False Myths About The Wild West That Many People Believe

It’s no secret that Western films shaped what people think about the Wild West. Stories of outlaws, bank robberies, and wars with the Native Americans make the Old West seem lawless. In reality, America in the 1800s was far less exciting.

The truth is that most cowboys didn’t wear cowboy hats. Even tumbleweeds didn’t appear in America until the late 19th century. The stereotypical vision of American cowboys shooting guns while on horseback is fake. How many of these false myths about the Wild West did you believe?

Some Outlaws Were Shameless Self-Promoters

Jesse James
Getty Images
Getty Images

In many movies, outlaws had to lay low to avoid getting arrested. In reality, many famous outlaws were shameless self-promoters. That’s how they became so famous. For instance, Jesse James would give notes to witnesses bragging about his exploits, even while holding up a train.

Billy the Kid was known for loudly bragging in saloons. On top of that, many outlaws befriended each other. The groups of outlaws would spread stories about each other, some exaggerated, others true.

Native Americans Were Not A Constant Threat

Sioux chiefs pose for a photo with representatives at the White House.
Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
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Western films often portray Native Americans as the antagonists who constantly attacked settlers. In truth, this rarely happened. Historian Roger McGrath said that the Wild West “was a far more civilized, more peaceful and safer place than American society today.”

While some Native American tribes warred with settlers, most saw an opportunity for trade. According to Hard Road West: History and Geology Along the Gold Rush Trail, more Native Americans were killed by migrants than the other way around. And even that number is low–only 426 deaths in 20 years, compared to the 30,000 deaths in that timespan.

The Wild West Was Not “Lawless”

Native Americans race horses in the late 19th century.
Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images
Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images

The word “lawless” is often used to describe the Wild West. In truth, America was no more lawless then than it is now. Historian W. Eugene Hollon told the Independent Institute that the Wild West “was a far more civilized, more peaceful and safer place than American society today.”

According to the Smithsonian, the reputation of “lawlessness” began with newspapers from Dodge City, Kansas. That’s where the phrase “get out of dodge” originated. Sensationalized newspapers from the early 1870s provided the basis for Western movie plots.

Cowboy Hats Were Not Popular

American actor James Dean poses for a movie wearing a cowboy hat.
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Getty Images

The Stetson hat is better known by the name “cowboy hat.” It is so ubiquitous in Western films that people may think every cowboy wore them. In reality, cowboys rarely wore that hat. It wasn’t even designed until 1865.

John B. Stetson designed the hat based on Mexican vaqueros hats. According to the National Cowboy Museum, the hat went through several designs before landing on the classic look we know today. It became popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries for its durability, but few people wore it during the Wild West era.

Firearms Were Prohibited In Most Towns

Holsters for sale hang from a rail.
Eric Lafforgue/Art in All of Us/Corbis via Getty Images
Eric Lafforgue/Art in All of Us/Corbis via Getty Images

In Wild West movies, every character has a gun on their hips. In reality, many towns prohibited carrying weapons. States such as Louisiana and Kentucky outlawed carrying firearms, although many of these laws were repealed. Even Dodge City, a city known for its “lawlessness,” had signs saying “The carrying of Firearms Strictly Prohibited.”

That said, historian Adam Winkler noted that many people still carried guns to protect themselves from wild animals. The federal government stepped away from gun laws, and rules varied from state to state.

Settlers Sat In Traffic Jams

Traffic occurs in a Nevada town in 1927.
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Getty Images

Western movies make 19th-century America look like nothing but small towns and rolling, barren hills. But cities existed in the 1800s, and where there were cities, there were traffic jams. Both carriages and cars sat in traffic jams in the Wild West.

Between 1880 and 1900, over 15 million people moved to American cities. Industrialization encouraged people to leave for rural towns for more job opportunities in the cities. Many of the smaller settlements became ghost towns because of this. With more people, there is much more traffic.

Wild Camels Roamed The American West

Camels rest near an oil well in the mid-20th century.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

If Wild West movies were historically accurate, they would show camels roaming around. Wild camels indeed lived in North America during the 1800s. Thank the Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, for bringing camels to the U.S.

