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Quick With A Gun

An outgrowth of the Civil War, the gunfighter era also spawned a number of outlaws. With men who had become accustomed to violence and often having lost their lands or fortunes, being quick with a gun was often an easy transition. Though about a third of the gunman died of "natural causes," many died violently in gunfights, lynchings, or legal executions. The average age of death was about 35. However, of those gunman who used their skills on the side of the law, they would persistently live longer lives than those that lived a life of crime. The occupations of gunfighters ranged from lawmen, to cowboys, ranchers, gamblers, farmers, teamsters, bounty hunters, and outlaws.

The West was pioneered by heroic men and women who braved hardships of every kind to build new homes and communities. They endured blizzards and droughts and risked having their scalps taken by savages. They gave unselfishly of their time to carry to the frontier the banner of civilization. They deserve all the honor that later generations can give them.

Yet to assume that all those who went over the western trails were valiant and honorable would be to distort history. In almost every group of builders was a sprinkling of wreckers. Each area had its quota of those who had gone west to escape jail or to make easy fortunes from the work of others. Nearly every mining camp had its claim jumpers and thugs. Every stagecoach trail attracted highwaymen eager to unload shipments of gold. The entire West was spotted with thieves and rustlers.

Many observers of life on the frontier noted the less desirable elements. It was not uncommon to inquire of a man why he had run away from his former home, wrote W. B. Dewees, an early settler. "Few persons feel insulted at such a question. They generally answer for some crime or other which they have committed. If they deny having committed any crime or say they did not run away, they are looked upon suspiciously." In a similar vein, Frederick Law Olmsted, an eastern visitor to Texas, pointed out that

. . . in the rapid settlement of the country, many an adventurer crossed the border, spurred by love of liberty, forfeited at home, rather than drawn by a love of adventure or of rich soil. Probably a more reckless and vicious crew was seldom gathered than that which peopled some parts of Eastern Texas at the time of its first resistance to the Mexican government. "G.T.T." (gone to Texas) was the slang appendage . . . to every man's name who had disappeared before the discovery of some rascality. Did a man emigrate thither, everyone was on the watch for the discreditable reason to turn up.

If your life were of the slightest use to anyone, Olmsted added, . . . you might be sure he would take it. It was safe only as you were in constant readiness to defend it. Horses and wives were of as little account as umbrellas in more advanced states. Everybody appropriated everything that suited him, running his own risk of a penalty. Justice descended into the body of Judge Lynch, sleeping when he slept, and when he awoke hewing down right and left for exercise and pastime.

This was true not only of early Texas but of most of the West. The frontier was settled by a strange mixture of human elements-by the upright and enterprising who sought to improve their condition and by criminals of various types who went West to escape the terrors of the law.

Almost every spot in the early West had its hard characters. Even a brief glance at some of them makes very clear the difficulties faced by those who set out to tame the new country. Many of the boldest of frontier outlaws operated in California. The gold rush brought to the Pacific Coast a vast influx of adventurers and thieves, along with those who wanted to make their living honestly by mining. Soon the ranks of bandits were enlarged by those who had failed at mining and looked at crime as a possible living.

California's Mexicans could rationalize their own lawless activities more easily than others, for early in 1850 the California legislature imposed an outrageous tax system designed to make it almost impossible for foreigners to mine gold. In practice; Germans, Frenchmen, Italians and even those from Australia's convict settlements were counted as native Americans. But the Chinese and the Spanish-speaking Americans had no chance. This unfairness was bitterly resented by the Mexicans, some of whom had spent their entire lives in California, and when one of them turned to crime, he could claim to be righting a wrong.

Like California during its gold rush, Texas in its early years of settlement had a bumper crop of outlaws. The population was thinly spread, and so was the law. Usually a man who ran into serious trouble could get across the Red River or the Rio Grande and lie low until the excitement had subsided.

Things were especially chaotic in Texas during the decade of Reconstruction following the Civil War. The removal of many state and local officials and the imposition of military law had caused deep resentment, and many retaliated by taking the law into their own hands. It was at this time that the state's most notorious gunman, John Wesley Hardin, began his long career in crime.

The homesteaders and fortune seekers who moved west into previously ungoverned Indian lands during the mid-nineteenth century faced enormous perils, including the many colorful gunfighters and desperados who etched their names into history in the fifty years before the western frontier officially "closed" in 1900. The exploits of these men have been greatly exaggerated in the popular culture of the late twentieth century. There really was a Billy the Kid, for example, though it is doubtful that he killed twenty-one men, one for every year of his life; according to his friend George Coe, this figure never exceeded nine. Similarly, Ben Thompson of Texas was said to have gunned down thirty men single-handedly, and John Wesley Hardin forty.

