The Wild West, aka the Old West, was an astoundingly awesome period in American history that every person who has ever played Red Dead Redemption wants to emulate. Now, clearly pop culture has turned much of the true West into bullshit legend -- there were never quick-draw artists who could shoot a six gun out of your hand with another six gun. But the basics were true, right? The lawlessness, the guns, the constant Indian attacks?
Well ... not exactly. Some common myths you probably still believe include ...
5Settlers Were Constantly Clashing With Indians
Old Westerns treat Native Americans kind of like The Walking Dead treats zombies -- sudden, murderous ambushes could come from anywhere, at any time. Any expedition into "injun" territory came with the warning that you'd better go well-armed. When wagon trains saw a raid of Cherokee or Sioux coming, they would "circle the wagons" to form a defense perimeter -- and to this day, "circle the wagons" is shorthand for "hunker down and fight back."
"With only a 10-foot gap between wagons, we're basically invincible."
And all of this has to be true; we know that horrific numbers of people died when settlers expanded West. Those frontiersmen must have been firing bullets and dodging arrows on a daily basis, right?
Well, not really. Granted, between the United States cavalry and, uh, pretty much every tribe you can name, things certainly got good and massacre-y. But skirmishes between Native Americans and the typical American settler trundling along in his covered wagon hardly ever happened. Of the hundreds of thousands of pioneers who willingly trudged all the way through Nebraska, only a few hundred died in clashes with Native Americans.
More settlers died from totem pole collapses.
We repeat: not tens of thousands, not even thousands. About 300 to 400. To put that number in perspective, the total number of pioneer deaths on the Oregon Trail from all causes (including disease) numbered 10,000 to 30,000, which means only 1 to 4 percent of all trail fatalities can be attributed to Native Americans. Hell, we bet more settlers were accidentally trampled by their own cows.
"Not an accident."
During this same period, settlers killed over 400 Native Americans. Again, that's not zero, but it does mean that the vast majority of settlers never got into a murderous conflict with hostile tribes. It was far more likely that the average settler would trade with Native Americans or hire members of various tribes as guides, rather than fight them. It wasn't necessarily because they were open-minded and peace loving that they abstained from violence, but rather that it's never good business to kill your customers, or vice versa. Especially when you're talking about someone providing a potentially life-saving service (a guide kept you from getting lost, when getting lost meant getting dead).
Native American deaths caused by the U.S. government and the military likely number in the millions. No one's disputing that one. But deaths due to wagon train clashes were few and far between. As for the "circling the wagons" thing, that ring formation was done each night not to keep hostile Indians out, but to keep their absurdly expensive cattle from wandering off. Hell, it wouldn't even be possible to "circle the wagons" in an emergency -- these wagon trains typically traveled spread out in a line several miles wide, rather than in the column that the term "train" suggests, in an effort to avoid each other's dust, wheel ruts, and debris. It would have taken hours to get everybody together and hooked up in circle formation.
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"We just have to hold them off until Thursday!"
4Bank-Robbing Outlaws Ruled the West
Black Bart, the Dalton Gang, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid all were famous for their daring robberies. They could take entire fortunes from banks that had slightly less security than a modern hot dog stand.
"NOW PUT THE MONEY IN MY MUSTACHE!"
And why not? Lawlessness ruled, vaults didn't exist, and criminals didn't give a shit. The banks might as well have left their big white bags of gold sitting out on the porch.
Research can find evidence of only about eight true bank heists, and that's across 15 states in 40 freaking years. Eight. As a point of comparison, bank robberies in 2010 amounted to 5,600. Hell, even if we'd never seen a Western in our lives, that would seem like a low number.
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"This is a lot of work. I can't wait 'til someone invents drug dealing."
But there are several things to consider. First, towns back in those days were much smaller, with the sheriff's office, saloon, general store, and bank usually clustered together for convenience. This one-stop social-needs block usually made up the dead center of town. Being that the sheriff's office was usually no more than a few doors down, you were probably pulling your big heist within earshot of the law.
"Earshot's the last kinda shot you oughta worry about."
Second, the banks actually weren't that easy to get in and out of. Old West buildings were usually built pretty close together, meaning the bank would be flanked by other buildings, while a reinforced back wall would keep anyone from intruding from behind (you can sort through the Freudian implications of that). When you walk out the front door with the loot, there's the sheriff waiting for you. Now, the most famous robberies -- the jobs pulled by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid -- were actually true. But that's the point -- they got famous for a reason. They were doing what nobody else was crazy enough to do.
But for everyday criminals, common targets were often trains and stagecoaches because they were more isolated, easier to get into, and easier to escape. So why bother with a bank, which would be a suicide mission in comparison?
"C'mon, guys, no way this one's full of underpants, too!"