The WWHA has broadened its Western horizons.
In the world of research about outlaws and lawmen of the Old West, there has been division in recent years. Some individuals belonged to the National Association of Outlaw and Lawman History (NOLA). Others joined the Western Outlaw Lawman History Association (WOLA). Heck, some folks belonged to both organizations. In fact, WOLA was a splinter group from the get-go, having been organized by people in NOLA who wanted to hear more about certain Wild West outlaws such as Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch.
During the past few years, though, as members of NOLA and WOLA attended their annual gatherings, it became apparent that they really had similar interests and goals. Talk began about merging the two groups of aficionados. Now it has happened as they become the Wild West History Association. The WWHA began operations on January 1, 2008. The new group will continue with a focus on outlaws and lawmen, but broaden to include other Western characters such as gamblers, vigilantes and shady ladies.
Most members of both organizations are recognized for their research and writing, and in setting the tone for the new WWHA, the two organizations selected Robert G. McCubbin as the first president. He is known for his collection of Old West photographs, many of them images of the most legendary of the outlaws and lawmen. Recently he took time to talk to Wild West Magazine about his photographic collection, and the new Wild West History Association.
How did you begin collecting Old West photographs?
I had been collecting books on the Old West for many years when Jarvis Garrett, the son of Pat Garrett, gave me an original photograph of his father. That made me aware of the difference between a “copy” photo and an “original” photo and started me looking for more. That was about 1975.
How can you tell the difference?
You must first learn the basics of the photos of the time period you want to collect, like cabinet cards, tintypes, cdvs— become familiar with what they look like. Nowadays making good copies is so easy that some people glue copies made at the drugstore on an authentic old cabinet card. Sometimes it takes real close examination to tell the difference. But the main thing to be wary of is misidentification. People are quick to put a famous name on a photo because it makes it worth a lot more money. I don’t recommend buying photos of famous Westerners on Ebay… most often they are not who they are represented to be. In any case, be cautious.
What are some of your prize photos?
I hardly know where to begin. I also got from Jarvis the photo of Charley Bowdre that Pat Garrett took off of Bowdre’s body at Stinking Springs when Billy the Kid was captured and Charley was killed; it has his blood stains on it (see P. 30). I recently obtained a photo of the gunfighter Ben Thompson taken off the body of King Fisher after the two of them were shot down in San Antonio. It also has blood stains and an inscription on the back, “To my friend King Fisher, [signed] Ben Thompson, Austin, Texas, March 11, 1884”—the day they were killed!
What do you have of the Wild Bunch?
One of the most famous Old West photographs is the Wild Bunch (Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid, Harvey Logan, Ben Kilpatrick and Bill Carver) taken in Fort Worth in 1901. It was discovered by detectives and cropped copies were made by the photographer and mounted on plain white cardboard for distribution to law enforcement around the country. I have the larger format, uncropped version as made for the outlaws themselves by the photographer and placed in his studio window…the one seen by the detectives. I suppose I should mention John Wesley Hardin’s personal photo album found among his possessions at his death. It contains the famous Abilene, Kan., tintype of Hardin (see P. 36) plus another taken when he was hiding out in Florida, as well as many of his family members.
Any photos of famous women?
There weren’t very many of them in the categories that I collect. I have a very famous photograph of female outlaw Belle Starr on horseback. It is a cabinet card, a published one. It is the original cabinet card taken at Fort Smith. She is riding side saddle, and has a pistol in a scabbard around her waist. It’s on a Fort Smith card. The other thing I have is a virtually unpublished portrait of Calamity Jane; it’s just a head and shoulders portrait. Those are both quite rare.
Have you collected photos of Indians?
I used to. I kind of got out of that because they are relatively common and easy to obtain. I just decided to focus the money that I had to spend on the outlaws and those colorful characters. I also collect the cowboys and scouts.
Who are some of the photographers you have images by?
