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Embellishing the romance and violence of the Old West has become a staple of folklore and stories of the era. My favourite tales usually include a lone gunman who has to save everyone while still adhering to his own code.
Let’s look at what the Old West looked like and how there had developed so much folklore around it.
The American Frontier comprises the geography, history, folklore, and cultural expression of life in the forward wave of American expansion that began with English colonial settlements in the early 17th century and ended with the admission of the last mainland territories as states in 1912. “Frontier” refers to a contrasting region at the edge of a European-American line of settlement. American historians cover multiple frontiers but the folklore is focused primarily on the 19th century west of the Mississippi River. Enormous popular attention in the media focuses on the Western United States in the second half of the 19th century, a period sometimes called the Old West, or the Wild West, frequently exaggerating the romance and violence of the period.
As defined by Hine and Faragher, “frontier history tells the story of the creation and defense of communities, the use of the land, the development of markets, and the formation of states.” They explain, “It is a tale of conquest, but also one of survival, persistence, and the merging of peoples and cultures that gave birth and continuing life to America.” Through treaties with foreign nations and native tribes; political compromise; military conquest; establishment of law and order; the building of farms, ranches, and towns; the marking of trails and digging of mines; and the pulling in of great migrations of foreigners, the United States expanded from coast to coast, fulfilling the dreams of Manifest Destiny. Historian Frederick Jackson Turner in his “Frontier Thesis” (1893) theorized that the frontier was a process that transformed Europeans into a new people, the Americans, whose values focused on equality, democracy, and optimism, as well as individualism, self-reliance, and even violence. Thus, Turner’s Frontier Thesis proclaimed the westward frontier as the defining process of American history.
As the American frontier passed into history, the myths of the West in fiction and film took firm hold in the imagination of Americans and foreigners alike. America is exceptional in choosing its iconic self-image. David Murdoch has said: “No other nation has taken a time and place from its past and produced a construct of the imagination equal to America’s creation of the West.”
Central to the myth and the reality of the West is the American cowboy. His real life was a hard one and revolved around two annual roundups, spring and fall, the subsequent drives to market, and the time off in the cattle towns spending his hard earned money on food, clothing, gambling, and prostitution. During winter, many cowboys hired themselves out to ranches near the cattle towns, where they repaired and maintained equipment and buildings. For young cowboys and buckaroos, working cattle was not just a job but also a lifestyle, one that was lived in the freedom of the outdoors and, most of the time, on horseback. On a long drive, there was usually one cowboy for each 250 head of cattle. Alcohol was everywhere in the West (outside Mormondom), but on the trail the cowboys were forbidden to drink it. Often, hired cowboys were trained and knowledgeable in their trade such as herding, ranching and protecting cattle. To protect their herd from wild animals, hostile Indians and rustlers, cowboys carried with them their iconic weaponry such as Bowie knife, pistols, rifles and shotguns.
“The most important lesson I learned…was that the winner of a gunplay usually was the one who took his time. The second was that, if I hoped to live on the frontier, I would shun flashy trick-shooting–grandstand play–as I would poison…In all my life as a frontier peace officer, I did not know a really proficient gunfighter who had anything but contempt for the gun-fanner, or the man who literally shot from the hip..”
Gunfighter and gunslinger /ˈɡʌnslɪŋər/ are literary words used historically to refer to men in the American Old West who had gained a reputation of being dangerous with a gun and had participated in gunfights and shootouts. Gunman was a more common term used for these individuals in the 19th century. Today, the term “gunslinger” is now more or less used to denote someone who is quick on the draw with a pistol, but can also refer to riflemen and shotgun messengers. The gunfighter is also one of the most popular characters in the Western genre and has appeared in associated films, video games, and literature.
Gunfighters range from different occupations including lawman, outlaw, cowboy, exhibitionists and duelist, but are more commonly synonymous to a hired gun who made a living with his weapons in the Old West.
Often, the term has been applied to men who would hire out for contract killings or at a ranch embroiled in a range war where they would earn “fighting wages”. Others, like Billy the Kid, were notorious bandits, and still others were lawmen like Pat Garrett and Wyatt Earp. A gunfighter could be an outlaw—a robber or murderer who took advantage of the wilderness of the frontier to hide from genteel society and to make periodic raids on it. The gunfighter could also be an agent of the state, archetypically a lone avenger, but more often a sheriff, whose duty was to face the outlaw and bring him to justice or to personally administer it. There were also a few historical cowboys who were actual gunfighters, such as the Outlaw cowboy gang who participated in the bloody Skeleton Canyon Massacre.
Wild Bill Hickok after killing Davis Tutt in a duel, illustrated in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, February 1867. The shootout would become the stereotypical duel in the American West.
Gunslingers frequently appear as stock characters in Western movies and novels, along with cowboys. Often, the hero of a Western meets his opposite “double”, a mirror of his own evil side that he has to destroy. 
Western gunslinger heroes are portrayed as local lawmen or enforcement officers, ranchers, army officers, cowboys, territorial marshals, nomadic loners, or skilled fast-draw artists. They are normally masculine persons of integrity and principle – courageous, moral, tough, solid, and self-sufficient, maverick characters (often with trusty sidekicks), possessing an independent and honorable attitude (but often characterized as slow-talking). They are depicted as similar to a knight-errant, wandering from place to place with no particular direction, often facing curious and hostile enemies, while saving individuals or communities from those enemies in terms of chivalry. The Western hero usually stands alone and faces danger on his own, commonly against lawlessness, with an expert display of his physical skills (roping, gun-play, horse-handling, pioneering abilities, etc.).