Lawlessness in the Old West was not confined to the main streets of wide-open towns like Abilene or Dodge City. The worst incidents of gun play often occurred in the era's range wars and personal feuds that sprang up in New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas. The Mason County War in particular was characterized by a violent clash between German homesteaders and native Texans. Their differences harkened back to the Civil War, when the Germans espoused the cause of the Union, and the natives took the side of the Confederacy. Erupting between them in 1875, a shooting war resulted in many casualties on both sides before the Texas Rangers restored order.

The chaos that followed on the heels of the Civil War spawned a gunfighting subspecies that seemed to be the very embodiment of anarchy - emotionally maimed and socially alienated killers who, for the most part, took up the gun while they were still in their teens, murdered men with profligate ease and then met an early demise by either the bullet or the noose.

Occasionally the fights of these gunmen were fair, but more often the gunmen bloodied the frontier with assaults that were utterly vicious and capricious. A Texas badman named John King Fisher once shot a man in the head because he wanted to see if a bullet would bounce off his bald pate. Clay Allison prowled New Mexico saloons, where the effects of drink, said a contemporary, transformed him into "hell turned loose," ready to kill at the slightest provocation. Most of the victims of Billy the Kid were either unarmed or plugged from ambush.

The kill tally was staggering. John Wesley Hardin dispatched 44 men in 10 years, and others of his ilk may have surpassed his total, if not his callousness. The public scarcely knew how to judge individuals who were capable of such senseless slaughter, and in the end they came to be regarded with a kind of amazed awe - which was as much as most of them ever wanted from their doomed lives.

From a Texas jail where he was being held for murder in 1877, a young desperado named Bill Longley wrote these words to the sheriff who had captured him. "Well, I do not propose to boast of being brave at all, but I have had no help in my meanness when it came to killing a man. I have done such things on my own account and always alone." Longley's statement, made more by way of explanation than expiation, also served to identify him in a special sort of way, one of a particularly vicious type of gunfighter that roamed the West in the tumultuous years after the Civil War.

Killers of Longley's stripe were among the most renowned figures on the frontier. A few of them attracted national attention in their brief lifetimes and became enduring legends from the moment of their own violent deaths. One frontier editor fumed at the celebrity that was accorded such gunmen. "There is a class of persons," he wrote, "who cannot restrain a sort of admiration for a stupendous criminal. One who has murdered many, and shown no mercy - who has hesitated at no deed of darkness and inhumanity - is sure to be admired as a sort of remarkable character who approaches the measure of a genuine hero."

Still, there was warrant for the fascination aroused. Each was his own kind of enigma, yet certain generalizations are possible. In a later age they would have been labeled psychopathic killers - and indeed there seemed no sense, except in their own dark minds, to most of the deaths they dealt out. Killings were a common enough phenomenon in frontier America, but by and large the reasons for them could be understood if not commended. They frequently murdered out of sudden impulse. They appeared to lack any semblance of self-control, any means of cooling the passion to wipe other men off the face of the earth, any inner check that told them when to stop. They tended to regard their victims less as human beings than as mere impediments in their paths, to be outdrawn or - when stealth proved more expedient - to be gunned down from behind.

Nor did they suffer any evident remorse in the wake of their monstrous victories. Their egos swelled in direct proportion to their mounting credits, and they seemed to derive intense satisfaction from being given a wide berth by mortals who did not have their deadly skills. Yet they knew moments of crisis and exhaustion, and on such occasions they often did something that seemed totally out of character for them. They turned to their sworn enemies, the officers of the law, for protection - or simply for somebody to talk to.

For all the cruelty of their deeds, they possessed something of the aura of tragedy - of lives gone terribly wrong. Most of them embarked on their homicidal careers before they had emerged from adolescence. But, as a rule, they did not come from squalid homes: more often they were the strays of upright and hard-working families. And although their schooling was largely outside the classroom, they were quickminded and remarkably literate.

Certain circumstances of time and place contributed to the appearance of the breed. Most of them were Southerners, and the bitterness of the lost Confederate cause apparently had a lot to do with shaping them into predators upon society. The still-raw West offered them an arena where their private furies could be acted out with a lack of constraint that was possible nowhere else.

The era of the gunfighter was over by the turn of the century. Unfortunately, the saints are often tarnished while the sinners blaze on in the ballads and myths of a nation. Nonetheless, giving the devil his due and perhaps jostling the angels in the process, we admire their shared vitality, enormous self-confidence, courage, gusto, individuality, and irrepressible independence - the archetypal American character. Improvements in transportation, the encroachments of civilization, and a more efficient deployment of law enforcement personnel put an end to this colorful but violent chapter in U.S. history.

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