Davis thought that camels were the key to westward expansion since they could haul supplies and required little water. The U.S. Army bought 75 camels and sold them at auctions. During the Civil War, many of these camels were released into the wild. Historians don’t know what happened to all of the camels.

The O.K. Corral Fight Didn’t Happen At The O.K. Corral

A sign shows where the O.K. Corral stood in Tombstone, Arizona.
Robert Alexander/Getty Images
Robert Alexander/Getty Images

The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral was one of the most famous Wild West shootouts of all time. The 30-second gunfight resulted from a long-time feud between famous outlaws such as Doc Holliday and Ike Clanton. However, it didn’t actually happen at the O.K. Corral.

The shootout actually took place on the side of C. S. Fly’s Photographic Studio on Fremont Street. This was six doors down from the O.K. Corral. That hasn’t stopped the O.K. Corral from becoming a popular tourist destination in Tombstone, Arizona.

Cowboys Had Terrible Hygiene

A deputy sits on a horse in the 1800s.
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Getty Images

Although actors appear clean and well-shaven in Western films, the reality was much dirtier. According to True West Magazine, most cowboys were not able to bathe for weeks at a time. This left them susceptible to multiple illnesses and parasites.

Clean water was difficult to come by, as was soap. Settlers made soap from animal fats, and it often irritated the skin. Dentists did not exist; people had to turn to barbers to get their teeth extracted. Native Americans were far cleaner than the average cowboy.

California Was Not The First (Or Only) Gold Rush

In this illustration, miners search for gold in California.
Kean Collection/Archive Photos/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The California Gold Rush was the most famous gold rush and the largest mass migration in American history. But it was not the first gold rush in the Wild West. The first significant gold rush occurred in 1799 in Cabarrus County, North Carolina. Thirty years later, there was another gold rush in the southern Appalachians in Georgia.

The California Gold Rush was the third significant gold rush in the Wild West. Besides that, silver rushes came up in America as well. In 1858, ten years after the California rush, forty-niners went to Nevada to mine silver.

For The First Time, Women Became Waitresses

Two women order from a waitress at a restaurant.
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Getty Images

Women did not have many rights in the Old West, and they couldn’t get jobs. However, that was rapidly changing. Fred Harvey, the owner of a restaurant chain called Harvey House, began the trend of hiring women as waitresses.

Harvey quickly became tired of the male waiters getting into fights. In a radical move, he fired all the male waiters and replaced them with women. He hired women between the ages of 18 and 30 and put them through a 30-day boot camp. These women received payment, plus tips, which allowed them to live independently.

Bank Robberies Were Very, Very Rare

An illustration shows a bank operating in the 19th century.
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Getty Images

Bank robberies are one of the most popular plot devices for Western movies. But how many bank robberies actually happened in the Wild West? According to the Larry Schweikart at the Foundation for Economic Freedom, not many. Only eight bank robberies occurred between 1859 1900.

Banks in the 1800s were heavily secured, says the Wild World of History. Banks usually adjoined other buildings, and large iron balls sat on top of safes. The shape of the ball caused an explosive effect when people shot at it. Those who tried to rob banks had a difficult time.

The Pony Express Was Not Successful

A pony express rider passes telephone lines in a 1861 drawing.
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Getty Images

The Pony Express endures as the fastest mail service in the Old West. However, it was a financial flop. It only ran for 19 months before it shut down. A few weeks after it began, the Pyramid Lake War between the United States and the Paiute Indians broke out. The express ceased operation, which cost them $75,000.

The Pony Express struggled to recover after that. By the time it shut down in October 1861, the company had lost $200,000 (over $6 million in today’s money). Despite its short life, the Pony Express delivered 35,000 pieces of mail.

Most Cowboys Were Only Around Five Feet Tall

A group of horsemen pose together for a photo in 1898.
Museum of the City of New York/Byron Co. Collection/Getty Images
Museum of the City of New York/Byron Co. Collection/Getty Images

If you assumed that cowboys were the same height as men today, you would be wrong. People in the 1800s were shorter on average than people in the 21st century. When anthropologists examined a Wild West cemetery, they noticed that most men were only five feet tall. The tallest was five-foot-nine.