The Wild West holds a special place in American history – Western films depict it as a place where the rules didn’t apply, and where scores were settled with gun slinging and shootouts. The colourful characters who made up the old West were men, women, cowboys, Indians, sheriffs, just plain outlaws. Though we’ve come to have a more nuanced understanding of the good and the bad of the old West, we can still learn from the stories of the people who made it and who wrote about what it was.
Famous icons of America’s Wild West includes Calamity Jane, Jesse James, Billy the Kid and Annie Oakley to name a few.
There was a time that I read a lot of Westerns and enjoyed movies like the Magnificent Seven (not to be confused with Adam Sandler’s Ridiculous Six).
The Magnificent Seven is a 1960 American western film directed by John Sturges and starring Yul Brynner, Eli Wallach, Steve McQueen, and Horst Buchholz. The picture is an Old West-style remake of Akira Kurosawa‘s 1954 Japanese-language film Seven Samurai. Brynner, McQueen, Buchholz, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn, James Coburn, and Brad Dexter portray the title characters, a group of seven gunfighters hired to protect a small agricultural village in Mexico from a group of marauding bandits and their leader (Wallach). The film’s musical score was composed by Elmer Bernstein. In 2013, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
A remake film is currently filming and is scheduled to be released on September 23, 2016.
The Ridiculous 6 is a 2015 American Western comedy film directed by Frank Coraci and written by Tim Herlihy and Adam Sandler. It stars Sandler, Terry Crews, Jorge Garcia, Taylor Lautner, Rob Schneider, and Luke Wilson. The film was released worldwide on Netflix on December 11, 2015.
And though it’s been a while since I sought out stories from the Old West, a few figures that had become folklore still spark interest when mentioned in literature and on TV.
- James, Jesse (1847–1882): Bank and train robber; often portrayed as the American Robin Hood.
- Buffalo Bill (William F. Cody, 1846–1917): Buffalo hunter and Indian scout; many of the legends about him stem from his own Wild West show, which he operated in late 19th century.
- Bunyan, Paul: Mythical lumberjack; subject of tall tales throughout timber country (that he dug Grand Canyon, for example).
- Crockett, Davy (1786–1836): Frontiersman, congressman, and defender of the Alamo, his backwoods humor and larger-than-life adventures made him synonymous with the Wild West.
- Billy the Kid (William H. Bonney, 1859–1881): Desperado who killed his first man before he reached his teens; after short life of crime in Wild West was gunned down by Sheriff Pat Garrett; symbol of lawless West.
The Making of Western Folklore
Folklore – the traditional beliefs, legends, sayings, and customs of a people – is alive and well in today’s popular press and entertainment industry. The old west is an ideal setting for the development of folklore because of the nostalgia we Americans embrace for this romantic period in our nation’s history. Our frontier folk heroes are characters who have served as our role models throughout the ages and remain a cherished part of the American culture. Indeed, with modern media now encompassing the globe, they have become part of the world culture. Have you ever wondered what it is about these characters that have elevated them to the status of folk hero? What was it about them that caused them to become the grist of which legends are made, as opposed to their neighbors up the road apiece who lived and died in obscurity?
Some, like James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok, (1837-1876), earned their fame as lawmen and sharpshooters who were fearless in battle. Wild Bill reportedly got his nickname from a woman who watched him thwart a lynching. By the time the “Prince of the Pistoleers” was killed in Deadwood in 1876, he had been a stagecoach driver, a cavalry scout, a lawman, a sharpshooter, an actor, a prospector, and a gambler, among other things. Although he lived in Deadwood, Dakota Territory, a scant six weeks before Jack McCall, that dasterdly villain, immortalized him with a bullet to the brain, the town still claims him as their leading citizen. Doc Pierce, the Deadwood citizen who laid Hickok out, said the man bled out nicely and was “the prettiest corpse I’ve ever seen.”
Others, like Butch Cassidy, (Robert LeRoy Parker, 1866-1908), the “Robin Hood of the West,” and his partner, the Sundance Kid, (Harry A. Longabaugh, 1867-1908), rode the outlaw trail. They and their gang, the Wild Bunch, were robbers, plain and simple. Although Butch and Sundance left the States for South America late in their careers and actually went straight for a few years, they eventually returned to what they did best and died in Bolivia after a 1908 robbery and gun battle. Some historians say they were wounded and committed suicide rather than surrender, then were hastily buried in an unmarked grave, which actually added to their legendary status. They were sighted in various parts of the United States for many years thereafter. Americans generally looked upon them as charming, good old boys who fought the Establishment and thus, earned the right to be called folk heroes.
For the rest of the article, go to http://westernamericana2.blogspot.co.za/2009/12/making-of-western-folklore.html
This romanticising of the Old West had even caught my imagination as a writer. Especially the chivalrous gunslingers.
Here’s the story I wrote about a lone gunslinger bringing justice to the untamed west (FYI Max was a runner-up in SAWC’s 2015 Annual Short Story Competition).
With soot covering most of him, the gunslinger limped away from the wreckage. His suntanned features were stoic, yet triumph lighted his blue eyes.
Behind him orange flames were licking hungrily at the wooden hut and its treasures. Tiny bits of paper fluttered in the air, intermingling with the dust and black smoke left by the explosion. The tunnel and railway tracks were no more.”
– Max, Ronel Janse van Vuuren
I hope you enjoy reading this tale of a lone gunslinger. Comments can be left here or on writing.com – I always appreciate feedback. Do you enjoy stories set in the Old West?
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