I have not specifically collected photographers. I have been more interested in the subject matter and location of the photograph. I do like C.S. Fly, the photographer in Tombstone. Also photos taken in places like Dodge City, Deadwood and other Wild West towns.
Do any of the photographers have interesting stories in their own right?
This is not something I know much about. There were some photographers that accompanied some of the early Western explorations, but that is not an area I collect. C.S. Fly of Tombstone took some great photos of Geronimo’s conference with General George Crook and he was later a sheriff of Cochise County. But, unfortunately, he let us down following the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, which was right next door to Fly’s studio. Apparently he did not run out and take pictures of the aftermath of the famous gunfight. Wouldn’t we like to have such photos today!
Care to theorize on why he didn’t take those photos?
Photography wasn’t like it is today. He was more of a studio photographer. In all the excitement, if he was there, he didn’t go out and set up his equipment. I haven’t heard anybody [speculate about] why no photos were taken that day—other than complaints that we don’t have photos lying all over the place.
Did your writing evolve from the photograph collection? Or were you searching out old photographs to illustrate articles you wanted to write?
I have written a number of magazine and journal articles based on photographs in my collection. Otherwise, I am not really a writer. I like to share my photos and have supplied them for many books, articles and videos over the years. It has been a goal of mine to improve the quality and authenticity of photos appearing in print. I get very disturbed about all the wrongly identified photographs of famous outlaws and lawmen that appear.
Who are some of your favorite characters of the Old West?
I suppose they are pretty much the ones just about everybody likes—Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, Jesse James. They all have fascinating stories and were interesting and complex people. They deserve their notoriety. We never get tired of reading about them, and people are always searching for something new… including photographs.
Who do you think is one of the more overlooked Old West characters?
I wouldn’t say he has been “overlooked,” but one of the most interesting and mysterious was Tom Horn. He had a checkered life. Joe Horner, alias Frank Canton, is another. Interestingly, Horn started out a respected scout and ended up being hanged, and Canton started out an outlaw and ended up as adjutant general of the new state of Oklahoma.
You are the first president of the Wild West History Association. How did that come about?
Beats me! It wasn’t something I sought, but I am pleased to help in any way I can. I was a longtime member of both NOLA and WOLA. I served on a committee that investigated the possibility of a merger before it was brought to a vote in 2007. It received the very strong approval of the leadership and the membership of both WOLA and NOLA. The merger of the two groups made a lot of sense and has been talked about for many years.
Will this re-merger of individuals interested in the outlaws and lawmen of the West be a combination of WOLA and NOLA, or will it have a different focus?
The focus will be very much the same— Western outlaws and lawmen. We wanted a new name, and after a long discussion of all kinds of complicated names, Wild West History was suggested, and it was approved within minutes. Everyone seems to be satisfied with it. We think it will reach more people. We carefully designed the meaning of our Wild West so that it reflects much the same subjects as our parent organizations. But it does have the potential for a broader scope as time goes on. Its future direction will be determined by the desires of the membership.
How do people become involved?
First of all, they should join! Go to www.wildwesthistory.org for information on how to do that. Then, write articles for the Journal, attend the annual Wild West History Roundup (this year July 16-19, in Tulsa, Okla.), volunteer for various committees, communicate with other members, many of whom are well-known writers and researchers. When members of WWHA get together, I can assure you there is no lull in conversation!
What are your plans for the publications that will serve WWHA?
Our plans for the Journal are very ambitious. It will appear six times a year. We want it to be a premier publication. To achieve the level of quality we want, an editorial board headed by Frederick Nolan and composed of prominent writers in the field has been formed. Roy Young is the editor and the guy in charge overall. Dan Buck is managing the book reviews. Chuck Parsons is putting together the newsletter, called the Saddlebag, and it will also appear six times a year. We encourage our members to actively record their research for publication in the Journal. We have a goal of finding everyone who has written about or has an interest in our Wild West and signing them up into membership of WWHA, including all who read Wild West Magazine.
Originally published in the August 2008 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.