Oddly enough, men from the Middle Ages were closer to the average height today. In 2004, a study from Ohio State University found that people “shrank” between the Middle Ages and the 1800s. Food shortages, colder weather, and laborious lives were to blame.

Some Cowboys Didn’t Ride Horses

Members of the camel corps ride camels through the southwest U.S. in 1857.
MPI/Getty Images
MPI/Getty Images

When most people envision cowboys, many imagine a man on a horse. However, not all cowboys rode horses. A minority of cowboys did not ride horses at all. Some even rode camels! This was especially true in the late 1880s when barbed wire became popular, and diseases were ravaging livestock.

Horses were imported from Spain, and as such, they were expensive. People who bought horses also needed horse-riding lessons, and many people could not afford those. Many cowboys had horses and did not ride them; the horses pulled plows or carriages instead.

Tumbleweeds Didn’t Appear In The U.S. Until 1877

A giant tumbleweed sits near maize fields.
Hoberman Collection/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Hoberman Collection/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

When viewers see a tumbleweed in a Western film, most don’t think anything of it. Many people don’t know that the tumbleweed did not appear in America until 1877. The seeds, which are actually the Russian thistle, were brought to America by Ukrainian farmers. They first appeared in South Dakota, so unless you lived there in the late 1800s, you wouldn’t know what tumbleweeds were.

In the U.S., tumbleweeds are an invasive species. Even today, many tumbleweeds cover homes and can cause fires. Some of them even grow up to six feet tall!

There Were Professional Card Players

Men play card games in a tavern in 1860.
General Photographic Agency/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

You may have seen cowboys play cards in a saloon during Western films. But playing cards wasn’t just a pastime in the Old West; some people were professional poker players. According to American Heritage, many people began playing poker for a profit in the 1820s.

Poker is still a professional game in the U.S. In the 1970s, Las Vegas hotel owner Benny Binion founded the Poker Hall of Fame, which still lists champions today. In the Wild West, poker games were far less official, but anyone could try their hand at winning a profit.

The Alamo Was About Slavery, Not Freedom

A statue in Texas commemorates the people who died in the battle of the Alamo.
Robert Alexander/Getty Images
Robert Alexander/Getty Images

The popular perception of the Battle of the Alamo is that settlers fought for Texas’s freedom. The reality is that Texans fought to keep their slaves. Mexico had abolished slavery in 1829, and Mexican soldiers were encouraged to free slaves when they went to Texas (which was under Mexican territory at the time).

Of course, this wasn’t the only contention that Texans had. Mexico had recently passed new laws that imposed tariffs on Texans. On top of that, most Texans were illegal immigrants, and many become “pirates” to fight against Mexican law.

The 1870s Marked The End Of The Cowboys

Cattlemen handle cattle in a barbed wire fence in the 1890s.
D. Marsh/Buyenlarge/Getty Images
D. Marsh/Buyenlarge/Getty Images

Believe it or not, few cowboys were needed after the 1870s. In 1876, John Warne Gates discovered that animals did not cross barbed wire fences. While advertisements called it “The Greatest Discovery Of The Age,” others called it “the devil’s rope.” Barbed wire meant that cowboys were no longer required.

On top of that, cowmen and Native Americans did not like how barbed wire harmed cattle. Some people formed groups called the Blue Devils and the Javelinas to cut peoples’ fences. The dispute continued throughout the end of the 19th century as cowboys faded out of history.

Most Cowboys Were From Mexican Descent

A southwestern cowboy sits on a horse in 1878.
Buyenlarge/Getty Images
MPI/Getty Images

Believe it or not, most Wild West cowboys were not American. Originally, cowboys were of Mexican descent. The concept of a cowboy came from vaqueros, trained ranchers in Mexico who rose to prominence after the Spanish arrived.

According to the Smithsonian, the Wild West was just as diverse–if not more–than America today. One in four cowboys had roots in Africa. Historian William Katz said that people back then had to depend on each other to survive, regardless of background.