The period following the Civil War was a time of great uneasiness. It was an era that gave rise to the Western outlaws. They were bandits, gunfighters, and men guilty of hundreds of crimes, but they were also important in shaping American folklore. Two important factors contributed to the making of these legends. The transition that these men under went from solider to ranch hand or cowboy, and the making of their legends through the media molded the way we perceive gunfighters today. I feel that the media had a major role in creating the characters, legends and hero’s that we learn about in history.
The Civil War gave many young men a taste of conflict and killing. Many that fought the War were a very tender age and very impressionable. According to an article written by Mark Sufrin called “The Western Gunman”, he said that the “Civil War soldiers were to much in love with killing after years of violence to settle down”(23). After the Civil War many of the men were hired by ranchers as ranch hands which paid little for their hard work. Many of the young cowboys found themselves craving the life they had lived for four years of violence and killing. It was these impulses that caused them to run rampant across the west, robbing banks and holding up trains. As the west was growing so was the need for law and order. Town sheriff’s and U.S. Marshal’s took on that role. This would pave the way for the so called “gunman and gunfighters”. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, “One example of this was a young man named Jesse James who fought in the Civil War when he was fifteen. He and his older brother Frank were in the pro-southern guerrillas led by William C. Quantrill. After the war, Jesse formed a highly successful gang. They held up banks, stagecoaches, and trains until 1876 when the gang was shot to pieces by the folks of Northfield, Minnesota when they tried to rob two banks at once ” (vol.5, 39 ). These soldiers turned cowboys paved the way for the story writers and movie makers of America to work their magic and create their legends.
The west has its setting in the immense plains, and mountain ranges of the United States lying west of the Mississippi River, in particular the Great Plains and the southwest. It provides a rich mine for stories of adventure. Many of the legends in the west were due to the writings in the dime novels. Tales of the West became a popular form of regional writing and created frontier outlaws and hero’s, such as Billy the kid. In book The Gunfighters, “The first dime novels incorporated frontier lore, and conflicts between cowboys and Indians. Dime novels are seen as precursors of the west. It also became material for the great western movies. One of the first films was The Great Train Robbery (1903)”(117), which set the pattern for many films that followed. These mediums have glamorized the west and the characters in it. It has been a favorite of young and old alike.
Several things led to the making to the legendary characters of the west. The telling of their lives through books and movies has made America embrace the men we call “Gunfighters.”
Sufrin, Mark. “The Western Gunman.” American History Illustrated July 1970:
Horan, James D. The Gunfighters . New York: Random House Publishing, 1994
“Western”. Encyclopedia Britannica. 1980, Vol. 5,pg 39