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9 Surprising facts about Wild West icons

Ian Chaddock

BY Ian Chaddock

8th Jun 2023 Life

9 Surprising facts about Wild West icons

From Davy Crockett and Billy the Kid to Calamity Jane and Sitting Bull, here are some facts you might not know about Wild West icons 

1. Davy Crockett (1786-1836)

Davy Crockett illustration
An illustration of Davy Crockett. Credit: William Henry Huddle, 1889

A hunter and pioneer immortalised in song and on screen as the “King of the Wild Frontier”, Davy Crockett is a great example of how murky the difference between history and legend became when it comes to the Wild West and its early icons. Everything from his raccoon skin cap to the circumstances of his famous death at the Battle of the Alamo are disputed.

But it was definitely true that, as well as a frontiersman, Crockett surprisingly served as a congressman twice, representing Tennessee in the US House of Representatives from 1827 to 1831 and from 1833 to 1835. Despite very little formal education, his charisma won him allies and voters, although his clashes with President Andrew Jackson resulted in opposition and his eventual political downfall—although it was said he was bored of politics by then anyway. In his 1834 autobiography, he wrote, “I told the people of my district that I would serve them as faithfully as I had done; but if not, they might go to hell, and I would go to Texas”.

2. Wild Bill Hickok (1837-1876)

Wild Bill Hickok photograph
A portrait photograph of Wild Bill Hickok by an unknown photographer

Wild Bill Hickock became famous as a gunslinger (among many other things, such as marshal, scout, cattle rustler and gambler) during a complicated life on both sides of the law. He also took part in several notable shootouts, killing probably around six or seven men in gunfights over a ten-year period. But after accidentally killing his deputy during an 1871 shootout in Abilene, Texas, he never took part in another gunfight. He was eventually famously murdered at a poker table (later being linked to the term “dead man’s hand” as a result).

However, Wild Bill’s most famous gunfight was on July 21, 1865, when he fought in America’s first-ever recorded account of a one-on-one, quickfire duel. Hickok shot and killed Davis Tutt in the centre of Springfield, Missouri, taking a life and creating a future cinematic trope in a moment. Although arrested for the shootout, he was acquitted because of the unwritten law of a “fair fight” and went on to give an interview with Harper’s New Monthly Magazine just weeks later.

3. Annie Oakley (1860-1926)

Annie Oakley photograph by H&R Stile, 1880s
A photograph of Annie Oakley taken in London in the 1880s. Credit: H&R Stiles

The Ohio-born sharpshooter developed her marksmanship skills early in life to support her poverty-stricken family, making her first shot at the age of eight, picking off a squirrel. At age 15, she won a shooting contest against an experienced marksman, Frank E Butler. Butler hit 24 out of 25, while Oakley hit all 25. However, the two married the following summer and remained wed for 50 years, before dying weeks apart.

"Annie Oakley was 'far and away' the best shot in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show when it arrived in London, in celebration of Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee"

They both found fame, with Annie Oakley becoming the most famous markswoman of the Wild West, when they joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in 1885, touring all over the world. On July 20, 1887, in celebration of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee the show performed in London on Wimbledon Common. Oakley took part in the rifle competition in front of a crowd that included the future King Edward VII, and the London Evening News reported that she was “far and away” the best shot in the show.

4. Jesse James (1847-1882)

Jesse James portrait
A portrait of Jesse James. Credit: Unknown photographer

Sons of a preacher, Jesse and his brother Frank went from pro-Confederate guerrillas known as “bushwhackers” during the American Civil War to robbing trains, banks and stagecoaches between 1866 and 1876. These crimes gained them national attention and often popular sympathy, despite their brutality.

Despite his fame as an outlaw, Jesse James was nothing like the Robin Hood-like character that his legend and films have depicted him as. The idea of him robbing from the rich to give to the poor was romantic revisionism by a pro-Confederate newspaper editor, John Newman Edwards. There is no evidence at all that James’ gang shared their loot with anyone outside of themselves but there’s evidence he acted out of revenge. During an 1869 bank robbery in Gallatin, Missouri, he shot and killed a cashier who he mistook for a commander of pro-Union militia troops who had killed a bushwhacker during the Civil War.

