Letter from Wild West – October 2011

When It Came to Old West Gunslinging, Texans ‘Slung’ Better Than All the Rest
The Lone Star State was a 19th-century hotbed for gunfights and feuds

It was 175 years ago that Texians won their independence by fighting Mexicans. For the rest of the 19th century Texans fought Indians, Mexicans again, Yankees and each other within Texas’ vast borders. But even the largest state in the Union until Alaska hooked on couldn’t contain that frontier fighting spirit. Armed Texans, many smelling of Longhorns and liquor, opposed such badge wearers as Wyatt Earp and Wild Bill Hickok in the Kansas cow towns of the 1870s. In the 1880s Lone Star State cowboys were spilling blood in New Mexico Territory’s Tularosa Valley (“It was the Texans who made Tularosa the Last of the Frontier West,” wrote historian C.L. Sonnichsen) and wreaking havoc in Arizona Territory from Tombstone to Pleasant Valley. The Twin Territories (now Oklahoma) was sufficiently close and lawless to attract more than its share of Texas desperados.

“So many badmen of Texas have attained reputation far wider than their state that it became a proverb upon the frontier that any man born on Texas soil would shoot, just as any horse born there would ‘buck,’” wrote Emerson Hough in 1905. Toward the end of the 20th century, after a full dose of pulp, TV and big-screen Westerns, Texas author Rick Miller wrote that the Texas gunman, “more than any other figure, has come to be the most recognized and popular symbol of the Old West.”

Truth is, when most of us think Old West outlaws, Missouri’s Jesse James or New Mexico’s Billy the Kid come to mind first. But not far behind in our dark collective recognition is Texas’ own John Wesley Hardin, a psychopath whose kill total probably exceeded that of the Kid, the James brothers and Younger boys combined. Hardin’s only match in deadliness was Texas product “Killin’ Jim” Miller, though author Miller puts Ben Thompson (who emigrated to Texas from England as a child) next in line to Hardin atop the gunfighter heap. Also associated with Texas are the likes of John Selman (who ultimately shot down Hardin), King Fisher, Dallas Stoudenmire, Clay Allison, Sam Bass and Bill Longley. “More frontier gunfighters were born in Texas than in any other state or territory, and more died in Texas than in any other state,” says Texas native Bill O’Neal, author of the Encyclopedia of Western Gunfighters and an article in this issue. He points out that 10 of the 15 most efficient shootists were Texas terrors and that Texas hosted some 160 known gunfights, more than twice the number of any other state or territory. Blood feuds are synonymous with Texas, starting with the 1840s Regulator-Moderator War, which counted among its dead a signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence.

So what is it about Texas that brought forth all this violence? Like the United States, Texas was born of revolution and fought a mother country and Indians. O’Neal says the “habit of violence” on the Texas frontier became ingrained among self-reliant settlers who had to deal with Comanche raiders. Texans learned firearms skills early on and became, as Hough wrote, “used to the thought that the only arbitrament among men was that of weapons.” Texans were active on every Civil War battlefront, and what O’Neal calls “the poisonous atmosphere of Reconstruction” made many veterans want to keep fighting. The postwar cattle industry led to fights between those who had Longhorns and those who wanted them, as well as between cattlemen and sheepherders. O’Neal argues that while frontier lawlessness was relatively short-lived elsewhere, Texas gunmen operated from the 1850s to post-1900.

As a kid in Ohio in the early 1960s I wrote shoot-’em-up tales. The inevitable showdowns happened in imaginary towns like Red Rock, Black Rock, Grave City, Desert Junction, Lynchville and Goldtown. I’m not sure if I thought of all those places as being in Texas, but I do know the heroic gunfighter who showed up in every one of those towns was either “Tex” or his son “Tex II.” Back then I knew more than I thought I did.

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