When writing historical novels, there’s always a balance between historically accurate and what many readers assume is historically accurate. History is not, in most cases, written in stone. For instance, the cowboy of song and story was much different in reality than in legend. Most cowboys were scruffy, illiterate, and often plagued with STD’s. Not to mention alcoholism was rampant. Not exactly John Wayne.
Native Americans once numbered somewhere near 100 million. Sometime after Columbus (surprise!) a massive plague wiped out 90% of the population, leaving 1 million Native Americans along with their rich, extensive culture still roaming the Americas. Their numbers were further decimated by smallpox, STD’s (thanks, cowboys) and genocide during the frontier period in America.
The Wild West may not be nearly as wild as books and legend suggest. Rumor has it that Wild Bill was fired from Buffalo Bill’s show because his voice sounded too feminine. His nickname referred to his nose and he was originally dubbed ‘Duck Bill’. (Wild Bill sounds much more manly.) Billy the Kid claimed he killed 20 people, though historians put the number at closer to 4.
The Shootout in the OK Corral actually took place in a back alley and lasted about 30 seconds. I guess Shootout at the Back Alley didn’t play well with theater audiences. Historians once estimated the actual number of bank robberies in the old west at about a dozen. Homicide rates in the old west were lower than they are today – from 1870-1885 Dodge City had about .6 murders a year. Gun control was rigidly enforced Tombstone. Laws prohibited the carrying of firearms.
There you have it – the wild west wasn’t nearly as wild as we’d like to think. Although, when I write Westerns, my cowboys are handsome and honorable, banks are robbed early and often, and outlaws are super bad. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!
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Here’s a fun youtube video on five common historical misconceptions: