True Facts of the Old West

Though it’s hard to imagine the likes of Wyatt Earp or Bat Masterson bowling, this was actually a popular sport in the Old West.  According to True West magazine, one of the strangest bowling alleys was built in California in 1866. After felling a majestic Redwood, miners turned the flat, heavily-waxed surface into a bowling alley.

Speaking of sports, baseball was also a popular sport in the Old West. Even Wild Bill Hickok was a baseball fan and reportedly umpired a game wearing a pair of six-shooters.

We think of the old West as wild, but it pales in comparison to what’s going on in some cities today. From the 1850s to the 1890s, Texas held the title as the most gun-fighting state. But during that forty-year span, the state logged in only 160 shootouts.

The number of Old West bank robberies were also greatly exaggerated. During this same forty-year period, only eight bank robberies were recorded in the entire frontier. Today, yearly bank robberies number in the thousands.  California and Texas have the highest number of bank robberies. At long last, the west lives up to its reputation.

Some cowboys were real swingers. Yep, they even played golf.

It breaks my heart to say this, but some of the phrases associated with the Old West weren’t actually coined until the 1900s, which means I can’t use them in a book.  These include “Stick em up” and “hightail.”

The one thing outlaws feared was dying with their boots on.  To “die with your boots on” was a term that meant “to be hanged.”  Outlaws often pleaded with the sheriff to take their boots off so their mothers would never know the truth of how they died.

Before the days of GPS, it was the chuck wagon cook’s job to keep the cattle drives heading in the right direction. Before retiring, his last chore of the day was to place the tongue of the chuck wagon facing the North Star. This was so the trail master would know which direction to move the herd in the morning.

It might be hard to believe, but most cowboys didn’t carry guns while riding. Carrying a gun was a nuisance to the riders and firing it would scare cattle and horses.

Of the 45000 cowboys working during the heyday of cattle drives, some 5000 were African-American.

The tradition of spreading sawdust on saloon floors supposedly started in Deadwood, South Dakota. The sawdust was used to hide the gold dust that fell out of customer pockets, and was swept up at the end of the night.

So what Old West fact did you find most surprising or interesting?



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26 thoughts on “True Facts of the Old West”

  1. Interesting about the sawdust on the floor to cover up the gold dust on the floor. I had never heard that.

    Cindy W.

  2. Thank you for such a terrific blog, and some present day perspective on the Old Wild West that always feels like such a giant era but didn’t really last that long, did it? There was a bunch I didn’t know, like bowling and baseball, the chuck wagon cook setting out the direction of the drive, that huge number of how many cattle drivers there were, and spreading sawdust on the floor to get gold. Why would have thought? I wonder how much those early western dime novels may have affected our thoughts about the Wild West even down to today.

    Thank you again for such an interesting piece.

    • Eliza, yes, dime novels did affect our vision of the Old West, but so did movies. As a writer I’m challenged to balance historically correct facts with reader expectations. If I included a bowling alley in a western, I would lose credibility.

  3. Love your new cover, Margaret. How fun to have a female sheriff! I was most surprised by the fact that there were only 8 bank robberies in the second half of the 19th century. Wow. I’m guessing the number would be significantly higher if we added in transport robberies like stagecoaches, trains, etc. But still – it shows how influenced we are by fictional sources.

    • Karen, thanks. I love my new cover, too. It’s one of my favorites.

      Yes, the bank robberies surprised me, too. Since banks were generally built in the center of town, near the office of marshal or sheriff, stagecoaches and trains were probably a lot easier to rob.

  4. I’m pretty sure I use the term ‘hightail it’.
    Grumbling, Margaret.

    The 150 shootouts surprises me. I guess I’m just as affected by TV as anyone else. Seemed like they happened every day. At (ahem) High Noon.

    Bowling? Golf? That’s amazing.

    Great post.

    One of my daughters has three children, the oldest a 2nd grader. And I swear when she comes up to visit for the day, she hauls more stuff out of the back of her van than they had in a covered wagon setting off across the west.

  5. Now I knew baseball was popular sport way back in the day but I did not know bowling was also popular learn something new everyday.

  6. Great post, Margaret! I was very surprised about the bowling…I had no idea! And the robberies..I sure thought there were more of them. Little did I know but now I sure do. Thank you!

  7. Thank you for such an informative post. It would be interesting to compare the statistics on bank robberies and shootings with the current statistics based on a per capita basis. I wonder what the ratio would be.
    Of the things I didn’t know I am a bit surprised about the “die with your boots on” phrase. In most westerns, they have meant they want to die with their boots on. They didn’t want to die in their sleep or by someone getting the drop on them while they were in bed or something. Having their boots on meant the were out there, active and fighting and that was the way they wanted to go.

  8. Hi Patricia, I haven’t seen any statistics on bank robberies and shootings per capita. I agree, that would be interesting.

    Yes, I heard the “die with your boots on” phrase used as you described, but the original meaning was to be hung. In the late 19th century, early 20 century, the meaning changed to mean dying actively and this is how it was portrayed in movies.

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