5. Billy the Kid (1859-1881)

Billy the Kid first authenticated photograph
The first authenticated photograph of Billy the Kid. Credit: Ben Wittick

For such an infamous outlaw and icon of the Wild West (who was killed aged just 21, by Sheriff Pat Garrett), it’s surprising that there were no authenticated photographs of Billy the Kid found until 130 years after his death. The first authenticated photograph of the Kid went up for sale in June 2011 in Denver, Colorado and sold for $2.3 million! It depicted Billy standing in Fort Sumner in 1879 holding a Winchester rifle and with a Colt 45 strapped around his waist.

"For such an infamous outlaw, it’s surprising that there were no authenticated photographs of Billy the Kid found until 130 years after his death"

The photograph was originally owned by descendants of Dan Dedrick—one of the Kid’s cattle rustling partners who he gave the photo to. Since then, other tintype images of Billy playing croquet and poker have emerged. The mystery and lack of photographs of Billy the Kid for so long has only added to the mystique of his bloody but short life.

6. Calamity Jane (1852-1903)

A posed photograph of Calamity Jane from the 1880s
Calamity Jane photographed in the 1880s. Credit: CE Finn

Tragically, although there was plenty of myth-building around Calamity Jane—much of it done by herself—there is no evidence that the majority of what has been claimed about her is true. Born Martha Jane Canary, she lived most of her life in poverty and suffered from a severe alcohol addiction. It was so bad that the money she earned from a short, self-published autobiography in 1896, which most historians see as tall tales, was mostly drunk away. Everything from her nickname being given to her by a wounded captain who she helped escape an ambush to serving alongside General Custer and rumours of a relationship with Wild Bill Hickok all seem to have been fictitious.

However, there is no denying that Calamity Jane’s wearing of men’s clothing, living a rugged, outdoor life on the Great Plains and her refusal to be restricted by the expectations of the behaviour of women at the time made her a pioneer of the Wild West, even if most of what we think we know about her isn’t based in fact. 

7. Doc Holliday (1851-1887)

Blurry photo of Doc Holliday from 1879
A blurry photograph of Doc Holliday by in Prescott, AZ, 1879. Credit: Unknown photographer

Famous as a friend of lawman Wyatt Earp and for his role in the gunfight at the OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona, the gunfighter, gambler and occasional dentist Doc Holliday is an iconic character of the Wild West. He died aged just 36 from tuberculosis but his myth lived on.

"Gunfighter and occasional dentist Doc Holliday was distantly related to Gone With the Wind author Margaret Mitchell"

What’s less well known about Holliday is that he was distantly related to Gone With the Wind author Margaret Mitchell. Doc Holliday was romantically linked and kept in correspondence all his life with his cousin, Mattie Holliday (even after she became a nun), and she was cousins with Margaret Mitchell and became the inspiration for Melanie Hamilton. Although Mitchell was born 13 years after Doc Holliday’s death, the link via Mattie and distant family remains, as does both Doc and Margaret’s lingering ability to myth-build about America.

8. Buffalo Bill (1846-1917)

Buffalo Bill posing with his rifle and custom-made saddle
"Buffalo Bill" Cody posing with his rifle and custom-made saddle in the 1880s or 1890s

Best known as a showman who toured the world with his Wild West Show, Buffalo Bill Cody earned a reputation as one of the most recognisable men on Earth by the late 1800s, according to historians. He even had an audience with Pople Leo XIII while touring Europe and performed in London as well. 

A supporter of both women's suffrage and equal pay and Native American rights, he was from a Quaker family and was ahead of his time in his thinking. He employed Annie Oakley, Calamity Jane, Sitting Bull and many other skilled women and Native Americans. In 1893, his show became more multi-cultural, expanding to become Buffalo Bill's Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World and including horsemen from places such as South America and Turkey.

9. Sitting Bull (1831-1890)

Photograph of Sitting Bull from 1883
Sitting Bull in Dakota Territory from 1883. Credit: D F Barry

Famous for his bravery, leadership, close-quarter fighting and a spiritual vision of victory at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Sitting Bull is also one of the most famous Native American chiefs for a huge historical achievement. 

Facing the might of the US Army, the war chief managed to unite autonomous bands and was made the "Supreme Chief of the whole Sioux Nation" around 1867, according to historian Stanley Vestal, who interviewed surviving Hunkpapa in 1930. Other hunting bands of Arapaho and Cheyenne also followed him by the mid-1870s. No wonder he's one of the most well-known names of the Wild West. 

Banner photos credit: An illustration of the aftermath of the Hickok-Tutt shootout by George Ward Nichols from the February 1867 issue of Harper's New Monthly Magazine / Annie Oakley by H&R Stiles

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