Despite its reputation, the Wild West was nowhere near as wild as it's cracked up to be. Statistically speaking, it was more peaceful than some major cities today. The image of the West we get from movies like The Good, The Bad and The Ugly and video games like Red Dead Redemption is a sensationalized version of the American frontier. For a more accurate version of the time period, you're better off reading Willa Cather's Prarie Trilogy.
But the West wasn't without its risks. Outlaws still looted trains and lawmen still cornered cowboys on the run. While danger wasn't as widespread as we're led to believe, it sure was intense. Quick-draw duels, rattlesnake bites, disease, and the elements all conspired to make the West a tough place to survive. Even sex in the Old West could be precarious.
Everyone defines the Wild West a little differently. Some consider it a narrow time period from 1865 to 1895, while others say it stretches from the early 1800s all the way through 1916, the year of the last stagecoach hold-up. Similarly, the geographic "West" can cover anything west of the Mississippi or refer more specifically to the desert region of the Southwest, depending on who you ask. Many settlers passed through the West as part of their life on the Oregon Trail.
With such a rich well of experiences to draw from, it's not hard to get into a Wild West state of mind. So think of dusty trails, thirsty horses, six-shooters, and coyotes while you consider the risks that may have ended your story in the Wild West.
Maybe you would have followed in the footsteps of Charles Earl Bolles, arguably the most successful cowboy of the Old West. Also known as "Black Bart," Boles held up a total of 28 stagecoaches without being caught. He had the reputation of a gentleman, emptying strongboxes but never shaking down passengers for their money. There were even reports that he would leave verses of poetry behind.
When he was finally caught, he spent four years at San Quentin. Upon his release, Boles was asked if he would return to his old ways. He replied, "No gentlemen, I'm through."
After his release, Black Bart emptied out his hotel room and simply disappeared into the West, vanishing into myth.
While they're common in Western films, quick-draw duels were an unlikely way to go in the Wild West. The truth is that duels like the ones in movies - two men on a dusty road, a count off, and a trigger-pull from the hip - rarely happened in the Old West. More often than not, they were quick, clumsy affairs that took place while both men were running for cover. What's more, they were rarely the result of a challenge and a sober arrangement. Usually, they were drunken ordeals - more the result of boredom and alcohol than any sense of honor.
Wyatt Earp, one of the West's most famous lawmen, summed it up in his autobiography: "The most important lesson I learned was the winner... usually was the one who took his time."
If you were a member of the Earp family, you would have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with your brother Wyatt as he got you involved in one of the most infamous incidents in the history of the West. The Earp boys ran the town of Tombstone, and it was inevitable that they would eventually run into trouble with the Clanton-McLaury crew, a group of rustlers who lived outside of town. Tensions reached a breaking point at the OK Corral on October 26, 1881. The two factions encountered each other in a vacant lot behind the corral when the standoff began. While it's unclear who pulled the first trigger, three men perished in just 30 seconds.
The surviving members of the Clanton-McLaury crew high-tailed it for the hills.
While Wild Bill and Jesse James met sudden, untimely ends, you could have become a legend in the mold of Kit Carson. A frontiersman through and through, Carson embodied the quiet, disciplined courage that young men of the era aspired to.
Few men got luckier than Kit Carson. Born in 1809, he cheated fate a dozen times while sparring with other trappers, crossing the Mojave, and weathering blizzards in the Rocky Mountains. In 1844, Carson led John C. Frémont in an expedition that ran afoul of Native Americans. Frémont later wrote, "Carson may be considered among the boldest... so full of daring... Two men, in a savage desert, pursue day and night an unknown body of Indians into the defiles of an unknown mountain - attack them upon sight, without counting numbers, and defeat them in an instant."
Frontier life wore him down, though, and by 1868, he was in poor health. That same year, his seventh child was born. However, two weeks later, birth complications took the life of his wife, Josefa. This loss seemingly broke Carson's will to live, and he passed one month later when an aneurysm burst in his trachea.