Weird History
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11 Things You've Always Thought About the Wild West That Are Totally Wrong

Updated September 23, 2021 545.2k views11 items

Most myths about the American West originated on the silver screen. Hollywood renditions of cowboys, Indians, gunfights, and outlaws paint a romanticized version of what people believe Old West life was like because the idea of a gritty frontiersman who maintained law and order with his peacemaker was the stuff of box office gold.

The truth is that Hollywood lied to you. In reality, life in the Old West played out far differently than the stereotypical settings seen in many classic Spaghetti Westerns. In fact, the clean-cut cowboys portrayed by actors such as John Wayne are a far cry from what cowboys were truly like or how they really lived.

While it’s true that life in America’s Old West was rugged and harsh, made so by the untamed terrain and lack of amenities, Hollywood’s portrayals of mass murders, daily gunfights, gallant cowboys, and raging Natives is merely an exaggerated version of what dangerous accounts historic American westerners really experienced in their daily lives on the frontier.

Before watching another Clint Eastwood film filled with Wild West anachronisms, it’s time to shoot down the Old West misconceptions the silver screen has conveyed and learn some crazy, true Wild West facts.  Check out these things you’ve always thought about the Wild West that are totally wrong.

  • The Wild West Wasn’t That Wild

    Photo: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    When picturing the Wild West, one may imagine gun-slinging bandits, Native American ambushes, and sharp shooting cowboys running rampant throughout the towns. In reality, most towns were pretty peaceful. In fact, some historians even contend that the Wild West "was a far more civilized, more peaceful and safer place than American society today."

    Even though there weren't local "governments" per se, there existed private organizations and clubs that helped adjudicate matters of property, theft, and crime, keeping things pretty orderly.

  • Most Cowboys Didn’t Wear Cowboy Hats

    Photo: United Artists

    Contrary to what many believe, the Stetson cowboy hat was not a popular choice for many early frontiersmen of the Old West. The image of cowboys always wearing ten-gallon hats was basically a movie gimmick. In fact, the most popular and practical cowboy headwear choices were the bowler and the derby because they were less likely to fly off when you were riding horses at speed.

    Also, it would've been pretty unsafe to wear a massive, white hat when you were really in the middle of a gun-battle, seeing as it would've made a perfect massive, white target for your enemies. It sure does look good, though.

  • The OK Corral Gunfight Didn’t Take Place In The OK Corral

    Photo: James G. Howes / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons

    The OK Corral gunfight is probably the most famous shootout in Wild West history. However, the truth behind the infamous fight is that it didn’t take place in the OK Corral at all and was instead carried out in the definitely-less-glamorous vacant lot behind it. The entire fight lasted only a mere 30 seconds.

    However, those 30 seconds were enough for numerous deaths and wounds to be inflicted.

  • Playing Cards Was Not Just A Pastime

    Photo: Sinister Cinema

    Obviously, card playing can quickly become a matter of life and death in lots of western movies. However, in the Old West, not every Tom, Dick, or Harry would've been involved in big-time card games because gambling card games were an even bigger deal than they are portrayed as being. In fact, they were considered a serious profession with the best players being initiated as professional sportsmen.

    In addition, numerous gambling halls, brothels, and saloons were dedicated to hosting competitive card games and professional competitions rather than happenstance throw downs between OG sharks and table newbies.