches as part of the James-Younger Gang. Certainly, the fact that Jesse was gunned down at a young age by a member of his own gang helped cement his legacy as a heroic southern patriot and a Robin Hood-like robber. While this character proved very popular with the masses, there’s nothing to suggest the real Jesse James was anything other than your standard bank robber of the day.
10. Butch Cassidy
If there’s one western outlaw more famous than Jesse James, it’s arguably Butch Cassidy. Cassidy is almost always mentioned alongside Harry Longabaugh aka The Sundance Kid. The two of them were members of the Wild Bunch led by Cassidy (not to be confused with the original Wild Bunch) and went on the lamb to South America in an attempt to evade capture. While their final end is uncertain, it’s likely both men were gunned down in a shootout with Bolivian authorities in 1908.